We Need To Make Sure Social Justice Leaders Are Getting The Soul Nourishment They Need

4 Ways To Center Self-Care As A Social Sector Practitioner

Ratna Gill
Oct 22, 2018 · 6 min read

The social sector’s turnover rate is 19 percent annually, while the average annual turnover in the private sector is about 4 percent. There are, of course, a number of structural reasons for this — lower salaries, fewer benefits, etc. — but the role of exhaustion and burnout cannot be overlooked as we examine why social sector organizations have a hard time retaining their employees.

Theodore Miller at the City of San Francisco calls this phenomenon the “I’m tired” effect, and Tawanna Black of the Center for Economic Inclusion refers to the solution as “radical self-care.”

City employees, activists, social workers, and other folks working on our world’s most challenging social issues are more than familiar with this fatigue — especially in this moment.

There are no easy answers to this exhaustion, but I want to share four principles that the foundation I used to work for kept in mind as we crafted one of our meetings of city leaders working on social change, in this case by increasing employment opportunities for people of color in U.S. cities.

1. Empower people to tell their own stories.

Too often, meetings with grantees revert into the nitty-gritty of reporting and compliance. This doesn’t leverage the true power of having everyone in the room together — dry data and details are easily shared over email, but stories have an ability to bring the work to life and unlock our ability to co-create solutions, especially with everyone in the same space. As my former colleague Nadia Owusu likes to say, “stories are data with soul.”

So what we did at this particular meeting was ask the leaders from each of the cities present to tell the story of their work, as they see it, in ten minutes. We provided no content or format requirements; the stories were theirs to craft and relate.

The result was that each city’s story was rich, unique, and represented a journey that only they could describe. We all sat in connection, humor, and empathy — over the struggle of striving for social justice, over how long it takes to embed change, over how inefficient city systems can be — as a collective, truly listening. Each city’s evolution and journey over the time they have been working with us — six years in some cases — came vividly to life like never before, and our city leaders reported that they felt that they and their cities were truly being seen and heard.

2. Remember the importance of arts & culture for sustaining social change work.

Most people in the social change field have a powerful, visceral reason for coming to work each day. Imbuing our two-day meeting with local art and culture allowed attendees to connect to the universal — the undercurrent of struggle and oppression that we so deeply grapple with on a daily basis — that cannot be described in words.

The meeting was in Albuquerque, so on our first evening there, we were treated to performances by students from the National Institute of Flamenco. In between breathtaking performances, the founders and administrators of the school spoke to us about Flamenco’s birth as a reaction to oppression, a creative form born as an act of defiance. They spoke about the role of making art in healing, in expression, and in students being able to “go to school every day to create beauty and be happy, even when the world around them is ugly.”

On our second day in Albuquerque, the city’s first Poet Laureate, Hakim Bellamy, presented a poem he had written — City Alive — about the work that our grantees were doing to improve the lives of low-income people in Albuquerque. Describing the work in poetry was a striking way to remind us how shared our struggle often is— of the challenges and triumphs that are universal, and felt by all regardless of place.

Interspersing art into an agenda also allows time for individuals to think about the work we do from a regenerative place of reflection, to increase the emotional connection while lessening the emotional burden that come from working for social change.

3. Listen and learn about racial equity with a place-based perspective.

While art was crucial in highlighting the similarities felt across places we worked, a panel of racial justice advocates and activists reminded us that our work does not look the same everywhere. Robin Brule of City Alive reminded us to take the time to acknowledge where we were, and pay attention to the specific challenges that Albuquerque faces given their large Native American and Hispanic population, as well as the unique set of hurdles present for the immigrant population in the city.

This panel gave our staff the opportunity to listen and learn from a place of humility about the landscape of Albuquerque from residents of the community rather than working on solutions without understanding the cultural context of the city. This was important in validating lived experiences and personal stories alongside quantitative data and statistics.

4. Pause and intentionally focus on wellness.

After our two days, we had the privilege of participating in a Native Healing Ceremony facilitated by folks from the Native American Community Academy in Albuquerque, who shared they way in which their community thinks about holistic health and teaches well-rounded wellness to its young people.

They wove together their history and personal stories and created a space for us to do the same, in the spirit of healing, self-care, and rejuvenation. The experience allowed us a space to reflect on our own personal histories and motivations for working on social change, and reminded us of the importance of taking care of ourselves as we work to improve the lives of others.

After this conversation, the city leaders with whom we work headed to a locally owned spa where we offered them the rest of the day to themselves to reflect, relax, and unwind.


By lifting up community members’ voices, focusing on arts and culture, examining racial equity through a place-based lens, and experiencing community-based approaches to healing and wellness, we structured this meeting around self-care. While these measures are by no means exhaustive in tackling the burnout caused by struggling to bring about social change, as actors working on racial justice and equity in today’s climate, it is crucial that we remain cognizant of the importance of self-care in sustaining social change.

Related Resources


Adapted from a post published on the Living Cities blog.

Athena Talks

A hub of conversation to help young women mature, budding professionals become leaders and leaders become advocates for equality.

Ratna Gill

Written by

Sister; writer; singer. @Harvard ’16. Working on child rights in India with @Aangan_Trust.

Athena Talks

A hub of conversation to help young women mature, budding professionals become leaders and leaders become advocates for equality.

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