Breakfast of Champions: Anita Patel
How recycling in small town Minnesota kickstarted a program director’s vision for change
Dec 12, 2017

Words by Nichelle Brunner  | Photos by Josh Olson

As the sun barely peeked over the horizon on a brisk October morning, young professionals from various organizations walked into the Bush Foundation office. It was 7:05 am, a point most made when joking about their rush for coffee.

While the morning sky was still dark, being greeted by Anita Patel’s shining smile and bubbly personality would awaken even the most tired.

Anita currently serves as the Bush Foundation’s Leadership Programs Director. As she conversed with the participants, it was evident that she embraced and loved the idea of inspiring and connecting with young leaders in Minnesota.

In an hour long conversation, Anita recounted stories from her childhood, teenage years, and college days that helped her understand the value of connection and power.



The power of conversations in small town Minnesota

To begin the conversation, Anita beautifully weaved stories of her childhood in Clarkfield, Minnesota, as a biracial and bicultural woman. She recounted experiences that made her question who she was, her purpose, and who she was here for—and with.

“It was a town where we were the first mixed-race family, people of color and everyone had their opinion of whether we should exist or not. So my first day of kindergarten, I was so excited, I had [on] my purple dress. I walked in and this kid sitting next to me said, ‘I’m not sitting next to no n-word,’ and got up and left. The teacher looked at me, turned her back, and sat back at her desk.”

This was a crystallizing moment for Anita, in regards to her identity and the relationship with power.

“I realized that we each have power and we each have value. We have to figure out how to help one another. It made me talk a lot with my parents about who I am and I carry my parents, and my grandparents with me. That’s why for me, I can’t just do things for a paycheck.” 

“My parents went through things so I can be in this space with you, so I feel this responsibility to use my power to better the spaces I’m in and my communities.”

As she entered high school, Anita began to think more deeply about how to have these tough conversations about oppression, privilege, and power.

“Recycling was just coming into Greater Minnesota at the time. It seems like a strange tangent, but it is something all of us care about—we care about our world—so it felt like something where we could connect. I organized classes, we picked up papers from every classroom, separated staples from papers. So many little conversations happened just from this.”

She paused shortly after this moment, and began to reflect on her reality outside of the recycling program.



“It was not all rosy. Outside of this, my family was still getting death threats, my parents couldn’t start their businesses, my dad was a dentist and no one wanted him touching them. But [the recycling program] helped me figure out what I could contribute to this world.”

Using the marathon mentality to enact change

After reflecting on these childhood experiences, Anita opened the discussion up for questions. By this time, the sun was high in the sky, shining brightly into the 24th floor of the Bush Foundation offices, and participants were highly alert, moving in closer towards Anita.

One participant recounted her experience at a small nonprofit and questioned how she could make change.

“Self-care is so critical, because change is a marathon. Research says it takes seven years to make major organizational change. Understanding that marathon mentality is huge. We want it done yesterday, but we have to prepare—just like you would for an actual marathon.”



Anita began to outline steps for change and four things to ask before beginning any marathon:

  1. What is your purpose?
  2. What is your role within that change?
  3. Is your solution the right one?
  4. What is your power?

“It’s more of a marathon relay. Understand that there is work that came before you. There will be work done after you. You aren’t starting from zero.”


Identity, power, and change: tying it all together

After dropping several insightful gems around change, conversations, power, and identity, Anita ended the breakfast by powerfully highlighting the interconnectedness of these ideas.

“I’ve had a lot of realizations about identities in my life: the realization of living in small town Minnesota; the realization of going to India and feeling so home, but so other; coming into a professional workspace and figuring out how to bridge my identities. It’s moving that feeling from not enough, to never being enough, to this is what I bring. I bring assets that really take work forward. I work with leaders and the people around me to be the best they can be. I have to build trust with the people around me so we can have those conversations and build something greater.”



Breakfast of Champions: Anita Patel’s Photo Gallery

Posted by Pollen on Dec 12, 2017

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