Time in nature — This can range from a good walk, watching the ocean waves, or noticing the flowers. I personally love to travel and explore new places. Seeing and experiencing new things, whether a beautiful park or interesting architecture, gives me a fresh perspective and brings my mind, body, and spirit to a place of curiosity and wonder instead of fear, anxiety, or distress.
As a part of our series about Mental Health Champions helping to promote mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Brooke Valle.
Brooke Valle is a seasoned nonprofit executive, strategy consultant and workforce professional known for using strategy, data, and policy advocacy to transform systems and improve lives. Valle has more than 20 years of experience in both the nonprofit and public sectors, most recently serving as the chief strategy and innovation officer for the Workforce Partnership. Valle’s career has focused on innovative education financing, public-private partnerships, workforce and economic mobility, immigration, and national security. To learn more about the Workforce Partnership, visit workforce.org.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
I grew up in small town Ohio as the oldest of four children. My parents were teachers and instilled in me very early the value of education to make it in the world. Throughout my childhood, we did not have much, and I remember my mother and father working multiple jobs to keep food on the table. Family, faith, and hard work were really the center of life for my family. From a young age, I had an interest in connecting people from diverse backgrounds, facilitating conversations, and creating space for individuals to be themselves. My education and later work experience opened my eyes to cultures from around the world, impressing on me that at their core, humans are more alike than different.
You are currently leading a social impact organization that is helping to promote mental wellness. Can you tell us a bit about what you or your organization are trying to address?
Since 2016, I have served as a leader in the nonprofit space, most recently the chief strategy and innovation officer for the San Diego Workforce Partnership (Workforce Partnership). The Workforce Partnership is the local workforce board and a 501(c)(3) committed to equipping job seekers to increase their economic mobility, helping businesses grow and preparing children and young adults for the world of work. Workforce development is much more than just finding the next job. It is helping people connect what they know, love, and need with the ever-changing demands of current job markets. We believe in the power and dignity of work, fight for equity and inclusion and dedicate ourselves to building programs that meet people where they are — this includes providing necessary supports such as mental health to ensure all workers can participate in the labor market. To thrive, our community must empower each member to bring their full self to the table, doing so requires valuing and supporting the physical and mental wellbeing of our neighbors.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
Early in my career, work was about being able to provide and care for myself and my loved ones. Remembering times from my childhood where we were on food stamps or my father worked a graveyard shift cleaning grills, drove me to never want to have to worry about basic provisions. But as I got to a point where the financial needs were met, work became about having the greatest possible impact on those in my community. As I learned from mentors and leaders I admired over the course of my career, I realized that one of the best ways to do this is through servant leadership, radical truth, and vulnerability. This drove me to use my own experiences of poverty, shame, workaholism and even health challenges to advocate for others. I often felt like I was not enough. As the only woman at a table of men, I constantly felt out of place and like I did not fit in. Although I was struggling with challenges due to weight and overall health, I still managed to show up every single day to be the positive change I wanted to see in my community. I chose to lead with the human-side, even when work was consuming me and causing anxiety and panic, I held steadfast to my personal mission to use my sphere of influence to make life easier for the next human.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
For years I have been vocal about other issues — from immigration to innovative financing or workforce development — but guarded about my personal struggles. As I reached executive levels first in the for-profit then in the nonprofit world, I saw so many staff chasing after idealized concepts like “work life balance”, “self-care” or “leaning in” while suffering in silence with mental or physical trauma and realized that leaders were perpetuating these myths because we often shared the successes of “having it all” but not the challenges, struggles or failures. Over several years, I lost my father, my father-in-law, and my mother-in-law, each time without taking a breath. I was hospitalized myself in a near death experience but went back to work as quickly as possible to avoid dealing with the emotional baggage. My mother went through (and still is) a horrible battle with cancer and yet, I worked. I was called back from work in Africa when my sister tried to kill herself and I made it happen, without missing a beat for work. On the inside I was torn up; I had not grieved, I was tired, awaking with panic attacks, insomnia, anxiety, sometimes wondering if I could continue but showing up at the office with a smile on my face and a constant message that I was ok. Then, in 2020 when the pandemic hit