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Fostering Wellbeing Through Mindfulness Practices and Compassionate Leadership

March 15, 2022

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Paige Alexander

Chief Executive Officer
The Carter Center

A “colleague who goes above and beyond”? Ms. Kenya Casey’s name and praises were ringing loud and clear at The Carter Center even before we read Humentum’s invitation to nominate colleagues for the OpEx Award.

Kenya is the colleague everyone wishes they had. She exemplifies generosity with her time, care, and support of colleagues and tirelessly models and advocates for staff well-being, mental health, and compassion. Kenya is a fearless leader and mentor, and a true model for colleagues at The Carter Center and beyond.

From the time she joined The Carter Center in July 2014, Kenya’s professional training and experience as a social worker and her numerous connections across teams convinced her of the need for an outlet for colleagues to handle stressful dynamics. This was even before COVID-19 forced the Carter Center’s U.S. and overseas offices to switch to remote working in March 2020.

Supporting colleagues during the pandemic

Feelings of isolation, fear, challenges balancing working from home with other responsibilities, and uncertainty about health and the future set in for many of us. Like people everywhere, Carter Center colleagues worldwide faced social upheavals alongside the pandemic. The challenge of conducting operations while caring for staff who were facing increasing psychological pressure was universal.

Fortunately, early in the pandemic, Kenya became a certified workplace mindfulness facilitator and then launched, incubated, and grew a community of colleagues who practice mindfulness meditation together.

Each Wednesday afternoon since late March 2020, up to 20 colleagues from teams across the Carter Center’s U.S. office convene on a 30-minute video call for a guided meditation and brief discussion. In August 2020, Kenya further expanded her meditation leadership to provide monthly virtual meditation sessions to the staff of our overseas offices.

The Carter Center’s Ethiopia country representative, Dr. Zerihun Tadesse (who co-nominated her), praises “Kenya’s relentless effort to strengthen the bridge between headquarters and overseas offices” and lauds her indispensable role in building a strong connection between Carter Center teams. She managed to bring programs and operations staff groups into the meditation session and improved understanding between these teams to help them work closely. Tadesse states, “With [Kenya’s] leadership, we started our journey on meditation. It was a new practice for most of us […] and the practice is being cascaded to ensure many staff are able to benefit.”

Creating space for meditation

Meditation themes and topics differ from week to week. The Carter Center’s Conscious Connections group — an employee resource group and space for discussing and responding to racial injustice — meets bi-weekly on the same day as the U.S. office’s meditation sessions. Kenya would regularly provide a meditation to address responses and emotions brought up in those sometimes difficult discussions, wisely leading the meditation group from her perspective as a Black woman.

Ms. Alba Lucía Morales, a health education advisor for the Center’s Onchocerciasis Elimination Program for the Americas, lauds Kenya’s “audacity to conceive of the idea, [her] courage to reach for institutional resonance and authorization, [her] creativity to motivate colleagues from overseas offices to participate in subject matter and practices which were unusual to the Carter Center’s context, and [her] attitude of great love and solidarity.” Morales describes meditations with Kenya and colleagues as “an oasis for communal solidarity among [teams] from highly diverse geographic locations.”

The workplace meditation community that Kenya created has had a ripple effect across the organization, touching colleagues from many departments. Weekly meditation provides a dedicated, supportive space for busy staffers to stop and breathe. The sessions are also opportunities to connect with current and new colleagues whom participants may not encounter (even online) during a typical business week. At the close of each meditation, Kenya thanks participants for “showing up for yourselves and for each other.”

I once asked if Kenya would record a meditation or two, and was thrilled to learn that we can find her meditations online, free of charge, in this resource created by the Catholic Health Association of the United States: Global Health Meditative Reflections (chausa.org).

An initial indicator of the success of the meditation community Kenya created was that more than a year after the U.S. and overseas office meditation groups were launched, most initial participants remained active and new participants had joined in.

Carter Center

[Kenya Casey leading a 2022 mindfulness session with colleagues from around the world representing The Carter Center and Emory University]

Carter Center

[Kenya and colleagues from around the world representing The Carter Center and Emory University, February 2022]

A new path forward

Further, since fall 2020, at Kenya’s invitation,18 staff from our U.S. and overseas offices have completed a “Compassionate Leadership in Global Health” training offered by the Center for Compassionate Leadership. The compassionate leadership alumni network engages in well-being efforts for the good of Carter Center employees, continuing the ripples Kenya Casey has set in motion.

Tadesse, a member of the inaugural cohort in the Compassionate Leadership training, describes the change in his work resulting from the course as making him more compassionate to himself and to the over 440 staff he leads in the Carter Center’s Ethiopia health programs. Tadesse says that “motivated by [Kenya’s] dedication to the Carter Center mission and compassion for staff,” he has incorporated a 10- to 15-minute session overviewing basics and tools for compassionate leadership into a monthly program performance monitoring meeting with his team in Ethiopia.

Kenya indeed is the colleague everyone wishes they had. Therefore, it was bittersweet when Kenya told us last fall that she had a wonderful opportunity to return to Emory University — with which The Carter Center is closely affiliated— to serve as director of global safety and security in the university’s Office of Global Strategy and Initiatives.

Kenya’s bright spirit and legacy remain at the Center with initiatives she started. We have a thriving meditation community that meets weekly, and we still see Kenya in monthly meditations. Nearly 40 participants from the Carter Center’s overseas and U.S. offices and from Kenya’s new team at Emory joined a recent meditation that she led.

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[Kenya and Carter Center colleagues from meditation and compassionate leadership groups, November 2021]

The mindfulness meditation community Kenya created continues to grow with even wider ripple effects. Kenya has given, and continues to give, an extraordinary and generous gift that improves both our home and work lives. I can’t think of anyone more deserving of the OpEx Award.

 

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