Sustainable Work, Sustainable Living

By Victoria Santos

Victoria Santos, BIPOC ED Co-Founder, and Pramila Jayapal, Congresswoman for WA-07

In early July, I took part in the 2022 Building CAPACD Convention organized by National CAPACD (Coalition of Asian Pacific American Community Development), a progressive coalition of local organizations that advocates for and organizes in low-income AAPI communities. The Convention featured Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal as the keynote speaker. I presented as part of a panel exploring issues that are very alive for BIPOC-led nonprofits right now. The topic was: Supporting and Retaining Staff Through Uncertainty: Re-imagining a More Sustainable Movement. I was so enriched by the wisdom and perspectives of my fellow panelists and all those who joined us for this community conversation. 

We recognized the burnout and trauma that our staff are navigating in the face of COVID, our national racial reckoning, gun violence, and extreme threats to healthcare access along with erasure of civil rights. White supremacists are accelerating their efforts to dismantle democracy, increase their control of Black and Brown people, and expand the carceral state. The nation is at risk. The planet is at risk. It’s exhausting to know this every day.  

At times it can feel overwhelming to move forward in the face of so many cruel and broken systems. We are all trying to meet the impossible, care for each other, and bring a little light into the world. 

Looking at what we can do – with a focus on the important, necessary work within our communities and organizational circles of influence – we came together as a panel with a wonderful group of nonprofit leaders and community members.

Reflections and Takeaways from our Conversation 

What does support look like in a virtual world?

Support is making sure people’s access needs are met. If someone needs to take care of children or elders and is rushing to enter a virtual conversation, we can have compassion and non-judgement to allow them to arrive in the way they need to. This spaciousness is part of how we respond to people’s access needs. We are still in the middle of a pandemic, and we can be flexible around scheduling, around someone needing to step away to take care of a life need. 

We can create one-on-one time. Since many of us are not seeing each other in the office, we can intentionally create time to check in, to pay attention to each relationship, to cultivate the connection, to listen and support people with all the unique challenges they are facing. We can also make space for celebration, and take time to name the positive. 

Right now, people are experiencing very high levels of stress for many different reasons.  We need to carve out time and space to connect with and listen to each other. We need to recognize that when it comes to support, one size does not fit all. Different people have different needs. 

What does productivity look like? 

In our conversation, someone noted that even as we’re trying to be supportive, there’s still the need to get things done. That is true, and also it’s not the binary of self-care vs. the work. We can do both.

We need to recognize that BIPOC folks largely come from cultures that were extracted from, where people were seen as products, not humans, inequitably contributing to others’ wealth-building. Many of us have inherited a distorted perception around productivity and we learned to consistently overfunction. This is also interwoven with the pressure for BIPOC folks to prove ourselves worthy of compensation, title, or power, because our value has been marginalized by white dominant society. 

When thinking about productivity, we have to ask: What is the actual goal? Given the current situation, have our goals changed?  Can we still be collectively productive with work hours or work patterns that look different for different people based on their needs, work styles and skill sets? How can we value ourselves in the work? 

Let’s take a wider-lens view of what we’re trying to achieve. Let’s see if there are different ways to achieve that same goal, ways that include our humanity, our unique situations, and the traumatic impact of world and cultural events.  We can’t just shrug these things off and keep grinding. That’s not sustainable.  

What does it take to build a strong relationship?  

My colleague and friend Sarah Tran made an important point that we can challenge our perception around conflict as being bad, and this relates to building strong relationships. Conflict can sometimes motivate us to look more deeply, and looking deeply can lead to good outcomes and positive shifts in how we view situations, make new choices, and take different actions. Using conflict to learn, we can hold processes or relationships in a healthier way. This also connects to our understanding of emotional intelligence. Tuning into our own and other people’s capacities around empathy, communication, stress management, relationship-building, etc. is a foundation for cultivating strong connections. 

What are different ways to rest? 

The framework of “seven types of rest” invites us to understand rest in a more expansive and holistic way. Please take a look at this video with Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith, author of Sacred Rest: Recover Your Life, Renew Your Energy, Restore Your Sanity to learn more about this framework:

Human Resource strategies 

One of the presenters made the important point that we need to look at our personnel/organizational policies and how they support the wellness of staff. This can include bereavement leave, flexible spending accounts, flexible holidays, mental healthcare support, Summer Fridays off, and being willing to try new things that strengthen and support staff through uncertain times. 

Sarah also shared that her organization Sama Praxis, along with Communities Rise and Keonna Jackson Consulting, developed a Human Resource toolkit for Communities of Opportunity to help people put the human back into human resources. This toolkit centers equity, especially racial equity. Check it out here:

Pay Equity and a Living/Thriving wage

One topic that received a great deal of energy was the conversation on pay equity. We need to prioritize living/thriving wages in the nonprofit sector, and undo the thinking that martyrdom or self-sacrifice are acceptable work models. We acknowledge all the labor, including emotional labor, that nonprofit staff invest, and we need to keep moving toward living/thriving wages. Organizations vary widely in operating budget size and other circumstances. There’s no quick fix, and Sarah pointed out that we must learn to be relentless in our movement toward pay equity, and also be patient, knowing that it will take time. 

We need to advocate and put collective pressure on philanthropy and government funding sources and politicians to direct resources to the nonprofits that serve as our social safety net. Within our circles of influence, we must continue to prioritize living/thriving wages for nonprofit staff.  

Two recent articles that explore aspects of this issue are We Committed to Paying Our Staff More Than A Living Wage. Your Nonprofit Should Do the Same. by Minor Sinclair, executive director of the Center for Progressive Reform, and this City of Seattle Blog article about a comparable worth wage analysis of Human Services work in Seattle and King County to be carried out in upcoming months by the University of Washington. 

Burnout: Interrupt the Pattern and Bring it Back Home 

Near the end of our panel conversation, I noticed that people looked exhausted. I suggested that people take a break, stand up, connect with their bodies, walk around the room, and drink water. As people did this, I saw that they began to laugh, connect with each other, and reconnect with their energy. When we came back together, I shared that is a simple strategy for stopping burnout – to interrupt the pattern, in small ways or big ways. This led to a fruitful discussion of ways to prevent or recover from burnout.

Suggestions that were shared included:

  • Scale back or reset expectations. 
  • Allow yourself to grieve.  
  • Allow yourself to nurture the “me” while supporting the “we”. 
  • Don’t feel guilty about bringing in people with key expertise, to help and to bridge gaps.
  • Look at wellness not just for yourself but for the entire organization.  

At the BIPOC ED Coalition, we’re advocating for funding to be released to BIPOC-led nonprofits, and we’re at the forefront of the movement to foster wellness and care for BIPOC leaders in our sector. This is necessary to sustain the important work that BIPOC-led nonprofits do in our communities and to dismantle the oppressive conditions designed to extract our labor.  

It’s time to reimagine what work looks like.  

In Solidarity,

Victoria Santos