Husky Health & Well-Being

July 15, 2022

Equity, Well-being, and Organizational Culture: Interview with Sasha Duttchoudhury, MSW

7/16/2022 – Third-year psychology undergraduate Grace Kolb sits down with long-time Resilience Lab member and recent MSW graduate Sasha Duttchoudhury to discuss their journey with the Lab and how it has affected their experience at the University of Washington.

Photo of Sasha Duttchoudhury

Sasha Duttchoudhury, MSW

Graduate Student Assistant Sasha Duttchoudhury has a long history of working at the intersection of equity and well-being. From their private therapy practice working with people o­f color and gender-expansive individuals, to organizing around racial and gender justice, Duttchoudhury continues to push for the right to be well at the UW, forcing us to think critically about our role as educators and professionals.

Recently recognized as part of UW’s Husky 100, Duttchoudhury has been named a South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) Young Leaders Institute Fellow (2014), a Voices of Our Nation’s Arts (VONA) Fellow (2016), and co-edited “Moving Truth(s): Queer and Transgender Desi Writings on Family” alongside Rukie Hartman.

Grace Kolb (she/her): Do you mind sharing how and why you became involved with the UW Resilience Lab, and how your relationship with the lab evolved?

Sasha Duttchoudhury, MSW (they/them): I started in the fall of 2020. I applied for the graduate student assistant position right as I was starting my Master of Social Work program, and I was really interested in the Be REAL [REsilient Attitudes and Living] program through the Lab.

Because I wanted to be a therapist, I was really interested; I’d done some mindfulness work before in my personal therapy and I was excited about the opportunity to share mindfulness practices with folks in a non-clinical setting.

I had heard about the Lab because I had worked at the College of Education for a little while, though I hadn’t gotten an opportunity to engage with it as a student. Right from the interview process, the Resilience Lab seemed like a really important space, particularly thinking about well-being during the time of COVID. By that point, we had been in the pandemic for a number of months already, so it felt it felt timely in that way, in addition to being connected to my academic interests.

So, I took Be REAL my first quarter and it was really helpful for me, just to have that kind of support in during my first quarter of graduate school, especially when things were turning out to be not what I was expecting. Like many students, I was expecting to be in person, I was expecting, you know, not to be in a pandemic and all of this stuff. So having those coping skills felt, really, really supportive of my own well-being.

Over time, I stayed the GSA for two years and over those two years, in addition to starting to see clients as therapist, I feel like I was able to use a lot of the skills that we talked about in Be REal and share them with my clients. I felt really lucky, because those were things that, the School of Social Work didn’t offer, so having a space to learn and share some of those things felt great. I got a chance to explore my own well-being journey and a lot of different ways.

And I feel like Megan [Kennedy’s] leadership allowed me to be really honest with where I was that. I think a quarter after I started at the Resilience Lab, I went through some big life changes and being able to say where I was at during all of that felt really important, especially in a work-from-home setting. I couldn’t compartmentalize in the way that I’m able to when I’m on campus. So being able to be honest with people about what’s going on for me really helped me take care of myself and only show up for the things that I knew I could show up for.

There were times when I needed to just take a day for myself, and I was able to do that. I’ve worked at UW for about five years – certainly students get a little bit more space because they’re juggling so much – but I had never really had to workplace where I could be that honest about where it was that or what was going on with my well-being.

GK: What does a culture of wellbeing look like at the lab? How has this compared to your other experiences at UW?

SD: I think so much of the culture of well-being at the Lab starts with Megan, I think. You know, just because [the Resilience Lab is] talking about well-being, doesn’t necessarily guarantee a culture of well-being to be present. But I feel like a lot of [Megan’s] approach really investigates how we walk our talk and how systems can facilitate well-being; it’s not just about her leadership, but how we create opportunities or how we create practices or norms, things that are institutionalized in some way and support well-being.

So, it’s not like I got special treatment because I was going through a lot. I know a lot of folks who’ve gone through the Lab who’ve had all sorts of things going on in their lives, and it was less of an exception and more about the practice. The practice is: we take care of ourselves before we do anything. Our well-being comes first.

