By Zoe Bundy

What is your work culture like being the First Lady of ND?

“In some ways it’s pretty similar to what my life was like before being a First Lady. Pretty busy, lots of travel, lots of meetings. I would say it’s as busy as I make it. As First Lady, I get asked to speak a lot to different groups. I’ve really enjoyed that, but that can keep me pretty busy whether I’m in ND or involved at the federal level in D.C. The culture is one of continuous learning, which it’s always been a part of my work life, as there’s always opportunities to grow and learn new things. I have this great team, Joey and Jenny, we all work together and stay curious about possibilities, and how we can collaborate to focus on our mission of eliminating the stigma of addiction.”

How has being the First Lady given you a platform to share initiatives and your project with ND?

“It’s pretty amazing, you have a bully pulpit I guess, a megaphone opportunity to reach a lot of people. What that’s done is helped us get the message out about how important it is to eliminate the stigma of addiction, so that more people will reach out for help. There’s a lot of studies out there that say only 1 in 10 people who need treatment for addiction actually seek it, and a lot of that is related to the stigma. The platform allows for a much broader reach and much broader network in terms of collaborating with a lot of people to reach the same goal. I’m sort of amazed that if I were just Kathryn Burgum calling somebody for a meeting, I might not get a meeting necessarily. It’s a lot easier when you’re the First Lady, and I’m really grateful for that. There’s a lot more doors that open, which helps us get that much further down the road to actually achieving our goal.”

What has been your involvement with spreading addiction awareness?

“It’s been me and a whole lot of people. It’s really been a team effort. The first thing we did was telling people that I was in recovery myself. That helped open a lot of doors and minds of people who may have had some preconceived ideas of what someone with addiction looks like. I was able to be this person who presented one way and then told them I had the disease of addiction – and people were like, “What?” Then we were able to start this event called Recovery Reinvented, and our first event we had 500 people, and that was an opportunity to start this whole movement. It was a big collaborative movement for our state and on. The Recovery Reinvented event has helped us reach a lot of people and helped us get some recognition from other groups that are interested in what we’re doing, who want to participate and be involved that way. I would say a lot of collaboration.”

Do you have an idea of how many people have been impacted by events and campaigns?

“We know through Recovery Reinvented we’ve impacted over 2500 people in-person. Thousands more have watched on livestream. The last conference we held, we were able to broadcast the event behind prison walls in ND. We’ve reached thousands of people this way. We’re on social media, we reach people that way. I think it’s amazing how many people we have reached through social media. We’re really grateful for that opportunity. One of the reasons why we know it’s important to eliminate the stigma in ND is because we did a survey. We’re one of the first states to ever do a survey to figure out, “What is the level of stigma in our state?” We found out that 63% of North Dakotans believe addiction is a disease. Which is really good, but it still means that 1 in 3 people think addiction is a choice or moral failing. That helps us understand who we need to be targeting moving forward. It’s those kinds of groups and people who aren’t in the addiction or behavioral health world that we are targeting to try to make a difference. Places like Corporate America where the topic isn’t about addiction.”

How has your experience in human resources and marketing helped you in the long run when you launched Recovery Reinvented?

“From a marketing standpoint, it helps to think more creatively for how you’re going to connect with people. We sort of borrowed a lot from the TED and TEDx concept in terms of creating a conference that’s pretty fast paced with a lot of information, people, and speakers. We’ve augmented that further to add the arts, and music, slam poetry. There’s one thing about the disease of addiction, it can be a really heavy topic, it affects people so negatively. The faces of recovery can be super positive, but yet when you’re having a conference like that, talking about pretty heavy things, it’s great to have inspiring musical events or art things. My marketing experience helped me think differently about how we approached things in a little more nontraditional way. From the human resources side of things, human resources is a lot about culture. It’s a lot about creating a culture for people, the backbone, and how that culture is shaped in the company makes a big impact in the performance of the employees. Having that experience as a human resources manager, a compensation and benefits manager, and in training, all of that has helped me think about what kind of culture we want to create in this movement that we’re trying to do. How do we want people to view this idea of, “eliminating the stigma?” What kind of nuances do we want to be a part of that? What we want people to see is that people do recover, the faces and voices of those who have. There’s always hope for recovery. My background in human resources and marketing has been valuable in how I approach all of this, and how I collaborate with my team.”

Do you have any tips for people interested in launching their own social movement?

“It’s good to find others that are like you, that have the same passion around what you want to accomplish, and make connections to work that way and partner. The broader your network, the bigger impact you can make. Any type of grassroots movement is free, and you get people who are innately passionate about something vs having to pay people to do the work you want them to do. How you promote, position yourself, and communicate is important. It’s so much easier these days then it was because of technology, the internet, and social media. I really believe that social media can be used for so many good things. It can also be so negative. My hope is that for people that want to launch ideas and whatever they just use social media for good, to promote whatever the initiatives are to hopefully help people and create hope for the future.”

