Interview: The Impact of Self-Care Practices at the Individual and Organization Level
Movement Maker Nicole Matthews of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition (MIWSAC) speaks to Move to End Violence Organizational Development Coach sujin lee about how the self-care component of the Move to End Violence program helped her prioritize individual self-care, as well as help MIWSAC develop a robust organizational self-care practice.
The 3rd cohort of Move to End Violence organizations are currently participating in 1.5 day Self-Care for Sustainability and Impact workshops. These workshops are about developing awareness of the ways that we do and don't care of ourselves as we work towards ending violence against girls and women. As we build this awareness, we can be deliberate about how to build a strong movement that is strategic and self generative.
sujin: What does self-care mean to you?
Nicole: Self-care is a holistic approach to all the ways in which we take care of ourselves and sustain ourselves in this work, but also in life and the world. For tribal communities, we look to our medicine wheel for a lot of answers. That means the physical, mental, spiritual and emotional – all the different components of us and looking at how we are taking care of those pieces.
Physically - What are we putting in our body? Are we getting enough sleep? Are we exercising? Are we taking a break from our computers once in awhile? Are we breathing, taking full breaths?
Mentally - Are we feeding our brains? Sometimes we don’t take time to feed that part of us. That could mean reading something, learning something new that you’re interested in that may or may not be related to the work you’re doing.
Emotionally – Looking at how are we taking care of our emotions. Are we laughing? Are we taking time to enjoy life? Are we crying when we need to cry? Are we allowing our feelings to be expressed and not just pushing our them aside? It means taking care of our emotional well-being.
Spiritual - Whatever spirituality we’re connected to, are we practicing that? Am I taking care of the spiritual part of me? For me, that means putting my tobacco, taking time for myself – whether it’s prayer, meditation, or ceremony. Whatever spirituality means to us, it’s so important to take care of who we are.
sujin: How has your understanding of self-care changed through experience with the Self-Care for Sustainability & Impact Workshop and other Move to End Violence resources?
Nicole: Before participating in Move to End Violence, I used to overthink it. We get messages to work, work, work. Even though leaders say take care of yourselves, what they mean is, “as long as it doesn’t affect the work”. I came into Move to End Violence with that in mind - and I also got those messages growing up and being raised by a single mom who worked very hard to take care of my brother and me.
When I participated in the workshop, I took the medicine wheel approach. I put one or two things here and there, and, it took some time to really feel connected to that. So, looking back, the self-care workshop was great. It gave me ideas, space to process a formalized plan to implement. And, through the whole Move to End Violence experience, that just continued to grow. The self-care workshop was in the beginning of my Move to End Violence experience, but I have grown so much more since that first self-care plan I put in place at the workshop. That workshop started a conversation and some different ideas, and then I saw how it plays out throughout other areas, and kept coming back to that - to learn about self-care from other people. Personally, I went through a very hard situation that became very much about survival. I was fortunate that I had all the experiences and the teachings and the conversation and the spaciousness about self care. I was able to think about self-care more broadly out of pure necessity – to help myself through a very hard time.
sujin: What makes self-care hard?
Nicole: We get completely opposite messages from a lot of people in the movement who are doing the work. We will say we value self care in words, but we also have a value on working hard…it’s kind of like a martyr syndrome. We want to show that we will bleed for this work. That’s how much it means to us. And, for many of us – including me - it’s more than just “work.” It’s about how we’re changing society so we can leave a better world for our children. I cannot sustain myself in this work, if I don’t take care of myself. All of those unspoken things, and the culture that we’ve created around it has made it hard. It’s even about the policies we have in place in our organizations, and the unspoken practices in our organizations. And, it’s about how do we practice this at home and do people make space for that? All of these things that make it hard.
sujin: What helped you shift your habits around self-care?
Nicole: What shifted things for me was when my mom passed away. Seeing her suffer and then pass away last October, was a really hard time for me. I was trying to practice good self-care, but I was also responsible for caring for my mom, caring for our organization, caring for my children, and caring for my home. While trying to keep all those pieces together – I was not taking good care of me. After my mom passed, I felt like I was in pure survival mode, and sometimes was barely surviving. I reached a point where I thought, “OK, what do I need to do differently so that I can not only survive, but also thrive and be in the best service of our organization, my family, myself, my children, my community? I can’t be any of that if I’m barely surviving." As someone who carries the term “leader”, you can’t lead people when you’re barely surviving. In other words – I can’t take people where I’m not willing to go. And I can’t tell my staff that I’m fully committed to their self-care if I’m not taking care of myself. And I can’t tell advocates and members to take care of themselves if I’m not doing it – because then I’m a hypocrite.
sujin: How do you understand the difference between a habit and a practice?