There haven’t been a lot of opportunities for that kind of experience [at UW]. The pace of the quarter system is grueling, both for students and for staff, and on some level, the Lab’s culture of well-being recognizes that, but also kind of dismisses it a little bit. We see it as an artificial imposition: if something can’t be done within a quarter, then that’s okay, we’re not doing it [in a quarter]. It’s not going to come at the cost of our well-being. Whereas in other positions that I’ve been in, it’s often been: “This has to happen, no matter, the cost.”

GK: Have you seen the impact of your work change the culture of the well-being at the resilience lab?

SD: Being a social worker in the Lab space certainly positions me to be concerned about other people’s well-being. I see myself as somebody who, even [when I was busy with multiple positions], I want to help with onboarding and check in on folks, like “Hey, I heard you were sick, how are you doing?” Checking in on a personal level. And I think that definitely contributes to the culture of well-being.

I also feel like I’m somebody who is interested in the ‘touchy-feely’ sort of thing, so, when last year when everything was online, and folks were leaving the Lab, I made like Zoom backgrounds for folks. So, everybody at the Lab had a Zoom background of the person who is leaving, with their face and a little thing.

And I made a yearbook for folks so that everybody could offer each other gratitude. The Lab is highly collaborative and there’s a lot of opportunity for folks to reflect back the good qualities that people have. We’re doing that again this year, where folks are getting an opportunity to reflect back on each other, what they really appreciated [about our time together].

Those are [the kind of things] that I do and I didn’t really necessarily think of them being a part of a culture of well-being until I came to the Lab. These are things that I do in any space that I go into.

But seeing it within the framework intentionality and moving us toward where we want to be… I think the Lab has helped me see that.

And [efforts] like this interview process and the yearbook have kind of become sort of institutionalized in some way. [When I started], I didn’t think that they would go beyond a year, but there’s enough interest and enough value that folks want to continue it.

GK: What have you learned about your own wellbeing through your journey in the Lab?

SD: My experience with the lab has really forced me to grapple with my own well-being. I like to keep myself busy, but it’s easy to put my own shit to the side.

And this year, when I’ve been working with [my own] clients and also working at the Lab, I’ve been working in sort of a micro setting and also a mezzo/macro setting. [Editor’s Note: As a field, social work practice is generally conceptualized in three levels: micro (individuals), mezzo (groups/organizations), and macro (systems/institutions).]

I’ve seen, even more so, the need for me to take care of myself. It’s not just “I can’t do the work I want to do if I don’t take care of myself,” but “I can’t do the work I want to do in the way that I want to do it if I don’t take care of myself.”

Duttchoudhury – Husky 100

And I’ve had a number of opportunities, over the last two years, to be really honest with folks about where I’m at and the help I need, taking those steps to support my well-being more robustly.

[For example,] this last year I started taking a karate class. Before, being at home all the time, there’s some weeks when I don’t leave the house for a number of days, because I have a back-to-back schedule with maybe a 30-minute break for lunch. But signing up for this karate class really helped me get out of the house and have some sort of movement in my week. It ended up being a great space for community and getting connected with my body. And it was fun, too.

GK: Before you joined the karate class, did you have any other similar things that you did throughout the week?

SD: I did have [time set aside for] a dinner date with a friend every Tuesday. She would come over and I would make dinner, and we would talk about our weeks. And, since she’s also in graduate school, we would spend like maybe 90 minutes working on something together.

For me, I tried to really prioritize using that time to work on a coloring book or therapy homework or something that was really focused on me and not necessarily any of the stuff I was doing. Then we’d watch our favorite show and eat ice cream. So, that was an ad hoc sort of thing that we created to offer support.

GK: Yes! I feel like sometimes you just have to have yourself look forward to one thing a week. What is your dream for well-being at UW?

SD: My dream is staff-focused. I want more space for folks to be authentic and be honest about where they’re at. I think that staff often become invisible [at the University], where the priority is students, faculty, then maybe donors. There’s a bunch of people ahead of staff.

