Leaders Unloaded: A Discussion with Michael Sodini on Bridging Mental Health and Firearms Culture Through Walk the Talk America

By Ashley Burgess Gall, Laura Burgess Marketing

In the realm where mental health advocacy intersects with firearm culture, Michael Sodini stands as a pioneering figure, reshaping perceptions and fostering understanding. As the founder of Walk the Talk America (WTTA), Sodini has embarked on a transformative journey, navigating the delicate balance between these seemingly disparate worlds. In this exclusive interview, Sodini delves into the origins of WTTA, the challenges faced, and the innovative strategies employed to bridge the gap between mental health and firearms, offering invaluable insights into his leadership approach and the organization’s evolutions.

Ashley Burgess Gall (ABG): Hi Mike, thank you for sitting down with us today. Let’s kick things off by discussing your professional journey and what led you to found Walk the Talk America (WTTA).

MS: Sure. I’m a third-generation firearms industry professional so it was a natural fit for me to work with the firearms industry when it came to entering the mental health space.

ABG: So, what is the actual origin story of WTTA? What motivated you to start this organization, and what were the key challenges you faced in its early days?

Michael Sodini (MS): WTTA started from a dinner conversation with a stranger in New Orleans in 2018.  This person asked what happens during a mass shooting to which I replied, “Everyone blames the gun industry, we blame mental health, and nothing ever gets done.”  She then asked how we work with the mental health community on the things we can agree upon. So, the idea was born that night.

ABG: How has the organization’s vision and strategic direction evolved since its inception?

MS: The vision and direction have completely evolved since the inception. In my line of work, you must be receptive to the demands that come up as time passes. We are always looking for innovative ways to bridge the gap between the mental health community and the firearms industry.

ABG: I’m glad you mentioned “bridging the gap.” WTTA emphasizes the importance of doing this between mental health advocacy and firearm culture. How do you navigate this delicate intersection, and what approaches do you take to promote understanding and openness?

MS: We believe in educating the mental health community about gun culture and demystifying the counseling process for firearms owners. Education is the key as many on both sides simply don’t understand each other. If we create environments where both sides feel comfortable asking questions and having discussions, it always works out.

ABG: Have you experienced any significant challenges or setbacks? If so, how have you overcome them?

MS: Getting two communities that traditionally looked at each other like they were each other’s enemies was the biggest challenge that I faced. Overcoming the trust issues both sides faced was extremely challenging. We were able to overcome it by communicating and doing what was necessary to win hearts and change minds. Every year we survived; it became a little easier. People want to see that you are serious about the work.

ABG: Can you tell me how WTTA has had to adapt to a changing market or industry landscape?

MS: We take the lead with so many initiatives because none existed before we started. I originally thought I could raise money to fund preexisting programs the healthcare community had to support gun owners. When I found out there weren’t any, it was up to us to start things like training mental health professionals how to better help gun owners.

ABG: Mental health is a significant focus for WTTA. So, can you tell us how your organization specifically addresses mental health issues within the shooting sports industry, and what unique strategies you’ve found effective?

MS: We focus on suicide prevention by recommending strategies and providing resources for gun owners to get upstream to try to prevent the unpredictable. We want gun owners to understand that gun ownership and mental health are not mutually exclusive. A mental health plan should be part of gun ownership just like understanding safety and basic self-defense laws.

ABG: What is one valuable lesson you’ve learned during your time in this leadership role at WTTA?

MS: If you believe in what you are doing, nothing will stop you. You will do whatever it takes to make it work.  Even if that means working two or three jobs on top of what you are doing. You just find a way. If you truly believe you can change the way an entire culture views guns and mental health, everything that gets in your way is just an obstacle that you must go around or through.

ABG: WTTA has gained recognition for its innovative approach to addressing mental health issues in a traditionally conservative industry. What advice would you give to other organizations looking to tackle similar challenges?

MS: Don’t be afraid to step out of the echo chamber and sit down with those who oppose guns. If you have good programs and solutions that make sense when it comes to promoting better mental health and suicide prevention, people are going to listen to you regardless of where they stand on firearms.

ABG: What strategies do you employ to ensure that WTTA’s culture remains strong as the organization has grown?

MS: WTTA is not like other companies. We rely on people volunteering their time and effort for a large percentage of what we do. We have some great people involved with WTTA that make other people enjoy working with us and collaborating with us.

