Few people have the opportunity like the Bush Fellows to intentionally retreat, reflect, react, learn, unlearn, rejuvenate, and re-apply oneself to one’s life mission.
My fellowship started four months after the pandemic started. The unknowns; the scare; the shifts in life priorities; and the changes at the macro and micro level were all confusing and connected into a ball of mess in my world – and I imagine many others too. Figuring out how to proceed not just with the Fellowship, but with life itself as I knew it, was formidable.
Then as I was just starting to find ways to move forward from the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd occurred, and the ensuing racial riots and tensions across communities, brought more and new questions and instabilities in my life as a small business owner. Few things seemed possible then, and to continue – to think about oneself – to retreat, to rejuvenate, and develop oneself for what is ahead – seemed senseless. First, I did not know what would lie ahead? I could not justify the idea of retreating and reflecting? It was time ACT – not to think, to reflect – and how could I – how could anyone be rejuvenated during such a time?
And yet, reflecting and finding ways to rejuvenate during such a period were exactly the things I needed and had to do. “Overcome and act” I told myself. “Do not let the pieces that I had no control over cripple me during a time when leadership was most needed.” I sprung to action – nothing grand – but was the right move - take time for myself and my family to be together. Appreciate each other and learn from what we were seeing and experiencing in the community. Doing that gave me encourage and hope to reach out and rally with my diverse community of small businesses.
During that period, the plans that were carefully discussed, coached, created, and laid down on paper at the start of the Fellowship were the most valuable for me. A plan, a guide for any extended journey of any kind (especially one around self-development and leadership building), is always helpful and important, but during a period of global unrest, tension, fear, and confusion – this plan/guide became a lifeline for me. Yes, there were small tweaks and delays in the execution details, but the bigger vision and larger idea/plan kept me on target, and bit by bit, as I lived and experienced the things I accomplished through the Fellowship – I became grounded again and equipped with hope, strive even deeper and with more energy to keep working on being a more humanized and equitable leader – because the world needs more of them than ever!
Over the two years of the Fellowship, I have learned, connected and grown so much. I grew a business from startup to a quarter million dollars, survived a global pandemic, and a tragic national racial reckoning; while enabling dozens of small food businesses to access resources, relationships and consumer markets. They are thriving today. I have met so many hard working, socially conscious small businesses, and built not only community with them, but cultivated deep and lasting relationships with many of them.
Looking back, I wished I would have known that being chosen for the Fellowship award was a recognition – an affirmation already – of what I have already done – what I have achieved and contributed to community. For some reason that did not sink in until much later in my Fellowship. Quite the opposite happened early on – I had to prove something through the Fellowship – what? did not know – but I knew I did not want to let down the people who selected me. That created such a pressure that it sometimes got in the way of my true development path – which included “inner balance.” And all that self-imposed pressure did not give me balance.
That “balance” for me meant that I needed to focus on developing effective practices of self-care, because I did not know what that really was before the Fellowship. I came to learn that self-care is first about me -and it needed time and intentionality. I felt that I could not do that – it could not be about me – but instead, about others, about communities. While that has always been a central part of my goal, I came to realize in the last part of the Fellowship that if I am not taking care of myself – my body, my mind, and my spirit will deteriorate, and I will not be effective in the work I wanted to do for others and for my communities. This self-care, and inner balance that come from it, was especially critical during the global disasters happening at the time of my Fellowship.
What surprised me was how many people realize this need for self-care and yet so many were deficient in practicing it - from lacking the skills, the support, and the self-commitment and so many other reasons. For me, as an Asian-American woman, I came from a super hard working, community-culture. I was trained by my home culture that to be a good person – worthy of love and inclusion – I had to always work hard for others, for community, for everything, at all costs – even if that meant at a huge, irreparable cost to myself. You sacrifice yourself. Individualism (which is anything with “self” in it like self-care) is wrong. This kind of hard-work belief/culture was affirmed later in adulthood, especially in the large, mainstream career world. So, I never knew that I could come first – that my health, my well-being can come first. Today, because of the Fellowship, I know better and am better equipped, but I still feel guilty sometimes and certainly far from having the skills and behavior to do self-care well.
I am by nature industrious, and so I will continue to work hard – to create impact for my community, for other communities – as I have always done in my youth and through my entire career – but I am doing it differently today. How? I do so with much more grace and care for myself, than I have ever done in my entire life. I noticed that when I do that to/for myself – I am more conscious of doing that to and for others…and we need that from each other more now than ever.