Creating communities for health – part 2
In Part 2 of this exclusive interview, BARBARA BUSH speaks with MAMATA VENKAT about how to nurture mental well-being during the current pandemic, gratitude practices, the styles of leadership needed in today’s world, authenticity, what she learned travelling the world as the daughter of a US President, the importance of racial justice, and what is next for her.
Q: I’ve struggled with mental health issues for much of my life, and the pandemic has been a challenge. It feels like I have this giant mirror right in front of me, and I’ve had to face so many things that I maybe pushed aside, or didn’t want to face or work on. I’m curious if it’s been a similar experience for you.
BB: Definitely. The pandemic has forced me to address areas of my life that I maybe would prefer not to. It’s been an emotional rollercoaster, and I’m saying this as someone who has been incredibly lucky throughout. I haven’t gotten ill. I have very few friends that have. Unfortunately, I have lost a few people, including a wonderful ex-boyfriend, so the notion of grieving has been important to explore. And yet, it can feel hard to grieve in this confusing time, behind your computer quite a bit, or with yourself so much.
So while I’d love to say it’s been easy to put into practice all my self-care rituals, it’s been a struggle. But I have noticed small things that make a big difference. I’ve certainly become much more grateful, and a gratitude ritual has been very, very important. I do feel incredibly lucky given everything that’s going on in the world.
I’ve noticed a lot of things from my previous life that I took for granted that are now so meaningful. For instance, when I lived in New York, I walked to work every day. It was about thirty blocks, and it was a wonderful way to start my day outside, moving. If it was good weather and sunshine, if it was snowing, it was still an experience. And then, when I went to grad school, I would walk to class every morning. It’s a small thing, but it really started my day off in a wonderful way, alone with myself, in my thoughts, and moving and interacting with people.
In lockdown, I didn’t realize how important it had been, and now, of course, I realize it was a small thing that made a huge difference every day. Now, I make sure I go on walks, that I’m in nature, that I replicate the parts of my previous life that matter a lot to me. That I nurture my ability to be thoughtful about what I’m thinking and what I’m experiencing during the day. It’s a small difference, but it’s something I took for granted previously.
Q: Definitely. Meditation practice is the core and center of who I am, and I realized how much I take it for granted. So now, as important as it is for you to take walks, it’s important for me to wake up every single morning and make sure I meditate, to write in a journal right after that, to make sure I adhere to all the techniques that go along with this practice. So much time is going by, and I don’t want to waste another second of it. What’s going on in the world right now makes you realize that nothing is guaranteed. The things that we hold on to may not be there tomorrow. I don’t want to waste another second of being able to do the external things, like spending time with my family, and also going internally as well.
What are some other things you’ve been doing?
BB: I love what you just said in terms of not wanting to waste another day or any moment. I think that’s so important. I definitely needed to do a reframe, probably six weeks into lockdown, to realize that there was complete uncertainty around this, and to be comfortable with the uncertainty. It had a big impact. At the beginning, it felt like we were putting everything on pause, and we would un-pause and go back to life the way it was before. Acknowledging that we’re not going to do that, and that’s okay, has been really important, because I treat it very differently now. I’ve acknowledged that it’s not a big pause, that I need to be actively living in these moments, and actively doing what I can to maintain a life that I am proud of, and a life that is aligned with what is important to me.
I love to meditate as well. I really believe in breathwork. That’s something that I let slide at the beginning of quarantine. As I reframe, it’s been something that’s really important to bring back. I also like a morning practice of journaling. I read The Artist’s Way when I was in high school, and it made me want to journal every morning. I let all of these things go for the first six weeks, so I brought them back. That’s been really important, because the emotions that I’m experiencing – I assume that we’re all experiencing – during this time vary quite a bit, given the uncertainty in the world. It’s been helpful to get thoughts out of my head and onto the page, and be able to process them and move through them.
Finally, I have dinner with my family every single night, and that’s been a fun ritual of community. We know no one is going to miss dinner or schedule a work call during dinner, and it’s protected time to be together.
Q: At some point I’m going to have to move out of my parents’ house and I’m kind of dreading that, because it has been so nice being together. I don’t want to take this time for granted at all. Thank you for sharing all of that.
To segue just a bit: leaders come in different shapes and forms. Especially given everything going on in the world, and thinking about how you nurture leaders in Global Health Corps, what are some qualities that are really significant for any young adult who wants to be a leader in the social impact space?
BB: There are so many archetypes of leaders. When you’re in school and learning about history, you learn about these different archetypes of leaders who are merrily leading with strength. I think it’s important to reconsider what we perceive, and who we perceive to be leaders, and why.
I would say the biggest leadership quality that’s needed is empathy.
I don’t even think other qualities rival it, because
if you’re a leader your goal should be to serve.
And in order to serve, you need to understand people well.
You need to connect with people
and you need to love people.
And while normally love doesn’t come up as
a leadership quality, I think it should.
I would say the biggest leadership quality that’s needed is empathy. I don’t even think other qualities rival it, because if you’re a leader your goal should be to serve. And in order to serve, you need to understand people well. You need to connect with people and you need to love people. And while normally love doesn’t come up as a leadership quality, I think it should. If you think about the opposite of love, it’s fear, and it’s easy to lead with fear.
