When I reflect on my leadership development through the Bush Fellowship to date, I am surprised at how my vision of leadership has changed. While I initially anticipated developing my persona to speak more loudly, draw in a crowd, and increase my platform to influence the narrative of mental health in the Hmong community, I could not help but feel I was falling short of who I thought I was supposed to be. I struggled with feeling the shoes I put on were too big to fill. More deeply, I felt inauthentic and unfit to be called a leader. The imposter syndrome was real.
As I reflected on the pressure I felt to uphold a certain standard of leadership, I came to realize that what I was subconsciously holding on to was the image of what I saw in positions of power growing up: Extraverted, older, white, men. It dawned on me that I could not fit that image because I was not those things. Instead, I am an introverted, younger, Hmong, woman. Add to that, a Hmong nyab (daughter-in-law) and mother of two young children. These factors about me do not typically scream “leader” and in many cases, historically would have excluded me from ever being considered a leader.
Over the last year, I often felt I lacked the capacity to do more. I felt I needed to do more traveling, meet with more high stakes leaders, participate in more community events, conduct more speaking engagements, complete more trainings… the list goes on. I felt a sense of responsibility to make the most out of this unique opportunity with the Fellowship and was worried I might be letting my community down. While my experiences this past year have been profound and I am grateful to have grown my network exponentially, I felt pulled to stay home to care for my young toddler and to rest with baby number two on the way. I felt the strongest responsibility to my role as a mother and began to question if this was the “right time” for me to pursue my leadership journey.
What I have come to know is that now could not be a better time for me to pursue my leadership journey. While I initially felt I might not be doing enough, I now understand that perhaps I am doing above and beyond juggling career aspirations and embracing the responsibilities that come with being a mother. I realized that my goal to reconstruct mental health services for the Hmong community does not start and end with being a psychologist, it needs to lead with my lived experiences as a member of my community.
When I consider my Fellowship goals to explore mental health and wellness in the Hmong community, specifically addressing experiences of historical trauma, I know that the core of my work involves intergenerational healing. I have dedicated my career to understanding how trauma can be passed down from generation to generation. I now realize that what I am really trying to do is to understand how healing can be passed down from generation to generation. As a new mother, I have gained more perspective and appreciation for the significance of passing down tradition, culture, and healing practices to the next generation. I know now that it is only from this place of inward reflection might I gain the empathy and insight needed to effectively reflect the voices and needs of my community. That in essence is what it means to be a leader.
Over the course of my Fellowship thus far, I have worked on letting go of expectations to speak louder, command an audience, and generally do more. Instead, I have found my power in slowing down and simply listening. With the birth of my second child and then the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been reminded that rest, recovery, and reflection are essential not only to healing, but also to sparking creativity and innovation.
While I have not been able to immerse myself in the most extravagant experiences or fulfill preconceived notions of what I thought my leadership would look like, this Fellowship has allowed me the privilege to slow down and gain significant insight from the seemingly mundane. It has allowed me to fully appreciate my role as a Hmong mother. While not the typical look of a leader, my new vision of leadership fully embraces all that Hmong mothers have done for generations: Impart wisdom, pass on traditions, care for our families, and nurture the next generation. I’ve learned that being a leader is not just about how much you can produce or how well you can captivate an audience. It’s about your character and ability to deeply connect with the needs of your community.