Healing – Wellbeing – Flourishing: Front and Center of Social Impact Work

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Jet Fuel Series: A conversation with Nedra Ginwright, M.S, Chief Flourish Officer of Flourish Agenda

Talking about social impact and not focusing in particular on healing, wellbeing, and flourishing, as part of the mental health discourse, defeats the purpose of mission-driven work. But it is more than just talking about it. The conversation should approach these crucial aspects as a whole, as many of our guests have highlighted during our interviews.

For this month’s piece, we spoke to Nedra Ginwright, Co-founder and Chief Flourishing Officer of Oakland-based Flourish Agenda. Nedra has been doing work in the healing-wellbeing-flourishing sector for 35 years and had lots to share about this vital piece of any social impact work. We appreciated the insights so much that we felt we’d be doing a disservice to readers and the topic by repackaging the conversation into our standard format. So this month’s piece is our conversation with Nedra, edited for clarity and length.

Healing As A Holistic Affair

There is some understanding — maybe more in the social impact space than others — that healing as individuals and healing as groups or organizations is really important, but it feels like the two sometimes get approached separately. My impression is that those both have to happen if you want to transform an institution or a community. Is that the case? How would you explain that dynamic?

I would say it definitely is. To explain, I would share a little bit of our history. Our work was totally centered on working with Black youth. And we did that for 30 years, working on issues of internalized oppression and racism. And what those young people said to us was it was a great process to go through, but that the adults who were in service to them, in their lives, and in their communities needed that same level of healing and support. They were able to recognize that healing could not just happen in silos — it had to happen as a community.

“One of the core pieces of our work is that to get people beyond recovery. And we see it that way: healing from some traumatic event, then you return to a normal recovery stage and what we want is to get people to the point of thriving and flourishing.”

Nedra Ginwright, Chief Flourish Officer of Flourish Agenda

We are definitely proponents of a holistic way of providing healing, at an individual level, at a collective level, and then what does that look like within an institution? So the ecosystem has to have some shifts in order for any change and transformation to really happen. We do have a process to help people see what their individual trauma is, how our hurt and pain gets taken into the collective, and how that can inform the culture within an institution. And that’s why we look at change and transformation and healing needing to happen at those three points.

A lot of times when we look at trauma, we look at it as an individual, episodic incident. But oftentimes, in communities of color, it’s persistent — especially in poor communities of color. It’s persistent and collectively felt. It’s not an individual, episodic issue. It’s a collective, persistent one. So healing is not a one-stop. It’s not a final destination. It’s an ongoing, iterative process.

Some people experience more complex trauma than others. I don’t want to minimize it and say that trauma is equally distributed. Because of social issues, it’s not. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t all experience trauma. I heard someone say one time that just being born in itself is a type of trauma because you’re moving from a place of comfort to an unknown place through that whole process.

So just to level the playing field, we’ve all had some level of trauma. But then as we move through the world, we experience other traumas that we carry with us. And that’s baggage that we just carry into our lives and sparks a level of fear. Fear informs our interpersonal relationships, and when it gets transferred into systems, it can inform policies and practices and culture. That’s how you get things like zero-tolerance in schools, which still happens in some places — because people aren’t talking to one another, or they don’t know one another, or they don’t understand the context of a behavior.

What kinds of tools, practices, and strategies have you found are most important to give people in the social impact space to make healing and recovery transform their work? Is there a difference between what’s most important and what’s easiest or most practical?

It’s complex. People are always like, “What is that panacea that allows people to change?”. In doing this work for 35 years now with youth and then adults, I can say there is no magic bullet. It’s an ongoing process. One of the things that we do is focus on vulnerability. We do study Brené Brown’s work and use a lot of vulnerability to get people into a heart space where they’re willing, able, comfortable, and safe to talk about some of those things that have been challenging. What we do is create safe spaces where people have the opportunity to go really deep and build some really strong relationships where they can self-disclose.

In terms of how we get to the heart space, we have these things we call four pivots. The first: How do we move to a mirror versus a lens? That’s based on the fact that we tend to be critical beings. We’re always looking at things on the outside and saying what’s wrong, but we don’t always do a lot of self-reflection about how we can make things better. How do we move from looking at the world only through a lens to looking at our own reflection and how we show up in the world?