Fear looks like “othering” people. Fear looks like creating divisions amongst people. To me, that’s not good leadership. The opposite of that is leading with love, which is to lead with empathy, which is to build connections, which is to highlight the humanity in other people, and celebrate people, rather than finding the flaws in them. I think it’s important to talk about these qualities. While they are considered soft skills, I’d say they are more important than hard skills.
There’s a lot of strength in softness; there’s a lot of strength in kindness. I’ve reflected a lot on my own life. I lost three of my grandparents last year. One of my grandparents was given the title of a leader. His leadership style would seem foreign now, because it was a very gentle form of leadership, and a kind form of leadership. I watched his life and, of course, when you lose people you reflect on their life. He was very satisfied and fulfilled with his life, because he allowed himself to live and be a leader in a way that was authentic to him. Authenticity really matters in leadership. Many of the examples that we see aren’t in line with this. You need to be authentic to yourself and hopefully do so with humility and empathy.
Q: It can feel really easy to be disillusioned right now. We were talking about how, from the first few weeks of the pandemic, it has been easy to feel the weight and stress of the uncertainty. You talked about this already, but what are some things that we can do to stay positive amidst all of the uncertainty?
BB: It’s incredibly important to stay positive right now. That’s not to say that we should have a Pollyanna attitude and ignore what’s going on in the world. I think we can be honest but also optimistic in the belief that we have control over parts of our lives that we can make better. Thinking about how to stay positive with your own experience right now is important. I do think gratitude is incredibly important for that optimism and positivity. It’s always an incredible practice, but particularly right now, whether it’s gratitude journaling, or thinking about what you’re grateful for before you’re going to bed, or saying that aloud to yourself or your partner. Making that a practice is really important.
Thinking about how to stay positive
with your own experience right now is important.
I do think gratitude is incredibly important
for that optimism and positivity.
It’s always an incredible practice,
but particularly right now,
whether it’s gratitude journaling,
or thinking about what you’re grateful for
before you’re going to bed,
or saying that aloud to yourself or your partner.
Making that a practice is really important.
There’s a number of different sites that talk about the good news that’s going on in the world. It’s important to go to those sites and read the positive stories that are happening. There’s a great quote from Fred Rogers: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
Right now we see a tremendous number of helpers – people taking care of their family members, healthcare professionals, protestors trying to change what racial justice looks like in the United States. Let’s consider what we believe notions of helpers are, and look at them, and focus on that. I hope this gives all of us the agency to realize that we can help in whatever way we can. Getting involved is very important – it helps overcome complacency; it helps overcome disillusionment. There are many different ways right now, given all the circumstances that we’re living. We may not be able to volunteer in person, or we may be able to: we may deliver groceries to people etc. Figure out a way to engage that’s interesting, because that’s the number one thing that helps get past cynicism and negativity – to be part of the solution.
Q: You’ve been in the public eye your entire life, and I know that’s probably come with a lot of really wonderful moments and a lot of challenges, too. How has that impacted your decisions to do the work that you’re doing?
BB: It’s really hard to tell how it’s impacted my life, because I don’t know my life without it. But I do know that I’m really lucky to have had a tremendous amount of exposure to our country and to the world when I was younger. And that was afforded to me because of my parents – my dad being President. I was in my freshman year of college when he became the President, and my parents made it clear that I could travel with them as long as it worked with school and with my jobs. So I had the opportunity to travel the country and to five different continents with them. That exposure both gave me a global perspective and taught me so much about how people live around the world. It introduced me to a number of incredible people who are service-oriented, who are stepping up in communities to make a difference.
That’s incredibly contagious – to meet people who do not accept the status quo, who want to change it and do something about it. That led me into the field of global health, and I was exposed to a number of wonderful leaders in global health who were making a difference. And that inspired me and let me see that we can have an impact on global health issues. That’s why I pursued global health as a career.
We can all have exposure to different ways of being and different ways of thinking among the people even in our own communities. It’s important to broaden who we interact with and how we interact with them. That is a huge part of addressing racial justice in the United States. While the United States is not formally segregated, in many ways it is. And it’s really important to make sure we understand how people live, and be empathetic so that we’re building a country that prizes all people.
Q: You’ve just finished your master’s degree and you’re starting a new job. What’s next? Where do you see yourself going?
BB: Good question! I’m trying to figure that out myself, especially because it’s interesting to have transition points in life. We don’t often have many formal transitions. I graduated with a Masters in Public Administration from Harvard Kennedy School at the end of May. I went back to school last year to study racial justice and policy. I was very interested in understanding systemic race in the U.S. for a number of different reasons. One was exposure to the Black Lives Matter movement over the last four to five years. Then, working in global health and working on health equity in the U.S., you really see how health outcomes are divided by race in our country. It’s not an accident. The history of the U.S., the different policies like segregation and redlining, and how neighborhoods have been composed and then disinvested, led us here. We were doing great work in global health, but I felt like if I wanted to do more and better work I needed to understand racial justice in the United States.
That’s what drew me to go to grad school. I’m still very passionate about global health and I’m very passionate about racial justice, and the intersection between the two. I’m navigating what that looks like moving forward.
Q: It sounds like you’re in a very contented place in your life, and motivated to keep pushing forward.
BB: Yes, for sure.
Q: Barbara, thank you for taking the time to chat with us, and for being so open, thoughtful, and authentic in all of your responses. I really appreciate it.
BB: Thank you.
Interviewed by MAMATA VENKAT
November 30, 2020
November 30, 2020
November 30, 2020