Reflections, practices, and acceptances of the circumstances we face.
I recognize the irony that as I sit here writing this, my own sense of well-being feels pretty low. I am exhausted. Many of us are. In this moment, I’m reminded of a conversation I was in with members of our leadership team. As a mom of a 4-year-old and a wife of a high-risk individual, there was a moment where I began to spiral. I had a list of objectives that all felt high priority and a home life that splashed in throughout the day as I juggled childcare and home-care while sheltering in place and working from home. In a moment of vulnerability that is not uncommon in our meetings, I let my colleagues know I was struggling and that I needed help in prioritizing the critical work that lay ahead of us in 2020.
They turned to me and said, “Joann, we hear your struggle and guarantee that there are others on the team experiencing exactly what you are feeling. Let’s figure out a way to ease the tension across the board.”
Even prior to the pandemic, Common Future’s culture was one that prioritized our peoples’ experiences. As an organization that is explicit about how people of color, women, and rural communities are disproportionately affected by our broken economic system, we have recruited and attracted people who identify with these communities and want to reimagine and build an economy that works for all. So as we built the organization, our leadership team set out to ensure that our practices and policies were developed with our people in mind: a majority POC, Black-led, and woman majority team.
These are a few of the lessons we have learned along the way.
Burnout is common in nonprofits. Countless leadership programs, including the first iterations of the Common Future Fellowship, are dedicated to preventing it. And the reality is that when you’re often doing too much with not enough resources and when phrases like building while flying, a euphemism to express an often chaotic approach to work, is the norm, it’s no wonder why this is so common. In addition, people of color or folks who identify with marginalized communities often take on even more being so used to having to work twice as hard to get half as much.
Knowing this, we wanted to create an environment where people could focus on the critical tasks and not take on more. In 2020, we’ve doubled down on this approach. At first, this looked like encouraging people to cancel non-essential meetings and paring down work plans to the essentials. Some people took working retreats where they canceled all meetings and used that time to read, strategize, think about what was next and prepare. Additional mental health and community service days were offered related to the justified uprisings demanding justice for murdered Black men and women at the hands of police. We also closed the office for three additional weeks on top of the 13 paid holidays a year.
People, myself included, are carrying a lot and we are exhausted. The time and attention to not taking on too much and resting when possible, ensures our leaders are able to be in this work for the long term. And although 2020 was an unprecedented year, we are looking to see how some of these policies can continue for the long term.
One of the most often touted reasons that women leave the workforce is the lack of flexibility in the workplace. Our traditional workplaces were designed during a time when there was often a partner at home that managed the household, children, and “familial” duties. To this day, women often carry the brunt of household responsibilities while working full-time jobs. We wanted to structure our workplace to account for these realities. Furthermore, in a COVID survey we sent out earlier this year, we validated what we already knew. Much of our staff identified as the first in line support person and ongoing caretaker, not only for immediate and extended families but for friends and communities they were part of as well.
There is much to be done here, but one of the lowest hanging fruit was around the workday. As knowledge workers and as an organization that is not a direct service provider, we knew we had some flexibility around work hours. Generally, we start with a 9–5, but employees work with their supervisors to decide when their work hours are. We have public calendars that give a line of sight into availability across the organization and especially in COVID times, we’ve seen people add in baby nap times, pickup and drop off duties, elder care, community service, and thinking or strategizing time. People schedule their lives to fit their work, the personal, and all the things that make us whole. The trust we have in our team, our systems of accountability, and our employees’ strong integrity and work ethic ensure that we often meet or exceed our goals.
These two lessons give a glimpse into the type of organization that we are building at Common Future.
One that seeks to unlearn the damaging white supremacy culture work habits that most of us have picked up throughout our careers. Habits like holding ourselves to a standard of perfection that often prevents folks of color from recognizing all the good that has been achieved and keeps the focus on deficiencies or what could be done better.
Or the habit of urgency that drives people to relentlessly pursue impact at the cost of their and their families’ mental health and wellbeing. The unlearning of these habits is made even more complex because many of us have found “success” in adopting these ways of working. They are so deeply rooted in the psyche of work that it’s easy to remain unaware of the harm caused without an intentional examination, what we call doing the work.
In place of a white supremacy culture, we seek to build a workplace culture and set of practices that are rooted in equity and justice. We know that this way of working requires supportive relationships and trust. We are doubling down on emphasizing cross-collaboration and collective ways of organizing around the work. We’re also sharing what we’re doing with our peers, so we can build a community of people striving to make our workplaces more just. In doing so, we are experimenting our way toward what works for us and easing some of the anxiety and tension inherent during this time.
Joann Lee Wagner is Common Future’s Vice President of People Operations.
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