And I’ve gotten to work over the last year with another staff member who leads a community of practice for folks who have gone through Be REAL, and there’s so much benefit from that space of folks coming together.

Even if we didn’t have Be REAL, even if we just had that space, I think there’s so much need for that. And adding Be REAL on top of that offers folks guidelines for how to be vulnerable in a way that is supportive of one another.

Ultimately, I would love to see something [specifically] for staff of color. Being able to bring together experiences of oppression at UW and also the uplifting component of well-being… it’s something that staff have tried to do for a long time but it’s never really stuck.

Because staff touch every area of UW. There’s no place where you won’t have the footprint of staff, so supporting them as the backbone is going to be a really powerful opportunity.

GK: How do you see the goal of an [affinity group] for staff of color coming to be? Would you see that in the form of a club, some sort of awareness? How do you see that happening?

SD: I think, partly, it would be a UW-funded space for folks to gather on a regular basis. Right now, Be REAL is free for staff, but they have to go through their supervisors to get permission to go and I could see how [that could be a barrier]. Some managers could say “You don’t really need this, you’re good, you actually need to be at this meeting instead.”

So, if [permission] were coming from the top, it would allow folks to have permission to participate, without having to say: “I’m really stressed out all the time, but I don’t know how to tell my supervisor that and I need to ask them permission before I go.” [It would turn] into something that would allow folks autonomy over their time, so they could go, and maybe even be paid to go.

That would be really rad. That’s a little pie in the sky, but I would love to see that.

GK: It would provide some incentive for people that don’t necessarily want to go but know that they should go.

SD: Yeah, for sure.

GK: How do you see the UW’s engagement with well-being changing in the light of COVID-19, and what place do you envision the Lab having in this change?

SD: I’ve definitely seen a lot more folks working from home, even in this hybrid state, and I think that makes a really big difference, particularly for folks who are caregivers in some way or are immunocompromised. It really hope that people can continue to work from home as needed. The pandemic isn’t over!

And I’ve found a lot of benefit – paying for parking on campus is really expensive, so to have to pay to go work, just to work to make up some of that…

Being able to work from home offers space for more well-being, [being able to] take meetings with folks while on a walk, that’s been really good for me.

While at the same time, there also needs to be some reconsideration of what it means to be together. I think that social aspect of work is really important for folks as [part of our] well-being and there needs to just be a more exploration of what that means in this new era.

I see the Lab’s place as really looking at the intersection of anti-racism and mindfulness and I really hope that we can expand on that. What does it mean to come back together and have all of these underlying pieces that were always there resurface after a time of being so separated?

And part of it is looking at the origins of contemplative practice, figuring out what it means to honor those origins, as opposed to appropriate contemplative pieces. [A lot of that] is the embodied piece; so much of the work of academia is cognitive and intellectual, so the Lab could be a leader in inviting the embodied component.

GK: How do you conceptualize the overlaps between equity and well-being, including systematic well-being and individual well-being?

SD: This has been something of interest for me for a long time. When I was an English major as an undergrad, [so much of what I was studying] was about having your story witnessed. It is so detrimental not being seen, so being visible feels incredibly important.

And there are valuable perspectives that conceptualize the overlap in terms of health disparities, but there’s a piece about being alienated from yourself in some way. You see yourself in a particular way, but the world sees you in a different way, and that dissonance can be kind of a mindfuck.

[We need to] look at these pieces together. Part of it certainly is about who hasn’t been getting resources and who’s expected to be more resilient, but the reality of marginalization is inherently dis-ease, if that makes sense.

So, the individual level is about creating spaces for marginalized people to reconnect with themselves and connect with each other. And on the systemic level, rethinking a lot of things, whether it’s how we operate or how we define some basic things like research.

You know, if I don’t call it an auto ethnography then it’s not research. If I just told my story, then academia doesn’t consider it something of value. So, what is research? Who gets to do it? What does it mean to teach? Who gets to create knowledge? These questions are at the foundation of the institution that we’re in, and it may look really different [if we define] the UW as a nonprofit, as opposed as an academic institution.

