Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Dimple D Dhabalia of Roots in the Clouds Is Helping To Change Our…

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Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Dimple D Dhabalia of Roots in the Clouds Is Helping To Change Our World

Take a few minutes every day to simply sit in silence. This isn’t about turning off your thoughts — that’s not possible — but it’s about changing your relationship to your thoughts. Taking as little as 10 minutes every day to be still allows us to develop mindful awareness a necessary first step for practicing self-compassion and regulating our emotions, especially during times of stress, crisis, and uncertainty. It allows us to become the best versions of ourselves — as leaders and as humans.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dimple Dhabalia.

Dimple D. Dhabalia is the founder of Roots in the Clouds and a human-centered leadership coach. Today, Dimple’s cutting-edge work supports a holistic approach to addressing individual and organizational trauma and moral injury using mindfulness, positive psychology, and principles of human-centered leadership. Her new book, Tell Me My Story–Challenging the Narrative of Service Before Self [Ambika Media — February 21, 2024] is one leader’s message of hope and a map to healing for those working in service of others.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I always knew I was meant to work in service of others. In law school, I was introduced to the field of human rights and found myself drawn in by stories of courageous advocates giving voice to those whose voices had historically been ignored or silenced. I chose a career in public service, working at the crossroads of the government and humanitarian sectors. In 2000 I started working as an attorney at the Attorney General’s Office in Colorado where I was part of a small unit charged with ensuring the protection of children from abuse and neglect. It was here that I first learned about the concept of vicarious trauma, thought I wouldn’t think about it again for almost a full decade when I was on assignment in Zambia while working for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

By the time I set off for Zambia, I had been interviewing asylum seekers and refugees for over six years. It was a job that made me feel a deep sense of purpose, and I was good at it. For years, I approached every interview the same way and listened to stories of torture and persecution, showing just enough empathy to make the applicant feel seen and heard. I took pride in my ability to create what I liked to call a wall of professionalism between myself and the applicants. It wasn’t that I didn’t care; it was simply a survival mechanism I had developed over the years that allowed me to keep showing up to do the work.

But that all changed in Zambia where, for the first time in my career, I felt broken. I wasn’t sleeping well at night, I was drinking a lot more than usual, and as I sat face-to-face with my applicants, the wall I had so carefully constructed over the years crumbled into a heap, leaving me unprotected and vulnerable, feeling unprofessional. During interviews, traumatized applicants would recount the most horrific acts of violence and torture they had suffered in their home country without emotion, while I sat across from them unable to keep the tears from flowing down my cheeks. I was sure there was something wrong with me and it filled me with shame.

This is when my silent search for answers began. Mental health wasn’t something that was ever discussed in my workplace, but the seeds about vicarious trauma my first boss from the Attorney General’s office had planted began to grow. As I continued researching the concept and how to help myself through it, I realized that if I, as a high-achieving officer, was struggling as a result of hearing other people’s stories of trauma, then others must be too, but we just weren’t talking about it.

Over the next few years, I was promoted into various leadership roles, ultimately landing in a position where I had a platform from which I could affect real change and normalize occupational mental health conditions in our work. In this new role, I had several opportunities to expand my understanding of trauma, its impact on the credibility of the narratives of those we served, and just as importantly, on those of us who were on the front lines, listening to their stories day in and day out as we tried to help them. As I moved into another role as the Field Office Director for immigration in the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, India, my commitment to helping humanitarians prioritize their well-being was growing, but the embodiment of my own message was not. The stress of the new job coupled with a lack of social support had left my stress operating at a new high. With no other outlet, my body began attacking itself.

Hearing my doctor tell me on a visit back to the U.S. that I needed to come home right away or I might not come home at all was the first of several events that began to solidify my understanding that (1) being mission-driven does not equal being superhuman; and (2) that organizations in mission-driven sectors like the government, humanitarian aid, development and resettlement, medical, clergy, first responders, and anyone who is in the business of serving vulnerable populations have a duty of care towards their employees that goes beyond just the physical health and safety of their staff.

