Brenda Nicholson: Leaving the FLDS and Becoming a Voice for Women
When Brenda Nicholson enrolled in Venture, the Clemente Course offered by Utah Humanities in Salt Lake City, she was undertaking a series of “firsts.” It was her first college class. It was her first educational experience outside of the conservative church school she had attended all her life. And it was the first time she saw herself as someone who had a voice and value beyond being someone’s wife or mother.
“The experience was absolutely life changing for me,” Brenda says. “It changed my entire world view.”
Venture came into Brenda’s life at a critical moment. She, her husband and six children had recently fled the FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Chris of Latter-Day Saints), a polygamist group that had broken off from the Mormon Church. Leaving the organization meant losing everything they had ever known, including their family members. They had to start over in Salt Lake City without any safety net. Brenda found a job as a gardener, her first work outside the home, and a coworker let her know about Venture.
In class Brenda was amazed to find herself among the most diverse group of people she’d ever spent time with, including several refugees, one of whom was a woman from Afghanistan who became a friend. “The people were accepting and beautiful,” she said. “They gave me hope that the outside world was nowhere near the terrible thing I’d heard it was.”
Brenda says she had to work up the bravery to raise her hand in class. Once she did, “I could hardly recognize my own voice squeaking out the answer to the question. But nobody laughed, nobody acted like what I said was crazy.”
Instead, she found that she had something to contribute. “It was the first time I felt that I had an opinion that was valid,” she says. “It was incredible to feel supported and safe and find my own voice.”
Brenda also fell in love with the course work and felt her curiosity come to life again. Her previous education had been entirely in FLDS schools, where she wasn’t exposed to history or philosophy and where college wasn’t an option, especially for women. Now she was exploring texts and ideas she hadn’t even known existed, something she calls a “breaking through point.”
Since graduating from Venture, Brenda has focused on using her voice to help others who are leaving fundamentalist religious environments. One of her Venture professors, Jeff Metcalf, referred her to a program called Humanities in Focus that enabled her to work with University of Utah students to make a documentary about her life. She began sharing her journey out of the FLDS in a blog and with the media. And she earned her associate degree in psychology from Salt Lake City Community College. She hopes to earn her bachelor’s and become a therapist to help those getting out of situations like her own.
To learn more about Brenda, watch a video about by The Diversity Foundation, see her on an episode of What Do You Think Utah?: Leaving Polygamy and check out her blog.
In 2016 Brenda attended the first United States of Women Conference in Washington, DC, a solo cross-country journey she once couldn’t have imagined making. She sat in the same room with the Obamas and Oprah Winfrey. When she heard then-Vice President Joe Biden talk about the Violence Against Women Act, she cried. She saw that there were people who cared about what women faced, and she hoped that more activists would turn their attention to the girls in organizations like FLDS, to help us “get to a place where all girls in America will be free.” Her goal is to have her own voice be part of making that a reality.
“When you educate women, you educate the world, because women go out and share,” she says. That’s why she believes programs like Clemente are so important. “I wish everyone could go through a program like Venture. I think it would change the world.”