Centering Wellness: Reimagining Justice, Care and Change Making Professions
Patricia is sitting at her desk in her New York nonprofit executive director chair. It’s the fourth night in a row she’s stayed late working on grant proposals because her organization is understaffed. This is what she signed up for right? Lana is the head minister of her rural church. She is completely burnout and every Sunday feels like a fraud at the pulpit. How is she supposed to take care of a congregation when she feels so disconnected from herself?
These women have participated in therapy, holistic healing methods and coaching at some point in their lives. They read Audre Lorde and Brene Brown. They are at the edge of burnout. Why? The truth is that most change making fields are systemically set up to burn us out because we are ignoring the affects of this work.
For over a decade, I have worked with hundreds of change makers and organizations all over the world (although primarily within the U.S.) through holistic leadership methodologies. My clients have included faith-based organizations, social movement institutions, executive directors of nonprofits, community organizers, and beyond. Working intensively with so many change makers has led me to understand how prevalent the experience of burnout and overwhelm is in change making fields. In fact, if the sample of folks and organizations I’ve worked with is any indication, overwhelm, burnout and trauma is the culture of change making.
Business as usual just isn’t working anymore. Our internal structures, policies and procedures must shift if we are to build lasting and effective change in the world. I believe that in order to curve this phenomenon, we must acknowledge how deep the wound of trauma is in our individual and collective hearts, minds, bodies and spirits.
White supremacy suggests that we “take care” behind closed doors and that healing and wellness happen “off site” or “outside of our bodies” when in actuality, healing and wellness is a community process and it should be an organizational one as well. However, when we buy into the rule of oppression to “take care on our own” our change making work remains shortsighted and limiting in its impact.
What does it means to build towards love and liberation for the long haul? What does wellness really look like for folks across race, class, sexuality, gender and ability? How can we expand our definitions and imaginations to create a more dynamic and expansive understanding of wellness within change making fields? What needs to shift, change or be enhanced within ourselves, our communities and in change work in order to thrive?
Below, I offer three places to consider in order to center wellness into change making fields.
1. Admit that what we’re doing is trauma work. In order to step into the transformative work we are called to in this time of Black Lives Matter, climate crisis, and wars across the world, we must see our work as trauma work.
We often experience that trauma as overwhelm, anxiety and stress. Compound that with personal trauma(s) and we are headed toward breakdown and burnout.
Without an emphasis on wellness, folks will continue to suffer exponentially from burnout, anxiety, and spiritual malaise. We must move towards establishing practices of nourishment, love and wellness into our change making efforts in order to be effective.
2.Learn from the best practices of organizations and groups presently centering wellness and healing into their work. There is a lot to learn from movements of our current time. In the organizing work of Black Lives Matter, healers are front and center. The language and conversation from the beginning has centered around generational trauma from white supremacy, racism and oppression and the need to heal from it.
People of Color and Indigenous leaders have long held the importance of healing, love and spirituality as foundational for movements of social change. There is a long tradition at the Allied Media Conference of healing justice practitioners offering holistic healing services and analysis.
There is also much to learn from groups and organizations such as Betty’s Daughters Arts Collaborative, Black Lives Matter, Sage Community Health Collective, Southerners on New Ground (SONG), Spirit House, Movement Strategy Center, Rockwood Leadership Institute, and the best practices of organizations that are no longer operating such as Stone Circles at the Stone House and Kindred Southern Healing Justice Collective.
These organizations value community care, public and institutional ritual and wellness practice as foundational for change making.
3. Move towards centering wellness. It is time for us to face the hard realities of decades of practices that work in theory but just aren’t working in our hearts or bodies. We must center wellness as foundational for how we do the work.
The truth is trauma never goes away. Trauma will always exist in our world and in our bodies. Self-care/Community-care, wellness and spiritual practices will, however, provide a container of healing. When we show up to build this container in our organizations, we move from surviving to thriving.
Womanist, queer, and revolutionary ancestors echo this in writings and thinking from decades ago: Audre Lorde stated, “Caring for myself is not self indulgent. Caring for myself is an act of survival and that is political warfare.” Gloria E. Anzaldúa, wrote: “I change myself, I change the world.” Wellness is not as an endpoint but a continuum that will last far beyond our lifetimes. This is what Civil Rights leader Septima Clark meant in essence when she said: “I know that I am not weaving my life’s pattern alone. Only one end of the threads do I hold in my hands. The other ends go many ways linking my life with others.” Shifting how we do change making work can be this generation’s legacy.
When we de-prioritize practices of wellness, we are adding to the larger cultural suggestion that to be human is to be a sum of her/his/their checked list. When we ignore the power of wellness in our lives and work, we keep our visions small and our human capacity low. Whether that looks like reimagining our organization’s policies and procedures to match with values of change and transformation, hosting onsite wellness and healing practitioners or spending more time ritualizing and celebrating collectively.
Our hearts yearn to step into work that values the fullness of who we are and the vision of a different kind of world.
Let’s start there.