Ryan Cristelli, Chickasaw Nation
Last updated on May 12, 2022 at 07:46 pm
A Hard Day’s Work Should Have a Harvest
In my very best moments, I feel immense gratitude. I feel immensely lucky. I get way down sometimes. But in my best moments, the sincerity of gratitude is in me. I feel fortunate. I feel fortunate to work for the Chickasaw Nation. To tell stories. To be able to close the door at night, get around my dogs and my wife, and go, ‘I think we did okay today.’
I’m currently a Communications Consultant with the Chickasaw Nation and a creative director/director in the healthcare and aerospace systems/industries. I am (along with my wife) an adopter of animals, and a foster parent to over 90 dogs and cats…and counting. I’m the founder of Project Winter Watch, a self-deprecating Oklahoma State/Seattle Mariners fan, and a passionate traveler and desert dweller. I’m a lucky man…a son, husband, brother, and a friend to just about everyone. I love music and folks…furry and fur-less.
How and why did you get started in communications?
My first job out of college, I worked in the marketing department of a small, rural hospital, and that was where I cut my teeth. The lessons I learned then still weave their way into my career now. My boss with that hospital initially became the marketing director of the Chickasaw Nation. She brought me on then and has asked me back as a communications consultant, now. Some things are wonderfully cyclical.
But my natural muscle memory is for telling stories. I like to get into the fiber of the clients I work with and really understand what they’re trying to provide. Who they hire and who they are serving. Because whether it’s agency life or, now, working with the Chickasaw Nation, I’ve gotta know what they’re doing, who they’re serving, and how best to talk to them. Bringing those things together, that’s communication in my mind.
I think communications is kind of a wide, cast-all ideal. And so whether it’s been working at a hospital or with the Chickasaw Nation or doing agency work, it’s kind of the same thing. It’s the idea of communicating in a way that activates. And bringing everything back to the natural ties that bind us all, which is: we all want to be loved, we want to be heard, and we want to be seen. You don’t want to play on people’s emotions, but you want to do and say the things that are going to get people to act.
What are some recent projects you’ve done that you’re excited about?
NASA is a high point. My work with NASA is storytelling with the Artemis Mission, which is our return back to the moon and then Mars. I was called on by NASA to interview the group of astronauts who have been designated as candidates for the mission. And I love interviewing people. I love sitting across from someone among all the scrims and lights and getting them into their pocket. You see their shoulders drop and eyes soften, and you’re just having a conversation.
I’ve also helped create the infrastructure of messaging around these interviews, making sure the Space Council has all the communication points to tell the folks who are signing the checks and the public that this is a good thing. We live in weird times so we need to be able to convey that this is good, this is aspirational, and that the people who are going to be on this rocket are some of the best human beings we have walking the Earth.
Project Winter Watch
But one thing that’s hyper-important to me is Project Winter Watch. My wife started freestanding food pantries in Oklahoma City, and in the process of being her number one volunteer, I’ve gotten to talk to people who are food insecure—a lot of whom are unhoused—and getting a better sense of who they are. Having read stories of folks dying from exposure, I started a project four years ago to figure out what triage gear people would need to survive the winter. Through years of Project Winter Watch, we’ve had the privilege to provide for thousands of individuals and any number of organizations.
All I’ve done comes back to how I talk to people about the project and who these folks are. I have followed the Humans of New York model. Let’s talk, warts and all, about the human beings that need our help and love. The project’s in its fifth year, and it’s become a really powerful source of inspiration for a lot of folks. But it also gives a lot of tangible, needed items to our most vulnerable neighbors to hopefully keep people alive for another day, week, or season. And that might get them moving toward treatment or permanent housing.
You do some great work at Chickasaw Nation. What are you proud of having accomplished there?
The Chickasaw Nation does a number of great things. They provide for their citizens. Healthcare. Education. Eldercare. Gatherings to bring the people together to communicate their culture, who they are, and their vast economic and cultural impact on the state and beyond. To be even a minuscule part of all that great work is a big deal. To work on these things is a heck of a day well spent.
