This was written for the Ithaca Voice by contributor Sara Belcher.
ITHACA, N.Y.—Eliza VanCort has always had an intimate relationship with communication. As a speaker, communications and career consultant, and author, she has spent a lot of time studying the way we communicate and knows what works and what doesn’t. Her debut book, A Woman’s Guide to Claiming Space: Stand Tall. Raise Your Voice. Be Heard. has just released, offering women an easy-to-follow guide on claiming the space they deserve in a variety of aspects—many of them through effective communication.
While VanCort could be considered an expert communicator now, she admits it was a long journey to learn the skills she has today, and she credits her local community with helping her build much of those skills.
From a young age, growing up in and around Ithaca, VanCort says she learned that being invisible was synonymous with safety, and she made herself smaller to cope with the traumas in her childhood.
“My mother was an absolutely fantastic mother by all accounts (…) then she became paranoid schizophrenic and she ended up kidnapping me three times,” she says. “When you live in a world where little girls are taught to be small and then you combine that with that level of trauma and a fear of the world, it is very, very difficult to claim space.”
Thankfully, VanCort had her local community supporting her from a young age. She says her father put her in therapy early while local women offered their direct support to her as she began to redefine and reclaim her space. In her local Big Brothers Big Sisters community, former Assistant Dean of Students at Cornell Alice Green would spend hours with her on the weekends, while her kindergarten teacher Roberta Wallitt would take her home on weekdays when her father was working “as if I were her own.”
“People have talked about me as if I have some sort of super power, and I think it’s really important to understand that nobody does this alone. Nobody,” she says. “I had all these women, who are extraordinary women in their own right, taking care of me. Pulling me into their orbit. Loving me. Nurturing me. And I think my story is not a story that proves you can overcome anything alone, if you’re strong enough — my story is a story that proves that a child can go through tremendous trauma, and if their community rallies around them, they can do great things despite how their life started.”
In 2014, VanCort’s communication skills were once again put to the test after she was involved in an accident; while out for a bike ride, she was hit head-on by a driver who was texting and driving and suffered a bilateral brain injury and a subdural hematoma. She says that her injury forced her to rewire her brain and relearn the communications skills she had spent much of her life building.
“After seeing a Facebook post, where I typed with my eyes closed — because I couldn’t look at the screen because it hurt — [Katie Spallone] said to me, ‘I think you really need to keep writing Eliza. Just write every day and send it to me.’”
Spallone is the co-director, along with VanCort, at The Actor’s Workshop of Ithaca Theater Training Studio and one of the first people to sign up for VanCort’s acting workshop, she says. “So I would write every single day. And I would send her my gobbledygook (…) and she would decipher what I was saying and edit it and send it back to me and say, ‘Keep writing, keep writing, keep writing.’”
“And that was the beginning of my recovery and the beginning of my love of writing,” VanCort said. “So after that, I became fascinated with communication because my condition was so compromised after my accident, and I had to rebuild it brick by brick.”
A Woman’s Guide to Claiming Space (available on Amazon and elsewhere) details all of the lessons VanCort has learned over the years, breaking it down into step-by-step instructions for women of all ages to follow. The book offers intersectional advice for women to claim (and retain) physical and authoritative space in the workplace, your local community, and in personal relationships. Her book tour opens with a local event at the The Cornell Store on May 12 at 5 p.m., where VanCort will be answering questions and signing copies of her book.
“I think that it’s really important for us all to remember, there’s no lost causes—that no matter how hard the beginning has been,” VanCort says. “If your community rallies around you, there’s a good chance that you can turn out OK (…) It only takes one adult to change a life.”