Live, Leap, Learn: Lessons from My Mother

By Denise Raquel Dunning, Founder + Executive Director

Rise Up’s Denise (left) and her mom, Raquel, circa 1979

Having children has given me a completely different perspective on motherhood and a much deeper appreciation for my own mom. As I struggle along with so many women to balance family and work, I have increasing gratitude for my mom’s priorities, choices, and sacrifices. And as I learn from the many Rise Up leaders who are both mothers and advocates, I have a profound respect for women around the world who are fighting for their own rights and those of their children.

As we celebrate Mother’s Day, I know I’m not the only one reflecting on my relationship with my mom and the incredible impact she has had on my life. So much of what I have done in my life is influenced by my mom’s story, her struggles, and her inimitable style. And so much of who I am comes from these life lessons I learned from my mom:

Take risks.

My mom left Argentina at age 28 to move to Washington, D.C., where she took a job working as a secretary at the InterAmerican Development Bank. She left her parents, friends, country, and everything she knew to take a leap into the unknown. When I was a child, my mom seemed omnipotent — fearless, strong, and unstoppable — and she is the one who gave me the courage to try things that are seemingly impossible.

Education is everything.

When I was a child, my mom was relentless about my education. She always told me — whatever you learn, no one can take away from you. For her, language was a gateway to opportunity, and she gave me the same gift. Thanks to my mom, I grew up speaking Spanish and German, and she insisted that I study French at school so that I would be quadrilingual. When I complained about having to spend so much time studying languages, she always responded that I would thank her someday. She was right.

It doesn’t matter what other people think.

My mom is the original iconoclast. She has always walked her own path and doesn’t worry about what other people will say or think. While her willingness to ignore social convention occasionally mortified me as a child, my mom is the one who taught me the freedom that comes in being true to myself, not trying to fit in, and finding the joy in being different.

“El que no llora, no mama.”

My mom has never been afraid to say what she thinks, or ask for what she needs. She always says “el que no llora, no mama,” which translates to “the one who doesn’t cry, doesn’t eat,” — the Argentine version of “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” While sometimes intimidating, my mom’s ability to fight for herself and her family taught me to be a fearless advocate.

Stand on your own two feet.

My mom worked her entire life and taught me the importance of hard work and financial independence. Even though my parents have been married for over 40 years, my mom always told me that I needed to be able to “stand on my own two feet,” rather than being dependent on a man. She took me to open my own bank account, taught me to live within my means, and instilled in me the importance of having my own job, training, and skills to take care of myself and my family.


My mom gave me a love of exploration, discovering new places, and learning from people who are different from me. When I was growing up, my mom took me and my dad all over Latin America — teaching us to love empanadas, chimichurri, alfajores, and all her other Argentine favorites. But even more important than my love of dulce de leche, my mom taught me the value of being outside my comfort zone, seeing the world from a non-U.S. perspective, and learning about other countries, cultures, and perspectives.

So much of who I am as a person and so much of what I bring to my work with Rise Up has been shaped by these lessons from my mother. I also see my mom’s strength, courage, and perseverance in so many of Rise Up’s leaders — like Faith, who works every day to ensure that girls in Malawi can finish school, and Monica, who advocates so that all young people in Mississippi can be healthy and strong, and Eugenia, who fights to ensure that all women’s rights are protected in Mexico.

This Mother’s Day, I am deeply grateful for the many lessons I have learned from my own mom and from the many mothers who are part of Rise Up. They have not only shaped my life, choices, and path, but also my belief in the possibility of a more just and equitable world.

This post was also published on Medium – follow us there!