Free Advice Girl

Lisa Podell, Free Advice Girl chatting away with someone in Washington Square. Here’s how her site describes what she does: “Free Advice Girl sits with an open presence, ready to talk to anyone who approaches. Any question, asked with genuine curiosity is grounds for discussion. “How can you give advice on any topic?” Free Advice Girl doesn’t tell anybody what to do or what to think which allows for limitless possibilities.”

More photos: Free Advice GirlRandom Strangers Series

  1. Camera: Canon EOS 7D
  2. Aperture: f/3.5
  3. Exposure: 1/320th
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Last week we explored how to give advice without giving advice: one of my favorite topics!

 What’s so gratifying is to see these students walk into The Advice Project, carrying with them their life stories, challenges, and what they are often told are “distractions,” and to have a learning space where they can take on new skills to effectively address what’s actually happening within the context of their lives.

 I have always loved teaching lessons based on honoring the student as the expert, their lives as the content, and building from there. Through this lens, each student offers a wealth of data that, with this curriculum, can be utilized into the lesson.

 Memorable classroom moment: The students had just learned the difference between open-ended and close-ended questions. Each student took turns asking me an open-ended question based on a real life experience I needed advice on. It was a bold move, but I had never seen better listening, engagement, empathy, and application of the newly learned skill as I had on this day, week 4 of The Advice Project.



This week, The Advice Project focused on personal dreams and actions we can create to achieve them.  We also explored the challenges that hold us back.

“Class, what are some obstacles that stand in your way of getting what you want on a daily basis?”

Obstacle #1: Just then, a student entered the classroom in tears expressing there had been a physical altercation between two students. The girls immediately huddled around their friend with concern. Meredith knew exactly how to respond and class quickly continued.

 “Yes, the subway being too crowded or delayed is a great example of environmental obstacles that get in the way on a daily basis…”

Obstacle #2: A teacher entered the classroom to announce the upcoming talent show and, as a way to increase interest, proceeded to ask the students what talents they were going to share.  Again, Meredith did not appear phased by this distraction and quickly regained the focus of the class.

“Fear of not being good enough is an excellent example of how our emotions and fears can hold us back from taking action.”

Obstacle #3: All eyes turned to the square glass window as a student knocked on the door to excitedly shout “Happy Birthday!” to one of the students in our class. Meredith firmly told him to keep on walking and then class continued.

 In a flash, the 30-minute class was over. What happened to the meticulously orchestrated lesson that Meredith and I had spent hours developing? I felt that tinge of disappointment and began to doubt the success of today’s class. But then I thought back to the content of the lesson, which allowed me to shift my thinking.

 When we define success as to whether something went “as planned,” we set ourselves up for failure. Obstacles are going to happen and when they do, we have the opportunity to choose how we want to respond.

 So did the lesson go as planned? No…and that’s OK! Were the students able to identify a goal, create one action to achieve it, and name obstacles that stand in their way? Surprisingly, in 30-minutes…Yes! I attribute much of this success to Meredith’s choices in the face of these challenges.

When you are clear about what you want and committed to that goal, it will inform the choices you make in the heat of any unpredictable moment. It wasn’t the path we intended but we still achieved the goal of the day and that, my friends, is success!


Today marks the completion of Week 1 of The Advice Project. I am bursting with both excitement and intrigue at what these next two months will bring!

I have always been passionate about education and exploring ways to create lifelong learning in the classroom. To see Free Advice Girl lead me back into the school to team-teach with innovative educators such as Meredith Towne-Devito, and to create curriculum that explores topics such as advice, communication, identity, advocacy, goals/dreams and storytelling, is a higher-level gift to which I am most grateful.

When Free Advice Girl, the documentary was released, I was hesitant to share such a personal story for fear of how others would judge me. But I was in good hands with Team Blink as they did a fabulous job in depicting a sensitive story in the most respectful and mindful of ways. In the past year, I have heard from numerous individuals about the positive and powerful results that have transpired from them watching the documentary, that my confidence has only strengthened. And today was one of those days…

 Today was the first time a group of students watched the documentary. Talk about terrifying! Students are known for stating their opinions, loud and clear! I witnessed these 9th grade young women, who have been bubbly, talkative, and at times distracted, sit quietly and engaged for the duration of the film. Without being prompted, comments and dialogue filled with curiosity, honesty and openness transpired amongst the students…

 -I like seeing you give free advice because you can tell it makes you happy.

-That happened to me…

- Yeah, I keep getting into that same situation with guys. I don’t know why it keeps happening.

- Did you press charges?

- Nah, she didn’t have to because they were able to resolve it from having a conversation about it.

- But if she couldn’t move on from it, then she may have wanted to press charges.

- It’s cool to see you took back your power and chose to leave.

This conversation confirmed that what Team Blink has created, is indeed a catalyst for powerful and transformative conversation. Students have so many stories to share and in the exploration and reflection of these stories, there is much to learn and discover about how they want to navigate through life. The goal: The Advice Project will be able to create an entry point for lifelong learning and do so in the classroom (while aligning with the Common Core!)

I can’t wait to see what unfolds in Week 2!

  1. Camera: iPhone 5
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  3. Exposure: 1/30th
  4. Focal Length: 4mm

Dear Free Advice Girl,

I’m a painfully shy person, always have been. I’m almost 30 years old and have had two serious relationships. My ex was very dominant in our last relationship. He always told me what to do and how to act. In fact, intimacy turned into a set time and place. My current boyfriend, who I’ve been with for six months and who is absolutely amazing, has pointed out how shy I am around him. He wants me to feel more comfortable. The problem is, I don’t know what to do, what I’m ‘allowed’ to do because I honestly don’t know. I don’t want to be shy anymore, especially with this person that I love and trust. It’s time to get over it, seriously. However, I don’t know how.


