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Balancing Life in the Social Change Movement by Deleana Otherbull, Executive Director

My grandma is turning 75 next week.

She called me a few days ago to tell me she’s driving to Albuquerque next month for a conference- and asked if I would like to go to the Denver March powwow in Colorado with she and my grandpa the weekend after.  I told her, “I will check my schedule and let you know”. Before she got off the phone, she scolded me… she said, “you’re always busy, Nina. Too busy. You travel everywhere- sometimes I don’t know where you are.”

It was a lighthearted moment- I smiled. I remember being in middle school- telling my grandma that exact same thing- that she was always busy… and that I couldn’t remember where she was travelling to next.

My grandma always had breakfast made- and dinner ready. I remember her cooking a nice dinner of deer meat and potatoes, then rushing out the door to her next meeting. It might be a community meeting, or a council meeting, or a conference, or a tribal school board meeting where she often stayed until well after midnight- as board chairwoman- fighting for education equality and tribal funding for our little ones.

My grandma is fierce. Her ability to get up and go- continues to inspire me.

Under most circumstances, I don’t normally share the intimate details of my life publicly. I definitely listen more than I speak. And most people who have met me know a few facts about me- I am a passionate Executive Director. I am hard-working, I am shy, and I have a two-year-old son- who has already attended his fair share of state meetings, events and community functions in his two years of life.

There have been times where I’ve balanced my son on my hip and spoke to statewide audiences. Or times I’ve used a small book lamp to read and catch up on emails- while he sleeps securely in my bed.

Everything that I’ve learned about possessing an unwavering commitment to community and the fierceness of keeping a tight schedule- I’ve learned from my family… valuable lessons taught to me by example from my grandma and grandpa- and my uncle Darrell (my son’s namesake) who worked as a successful tribal liaison for the Northwest region. I watched my uncle, for years, cooking pots of stew and then rushing out the door to a community feed, or to a basketball game, or to a veteran’s gathering. Everywhere we went, people shook his hand, shared jokes and reminisced about their old basketball days.

Community is everything.

My ability to commit myself to what I am passionate about- comes from my family. My passion of wanting to create better lives for our little ones and our communities- was birthed deep inside of me from my people. From their strength, spirit and resilience.

Like the average parent- I work. I take classes. I play softball during the fall and spring. I hike. I often spend Saturdays out at museums, or parks, or the kids gym with my son. And at the end of the day, I want a better world for my son to grow up in.

When you’re in the business to drive social change in a global movement to end violence against women and children, the concept of “work-life balance” can appear to most as the easier task that you face in this movement. As a new executive director- it initially appeared like the biggest challenges I would face would be stopping violence, securing resources for victims or supporting legislation that creates safer communities… because those are, of course, huge challenges.

But you want to know what my biggest daily challenge is? Taking a lunch break.

Yes. Taking a lunch break.

When I first started in this work- the work of social change- I couldn’t fully grasp the concept of “self-care.” I mean… my inner voice said- there is violence happening… and you want me to focus on myself?!?!

Yes, I was naive.

I had no clue- I was naive and yet, it felt like there was so much that needed to be done- working through lunch seemed like the only viable solution to combatting the consistent daily challenges this movement faces.

My thoughts of, “if only I could get these budget numbers right” or “I just need a few more hours to finish this…” often are my own biggest hurdles.

I grew up thinking that the term “work-life balance” was just a fancier way to say, “I am striving to be an adult” or “I am an adult now with responsibilities, so I naturally balance it all.”

But there is nothing like realizing you haven’t eaten all day- to recognize that you suck at balance.

Growing up, and watching the women and men in my family dedicate themselves to family and to our communities- I know firsthand that work-life balance is not a battle that only our women face. Our men, our male relatives, struggle too. They just are not as open and vocal about it but the challenges they face are just as difficult to navigate.

Work-life balance and the need for self-care is a gender blind struggle. It is important that we don’t leave our men out of this ongoing conversation. Our men need to know that it’s okay to open up about their struggle for balance. I see you.

When I first transitioned into my position, I was often asked- how do I “do it all?” How do I raise a baby, breastfeed, run a home, cook dinner and lead an organization? I’ve been humbly nominated for awards in the last year- such as the Professional Young Businesswoman of the Year, Women of Influence, etc. And I’ve often been asked- how do I manage everything?

But the question should not be, how do you do it all… the question should be, what is the fire that burns inside of you? Regardless of what our gender is, or what “roles” we have. We should ask our little ones- What drives you? What are you passionate about? What gets you going- after your fair share of challenges, to want to continue to show up again and again? And lastly, how can I support your fire that burns within?

One of the things I am adamant about in my organization- is making my staff take their lunches- and leading by example. It is hard, but I try everyday to take a lunch and leave my office. Even if its only 20-30 minutes. Because research shows- employees who take a lunch break, go on vacations and don’t check email 24/7 are healthier, more creative, more productive and less likely to burnout.

And in the movement for social change- we need to ensure our social capital (our people) don’t burn out.

Another great way I am supporting my staff is providing them with monthly gym membership allowances, full employer paid health benefits and providing a 70% premium allowance for the health benefits of their families… I also personally bought all of my staff Fitbits. Because in this movement for social change- I understand that I need to care for my staff so that they can care for the work.

Additionally, I go to counseling once a week. I also encourage my staff to find ways to unpack and unload the heaviness of this work. I’ve been going to counseling for over a year now, and it definitely has helped me stay strong- both mentally and spiritually. I also go to community sweats- where the potluck food nourishes me as much as the ceremony.

Over the last few years, I’ve realized that driving social change is similar to doing a triathlon… endurance and pace is everything. Balance and mental strength is key- and it is what you will fall back on when you feel challenged. And when times get tough, and you feel like you need to dog paddle for the next 6 laps to keep going, then dog paddle. Moving forward doesn’t have to be an all out sprint. Moving forward could be a slow dog paddle through turbulent waters.

And when I feel overwhelmed in the social change movement- it is the fire that burns inside of me that drives me forward.

What is the fire that burns inside of you?

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