Employee wellness, health, and self-care is managed through Cigna and Trestletree as a one-size-fits-all approach. The tools and trainings available through these resources are certainly helpful, especially as a starting point for employees who have had very little exposure to stress management and health and wellness resources. But what if something more is needed?
For those of us who are front-line workers—not only managing our own health and wellness, but also that of our students—something deeper is needed. For those of us working in fields where our subject matter deals with health, wellness, psychology, and trauma, for instance, we need tools that go above and beyond the tools offered by Cigna, Trestletree, the community colleges, and the UMaine system. In short, we need opportunities for embodiment.
Such resources are not easy to find and access, especially in person and in real time. Further, they are expensive. Our professional development takes many forms and approaches and includes learning theory, praxis, and practical tools for our health, well-being, and self-care so that we may continue to do our intellectual work and service work without becoming dysregulated and burnt out. When we have access and opportunities for embodiment, for somatic engagement, we are better employees and we serve our institution and our students more effectively.
For those of us managing the mental, physical, and emotional impacts of trauma (let alone complex trauma), our needs for tools and opportunities for embodied health and wellness and self-care are even greater. The impacts of trauma create (invisible) disabilities that we manage to work with, whether these disabilities are documented or not. Providing us with the accommodations we need to do our work is a legal and moral obligation of the UMaine system, and professional development opportunities that are funded by the system (or, in this case, outside grant funds) are part and parcel of this obligation.
I have witnessed the impacts of stress and burn-out among my colleagues—faculty and staff—and the ways in which these manifest in short tempers, a lack of patience, inability to see another person’s point a view, a lack of flexibility, increased frustration, depression and anxiety, and reduced productivity. Some of us just accept our working conditions as the way things are; some of us fight to change the system. Many of us are only vaguely aware of these as problems that can be addressed by health, wellness, and self-care solutions. I have also personally experienced these impacts and have struggled in silence, finally reaching out for an EAP Band-Aid when I was desperate. Some resources exist for faculty and staff, but these resources are inadequate not only because they are mostly pdf documents and webinars, but more so because they do not harness the power of radical self and community care; they do not offer somatic tools toward embodiment or opportunities for praxis.
It is with all of this in mind that I began studying trauma and embodiment in the context of my intellectual work as a cultural critic and theorist as well as my work as a fitness instructor and yoga teacher, work that I have done alongside my pursuit of a Master’s, a PhD, and my work as a professor (for instance, publishing Women and Fitness in American Culture in 2014). I completed a 50-hour certificate in Embodied Social Justice, utilizing professional development funds in the winter/spring of 2021. I also began teaching NUR 330, Integrative Healing Yoga, for the UMA Nursing program in the summer of 2021 and developed AME/INT/WGS 430 Embodied Social Justice: Racialized Trauma and Cultural Transformation, which I taught in the spring of 2022. This fall I developed AME/INT/WGS 420: Feminist Praxis toward Radical Self and Community Care, which I will teach in the fall of 2023. Through this work I have brought social justice and diversity, equity, and inclusion together with theories and practices of embodiment and have used this lens to understand and address trauma—in the classroom, in my research/writing, and in my life.
But as I have come to understand my work as transdisciplinary, I have also developed workshops that I have offered in a variety of contexts. While I have been offering fitness and yoga classes and related workshops for a long time (often as free community events at UMA), these new workshops break out of the boundaries and definitions of fitness and yoga and draw more from the resources that are a part of my academic work. For instance, from my teaching of Embodied Social Justice, I developed a Resilience, Embodiment, and Radical Self-Love workshop that I offered as a scholarship fundraiser for Kristy McNaughton and her Evolved Movement LLC. Several UMA colleagues attended this workshop in Readfield in the spring of 2022. After being connected via a student who works in the mental health field in Portland, I also created an Embodied Social Justice professional development workshop that I delivered via Zoom for about 20 front-line workers that was offered through the Maine Department of Health and Human Services in the spring of 2022. For the last two years I have presented workshops for Maine teachers through PREP (yoga and embodied movements) and was invited to present Yoga for Educators: Classroom Tools and Self-Care Techniques at the Forward Focused: Innovate, Advocate, Motivate MEA conference in December. Clearly there is a need for trainings like this.
It is from all of this work that The Spiral Goddess Collective, a Center for Mind/Body Movement was born and in addition to the weekly classes that I offer there, I began to create a series of workshops that would offer practical tools for self and community care as well as opportunities to engage with theory and practice related to social justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion. While it is “outside employment” and a “personal business,” it is also part and parcel with the work that I do as an intellectual, an academic, a cultural critic and theorist, and a Transdisciplinary Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Maine at Augusta. UMA students have reaped the benefit of this work, not only through my classes, but also through my events, workshops, and extracurricular offerings. The only difference is that now I have a sacred space for such offerings—a space that I have to pay for and a space that pays forward into the community through sliding-scale prices and scholarships.
In the summer of 2022, I offered a Rest, Restore, Renew retreat at a friend’s off-the-grid farm in Lowell as a pay-what-you-can event for the nascent Spiral Goddess Collective Care Fund scholarship. UMA colleagues who attended this retreat convinced me that I should offer my upcoming SGC workshops as a professional development package so that more Maine frontline workers like them could take advantage of the benefits of the unique opportunities for training that I am offering. All the participants, which include frontline workers not affiliated with UMA, agreed. The idea of a conflict of interest did not even cross my mind. I have been doing this work for so long, offering it for free or pay what you can.