Getting Past Shyness

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Dear Getting Past Shyness,

Thank you for sharing your story. It’s completely normal to feel shy in a relatively new relationship, especially when you’ve experienced something so dominant in the past. It sounds like you’re adjusting to being with someone who accepts and encourages you to be yourself. This is a wonderful shift that’s taking place!

It reminds me of when I stepped into my first acting class in college and the teacher said, “I want you to do whatever you want for the first ten minutes of class.”  We all looked at each other, some with confusion, some with excitement and some with sheer panic! No one had ever given me that much freedom to choose what I wanted to do before. In school, we were often told what to do, and what rules to follow in the classroom. And now, here we were, being given the freedom of choice! Freedom is only so liberating, if we know how to utilize it and have the courage to embrace it.

So, the great new is, you have this newfound freedom. Now, how to use it! What will really help, is to take time to heal and break free from who you were in your past relationship, so you can get to a place where you love and accept yourself and then feel comfortable trusting and sharing that with others. But it starts with you first!

I noticed the word “shy” came up a lot. Having been shy at many points in my life, I relate that word to feeling scared. So, I’m wondering, what are you scared of? What triggers you to feel scared? To what degree are these fears connected to your past relationship? And, how comfortable are you sharing these thoughts with your current boyfriend?  
When you take a risk to let someone in, especially someone who has demonstrated that they love and respect you, it may create a few opportunities: It will show you how this particular person responds when you confide in him. If you like how he responds, it may encourage you to open up even more. This will not only improve your relationship, but it will teach you how to trust again. The more successful communications you have, the more you  break free from the past and your fears associated with it. Bonus: The more you practice expressing who you are, the more you will learn and discover who you are and even, who you want to be.
So, I’m wondering, what would you be willing to share with your current boyfriend? What support would you want from him? What’s the first small step you can take to begin this process of being exactly who you want to be?
More importantly, what can you do on your own to build your self-confidence, so that you’re proud of who you are and can exercise that freedom when you’re out in the world?  
Sometimes, finding a form of self-expression or an outlet can be really powerful such as doing yoga, participating in a team sport, playing guitar, drawing, watching live music, running…whatever it is for you, put yourself into an activity that reminds you of who you are without limits or rules or pressure; who you are when you’re most free. That will really help build and nourish your identity, so that you’re in a powerful position to love who you are and to be able to share that with others. And then, if you are ever with someone who mistreats you or gives you less than you deserve, you will have the strength to stand up for yourself and create whatever boundaries are necessary because you have the freedom to choose!

Thinking of you,

~Free Advice Girl


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What’s your advice?

Dear Free Advice Girl,

I’m a full time student at a community college. It’s my final semester of college and I’m failing one of the subjects that I need to pass for my major, otherwise I’ll have to take the whole semester all over again. Should I take a break for a year or two from school then try to go back or should I push through and go for my career goal?

Girl who can’t sleep because she’s up studying

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Dear Girl who can’t sleep because she’s up studying,

First off, although you’re currently in a stressful spot, I want to say congratulations for accomplishing the majority of the work needed to graduate. That is no small feat! All you have between you and graduation is the passing of one class. You’re almost there! I’m wondering, how are you feeling about moving on to the next phase in your life? If you’re excited, then awesome! If you’re having some fears around transitioning, you may want to look at whether that’s interfering with your ability to study or succeed in this class. Sometimes we subconsciously hold ourselves back out of fear: fear of success, fear of failure, fear of uncertainty, fear of accomplishing more than we ever believed we could…the fears go on and on! This may also be contributing to the option you mentioned about taking a year or two off. Once we decipher whether this is a fear-based choice, it will provide the clarity needed to help you choose what steps to take to move forward. Enough about fears. Let’s move on to exploring how awesome you are!
So, it’s clear you possess the skills necessary to pass all of your academic classes. I’m wondering, what skills, strategies, strengths, and actions have you practiced in the past that have created positive results? 
Let’s not forget, it is totally normal to feel conflicted during a challenging moment. Achieving a goal is not always easy. In fact, they’re typically hard and that’s why there’s a sense of accomplishment attached to it. Sometimes we need to breakthrough the struggle to feel this positive sense of pride and confidence that comes from fulfilling a commitment.
Sometimes, we  run into hurdles along our journey towards achieving a goal and interpret them as signs that our dreams weren’t meant to be if it takes this much hard work and then we stop. We stop right at that challenging moment, never to discover what’s on the other side of that hurdle. This could be the moment to increase your perseverance and to also remind yourself why you went to college in the first place. Let’s get back to the basics!
So, I’m wondering, Why did you go to school in the first place? What opportunities will this degree provide for you? What are the benefits of graduating now vs taking a year or two off? What steps would it take to pass this class that you’re failing? (seeing teachers, doing extra work, prioritizing your time, getting extra help from a tutor etc)?
When you regain clarity on what you truly want and what’s most important to you, it will help inform what steps you want to and are willing to take to achieve your goal. It may be uncomfortable, it may be hard, but that doesn’t always mean to back off. This could be the very moment when you just need to lean in. 
You already have everything you need to make the next move. 
Thinking of you…
~Free Advice Girl
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Love seeing how people’s performances and projects shared in the park can bring people together!