Another pivot is moving from problem to possibility. Again, our minds, our brains, are tuned to think critically all the time and think about how something can’t happen. Instead of looking at how things can’t happen, what is the possibility? Because those are endless. Really asking people to lean into that: As soon as your brain is oriented toward I can’t do something, what is the possibility in that?

Moving from hustle to flow is another one. We are always busy. This the hardest one, even now at Flourish Agenda because more people are coming to us wanting healing work. How do we step outside of that hamster wheel of busyness and what does it mean to be in flow? How do we enact some of those contemplative practices—like meditation, walking, play, fun, being in relationship with people—so you can be at a better flow even as you work?

Lastly, moving from transactional to transformational relationships. Transactional relationships are concerned with how we can get things done efficiently. Instead of always operating from a level of efficiency, how do we operate from a level of transformation. How do we get to know people in a different way? How do we look and build our empathy for people? How do we understand that in the workplaces, people may not always be able to perform because we don’t know what’s going on in their lives?

Rethinking Our Relation With Wellbeing

Do you think more people are prioritizing wellbeing because of the pandemic? How do you think our understanding of wellbeing might continue to change?

One of the things that we’re seeing now is people are trying to figure out how to re-engage and re-enter community because we’ve all definitely been traumatized by what’s been going on, on top of social isolation. A lot of our work has just been giving people time and space to talk about what’s happened during this pandemic. I don’t care if you’re the CEO of a company or a young person or a nurse or doctor, it’s necessary to have that space.

We just did some work with a group of doctors and nurses that had been through this whole pandemic. The hurt and pain they had from just seeing people die, seeing people make that transition in isolation—what they needed and yearned for was time to come together and talk about it. That kind of collective healing is going to be important for all of us to get through this and resume whatever will be the new normal that we step into.

“Evolution is real. The next generation or the generation that is coming up has a different level of capacity for this work because some of the road has already been paved. In the same way our ancestors have paved the road for us so we were able to show up and be different human beings.”

Nedra Ginwright, Chief Flourish Officer of Flourish Agenda

Healing – Wellbeing – Flourishing: The Journey Beyond Recovery

It really stands out to me that Flourish Agenda has had a youth focus. How important is this strategy in the building of healthier communities overall?

For us, the youth focus was about who we were when we started the work. We were young people. We experienced trauma and pain, and we knew how hard it was to navigate the world without having someone to support us in our own healing and wellbeing. I grew up experiencing not complex trauma, but the trauma that I did experience was enough to make it really difficult to navigate the world. That’s the point that we wanted to start from.

And with the youth pushing us, the adult work became just as important. The recognition is that it’s all human work. Youth are our starting point because it’s easier to work with youth. Adults tend to already think that they’re arrived and healed. So, when the young people go through the work and then share it with adults, they’re more open and receptive because they understand it in a different way. They can see the impact that it has on the young people. And it allows the adults to take their mask off a little bit and see how vulnerable a young person has been able to be.

One of the core pieces of our work is that we want to help people even beyond recovery. Usually the process is healing from some traumatic event, then you return to this kind of normal recovery stage. But we want to get people to a point of thriving and flourishing. We believe that we weren’t put on this earth to just be mediocre, or to just survive. We want to thrive. Healing is not necessarily thriving. So that’s where some of the possibility thinking comes in. What are your dreams? What are your aspirations? How do we support young people and adults who serve them to reach that highest level?

I imagine people start this work from all kinds of different places. Maybe they know that it’s important but also laborious and put it off. Maybe they’re in denial and don’t see it as relevant to themselves or their work. What are some of the different attitudes you encounter when people are starting this work and how do you engage them?

For the people who feel like it’s too much time and they don’t want to go there and want to continue being transactional, I would probably ask how that’s working out for them and the team they lead. Because when you’re in a toxic situation, the worst thing you can do is not admit that it’s toxic—particularly as a leader. As leaders, we may be trying to hide and protect something that everybody can see—like a big pimple on the face. So everyone who comes in feeling like they have everything together and that healing work takes too much time, we encourage them to lean into it because it’s so much more liberating to be able to admit mistakes, or be able to say, “Damn, I’m not in a good space today. This is how it’s going to impact my work, and I’m going to need some time off.” Those simple things give the team permission to do what they need to take care of themselves as well.