I have always struggled to define the line between what is work and what is “work.” (I write about this in a variety of contexts, including this recent blog). I have donated countless hours of my time and countless dollars of my hard-earned money to creating and offering services for my community. I have built relationships and trust. And the thing is, for those of us who have experienced trauma, which is pretty much all of us, and which has been exasperated by Covid-19 and other factors, we need skill-development training from people and sources that we can trust, that we can work with in safe/sacred spaces, that we can build upon with each opportunity for professional/personal growth and development.
The calls for professional development opportunities via the Alfond Foundation and MWDC encouraged us to “think big” about the “numerous opportunities to pursue” for “skills development training” and “upskilling Maine employees.” The opportunities that I am providing are well within the scope of the intent of the Alfond Foundation grant funds (as confirmed by UMS HR in a denial of funding due to a “conflict of interest”). I am currently working on appealing the “conflict of interest” decision, which has been presented to me and to faculty and staff who applied for these professional development funds with unclear and contradictory justifications as well as wide-ranging implications that seem beyond the scope of a “conflict of interest.”
The conflict of interest seems to be about providing me—a “University employee”—with “income,” but the situation is more complicated. Correspondence from UMS HR suggested that a faculty/staff member paying me is a conflict of interest in and of itself. This is a very broad interpretation of the UMS policy. Subsequent communication has referred to the “protection” being provided by the system by identifying conflicts of interest. No specific policy language has been cited. Further, the grant from the Alfond Foundation, administered by the MWDC and “housed within the Maine Community College System” provides funding for courses at UMS and the Maine Community College System and the University of Maine System serves as a training provider. By the standards being applied to me, how are these not conflicts of interest?
But, above and beyond the issue with the conflict of interest policy and its interpretation by HR and my UMA supervisors, I ask you to consider the ethics of the overall situation—denying employees their choice of professional development opportunities based upon my employment at UMA makes absolutely no sense, especially when the professional development funds are coming from a source that is meant to provide access to trainings like the ones I am offering. Again, I am appealing the conflict of interest decision because the nature of this particular conflict of interest is also in the interest of UMS and its employees.
I offer some of the feedback that I received from participants in the first workshop. A UMA student who attended, funded by the Spiral Goddess Collective Care Fund scholarship program said:
“After attending the workshop rest, relax, renew I felt like leaving a whole day at the spa. I've never experienced this with yoga before. Feeling open, relaxed and knowing I did something good for my body. It also helped me to focus on the weeks ahead that were very stressful.”
A staff member who attended before finding out that she was denied funding, shared this:
“Through this workshop and through Sarah’s teaching, I was given the space and training that allowed me to be vulnerable to explore and learn new tools to start to restore myself towards deeper wellness. Her understanding of hidden disabilities and her willingness to adjust to individuals’ needs made this training a safe place to explore alternative healing techniques. I was able to understand at a deeper level the need to avoid stimulating the nervous system, practicing the techniques in stillness, gaining a deeper understanding of how culture “collaborates for us not to rest” but to perform and to produce and how for years I have carried this stress within my body all in an attempt to be the best at my job. Being able to observe and experience ways of shedding these layers of stress was indeed empowering for me. I have attended yoga training before but never had the experience of restorative yoga and it was a transformative experience. As a practitioner in the counseling field, self-care is important but we are not often offered such a powerful and transformative workshop as this from a highly skilled teacher.”
I hope that UMS will see that the benefits of providing professional development funds for this workshop series to any faculty or staff who would like to attend outweighs any potential conflict of interest. I do not believe that there is a conflict of interest here and that if there is, “no real or perceived detriment to the University results from conflicts between personal interests and those of the University.” This conflict does not result in “direct monetary losses” nor “loss of confidence in the University.” And, in fact, the decision that has been made to call professional development fund payments a conflict of interest actually results in “negative publicity and erosion of employee morale.” Finally, I believe that my “activities and interests do not conflict with [my] obligation to the University or to its welfare.”
The Conflict of Interest Policy states that this “policy is to be interpreted and applied in a manner that will best serve the interests of the University and that distinguishes between those minor and inconsequential conflicts which are unavoidable and those conflicts which are substantial and material.” I believe that allowing faculty and staff to choose to apply professional development funds—whether they come from UMA, from the system, or from grants—to the professional development trainings of their choice, including my “personal business,” best serves the interests of the University and that the conflict here is minor and inconsequential. Further, what I am offering is a unique opportunity that is in line with the goals of the Alfond grant and the professional development funds offered to UMaine system employees. What I am offering engages faculty and staff not only in wellness and self-care, but also in a deeper understanding of issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Finally, because this “policy does not prohibit an employee from freely pursuing those teaching, research, and professional and public service activities which will not result in such a conflict, nor prohibit an employee from accepting pay, compensation, fees, honoraria, or reimbursement of expenses which may be offered in connection with such activities,” accepting payments from UMA and UMaine system employees who are then reimbursed by UMA, grant, or system money is not a conflict of interest. And, again, in this case we are talking about Alfond Foundation grant money.
In conclusion, unsigned correspondence from firstname.lastname@example.org to a staff member denied funding stated that “the topics offered by both TrestleTree and Cigna, which are part of the University's benefits, do cover some elements described on Dr. Hentge's website.” Of course they do. We receive self-care and stress-reduction advice from all sorts of UMS-related sources including the FDC, HR newsletters, and the named resources. But not all sources are created equal and none of the named sources provide what I am offering, an in-person experience that provides praxis and embodiment, to say the least. We understand that decisions about conflict of interest are not the purview of umsacademy, but we also understand that there is a bigger picture here that seems to be lost in the tedium of policies and procedures. There is also a story about human beings doing their best to navigate these systems and feeling disrespected in a process that is clearly not designed to have their best interests in mind.