We had the good fortune of connecting with Kate Whidden and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Kate, can you tell us more about your background and the role it’s played in shaping who you are today?
I was born and raised in Hampden, Maine, the youngest of four children. I grew up in a home where homemade yeast rolls and pies were delicious, and thriftiness was a virtue. Mom and us kids went to church on Sundays, but dad got a pass from it, choosing to spend time in his side gig of tuning pianos. My dad was a carpenter and maintenance man at a hospital in Bangor, and my mom did a variety of jobs once us kids were old enough for her to even think about working outside the home. She started out as a hotel maid and eventually become manager of a small 15-unit motel. When I was in high school, we both worked at the same pizza shop and had a blast together! Honestly, mom would have been thrilled if I’d kept that job for decades and always stayed close to home. But having witnessed my parents constant financial struggles, and all the challenges associated with that, I was very motivated to try and carve out a different reality. Thanks to some great teachers in my public school district, and a “church lady” or two who kept close eyes on me, I understood the value of college and was encouraged to dream big. This led to one pursuit after another, and I’m not sure my parents ever understood or embraced my chosen path. But every day, I’ve been thankful for their influence. They made me into someone who is super thrifty, works hard, and is grateful for every opportunity. Huge disappointment: I’ve never mastered the art of the yeast roll.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
One thing leads to another. When I was in high school, I participated in an American Field Service exchange program, spending the summer of my junior year living with a host family in Tunis, Tunisia. This gave rise to a lifelong enthusiasm for travel, fueling my curiosity about culture, language and the many different ways of being.
As an undergraduate at Ithaca College, I studied television/radio. After a few years as a news reporter, my speed-writing for 30-minute deadlines had significantly improved, (still useful today!), but the constant churn and short attention span of the media wasn’t a fit for me. It was hard to accept the fact that the career I’d chosen at age 18 was, for me, a stepping stone, and not a final destination. I felt like I’d made a mistake. This experience taught me the importance of being flexible and listening to that quiet, inner voice that is often trying to give you direction.
In this case, listening to that voice led me to marry that sweet Canadian man I’d been dating, immigrate to Canada, and to earn a Master’s degree in International Development from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario. A series of jobs in the aid industry followed. The opportunity to work on projects in Ethiopia, Serbia and Russia, and to witness both the challenges and the incredible talent and resilience of front line workers, humbled me and deepened my commitment to work for social justice. I learned so much during this time, not the least of which is the importance of strength-based, culturally-appropriate collaboration. I stopped using the word “victims” when talking about the local people we worked with, and started talking about “survivors.” A small but important shift.
One of the hardest parts of this work was the fact that I lived in multiple realities. At home, I was the new mom of a healthy baby boy. At work, I would crunch data on the mortality rate of children in refugee camps in Rwanda and Burundi. This has left a permanent awareness of just how easy my life is, even on a bad day; and of how impossibly difficult it is for others. It has set a really high bar for what constitutes “a problem” at work or at home.
When my husband’s job required our family to move to Texas in 2000, I had no idea how my skill set would apply in Dallas. I was fortunate to find a home at Momentous Institute. I have spent the last 20 years here learning about and promoting social emotional health. I see myself as a knitter and weaver, stitching together the efforts of teams in therapy and education, and bridging the diverse perspectives of all the various players. I’m applying the same strength-based, culturally-appropriate perspectives from my former career and always listening to that quiet, inner voice that asks questions about strategy, impact, and inconvenient truths.
In my free time, I seek solace in nature. I’m a certified Texas Master Naturalist and a dedicated volunteer with my local chapter. In an unexpected turn toward rural life, my husband and I own and operate Big Thyme Farm in Mineola, TX. We’re growing various herbs and flowers for tea, a pursuit that keeps us both grounded and delighted.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
I am a city dweller who is pulled to green spaces and humble eateries. After grabbing tacos from the take-out window at Jerry’s Supermarket in Oak Cliff, I would bring my friend to 12 Hills Nature Center. I would talk way too long about the various native plants, and get excited by every single butterfly. If we crossed paths with one of my Texas Master Naturalist colleagues, I would make introductions and have the thrill that comes when people from various corners of your world have an opportunity to connect. We’d then buy a bag of warm tortillas from Supermercado Monterrey and head out to John Bunker Sands Wetlands Center in Seagoville. There, we’d walk the boardwalks, looking for tree frogs perched on the tall grass. We’d meander. If this was my best friend, Kathy, she’d probably notice the changes in light as the clouds moved. From there, we’d stop by a couple thrift shops before heading home to DeSoto to relax on my patio and sip homegrown clover mint tea.
Since this friend is visiting for a week, I may as well be honest and tell you that we’d then leave Dallas, head to Mineola, and see what’s growing at Big Thyme Farm. If it’s Spring and this friend had strong knees, she could help plant chamomile. If it’s winter and she has strong arms, she could run the tiller over the west pasture and get it ready for Spring.
Or we could just sit around and listen to the birds and frogs. And eat more tortillas.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I am indebted to Dr. Charles Elliott, my English 101 professor at Ithaca College. He taught me the value of precise language, purposeful writing, and focused messaging. He encouraged me as a writer, boosted my self-confidence, and made me feel that “a kid like me” belonged at college.
Linkedin: Kate Whidden