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Healthy Minds Healthy College

Wellness Interview with Christine Crowe — Red River College’s Vice-President, Community Development

August 7, 2013

ChristineCrowChristine Crowe joined RRC from Kwantlen Polytechnic University, where she served as Dean, Faculty of Academic and Career Advancement. Christine now leads RRC’s Schools of Indigenous Education, International Education and Continuing Education, while also overseeing the College’s regional campuses, Language Training Centre and community outreach (full bio here).

Mike Krywy (Chair of the Wellness Committee) went for a leisurely walk with Christine to get her thoughts about wellness.

Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts about Wellness. To start with, who are some of the people in your life that you look up to as Wellness role models?

My mom was a dancer, choreographer and a teacher who danced with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. One of my most powerful memories was watching her sit on the floor listening to music, and picking something for her next routine. She could sit on the floor for hours, but you could tell that she wasn’t in the room — she was creating that piece of choreography. Afterwards, I’d watch the choreography come to life during the practices with her dancers. I was her pianist for a while, and it was fantastic observing her in the creative process and seeing the beauty that came from it.

My mom suffered from depression through much of her life, and she used her creativity to bring herself out of her depression and back to the light. A year after she retired, she passed away. During that time I think she grieved because so much of her life was tied to that creation, and she didn’t know what to do when she was no longer creating. From her life I learned there is power of doing what you love, and how those actions can sustain and feed you.

I know you have a couple of young children. Are they also wellness role models for you?

They are amazing role models for me.

First of all, I’ve learned from them that not knowingis okay.Not knowing” is a place of curiosity and a source of great adventure. It is not something to hide or be afraid of. It speaks to humility. As an administrator, I’m someone who people often come to looking for answers. And that’s a scary place to be sometimes. However, if you’re able to admit that you don’t know something but are willing to explore finding an answer together, you’re able to move forward.

The other thing is “Being present”. I have learned a great deal from putting down my iPad and playing with my kids. The other day my kids were jumping on the trampoline and said, “Mom, come join us.” I hesitated. For one thing, I am terrified about jumping on the trampoline, as I haven’t done it for years. So I told them, “I just need a minute — can’t you do something on your own?” Then I stopped and said to myself, “Wait a minute, they want to do something with me. They want to play with me.” So I went and jumped on the trampoline…and it was terrifying! But it was also very fun.

I’ve had many of the same experiences with my own children, such as when they ask me to go for a swim and I make excuses about the water being too cold. Once I drop the excuses and jump in with them, I never regret it. Is there anything else that your children taught you?

I’ve never thought about myself as having a sense of humour. I know many people who are hilarious, but I’m not good at telling jokes or coming up with the witty one-liners. However, I can make my kids laugh. I can make them giggle to the point they’re peeing their pants. So I love making them giggle. Laughter can bring so much energy to people. I carry those moments with me, and they sustain me when I feel a pang of guilt if I can’t be there to say goodnight.

Kids also know about other peoples’ energy. They are very sensitive, almost like animals. They have this “Felt sense” where they know their own energy or the energy of people around them. As adults, we often don’t take time to check in with our bodies, to see how or where our energy is sitting, flowing or if it’s getting stuck. Kids, however, are tuned in. I was recently at a workshop with Don Bureaux (President of Nova Scotia Community College) and he spoke about wanting his executive to understand their own “felt sense”. They’ve even hired an executive coach who is a Buddhist monk, and he helps staff to self-reflect on where they hold their stress when dealing with issues — teaching them to realize these tensions, and learn how to let them go and move forward.

The last thing that I continue to learn from my children is “Integrity”. My kids have a very strong sense of justice and they know when something isn’t fair and respond strongly when their sense of justice is betrayed. Children call out when there is a lack of integrity in their world — “But Mom, you promised!” So when the Elders speak of the Seven Sacred Teachings — that include respect, love, courage, honesty, wisdom, humility and truth — it’s good to reflect on whether I’m living these values fully, and that I am acting with the integrity that is so evident in my children.

One of my personal wellness strategies is to practice gratitude. Every night I write in a gratitude journal, and I try to list at least five things I feel grateful for and most days I can think of more than five. It can be as simple as the person who opened the door when I have my hands full of groceries, or last week when two people with Hazmat suits on directed me to the North Gym because I didn’t know where I was going.

You’ve mentioned having an awareness of energy and the way it flows several times now. Is this something you practice or study?

I have my Level 2 in Reiki. I spend a lot of time reflecting on how we move through the world with energy. There are times when I walk into a room and can feel a lot of positive energy and other times when it feels very draining and you can get a headache by the time you leave. It’s important to figure out how to deal with “energy vampires”. I try to be the person that brings positive energy to a room.  Some people in this world are very grounded and have a presence that you immediately recognize. That’s something I aspire to.

When you first started taking Reiki was it transformative?

I went in thinking, “I get the concept of people having energy and the need for unblocking or cultivating it,” but I wanted to learn and experience it. The main thing I learned was to go into things with good intent and to seek the highest good in all things — even everyday conversations and meetings.

That’s what I love about Indigenous ways of knowing. Most gatherings that are led by an Elder begin with prayer, and it gives everyone a moment of grounding and centering. It can help people be mindful of why we’re there and what we’re trying to achieve — where we can take all our collective power and wisdom to solve a problem. That’s a very powerful thing to do. This doesn’t always happen when we’re not in a circle with Elders.