Over the course of my career, I have experienced vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue, anxiety, moral injury, and burnout. But like so many others, I worked in an organization that celebrated the resilience of the human spirit in the refugees and displaced persons we served, while failing to extend the same ethos to those of us who were doing the work. Determined to educate and support my colleagues, I developed and launched the Daring Leaders Project (DLP), the first mindfulness-based leadership development program of its kind within the federal government. My vision and leadership in this area earned me the Director’s awards for Innovator of the Year and the Pillar of Leadership.

In 2021, I left my job, leaving behind an almost two-decade career in service of the world’s most vulnerable populations to serve a new group — those working in service of the world’s most vulnerable populations. I launched Roots in the Clouds with a personal mission of putting the “human” back into humanitarian work. Today, my work supports a holistic approach to addressing individual and organizational trauma and moral injury using mindfulness, positive psychology, and principles of human-centered leadership.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Launching the “What Would Ted Lasso Do?” podcast was a significant milestone for me after starting my company. It not only pushed me out of my comfort zone, but it helped me recognize that there were many different ways to share my knowledge and expertise about human-centered leadership and duty-of-care. While my work often delves into weighty topics like trauma and mental health, this podcast introduced an element of playfulness, enabling me to address challenging subjects with a touch of optimism and humor. What’s been truly remarkable and rewarding is the resonance this show found among people. It opened doors that I hadn’t even realized were there, leading me to unexpected opportunities. Through this venture, I’ve discovered new ways to engage and connect with individuals, offering a fresh perspective on crucial topics while infusing a sense of hope into conversations that might otherwise feel daunting. The podcast became a bridge, allowing me to reach a broader audience and foster meaningful discussions around important leadership themes in a more approachable and enjoyable way.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about a mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I first launched my business, I learned a crucial lesson when I accepted a consulting role focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion for a government contract in partnership with another consulting firm. The agency’s history of racial inequities prompted me to advocate for acknowledging and healing past actions before moving forward with new initiatives. However, it quickly became clear that my hiring was merely a token gesture. I was there to check a box, not to contribute my expertise.

Driven by old beliefs of staying committed no matter what, I stayed in that dehumanizing environment for months during which time my “partners” sidelined my contributions, culminating in a confrontational meeting where a team member berated me publicly. That moment was when things shifted, and I realized I had to prioritize my values over obligations. Though it initially felt like a failure, I made the difficult choice to walk away from the contract, ultimately realizing it’s crucial to listen to my instincts and say no to opportunities or individuals that don’t align with the kind of impactful and inclusive cultures of connection and belonging I aim to foster. It also reaffirmed the significance of standing firm in my values and choosing workspaces that value my contributions authentically.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

At Roots in the Clouds, we’re creating a profound social impact by reimagining the humanitarian sector’s approach to staff well-being. By amplifying awareness, compassion, and healing, we’re champion a narrative where self-care is integral to serving others and we’re removing the stigma of occupational mental health realities including vicarious trauma and moral injury that are common in these lines of work. With an acute understanding of the entrenched ‘service before self’ mindset, we’re advocating for a fundamental shift in organizational cultures from metrics-driven to human-centered, prioritizing holistic care for those dedicated to alleviating global suffering.

Our groundbreaking initiatives challenge the pervasive belief that sacrificing personal well-being is inherent to working in serving others. Through a profound understanding of the humanitarian landscape, we’re working to create a new narrative — one that places immense value on the mental, emotional, spiritual, and relational health and well-being of humanitarian workers.