and we could not travel overseas for my mother-in-law’s funeral, my husband took it hard. I felt I needed to be the emotional stability for both of us. At the end of 2020, my husband was hospitalized with a horrible case of COVID while in Guatemala with family and I felt paralyzed. In that moment, the fear of losing my spouse brought all the other unaddressed mental health challenges tumbling down. I realized, I was not ok, and no amount of working was going to solve it. I leaned into help from all sides, emotional, spiritual, physical and at that moment was not only struck by the need to make changes for myself (ultimately stepping out of the workforce for a time) but in doing so to be vocal about it. To use my role as a leader, as a respected workforce professional, to tell the story that I felt was not being told. To take a risk in demonstrating that time to treat mental health needs should not be a scarlet letter but rather as accepted as going to rehabilitative therapy after breaking a limb. Afterall, what is often unspoken, and likely not fully understood, is the mental toll, which cuts across sectors, business size, geography, and even socio-demographic statistics of any crisis. For example, if we are honest, during this pandemic we are waging a war on three fronts — physical, financial, and emotional — and winning will require not just successful vaccines, stimulus packages, and widespread equity and inclusion, but a new approach to supporting the physical and mental wellbeing of our people.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
During my time with the San Diego Workforce Partnership, I had the opportunity to help launch the first Income Share Agreement (ISA) fund run by a workforce board. ISAs are an opportunity to provide education that advances careers to San Diegans who struggle to pay these costs upfront. This program is about bridging the gap for individuals who have been underserved, overlooked, and often left behind; demonstrating that economic mobility should be about potential not pedigree. This approach is transformational because we believe ISAs are an equitable alternative to student loans that expand access to the skills needed to fill in-demand jobs. In an environment where skills are crucial to success in the workplace, education is fundamental; however, current funding structures are insufficient, regressive and produce inequitable results. Scholarships and government aid fall far short of the need and loans are often unavailable or even predatory. ISAs provide a way to remove the financial barriers so that everyone can have a chance to succeed. And while ISAs will not solve every challenge, innovative programs like these are critical if we want to rebuild an inclusive, equitable economy.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
I believe that mentors are incredibly important. I have had several over the course of my career. I was most struck by a partner I worked for at Deloitte who supported me in transitioning out of a long-held client engagement into a new opportunity that I wanted to pursue. The reason this experience was so striking is because letting me go cost him something — it was not what the client wanted, it required time and energy on his part to rebuild trust, it put potential contracts at risk, he had to advocate on my behalf to his leadership, etc. He did it because he believed in supporting my dream. His servant leadership in that moment, where he put my interests above what was easy, what he or the organization wanted, has guided me for years. It taught me to truly put myself in other’s shoes, to be willing to do what is right even if it is hard and to think about the whole person. I will be forever grateful for his example. Imagine what a different world we can create if we each took time to walk in each other’s shoes?
According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?
For me, and I believe for many others, the reasons include considerations like:
- A fear of negative perceptions by co-workers or employers about one’s ability to do their job, often resulting in impacts to advancement opportunities or work assignments
- Self-doubt and sense of failure at admitting one cannot live up to a perceive set of societal expectations, sometimes accompanied by a sense of identity loss, and;
- Fear of discrimination.
For example, in my own situation, thoughts crossed my mind about what admitting I was struggling would say about me as a leader. I worried it would shatter trust, be seen as unprofessional and that stepping out for a time would impact my career. Also, as a white woman in the midst of the pandemic and the racial justice conversation, I felt that my challenges did not compare to what others were experiencing and therefore did not warrant time or attention. Said another way, I had the sense that it was selfish to focus on my needs when so many were hurting.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
In my experience, I encourage individuals, particularly leaders, to lead with vulnerability and openness. Mental illness touches many of us and treatment is as important as staying home when one is physically ill. We must use our spheres of influence to create transparency, to share our own stories of adjusted schedules, career breaks, job sharing, dial down, and other innovative solutions instead of keeping them as closely held secrets. We must create cultural norms that do not shame others for taking a different path but focus on contributions and how workers can quickly reengage after time away. We must equip managers with the tools they need to have meaningful and courageous conversations with their staff, reduce organizational stigma and help workers access appropriate resources.