Some people like Stan Chung (VP Academic and Research) do this in a meeting where he begins with cultural storytelling, by sharing a story about family. It’s a very powerful way to recognize diversity, share stories, and help us understand each other in ways that bring us together despite our different backgrounds and experiences. It’s not just about what is happening today, where we may be preoccupied with so many things. It helps us bring forward the many years of experience that we have. It can feel heavy, but it can also be an incredible gift to the richness of who we are.

Are there other ways that you nurture your creative side? You mentioned that you play piano.

This is a bit of a tangent, but I watched a Ted Talk by Matt Cutts, who is a Google engineer who set himself these 30-day challenges where he would commit to doing something for 30 days (see his blog for more). He started off riding his bike to work for thirty days and said “I can do that.” Eventually he climbed Kilimanjaro.

I watched that and wondered, “What should my 30-day challenge be?” So my first challenge was to walk for 30 minutes a day for 30 days… and I did it. I live in my head a lot and I find that walking grounds me. I tend to walk with one other person or by myself. At times I like to walk alone because I need some down time to ground me, and walking helps me to process information. It is incredible the power that comes from reaching your goal. You don’t have to set these goals so they last forever — you just need to do it for 30 days.

My next goal was to play piano for 15 minutes a day for 30 days. Again, I did it and I loved it. I had forgotten that unless you make the time for it you won’t do it. It was almost the same experience as walking. By playing the music and engaging my brain, it turned out to be very relaxing. I loved picking the piece and practicing it, and working on it. It was very important to reengage with that part of my life. Now I’ve gotten back to it and I find myself practicing it more often than I was before.

At a previous workplace, I took this idea to a staff workshop and I challenged all my staff to set their own 30-day challenge. And almost everyone managed to make it through their 30-day goals. It was great, and we all supported each other.

It can sometimes be challenging to understand what one’s psychological barriers are from doing simple things — like stretching for 30 minutes a day.

It’s interesting because it is self-initiated, so it is not forced, and I set my own parameters, but then I have to build the structures in to make it happen. So before I began the 30-day walking challenges I had to talk to my husband and said, “I want to do this, but I need your support. So if I say I need to go for my walk, you need to understand that this isn’t just Christine going for a walk, this is Christine trying to reach her 30-day challenge.” So I had this chart on the fridge to track and build some accountability for what I was doing.

Moving beyond the personal, what steps can an organization like Red River College take to foster a Wellness culture?

I often ask myself, “What is the purpose for what I do?” and “Where do I get my energy?” What I’ve realized is that part of what brings me energy is to recognize and value other people’s gifts. As an organization, it is important to bring meaning to our lives beyond the “nine to five” work activities. I think those of us who gravitate towards education innately understand the power of education, including its social implications, and we all speak very eloquently about what we do. However, as an administrator who no longer has contact with students as often, it’s important to continue to put the students at the centre of every decision. Where does the meaning come from if you’re not in front of students? One answer is to help motivate others to find their meaning, by recognizing their gifts and valuing those gifts in ways that organizations sometimes forget.

The Wellness Committee will organize activities like the Chili Cup, the Rebel Run, and the Wellness Walk-a-thon to bring people together. Are there other ways that RRC can build on this model?

Definitely! Where I previously worked I started a reading club, but it was more of sharing circle as we weren’t all reading the same book. We all brought along a book to the circle and talked for a minute about the reasons we loved it. Afterwards we put the books on a table and everybody took one of the other books that someone else loved, giving us the chance to love it too. It wasn’t so much about the book as it was appreciating someone else and their interests. We learned a great deal through sharing someone else’s passion through reading the books they loved and wanted to share.

I also set up a one-day Scrabble tournament to raise money for literacy. It was a lot of fun and brought out people that you normally wouldn’t see out at event. I’m not a very good player but my grandma was a master, and I carried that forward for her.

The key in both cases is engaging communities through shared interest. There are many ways that we can do that. At the end of the day it’s really about building community — maybe that’s why I’m in Community Development. I often ask myself “How do we build community in ways that nourish people and even people who aren’t always comfortable in community but have a great deal to contribute?” I’m thinking about introverts. David Rew (VP Student Services and Planning) recommended that I read a book called Quiet about the lives and minds of  introverts. I find myself on the cusp of introversion and extroversion, where I enjoy being with people but also taking walks by myself and needing quiet time to process my day.

It’s not always about asking people that always get asked to sit on committees. It’s also about asking the people who never get asked.

How can the College help support Student Wellness?

One of the things that Red River College does well is that we try to support students holistically, which is a challenge for a commuter campus. I often wonder about how we welcome students. From the very first moment they interact with us — through people or admission forms — we need to consider how people navigate the system, and whether we are putting up barriers to students. For example, if the reading materials we provide students are too complex, we may not be supporting those with literacy issues. We have so many non-traditional students — who are first generation, or recent immigrants, or who have varying educational backgrounds — that we need to recognize how the needs of students differ from one another.

I’d also like to see the inclusion of families in staff and student events, as these are key support networks for many people. We do this on occasion, but I’d like to see more events that include children and families.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.