Adults who kind of feel like they’ve arrived and that this work might not necessarily be for them—we have a lot of folks in that category. What usually happens is that we have a school superintendent contact us, or the department of juvenile justice services leadership contact us—basically decision-makers contacting us to secure work for others that they don’t plan to engage in themselves. They want the work on behalf of their team. So one of the key things we say is that this is not for a single team or person, this is an ecosystem approach. If you’re in a school—superintendents, the board, teachers, office staff, janitors—everybody needs this work.

And then there are people who don’t validate healing over the technical pieces—we get a lot of that, too, particularly in people who are leaders. That takes convincing them that you’re not going to get through some of the technical stuff if the emotional stuff isn’t addressed. And the easy argument for that is that you’re going to get more productivity if you attend to people’s social and emotional needs. We’ve seen that firsthand within our own agency. When we all start getting transactional, people burn out. Allowing ourselves to understand that we have to allow ourselves to take care of the emotional and social piece if we want to truly be able to be more effective in the technical aspects of the work.

In terms of how to convince people or encourage people to do the work, it’s also important for us to let them know that we’re imperfect ourselves. We’ve been doing this for years and recognize that it’s needed still. Being able to be fully human and say that I’m perfectly imperfect has been really good at encouraging people to kind of take this on.

“It Is Not About What You Do, But Who You Become.”

You mentioned earlier where flourishing and thriving fits into this work. I assume that inspired Flourish Agenda’s name, so I wondered if you could talk more about the significance of it.

Years ago, the organization was under the name Leadership Excellence, which really did not accurately capture what we were doing. What we were doing was healing work. We were helping young people understand the impact of racism and internalized oppression. For many years, we kind of stopped at healing. We never got to the wellness part. We never got to asking people what they needed to thrive and flourish, or what they wanted out of life. So young people were walking around with a deep understanding of how racism impacted them, but not how to address it. Addressing that impact gets you a step further to a recovery—where you understand and have some tools so that you’re feeling good every day. But even that doesn’t get you to the flourishing. For us, that means whatever you were put on this earth to do, whatever that is, you can fully activate it. How do we support individuals, collectives, and institutions in fully actualizing their purpose so that they can flourish? The name came out of that possibility thinking and not just wanting to stop at recovery.

A quote from a pastor and organizer in this area of Oakland, Reverend McBride, is, “This work that you’re doing is not about what you do, but who you become.” We try to embody that. A lot of times people come to us and they want tools and curriculum. We can give them that. But it’s such a journey of who we are becoming and getting to who we were made to be. And there’s no amount of curriculum that’s going to get you there. It’s internal work—your reflection, your recognition, your being in community, and moving in that process together. A lot of times with curriculum, people read the curriculum and they want to implement it and that’s still not doing the work. That’s not what it is. It’s a daily journey.

Social impact veteran, Nedra Ginwright, is the Chief Flourish Officer of Flourish Agenda — a national social impact organization that builds and implements strategies which allow youth of color to flourish. Nedra learned from her mother the power of strong leadership skills in bringing about positive changes in social conditions, and thus delights in speaking up for the voiceless. The Jet Fuel SeriesShe previously co-founded Leadership Excellence—a non-profit organization that provided leadership development to African-American youth. Thirty -five years of working with youth of color exposed her to the impact of racism on the physical, spiritual and emotional health of young people. More to that, she also witnessed the profound individual and community impacts of racial healing and personal transformation. Thus, she firmly believes that we can only thrive as a community if the trauma of personal and institutional oppression is addressed.

Nedra received the Powerful Women Making a Difference Ebony Magazine Award in 2000 and is a 2015 Echoing Green Fellow.

The Jet Fuel Series aims to bring different perspectives to the debate that currently dominates the mission-driven sector, addressing the needs of nonprofit or for profit entities alike. Caravanserai Project will publish a monthly blog based on conversations we had with various stakeholders such as futurists, community leaders, academics, entrepreneurs, captains of various industries, from different walks of life and locations whose unique experiences and views hopefully will help us and our network reimagine our efforts in order to increase our impact and advance our missions.

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