Using mindful awareness and self-compassion as guiding principles, Roots in the Clouds is partnering with leaders and organizations to promote empathy, connection, and healing across the humanitarian sector. Our work is helping to reshape workplace dynamics, dismantle perfection-driven cultures, and foster environments where humanitarians feel supported and empowered to embrace vulnerability while excelling in their roles. Through this approach we aren’t just revolutionizing the humanitarian sector; we’re paving the way for a future where service and self-care coexist harmoniously.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

In my book, Tell Me My Story — Challenging the Narrative of Service Before Self, I explore several actions communities, societies, and policymakers can do to shift the prevailing mindset of ‘service before self’ to ‘service without sacrifice.’ Three of these actions include:

  1. Advocate for Policy Reform: Policymakers can champion legislation that mandates duty-of-care frameworks within organizations across mission-driven sectors. These frameworks must encompass holistic well-being, going beyond physical safety to include mental, emotional, relational, and spiritual health and well-being. By advocating for and implementing such policies, societies can endorse a culture that prioritizes the complete health of individuals engaged in service roles.
  2. Promote Cultural Shifts: Communities play a pivotal role in nurturing societal beliefs. It is essential to advocate for a cultural shift that values human-centered organizational cultures, where empathy, compassion, and rest are embraced as core principles. Through education, public discourse, and community programs, societies can foster environments that celebrate human vulnerability, encouraging organizations to prioritize staff well-being without compromise.
  3. Invest in Education and Resources: Communities and leaders can allocate resources for education, training, and resources focusing on trauma-informed practices and empathetic leadership. By investing in initiatives that emphasize human-centered approaches, societies can equip organizations with the tools to create cultures of trust, psychological safety, and shared purpose, facilitating the transition from survival-oriented mindsets to environments that encourage thriving.

When championed collectively by communities, societies, and policymakers, these actions can contribute to systemic change, honoring the individuals serving humanity and creating environments where staff well-being is a cornerstone of organizational success.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Human-centered leadership is rooted in self-awareness, self-compassion, and curiosity. It encourages leaders to be introspective, acknowledge their own humanity, and extend this understanding to others. Mindful awareness enables leaders to recognize their biases and fears, fostering empathy and transparency. Self-compassion allows leaders to practice kindness towards themselves, acknowledging their imperfections while cultivating a sense of shared humanity with their team. Curiosity encourages leaders to approach situations without judgment, fostering trust and deeper connections by asking questions and being present with genuine interest. Ultimately, human-centered leadership embraces imperfection, inviting authentic connections, and emphasizing the core essence of our shared humanity, allowing leaders and their teams to flourish in an environment of trust, compassion, and mutual respect.

One of my favorite examples of a human-centered leader is Ted Lasso, the main character from the popular TV show “Ted Lasso.” Ted is depicted as someone who doesn’t focus on his title or authority; rather, he’s deeply engaged in understanding and empathizing with his team. He’s an active listener who looks beyond the words people say to get to the underlying emotions, while also nurturing trust and fostering genuine connection. By acknowledging his own vulnerabilities and being curious about the people he leads, Ted creates a supportive environment where individuals feel seen, heard, and valued. He approaches challenges with openness and empathy, emphasizing growth over perfection and learning from mistakes as part of the journey.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why?

1 . Take a few minutes every day to simply sit in silence. This isn’t about turning off your thoughts — that’s not possible — but it’s about changing your relationship to your thoughts. Taking as little as 10 minutes every day to be still allows us to develop mindful awareness a necessary first step for practicing self-compassion and regulating our emotions, especially during times of stress, crisis, and uncertainty. It allows us to become the best versions of ourselves — as leaders and as humans.

2 . Practice self-compassion and let go of perfectionism. If mindful awareness is what allows us to see our own humanity and that of others, self-compassion is what enables us to accept it. Self-compassion teaches us to take the kindness we typically reserve for others and use it on ourselves. The more we practice self-compassion and accept that as human beings we’re not perfect and we will make mistakes, the easier it becomes to treat the people around us with compassion, too.

