Words by Julian Andrews & Photos by Valery Wehrman
Navigating the beginnings of a career in non-profit work can be difficult. Work in service of others is a constant push and pull between sacrifice and self-care. Julie Bluhm, executive director of Guild Incorporated, an organization that provides treatment and services to people with mental illness, understands the journey.
A group of young nonprofit professionals trickle into Guild on a bright, cold, March morning, bringing with them cold air and a ton of questions. There’s both commonality and distinctiveness in everyone’s experiences. All faced unique challenges, but they also had much to learn from one another, and from Julie. By sharing her story and her thoughtful reflections on her own path, Julie supports and enlightens those around her.
A Winding Path
Julie’s path to Guild was not a straight one and it started largely by accident. Distracted by a new relationship, Julie was failing a German class at the University of Minnesota. When her teacher recommended she drop the class, she had to find something to replace it. Julie ended up in the college of human ecology where she eventually majored in family social science.
After graduation, Julie found a job as a patient advocate for a small family practice clinic on the north side of Minneapolis. While there, Julie helped form a support group for Hmong women. One of the things they did was to talk about their representation and their voice in government, culminating in a trip to the state capitol.
“There was a feeling of empowerment, there was a feeling of connection to something bigger, and there was this massive sense of purpose,” said Julie. “Then I was driving home from work that night and what I heard on the radio was our governor, Governor Pawlenty at the time, saying that there was a real ruckus at the capitol today. I think he said, ‘Will the real Minnesotans please be heard.’ It just crushed me, it completely crushed me.”
That experience drove Julie in the direction of working for change. She wanted to become an expert in mental health in order to be a responsive and understanding leader. She went back to school for a master’s in social work. After graduating and working for several years providing services to women whose children were in CPS, Julie realized that she was experiencing intense secondary trauma from her work and she needed a change.
A Strategic Visionary
That necessary chance brought her into a position working on an innovative healthcare project with Hennepin County. Under an extremely charismatic and visionary leader, she had a voice, she had a platform and she had the ear of people all over the country, but she constantly struggled with the fact that the work on the ground did not live up to the vision of the program. That experience informs how she leads at Guild today and is reflected in Guild’s mission—Guild strives to provide the best care possible and stay with people for as long as they need.
“I don’t want to be the kind of visionary who loses sight of what’s on the ground. I don’t want to receive awards, want to get media attention, want to be written up in a publication for something that I didn’t do,” she said.
That desire fits with Julie’s leadership style — one of collaboration and communication. She keeps people around her who think about problems in different ways. That helps Guild do work that is both visionary and actionable.
Supporting Yourself To Help Others
Julie is adamant that taking care of yourself and recognizing the role that secondary trauma can play in nonprofit work are extremely important. She emphasized the importance of moving on from things when the time is right.
“I would say that just moving through and moving forward is just so important. You have one life to live,” Julie said. “If it doesn’t feel good in your gut then you don’t have to try to convince yourself to stay. You can get something out of every job that you’re in, don’t let it rot.”
Julie knows people do their best work when they’re at their best personally. She focuses on supporting and valuing all types of workers and thinkers on her staff and puts them in positions to succeed without sacrificing too much of themselves.
A continuous journey of self-reflection and hard work has led Julie to a role that gives her a chance to put into action everything she has learned along the way. Julie is shaping Guild into an organization that is driven, strategic and visionary all at the same time. She’s in her element.