As a society, we must build better jobs. Bad jobs place extreme burden on the mental and physical health of workers. Such jobs not only fail to pay enough for decent food and shelter for a worker’s family, but they also risk health, disrupt family life, undermine dignity, and often deny the worker’s voice within the workplace, creating massive social impact. Quality jobs meet worker’s necessities and provide opportunities for growth and development. Living wages allow workers to save and build wealth so they can make necessary decisions in times of crisis. Benefits, such as leave and health insurance, provide access to professional care needed. Flexible schedules, dial down options or job sharing enable workers to explore ways to structure their workload to contribute meaningfully to both work and family. Employee resource groups provide space for employees to engage with others who may be experiencing similar challenges and collectively brainstorm or simply let others know they are not alone.
As a government, we must ensure that mental health is part of insurance packages available through ACA/state exchanges and employer plans, strengthen non-discrimination guidelines around mental health so those needing treatment feel safe to seek it, and ensure that government funded aid programs (from workforce to cash aid, childcare, or education) include access to mental health as a required component.
What are your 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?
- Time in nature — This can range from a good walk, watching the ocean waves, or noticing the flowers. I personally love to travel and explore new places. Seeing and experiencing new things, whether a beautiful park or interesting architecture, gives me a fresh perspective and brings my mind, body, and spirit to a place of curiosity and wonder instead of fear, anxiety, or distress.
- Prayer or meditation — This is about focusing on your core beliefs and what is true for you. My faith community was a very important part of the journey. They reminded me that while I might not be able to see it, God had a plan, and all things would be worked together for good. This helped me lift my eyes from my current crisis to my future potential.
- A cup of tea — I find there is something very soothing about sipping a hot beverage. The hot water forces you to slow down and wait lest you burn your tongue which always seems to slow down my mind and heart rate as well.
- A live support system — Open, honest conversations about what you are feeling or experiencing in a safe, non-judgmental space are crucial. I believe that deep conversations with experts, spiritual advisors or a few trusted friends who have permission to speak into your life can be transformational. Opening up can feel risky but I believe it is the best way to move forward.
- Furry companions / emotional support animals — Dogs usually burst with joy to share their love and bring a sense of calm. My 14-year-old golden retriever Comet has played a huge part in my own journey; it is impossible to resist that wagging tail and somehow difficult to focus on my own challenges when all he wants to do is play or snuggle.
- Challenging societal beliefs/norms — I find that we often operate under a set of perceptions of the way that things should/must be but, when we stop to think about what the worst is that could happen if we made another choice, we realize that we have more power than we believe. Taking a posture of asking “why not” helps you and others consider where changes can be made.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
Mental health specific:
Other related resources:
Podcast: Nutrition Facts (For inspiration on natural changes to diet that can impact mood)
Podcast: Everyday Courage (For inspiration on challenging societal norms/beliefs)
Podcast: Choose FI (For inspiration on giving yourself the financial freedom necessary to make decisions which support your mental health)
Book: Travel Is not the Answer by Jacquelin Jensen
If you could tell other people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
I would encourage others to consider what their sphere of influence is and who they are uniquely positioned to touch. Each of us sits in different places and encounter different people. We must ask ourselves, “If not me, then who?” Who else has the same relationships, influence, access, etc. and can make a difference in the same way? I strongly believe that the transformational, positive impacts that this world, our communities, and our families need do not come from one “big solve”, they come from lots of people taking the next right step.
How can our readers follow you online?
You can find me at LinkedIn.com/in/brooke-valle. You can follow my organization at workforce.org or #SDWorkforce on social media.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!