What has been your involvement working with at risk women?

“A lot of that work is work that I do with women who are in recovery, or struggling to find recovery. Sometimes they’re in situations that are dangerous, that can be harmful. It’s more one on one supporting and helping people that way. I’ve also been involved with the Red River Children’s Advocacy Center. Children come into that location because of abuse, but oftentimes the parents, mothers are aware of that struggle because the husband has been the perpetrator. I have encountered women like that as well. Mainly the work I do in the addiction world has been one on one, helping people find resources, helping people understand that there’s hope for recovery and life can get better. I have over the years given donations to shelters, and Rape and Abuse Crisis Center because I believe they make a big difference in our community.”

Have you ever felt less than or limited during meetings either being the only woman there or just because you are a woman?

“Oh yeah. I can think of one place I worked especially, was a good old boys club, pretty male dominated, not a lot of women in senior positions. I was in a meeting once, it was a sales meeting, I was more the marketing arm of the sales meeting. I believe I was the only woman in the meeting. The VP of sales asked someone to cover my ears while he made some derogatory comments. The good news about that company is they now have several women in senior management, and they’ve gotten an HR team that really helped turn things around there. I would say that was the worst, it was later in my career. Most other places I worked there was a lot of equal respect for men and women. I can’t say women and men were paid equally.”

What do you think students can do to help stop the stigma of addiction and eliminate the shame behind it?

“There’s a pretty simple solution and the solution is really just to be talking about it. Talking about how addiction has impacted your life. I spoke at MHA, the three affiliated tribes, Mandan Hidatsa Arikara, and after I spoke at the highschool there, I spoke to the 10th, 11th, and 12th graders. A few came up and said, “I’ve got this thing with my parents,” or whatever. Luckily on the reservation they have a place where young people can go where they can talk to other people who understand about addiction. It’s really about being able to connect to each other. One thing we did was start a competition, Youth Ending Stigma. It was a program we launched through all the schools in North Dakota. The goal was to help them fund their ideas ending the stigma around behavioral health – mental illness, and stigma. What we encouraged them to do is talk about it and create platforms where people can talk about it. That’s what I would suggest, if you know someone else and there’s a subtle way to create an opportunity where you can say, “If anyone else is experiencing this thing, let’s get together and talk about it.” Once more young people are aware that other people are talking about this, it will also give them courage to talk about it. That’s really the main thing that young people can do. It takes having the courage to take the first step and share your experiences and stories. That can be an older sibling that struggles with drugs or alcohol, a parent, or if your parent has been in recovery for 20 years, or just getting 30 days of recovery, sharing all of that. It’s the same thing with mental health, sharing the struggles there. When I was in school, we didn’t have the resources to talk about it. I probably had depression and anxiety, which started me on the path of using alcohol to get through that. It’s one way to help young people to get on a better path addressing those behavioral health issues early.”

When did you start working with FPD? What is it like working with so many cheerleaders and talking to the younger generation?

“We started working with Officer Bloom and his team, when they filmed their music video. We ended up being able to do this event with them at the Youth Correctional Facility, and then we did another event in Fargo. I am so inspired by what Officer Bloom is doing, and how he connects to young people is so great. The same with Dave and the rappers, they are so amazing also. I am grateful they want me to be a part of it. I think the work they do in the school systems and with at-risk youth is incredible.”

What are your plans moving forward and how can people help?

“One thing that’s happened to me in this pandemic and time where we’re all socially distancing, but staying socially connected, I had started thinking I want to change the pace of my life. Slow things down a little bit, so I can get more connected to friends, family, and focus more on the things I really enjoy doing. This time has given me the opportunity to think about that and make changes to where I feel like I am adding value, but still staying connected to the people and things that are important to me. Having said that, I still want to stay focused on the work that we’re doing on eliminating the stigma of addiction. I’m super supportive of my husband, his work as being the Governor. There’s so many events and things that we do as Governor and First Lady that I want to continue to be a part of. I also like to travel, I love to do yoga, I love to stay connected with friends and family, planning to do more of that. We’re up for reelection, if we are to be reelected we’ll take a look at what else we can do as the state. One of my areas of passion is working with the Native Americans in North Dakota on the reservation, and trying to get them more services related to addiction. One of the silver linings to this recent opportunity is that we are making some connections to the tribes to treatment. We may not have the time or resources, had we not been in this situation. I plan to continue down that path. Live one day at a time, be thankful, and stay curious.”