Laetitia Mizero Hellerud inspired attendees at the August 4 Virtual Ladyboss Summit with her presentation “Lessons From The African Philosophy of Ubuntu.” We sat down with Laetitia to learn more about her work to create stronger intercultural workplaces and communities where everyone feels valued and empowered to contribute.
Q. In summary, what do you do?
A. It might be easier to answer the question “What don’t you do?” as I wear many hats. Let’s start with the job that pays my bills: I am an Intercultural Consultant. I help build better integrated, more equitable workplaces and communities. The formula I use is both simple and complex. It involves pre and post assessments, customized education, mentoring and coaching.
I am also a writer and have published one book, Being at Home in The World: Cross-Cultural Leadership Lessons to Guide Your Journey, and edited Turning Points: True Stories of Thriving Through Adversity. Both books highlight the interconnectedness of people and cultures. These books beautifully complement my consulting work. I am currently working on a short book to pay homage to my deceased father, as well as my first fiction. The table book in memory of my father will capture wisdom from native Burundi proverbs and will be illustrated with art images by my dad.
Another job that I do consistently is motivational speaking at different events and for various organizations or groups. The topics typically range from my personal story that many find inspiring to the themes of leadership, faith, humanity and resilience that are weaved in my books. Sometimes, my speaking engagements are straightforward about how my consulting specialty can add value to different sectors and other issues related to inclusion, equity and racial identity/inequalities.
One of my favorite titles is human rights activist. Maybe because I have been a minority in all the countries where I have lived and have experienced discrimination and racism firsthand, I am passionate about fighting for the underdog and being a voice for the underrepresented. In that respect, I have worked with the homeless population, people of lower socio-economic status, New Americans, as well as women’s and youth groups.
Another title that I recently added to my repertoire is Bush Foundation Fellow. My two-year fellowship will focus on civic engagement for New Americans. I am very excited about the growth that this opportunity will allow me as I seek to empower and equip fellow contemporary immigrants to be more involved in community life at all levels and in all sectors.
Q. What do you love most about your work?
A. Each project I work on is always unique, challenging and exciting. I love meeting new people, working across different sectors, and the challenge of figuring out each endeavor from start to finish. One day I am working with a grassroot non-profit organization, a big corporation or a government agency with multiple departments and the next day I am working with a consortium of churches, a multi sector coalition or coaching a singular person. There is something energizing about each project I take, but at the end of the day they all stretch me in new ways and allow me to meet individuals and leaders I would otherwise never get to work with. As I work in various fields, I certainly enjoy brushing up on the fundamentals of each sector before even starting to work with my clients. As a self-proclaimed perpetual student, this in itself, is very fulfilling.
Q. How has your experience as a four-time refugee prepared you for your current work?
As a four-time refugee, I have lived in four different countries at various stages of my life. As a child, I lived in a small charming town called Cherbourg in the Normandy region (northern France). The weather, as I remember it, was always rainy and overcast and people walked with their umbrellas and raincoats on most months of the year. As a teen, my family lived in the Virunga (volcano) region of Rwanda on the coast of the beautiful lake Kivu. The climate was mostly temperate and comparable to what I would later experience from my hilly hometown of Gitega in Burundi when my family returned home.
Then, as a young mother, I left again and lived under the deserting climate in Burkina Faso (where the extreme heat can climb up to 104 degrees Fahrenheit), before moving to North Dakota where we are known for our endless winters and subzero temperatures. Besides Rwanda and Burundi whose cultures and languages could easily pass for “cousins,” none of the other countries where I lived had much in common. The weather was not the only big thing to acclimate to as I moved from one place to another.
Living in those places allowed me to develop a high level of adaptability. I can live pretty much anywhere fit for human beings and I can work with anyone regardless of differences, perceived or real. I have learned that there are many truths and that my dominant culture is not the standard to “evaluate” others. Living in multiple countries helped me appreciate others’ perspectives and keep my ego in check. There are many things that are fluid as you go from one culture to another.
Growing up and living in collectivist cultures was the foundation of my community involvements. In Burundi, Rwanda and Burkina Faso, the lines between nuclear, and extended families, as well as the community at large are blurred. One takes care of the needs where one sees them and to the extent of one’s abilities. It’s not always done by everyone but that’s what society expects.
Q. What do you think are the most important qualities in a leader?
A. A good leader is someone whose motivation is to advance the greater good in whatever they do. Efficient leaders are in tune with their environment’s needs and the role they can play to make a positive impact. Leaders are listeners and servants. Leaders know that it’s not about them and that it doesn’t matter what it takes to get a job done. Effective leaders are steady and always seeking to grow to meet the changing realities. They have a good self-awareness and, in that respect, know what values they can or can’t compromise with and why. Leaders don’t “fight” to win or to be right because they are not confused about their contributions to society. Leaders are both independent and interdependent because they understand that when we work united, we grow. Leaders show up in life with compassion, patience, respect, understanding and love-agape. More than anything, conscious leaders know that self-care is not only necessary but essential, as one cannot pour from an empty vessel or give what they don’t have.
Q. What is the best career advice you’ve ever been given, or received
A. The best career advice I have ever received stems from Robert K. Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership Philosophy, which states that the main goal of a leader is to serve. According to this school of thought, the main focus of a leader is summarized as below:
“Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”
Another great advice I recently heard from a woman I consider a leader in the Fargo-Moorhead-West Fargo area is: “You do not need to step on others to climb the ladder.”
My all-time favorite is, of course, the saying “a candle does not lose its light by lighting other candles.”
Q. What advice do you have for new immigrants on their integration journey?
A. The best advice was modelled for me by my parents as we lived in multiple countries: treat each community you live in as “home,” which means that there are rights and responsibilities with that kind of relationship. You take from the community when you need to and you give to the community whenever you can. It could be time, talent, money or a combination of those three but when “home” needs you, you step up and when you are in need of care, you turn to home for nurturing.
Be involved in the community. That’s the best way to create new relationships and integrate faster. Don’t let language or culture be barriers to building new connections in your neighborhood, at church, your children’s schools, work, the gym, etc.
The sooner you are disillusioned about life in the USA, the better. Life is hard here as anywhere else, but it’s possible to rebuild, continue moving forward, and even prosper.
Winter, too, shall pass! It may feel like it’s endless, but eventually the grass will grow again, and warmth will succeed the cold.
Q. What are five things we can do to help new immigrants with their integration journey?
- Understand that we need both the soil and the seed to “interact” for something beautiful to grow. New immigrants have the responsibility to work towards integration. “Older immigrants” or native populations can help that journey by creating a welcoming environment.
- Don’t assume, ask questions.
- Think about your own family history, something that applies to anyone whose ancestors are not native Americans, and allow your imagination to go back 200 or so years ago. How would YOU have liked to be treated? What stories have you heard from your parents/grandparents on what was helpful and what was not? How can you apply that to people like me today?
- Connect with new immigrants with the intention to teach and learn from one another, rather than to “save” them.
- Build from what we share as human beings, women, fathers, runners, fellow church members, neighbors, colleagues, gardners, etc. whatever the connection is. Eventually, that mutually respectful relationship will help create a safe space to talk about what seems or is different like faith, race, dress, food, family dynamics, concept of space or time and much more.