The first and one of the more surprising elements of wining a Bush Fellowship is realizing just how large and supportive the community of Fellows is. Upon the announcement of the 2015 Fellow cohort, I received emails from folks working in diverse sectors to congratulate me and give me friendly (and really helpful!) advice. Most frequently what I heard was, “congratulations, enjoy it!” Several people made sure to remind me that, “this time is for you.” Even though it has only been six months, what I have learned is that it is enormously important to be protective of your goals. Almost every Bush Fellow I have met is a busy person – we take on a lot. We are a curious, driven bunch of people. The program staff realize this, and this leads me to my biggest surprise about embarking upon the Fellowship: a major goal of the Fellowship – from the perspective of the staff – is the wellbeing of the Fellows. This set the tone at our inaugural retreat together.
They stressed that the Bush Foundation was making a lifetime investment in us, so a key element of the Fellowship would be learning, practicing, and being really committed to self-care. None of us want to flame out, but many of us have the potential to do so (again, the curious, driven thing). What surprised me about the retreat was how many times I heard that not only was it suggested that we slow down, build healthy habits, concentrate on what nourishes and feeds us, but that this was an expectation. We were not going to be any good for the world if we were exhausted, depleted, and overworked. And honestly, this has been one of the biggest and most empowering challenges of the Fellowship for me so far. Anyone who works in the non-profit sector will tell you that you can throw everything you have at your mission-driven organization, and it will take more. I think the arts can be particularly deceptive because of the creativity, the magic, and fun that occur when productions come together. But administering a non-profit arts organization is different, and that is where the real time and energy drain happens. Knowing this and changing patterns can feel a bit like swimming upstream for a while. It will take some time to get the hang of it, to find the little eddies where you can stop and rest. Then all of a sudden, you realize that it is not necessary to fight the current if you are in the right stream. (And here’s where I abandon the stream metaphor).
Ultimately what I needed was some parameters, some structure. For me personally, it is not healthy to work from eight o’clock in the morning to ten or eleven o’clock at night. It is not healthy to skip meals, to be sedentary too long, to stare at a computer screen for too many hours in a row. I used to beat myself up if I did not get through my emails each day, and then I realized, the emails are going to be there in the morning – that is the cool thing about emails – there is a record. I can get back to folks tomorrow. The world is not going to end if I do not answer all of my emails immediately. Giving myself some leeway in certain areas has been really liberating. It has opened critical space for me to dream, to investigate, to ponder (remember that?). I spent many years inside the academy and the greatest privilege of being there was the time one is afforded to think. That gets difficult in the churn of production and daily business. And balancing all of that with life, with relationships with family and friends, with rest and recuperation, well, there are many of us who do not do that balance thing well. Today, I generally stop working when I get home at night. I get acupuncture regularly. I take walks with my dog. I spend time with my partner and my family. I make time to do the things that I enjoy, like cooking and gardening. I have not yet figured out a way to build in time to write, which is still a challenge, but just the fact that I have made what feels like a considerable shift in my priorities and my daily practices is something I want to celebrate. I am taking much better care of myself and am proud of myself for it. I have the Fellowship to thank for that. I hope that it means I can keep doing this work for years to come, whereas before these changes, sustainability was a serious concern for me.
Another element of the Fellowship that has been truly wonderful is the opportunity to meet amazing, inspiring people and to be in a position to pick their brains about their passions, their journeys, their challenges, and what motivates them. I have met folks who are working across disciplines, melding elements of art and social justice in creative and really practical ways. I have met people who I believe are shapers of our future – and they are not loud about it. They are focused, committed, driven. They have figured out how to harness their passion, their concern for the world, their intellects and strengths, to direct change. Even cooler still, they want to work with me – they believe in what I am trying to do and see the tremendous and unique value in the organization for which I work. That excites me – to feel as though I have a broader, stronger network of partners to call upon, to collaborate with.
So, in closing, I would say to any incoming Fellow, be prepared to parent yourself a bit – we’re often good at taking care of others and many of us may put ourselves last. That’s got to change. Secondly, I would say, celebrate your health and happiness – these are the elements that will keep you fit to enact the kind of change you imagine. I recently heard a woman from a group called Octavia’s Brood talk about how burned out she was getting by social justice work, and then she began focusing on her own pleasure – “how can I make what I’m doing the most pleasurable thing for me?” she asked herself. Your pleasure is important – it will last a lot longer than your sense of duty, and you won’t be bitter at the end! Lastly, be open to meeting new people. If you’re at all shy, which I kind of am, it’s important to challenge yourself to meet people, to put yourself in places of exchange and dialogue, and if you need that recharge or quiet time, be diligent about carving it out, so that you’re up for more networking. The Fellowship is great excuse to meet new people – take advantage!