ABG: How do you balance setting a clear direction with allowing for creativity and autonomy among your team members?

MS: We have a unified vision for what we are working towards, but we are open to any ideas on how to get there or provide more value in this space. We are the visionary leaders in this space, with other organizations often taking inspiration from so there are no dumb ideas.

ABG: How do you ensure that your marketing efforts resonate with your audience?

MS: Marketing will be a key factor for our continued growth. Everyone who takes the time to learn what our organization is about loves at least one thing we do. We now need to reach more people to get more support and funding so we can continue to achieve our goals and make a big impact.

ABG: Could you highlight a particular achievement or milestone that you’re particularly proud of during your tenure at WTTA?

MS: Every year I feel like we have something special happen for us that I’m proud of.  If I had to pick a few, it would be working on the Prevents Team for the White House in 2019, being the first gun industry professional to speak and attend the Aspen Institute of Health’s conference in 2023, and the USA Today article about the organization in 2024. Traditionally, gun industry professionals have always been looked at like villains and we absolutely smashed that perception over the years.

ABG: So how does an organization like WTTA measure success?

MS: We measure it by monitoring how well our message is accepted by our target audience. In the end, we are here to help gun owners understand that they can get help. We are changing the gun culture by adding another dimension to gun ownership. Now gun owners are incorporating better mental health and suicide prevention plans into their gun ownership experience. More and more industry participants are bringing the subject up and feeling confident when doing it.

ABG: Now let’s shift gears a bit. What habits or practices do you attribute to your personal and professional growth?

MS: Besides the wisdom that comes with age, I would say do your best to listen to everyone outside your echo chamber and meet them where they are. You don’t have to compromise on your core beliefs, but you can find a solution that everyone can get behind if you put your mind to it.

AGB: Are there any books, podcasts, or resources that have significantly influenced your leadership style?

MS: The Behavioral Science of Firearms: A Mental Health Perspective on Guns, Suicide, and Violence (American Psychology-Law Society Series) by Gianni Pirelli, Hayley Wechsler, and Robert J. Cramer is like a bible for Walk The Talk America. I recommend this to everyone interested in working in this space.

ABG: Maintaining a leadership role can be demanding. How do you manage to strike a balance between your professional and personal life?

MS: I do my best to detach but I’m horrible at it. It’s something that you have to work at. Sometimes you must put the phone away and say I’m not checking messages and staying focused on anything but work. That’s the problem when your work is something you actually love doing.

ABG: OK, a couple of final questions before I let you go. What advice would you give to young professionals aspiring to become successful leaders in their respective fields?

MS: Tempo…keep a fast-paced one and don’t put anything off until tomorrow. I have seen too many people not take advantage of an opportunity because they think it will be there later. Don’t be complacent because even if you don’t hit your goal, other opportunities open up when you aren’t stagnant.

ABG: If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your younger self as you started your career journey?

MS: I would tell myself to not be as concerned with the buy-in to your ideas from others. Sometimes you have to captain the ship and go with your gut. The younger me wanted everyone to feel as strong as I did about my ideas. My leadership style back then led to many B-team players making A-team decisions. Sometimes you have to tell the team what needs to be done and if they don’t do it, let them go.

ABG: Looking ahead, what are your hopes and goals for the future of WTTA, and how do you envision the organization evolving in the coming years?

MS: My goal is to make the firearms industry the leaders in this space. I truly believe the firearms industry can get to where the alcohol industry got with DUIs. Nobody blames Johnnie Walker when someone gets behind the wheel drunk and does something tragic.

ABG: Mike, thank you for joining us today and sharing your wisdom about not only your career journey but about WTTA’s growth and expansion as well.

MS: It’s been my pleasure.

Sodini’s vision for WTTA extends far beyond the confines of conventional boundaries, aiming to reshape the firearms industry into leaders in the mental health space. Through unwavering determination and a commitment to fostering dialogue and understanding, WTTA continues to pave the way for a future where mental health and firearms culture coexist harmoniously. As Sodini propels the organization forward, his journey serves as an inspiring testament to the power of belief, resilience, and the relentless pursuit of positive change.

The post Leaders Unloaded: A Discussion with Michael Sodini on Bridging Mental Health and Firearms Culture Through Walk the Talk America appeared first on Laura Burgess Marketing.

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