2019 Bush Fellow Maria Medina

Guest Note: Leading from within

August 22, 2023
Maria Medina reflects on her self-transformation as a Bush Fellow.


As a young college student, I knew that one day I would apply for and receive a Bush Fellowship — no matter how many times it would take me to succeed. I admired the Fellows I knew personally, and loved learning about others I did not know.

I was in awe of the transformational work the Fellows were leading across their communities, and one day, I wanted to be included in that class of new Bush Fellows.

My time to apply came in 2018. I was finally ready in both my personal life and leadership journey, and I poured everything I had into my application. I was at a pivotal point in my leadership, which I described in my application:

Starting this January, I will assume the largest leadership role in my life one impacting thousands of lives in my community with broader regional and statewide implications. I will not only become Richfield’s incoming mayor; I will also be the state’s first Latina mayor.

Little did I know of the life-changing difference the application experience alone would have for me, in addition to the Fellowship itself. The application challenged my deeply entrenched narratives about and feelings of worth around what it meant to be a leader.

How could I talk about my accomplishments when I felt that they were our accomplishments as a community?

I really struggled with this way of talking about my leadership as an individual, much less sharing my story with others. Seemingly simple and straightforward questions were not so simple and straightforward to answer. Things like…

  • Tell us your story.
  • What has your leadership journey been to date?
  • What is your vision for community change and how do you want to get there?
  • How can a Fellowship support you?

I felt so uncomfortable even thinking about these things within the context of my vision, my leadership and what I needed. Centering myself was not an easy thing to do. It felt pretentious, and I had moments where I didn’t even want to try out of fear of sounding ego-driven and self-serving.

At the same time, I knew I was poised and ready to create a new future for myself and my community by stepping into my leadership and taking on the challenge and opportunity of a lifetime to better facilitate community power, equity and inclusion along the way.

In a state with some of the nation’s worst racial inequities, I had a vision to co-create Minnesota’s next model for a new kind of government and civic engagement. I was scared and excited for what lay ahead, but I still struggled in articulating my vision and leadership.

I asked myself: How might I better understand the innate tension between the individual and collective and reframe my thinking? How might I overcome my internal conflict and fears to allow myself a real shot at becoming a Bush Fellow — and at a time in my leadership when I needed it the most?

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned through the Bush Fellowship experience and my own personal leadership journey, a lesson I want to share with you, is that we cannot create collective power and transformation for the betterment of our communities without turning inward, reflecting deeply and going through a journey of self-transformation.

This point is perfectly articulated in “Heart Like a River,” by Thich Nhat Hanh, who has served as one of the most important mentors and role models in my life and leadership:

“If you pour a handful of salt into a cup of water, the water becomes undrinkable. But if you pour the salt into a river, people can continue to draw the water to cook, wash, and drink. The river is immense, and it has the capacity to receive, embrace, and transform. When our hearts are small, our understanding and compassion are limited, and we suffer. We can’t accept or tolerate others and their shortcomings, and we demand that they change. But when our hearts expand, these same things don’t make us suffer anymore. We have a lot of understanding and compassion and can embrace others. We accept others as they are, and then they have a chance to transform. So, the big question is: How do we help our hearts to grow?”

Leadership requires healing, getting to know, accept and embrace our true selves so that when we lead alongside and in partnership with community, we model and support others to do the same. By working on ourselves, we can better understand our beliefs, and help heal our pains and fears — so we are not limited by them or negatively affect others — when we do the collective work with our communities.

This self-reflection and care for our own leadership is what enables us to better see and build a future of health, healing and justice. Today, I see the tension and conflict between the self and community as false. Collective transformation is inextricably linked to the transformation of self.

Being challenged to think deeply in this way is the most essential gift that the Bush Fellowship offered me. It was that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to turn inwards and do the deep, personal work necessary to transform myself as a leader and unlock my potential and ability to impact true transformation collectively.

It’s a bit intimidating to consider applying for the Bush Fellowship. I know that many people compare themselves to past Fellows and struggle to see themselves in that group, but don’t underestimate yourself. Do not shut the door to your own leadership potential and opportunity. Do not let fear stand in the way of your self-realization and the chance to invest in yourself as a leader.

If you decide that this is the right time for you to apply for a Fellowship, embrace the challenge. I hope it helps you, like it did for me, discover your power and voice and true potential.


Maria Medina (formerly Maria Regan Gonzalez) is a 2019 Bush Fellow who is focused on building governance, community and corporate structures that are more equitable and inclusive. She currently serves as the System Director for Equity Initiatives for M Health Fairview and VP of Strategy and Food Systems for Haystack Data Solutions, a data consultancy focused on combating global climate change by advancing technology in the food and ag industry. Her passion and heart is in mentoring youth, women, and people of color to step into their power and grow their leadership and impact.