Nicole: A habit is something we do and don’t think about it. So we just keep doing it. For example, the way we brush our teeth. Most people will brush their teeth the same way every day out of habit.
A practice is something we’re consciously aware of that we work on, work to improve. For example, one of our practices at work is, we have a 9 a.m. check-in. We do breathing and movement exercises together. We’ll each take a turn. Then, some days, in addition, or in place of, we’ll do a medicine wheel check-in. How is everyone doing mentally, physically, spiritually, and emotionally? How can we support each other? It’s certainly not a habit. We have to pay attention to make sure we keep on doing it. There are days when we come in and everyone’s busy. So, we’re still working on our practice of that. Sometimes we’re great at doing it every single day, and then when everyone is travelling, we have to work to get back on track.
sujin: What do you do when you notice yourself slipping on self-care practices? How do you get back on track?
Nicole: There are rewards, like increased staff morale. It makes us feel more connected. That’s the positive reinforcement we get. And…we love it. Even though we slip once in a while, we made a commitment to this process, and we’re committed to keep going. We keep each other accountable by reminding each other. It’s not just me holding that commitment. Someone else might say, we stopped doing our practice - we need to start doing it again.
As an individual I have different practices – for example, I am thoughtful about what I am putting in my body. It’s been four months since I cut sugar out of my diet. It was very tough. There’s a culture around sugar. For example, at a meeting, continental breakfast and most break foods are all sugar. I feel really great not eating sugar, and my body feels great as well.
sujin: How does MIWSAC practice self-care as an organization? As a coalition?
Nicole: We’ve been really intentional about it. We have tried to push out the idea of check-ins as a coalition practice – we did it at our coalition meeting and statewide conference. At every plenary, we had everyone stand up to extent they were able [we always had one person model how to do the exercise sitting down.]. We took turns facilitating deep breathing or a stretch. After a particularly difficult plenary on trafficking, someone facilitated a laughing exercise to help us release the trauma. So, we are really trying to push that practice out to our coalition and to model how we can implement small ways of taking care of ourselves. We realized that if we’re overthinking it, many other people are also overthinking it.
The response was that people really loved it. We even received feedback from the people who are usually naysayers that they really enjoyed it. There is something about moving together – whether it’s just raising your arms and stretching – that is powerful. People really, really enjoyed it.
sujin: Is there one self-care practice that has made the greatest difference for you as a leader? For your organization?
Nicole: We have to be committed to really meaning the words that we say. So many organizations have things written in to their policies about self-care, taking care of yourselves. Then, we get mad when people take time off. I think it’s important to really be thoughtful about policies and practices we’re implementing and then stand behind those. It's also important for tribal organizations, for culturally specific organizations, to really support our cultural practices as a way of self-care.
For us, the practice was organic. We don’t all practice the same spiritual practices, but we can support each other in whatever practice people have. We talked about what makes sense for us internally – breathing and exercises. We're also in ongoing dialogue about it. We ask ourselves: Is this working? Where’s there resonance? Where do we need to make changes? Is there something else we could be doing?
sujin: What helped MIWSAC as an organization shift its habits around self-care?
Nicole: We had reached a point where we were all tired. We were not taking good care of ourselves. There had been some challenges for our staff personally. We had a culture of not taking good care of ourselves and so we had reached this point where we knew that it was time to do something different. Sometimes it only takes one person to make a suggestion. I was hearing loud and clear, “You tell us to take care of ourselves and not come in when we’re sick. Then, you come in when you’re sick. So we don’t believe what you say.
”When I started taking care of myself, people saw that I really meant it. Then, they started bringing different ideas to the table. My initial suggestion was not what we ended up doing. We began the conversation and then started looking together at what looks best and what we can commit to bringing now.
sujin: How has Move to End Violence's approach to self-care complemented or challenged self-care practices that you and your organization were already doing?
Nicole: It’s not easy, but it’s simple. We spent a lot of time thinking it was complicated. And then, because you believe it’s complicated, you think you can’t do it.
Attending the week-long Art of War workshop with Norma Wong recently, I had an ah-hah about spaciousness. If we don’t have spaciousness, people lose their ability to be creative. Most of us are anything but spacious in our work because we’re doing so many things. When we’re not multi-tasking, we feel guilty. Or, we move from activity to activity and don’t allow time to get those creative ideas going.
It’s important to reflect on how self-care is going and re-calibrate as necessary. As the executive director, I have to recognize when I might have to have a conversation with someone about how they’re taking care of themselves and how I can support them. That’s really key. Three years ago, that was not happening. We had a very challenging year as an organization. A staff member came to me and said she was really burned out. My response was, “Yeah, me, too.” Now, things have changed. Recently, I went to that same staff person and said, “Your schedule is out of control. You’re travelling a lot. What are you doing to take care of yourself and what can I do to support you?” Our entire culture around self-care has changed.