3 . Be curious, not judgmental. I try to remind myself as often as possible that most people don’t wake up in the morning, stretch their arms high above their head, and declare, “Today I’m going to go out into the world to be mediocre!” The truth is, most people are genuinely doing the best they can in any given moment, and while their best may be different from our own — and it may change from one moment to the next — it’s more likely than not that they’re doing all they can in light of their current circumstances. Curiosity helps us look beyond surface-level interactions or reactions without judgment, to connect more deeply. It helps us create bridges of trust with the people around us by simply taking a breath to reset our nervous system before reacting to a challenge, or asking questions rather than making assumptions about reactions or motives. As trust builds over time, so do our feelings of safety, autonomy, and dignity as human beings. And with this trust, we can remove the mask we’re hiding behind and connect more deeply with the people around us.

4 . Boundaries aren’t selfish — they’re gifts of clarity. Most of us weren’t taught the benefits of boundaries as children, and now as adults, honoring our limits through boundary setting can feel rude, aggressive, or selfish. But boundaries aren’t any of these things; they’re gifts of clarity that help us create accountability over our time and energy. They allow us to feel safe and respected both physically and emotionally. They’re at the heart of self-care which protects us from burnout, exhaustion, and illness and allows us to flourish and thrive. It takes time, space, and compassion to get used to setting boundaries for ourselves, but the more we practice doing so, the easier it becomes over time to hold them for ourselves, and to respect those set by others.

5 . Your self-worth is not tied to productivity or accomplishments. Traveling extensively around the world has taught me that at our core, we all yearn to be seen, valued, and connected to something meaningful. It’s taken me years, and a lot of heartache to understand that my work is what I do — it’s not who I am and doesn’t define me as a person, and my worthiness for love and belonging in this world isn’t solely based on my professional achievements or output. Understanding this broader perspective has been liberating and has allowed me to love and appreciate who I am as a whole human being.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The movement I am championing is about putting the human back into humanitarian work. At its core, this movement centers on recognizing that humanitarian professionals — those striving to alleviate suffering and make the world better — are first and foremost human, too. The goal of this movement is not just a revolution within the humanitarian sector but a paradigm shift toward a future where service and self-care exist in harmony. It aims to create environments where humanitarians feel seen, supported, and resilient, ensuring sustained impact while prioritizing the well-being of those dedicating their lives to serving others. Ultimately, this movement seeks to honor the humanity within the humanitarian mission, fostering healthier, happier, and more connected individuals and organizations.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Between the stimulus and response, there is a space. And in that space lies our freedom and power to choose our responses. In our response lies our growth and our freedom” — Viktor Frankl

This quote has been incredibly relevant in my life, especially when it comes to navigating challenging situations and moments of adversity. It’s a powerful reminder of the agency we have to choose our responses and navigate life’s challenges with intentionality and grace. Understanding that there’s a gap between what happens to us and how we react provides an opportunity for pause and respond with intention rather than simply reacting. It’s in that momentary pause that we find our power.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I’d love to grab a coffee with Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. His perspectives on loneliness, and workplace mental health and well-being have served as great source of inspiration in my own work, and his commitment to reshaping workplace cultures aligns seamlessly with my aspirations for a more nurturing, thriving, and human-centric approach to organizational well-being. As someone who’s spent years navigating high-stress environments in the humanitarian sector, an opportunity to discuss the practical implications and challenges of implementing human-centric frameworks in fast-paced, high-stress environments could spark innovative solutions and encourage wider adoption within humanitarian sectors.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

My new book, Tell Me My Story–Challenging the Narrative of Service Before Self will be available February 21, 2024, but is currently available for preorder at all major online retailers. My podcasts What Would Ted Lasso Do? and Service Without Sacrifice — Conversations on Hope + Healing are both available on all major podcasting platforms. For ongoing updates and content, sign up for my dear humanitarian newsletter and content hub on Substack and follow me @dimpstory on Instagram, LinkedIn and Threads.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Dimple D Dhabalia of Roots in the Clouds Is Helping To Change Our… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.