So much of it is relational; academia is built on hierarchies of tenure, publications, etc. But who isn’t granted tenure? Who hasn’t been allowed to publish, or whose work has been stolen and then published under another name?

That sort of thing happens in the well-being space a lot actually. EMDR [Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing], for example, came from indigenous people, but somebody else took it and called it something else. Looking at it from the well-being space and the academic space…it’s really hard to escape that academic culture.

GK: What were specific strategies you noticed as being helpful in terms of your well-being at the Resilience Lab? What should other organizations, classes, or clubs at UW think to incorporate?

SD: As a leader, Megan did a really good job of checking in with folks. Whether that was at team meetings when we got to check in about what was going on in our personal lives, or whether it was in a one-on-one setting checking in with us, it builds trust, and I think trust is a really important part of being able to open up and share where you’re at.

But she also invited all pieces of ourselves, so checking in didn’t have to just be “Well, I did this for the Lab and I did that for the Lab.” I got to talk about my party stuff, and we got to talk about somebody else who’s planning on moving after graduation. Megan models this really well, sharing stuff about her personal life which allows us to feel more connected to her, and also [helps us] feel like it is okay to be vulnerable, it is okay to share if something feels hard, or if something didn’t go the way that you wanted it to go.

We also do gratitude practices in meetings to where we focus on one person and go around and offer appreciation. I think doing that at random times is really special. You don’t have to wait until the end of the year to feel appreciated. You’re appreciated along the way.

Lastly, with the Lab there’s a clear sense of what’s important and what’s urgent and there’s a lot effort to be clear about it. Most of the work that we’re doing doesn’t have urgency. It’s certainly important, but by pulling the urgency out of it, we can see things more clearly around how we prioritize our time.

Nearly everybody that’s a part of the Lab is a student; we’re juggling so many different things. How should we spend our time, the very little time that we have?

So, [Megan’s] vision around that and letting folks take their time with things has ended up being something that didn’t backfire. I think a lot of folks feel afraid of letting people take their time because there are these ideas that people are lazy or whatever, and in actuality, I think folks have really come through.

GK: So, on a day-to-day basis, how would you say that mindfulness is implemented in your life? Do you have one thing that you do every day, or do you have a routine? How has your everyday life changed based on your prioritization of your well-being?

SD: I think mindfulness is sort of how I operate, if that makes sense, When I’m on a call with someone, they’re the only person in the world, a little bit. I’m really present and focused on what’s happening in front of me, and even though I have a million other things that I need to be working on, I’m able to put that aside and really focus on what’s in front of me.

That allows folks to feel connected with me and feel like I’m mindfully listening to them. But also allows me to not get tangled up in anxiety, it allows me to just be present, with the person.

I’ve also been working really hard on my own sense of embodiment. This has definitely been an ongoing struggle for me, but something that I’ve put a lot of like energy towards, and it has been an incredible investment in my own mental health.

I’ve been learning a lot about dissociation and the things that keep people from being in their bodies. So much of that comes from my own experiences, because I’ve had bad experiences with mindfulness too. Folks don’t recognize how difficult it is to be in our bodies, which totally shifts the way that I approach offering mindfulness practices to other people.

At the same time, it pushed me deeper into mindfulness because sometimes it’s not even a question of if mindfulness works or it doesn’t work. It’s how you use it. For me, it’s like really being where I’m at, trying to notice things coming up in my body, trying to take pauses when I can.

But it’s certainly a work in progress for me. I’m certainly not the best example of being mindful.

GK: Anything else you would like to add?

SD: I’m teaching a Be REAL course this fall! It’s through the General Studies Undergraduate Seminar [GEN ST 297], where students will learn how to increase awareness, hone their focus, amplify personal well-being and sharpen their mind. Students who are interested can sign up for either a Tuesday or Wednesday morning session [Section ID X or Y].

Interested in taking Be REAL as a credit for AUT 2022? View course details in MyPlan here [GEN ST 297, Section X/Y].


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