I started working with the Chickasaw Nation pre-COVID and pre-McGirt Ruling, which is a sovereignty law that was passed in the Supreme Court. And helping with COVID and McGirt communications have been two things I’m immensely proud of. For COVID, I’ve focused on better communication for the things you have to do to stay safe, like masking up and vaccinations. A big part of that was figuring out how to activate people to wear a mask and take care of their fellow human beings. For the McGirt Ruling, I’ve helped create talking points for tribal and non-tribal audiences. But that also included understanding what the ruling means for our community and how we work with law enforcement.
Another thing I’m working on is the AYA App, which is a trackable fitness app for our tribal members. It combines physical activity with Chickasaw history and culture. So, I help create stories and journeys with members of the tribe, both historical and current. And we have the Ishtannowa App, our EMPLOYEEapp, which is for all our folks. And the real challenge and opportunity there is figuring out how we filter who we’re talking to and give them, as much as we can, an individualized experience. A luxury for their workdays, and a trusted resource throughout their career. And soon, possibly Chickasaw Citizen-based functionality as well!
How do you pick the projects you work on?
One of the reasons I left agency life was to have more control over who I am communicating for. Our time, as far as I can tell, is pretty finite. And when you’re spending 40, 50, 60 hours at a desk, you would hope that the people you work for, the organizations, and the missions you’re behind, are impactful and meaningful.
So, when I left agency life, I started putting some nonnegotiables down. I wanted to work with missions and companies that were impactful for human beings. And also impactful for critters—I’m a big advocate of adopting furry companions. We’re on our 92nd foster right now!
But not knowing what’s around the bend, and with the global pandemic, you really start to take inventory. Now, mind you, you’re still going to have to do some work. Some things are going to suck! It just happens. It’s still work. But it’ll teach you something. We’re all constantly developing our list of non-negotiables. I think it’s equally important to know what we’ll never do again.
But I think there’s one thing we all have to work towards. We have to put on ourselves the idea that a hard day’s work should have a harvest. If it doesn’t give us something back, then we have to work towards something different. But I think in the service of folks, I don’t think you can lose. Or in the service of our furry little critters that just need a spot to crash.
Do you have any advice for your fellow communicators?
Continue to get sharp. We can’t stop learning. I think you need to go out and talk to as many people that don’t look like you and sound like you as possible. I think it’s an awfully big deal to make yourself comfortable with things that make you uncomfortable.
So, my advice: continue to learn. Continue to find your passions and skew towards them. I’m not one of those people who say “if you find exactly what it is you want to do, it’s not work.” It is work. But if you can work in your passions, you’re going to be really good at it and you’re going to build great muscle memory and provide for somebody.
Burnout is a very real issue in today’s workforce. What’s your secret for staying so positive and full of energy? How would you help someone who feels burnt out?
For one: give yourself grace. I am not always up, and I think it’s important to ask for help. I’ve gotten myself into situations where I’m bone on bone, and I need help. But the good fuel is—well, good sleep if you can find it. But the best fuel is service. It really is. If you work towards things that spark your imagination, if you’re naturally curious, you will find fuel.
I’ll tell you a story as an example. Several weeks ago, I stopped by on a guy named John. He’s got a slab of concrete outside of an abandoned church in Oklahoma City. I’d been concerned about him, and I’d check on him often. And one day, it was just like, “John you just can’t be here, buddy. We have to get you in cover.” We went through the process of changing his clothes. We got him a sleeping bag and put him in a tent. But three days later, we lost him.
Today, I received a message from his daughter-in-law. She talked about him being lost from their lives. They’d been trying to get in touch with him for a long time. And they were notified of his passing. And she thanked me and the project for being there. In these moments, you are somebody’s somebody. But when you hear it, it reminds you we all have the power to do something. Realize that service begins with one person. The needle moves at trying.
That’s a very long way of saying: I don’t have to always be okay. I have to give myself that grace. Two is to help in some fashion. And three, get in your car and drive towards mountainy scrub. Be out there in painted skies and celebrate being alive for another day.