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Rethinking Work Culture And Self Care In The Nonprofit Sector

A person at their work desk. They have their head in their hands.

This article originally appeared on YNPN.

Like many YNPN members, my early life experiences informed my professional life today. Active in my church in childhood and adolescence, I developed a deep commitment to social and environmental justice, and joined multigenerational teams volunteering for a variety of causes. In college, I was lucky to study abroad through Semester at Sea, which (as I then described) “smacked me in the face with my own privilege”, exposed me to extreme wealth disparity and racism around the globe, and caused me to question most of what I knew: my middle-class lifestyle, my major life choices, and my role in a world that was both so beautiful and so broken. As I began to look for full-time work following college, I was certain – fervently, urgently so – that I wanted to devote my life to social change, and my professional life to the nonprofit sector.

Already then, I knew my tendencies – to overextend myself, to neglect my own health, and to fuel my work out of guilt, urgency, and a sense of martyrdom – which left me drained and burned out, often. In my first full-time job, as a national community organizer, I epitomized workaholism and experienced physical and emotional pain because of it. I began to despair that I would not be able to live out my calling to work for social change, without sacrificing my health and relationships in the process.

Early in my career, I was fortunate to enroll in a graduate school launching a first-of-its-kind experiment: a Masters program in Social Change at a theological school (seminary). The program sought to provide not only professional and academic training, but also spiritual and emotional grounding, to social change leaders. I was encouraged to make sense of my own experience, and place it in a larger context of social movement history. I explored common struggles social change leaders experience in their professional and personal lives, and how these may differ across class, race, gender, and other identities. I devoted my final project to “Personal Sustainability and Mental Health in Social Movements”, using my own story as a central narrative. It was another privileged experience, to immerse myself in the study and implementation of “self care”. That program would have been difficult or impossible to complete if I hadn’t been a middle class, school-loan beneficiary without dependents.

The “self care” theme has shaped my life and career ever since. In most leadership roles, from counseling youth to managing political campaigns, I experienced external factors (i.e. workplace environments) and internal factors (i.e. my own psychology) that predisposed me to burnout – reminding me again and again to sharpen my strategic work-planning, boundary-setting, and care-taking skills. I’ve found purpose in mentoring and training others on how to cultivate health, care, and sustainability within their own social change efforts. And, I’m constantly trying to understand how my social location – for example, as a white middle-class formally-educated woman – impacts my needs for, and practices of, “self care”.

This theme came up immediately when I began working with YNPN National, via the LaunchPad Fellowship program. As Talent Coordinator, I work with our Director, Trish, to evaluate the experience of YNPN leaders – for example our LaunchPad Fellows – and systemically cultivate a work environment in which we reflect openly on our challenges, support each other in taking care of ourselves, and plan and execute our work in strategic and sustainable ways. It’s an awesome challenge.

In our most recent LaunchPad staff meeting, I offered a professional development presentation centered on an essay called “An End to Self Care” by my friend and collaborator B Loewe, which builds on “Communites of Care” by Yashna Padamsee. Both were published in Organizing Upgrade, an online forum for community organizers to share and develop strategy. “An End to Self Care” came out last fall, and ignited a national conversation.

The article doesn’t so much seek to end self-care, as reframe it. Self care, as it’s usually understood, is an individual – rather than collective – task, often inaccessible and irrelevant to those who aren’t middle-class people with leisure time (i.e. no family dependents). Self care is often framed as another “to do” on an already unwieldy workload, leading to unrealistic, unattainable expectations that can make us feel bad about failing to adequately care for ourselves.

There are many insights in the article, so I’ll paraphrase just a few key points:

  • Building a society in which all are able to be healthy, cared-for and sustainable requires critical reflection on the possibilities and limitations of the nonprofit sector.
  • The experience of working for non-profits and social change efforts needs, in many ways, to be reconstructed or reframed to become a more energizing rather than draining experience.
  • To break out of the isolation often perpetuated by our dominant culture, we must move beyond care for the self and practice collective or community care.
  • Community care is a collectively liberatory practice which can not only sustain our own involvement in social causes, but enable many more – across class, race, family and other social locations – to join us.

The earlier article “Communities of Care” similarly called for collective/shared care, which unlike self care interrupts and transforms systems on a broader level. Yashna Padamsee, a leader in Healing Justice, or HJ, movements, urges us look at the root causes of why we need care and healing – for example, to explore how ableism is operating in our communities and organizations, and creating unrealistic or unattainable expectations for our work.

The need for care and healing is crucial: according to the Southern Healing Justice Collective, social changemakers are at a particular risk of “spiritual and physical deprivation from trauma, stress and unrest in our movements” and “dying as a result”. “Communities of Care” reminds that just as injustices are interconnected and affect us all, so are and must be our efforts for healing and care. Disability Justice movements are leading the way in showing us that we don’t have to keep doing our work in the same way nor do we need to do it alone.

Organizing Upgrade put together an excellent “Roundup and Re-Frame of the Community Care Conversation” highlighting the large and diverse range of responses when “An End to Self Care” was published last fall. Two of the excellent points:

Rather than self-care, we need self-determined care:

“The messages we receive are that our lives don’t matter, that we don’t deserve love, or even to exist.” By loving and caring for ourselves we are fighting the system; “to choose instead to value ourselves, our health, and the health of our communities – all as one, not at odds with each other – is radical, it’s self-determination.” – Adrienne Maree Brown

Care is and must be at the core of changemaking

“True care, whether it is self-centered, community-centered or family-centered is something we should assume is part of change work…Whether people like the analogy or not, we are soldiers fighting a war for human dignity. The key to winning the war is, in part, knowing when to be soldiers and when to be parents, children, siblings, spouses/partners or just human. To learn how to be all of those things effectively requires all of us prioritizing care.” – Subhash Kateel

How have you – personally and professionally – experienced care, health, and sustainability (or lack thereof) as an individual? What about as part of a group or organization? What social factors, such as class, race, gender, and family role – have impacted those experiences? What is your vision of a better world, in which all are cared for – and how do we get there from here? What role can the nonprofit sector play in enacting that vision?

We plan to raise these questions and more throughout YNPN – via the blog, during next week’s national YNPN Leaders Conference, and in more ways to come. Tell us your own thoughts and reactions in the comment section below or on our Facebook, or Twitter, and join the conversation.

By Betty-Jeanne Rueters-Ward, LaunchPad Fellow and National Talent Coordinator

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