By Jodi Nishioka, co-founder BIPOC ED Coalition
May 2022 will mark my 11th year as the executive director at Communities Rise and Wayfind. It’s been an amazing journey from my first year at Wayfind as the sole employee, all the way to merging with the Nonprofit Assistance Center in 2019, and now leading Communities Rise.
For the first five years or so, the job was demanding, but the workload was manageable. Once the staff grew to five and talks of the merger began in 2018, the workload doubled and I felt as if I was doing the work of two full-time positions. The demands of the job continued to build when Wayfind merged with the Nonprofit Assistance Center, increasing my managerial responsibilities to 13 staff members and essentially doubling our programming. Then, only eight months into the merger, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
The long hours and the demands of being an executive director meant worrying about raising enough funds to keep programs running and people employed, and managing staff without enough time to give them. I consistently felt like I was not doing enough to support my staff and community, but I didn’t have any more hours to give. By the time my sabbatical came around in August of 2021, I was beyond depleted and feeling terrible about myself as a manager.
Our Hearts and Bodies Need Time to Heal
I had high hopes for the rest and relaxation that a three-month break from work would provide. But by the end of the first two weeks of my sabbatical, I was experiencing hives, back pain, and a flare up of my chronic stomach aches. I was sleeping until 10 or 11 in the morning, and still often needed to take an afternoon nap. My journal entries looked something like:
“This sucks. I’ve been looking forward to this sabbatical, and now I’m sick and feeling terrible.”
Executive directors often do not share personal burdens with staff or community members for fear of showing vulnerability in our leadership or because we don’t want to burden those we are trying to support.
In the months before my sabbatical, my emotional and spiritual health was in crisis. My daughter had been experiencing a serious bout of depression. My daughter and I are very close, and her suffering brought up difficult personal feelings of pain and guilt. Behind the professional exterior of my title and role, I was suffering.
In our wellness sessions at the BIPOC ED Coalition, we have heard from many members that their mental and spiritual wellness are in jeopardy as well, and that they do not know how to manage their own wellness while supporting their families, staff, and communities.
I soon realized that this sabbatical was an opportunity for me to truly feel these difficult emotions and finally metabolize them. I had spent the last two years — and likely many more than that — using work as a drug and a distraction. Praise and success in work provided temporary feelings of exhilaration. Long hours provided numbness and distraction from my family’s trauma and the feelings of burnout.
Three full months of sabbatical allowed me to sleep when I needed it, to practice more therapeutic yoga and meditation, to go on walks, to swim in the ocean, and to lean into my weekly therapy sessions. By the third month, I had no hives, no back pain, and no stomach aches. My sabbatical gave me the time I so deeply needed to feel the painful feelings I hadn’t been allowing myself to feel. I had the space, for the first time, to process those feelings with my therapist and my family members.
This work is deep and meaningful. And, it takes time.
Healing Builds Healthier Leaders
Executive directors are in this field because we want to help our communities. I believed I was best serving my organization, and thus my community, by being as efficient and as effective as possible. We all learn this.
Because our current systems operationalize white-dominant culture, I often felt as a woman of color that I wasn’t smart enough, accomplished enough, or experienced enough to be successful. From early on in my career, I was constantly striving for achievement as a way of proving my worthiness in a white-dominant culture. Additionally, an undeniable part of partaking in this oppressive identity was perpetuating it with others. I found myself fighting thoughts, like “My staff aren’t working as hard as me,” or “They don’t appreciate me,” or “I have to work harder than everyone else to get the work done.”
Even my mindset heading into the sabbatical, that I needed to “tie up every loose end” before departing, was not in the spirit of the shared leadership model we were introducing, and instead reinforced the idea that I, alone, had to do the work so others would not have to do it. What I labeled “tying up loose ends” was perhaps a subconscious attempt to maintain control and feel competent.
I also believed that I needed to earn rest and self-care through my competence at work. But the space, time, and awakening away from my job allowed me to work on releasing this harmful belief.
Having to earn self-care is a common narrative in our western culture. Yet, when we prioritize taking care of ourselves — through rest, therapy, and movement, we can serve others better. An empty well doesn’t provide water for anyone.
The well-being of executive directors is reason enough to support sabbaticals. Physically and emotionally rested executive directors are able to show up as their best selves for their staff, their community, and their families. And, just like an individual person, an organization will be better able to support its community when the people within it are healthy and strong.