What your gut is telling you is actually true. It doesn’t feel good for a reason – let’s talk about what that reason actually is. Let’s talk about the colonial pathway that development organisations follow.From Healing Solidarity’s 2020 Conference
When you look at your organization’s #GivingTuesday campaign, designed to get people in rich countries to open their wallets, do you feel uncomfortable about the way the work you do is being described? Or do you see your values or the values your organization represented?
The way we communicate about the work we do in the so-called ‘global development’ sector and how it needs to change – to become more just, equitable and inclusive – is just one of the many topics that we at Healing Solidarity have been questioning over the past few years.
And so if those #GivingTuesday fundraising tactics weigh heavy on your conscience, we want you to know…you are not alone.
If you want to see our whole sector communicate more honestly, there is a home for you at Healing Solidarity. At our monthly #GlobalDev Communicators Connect gathering which takes place within the Healing Solidarity Collective and is for people who want to tell our stories differently. We warmly welcome you to find kindred spirits and resources that will help you ask questions inside your organization, explore alternatives, and to help you challenge the idea that “whatever strategies get money through the door are justified, since the resources are going to a good cause.”
We know that relying on old notions of charity and saviorism in our communications, let alone our programming, is not good enough. Healing Solidarity believes that in the global development sector, we need to deepen our analysis of the problems at hand and our role within a global “culture of charity”.
#GivingTuesday was a campaign created to help the nonprofit sector fundraise following the U.S. “shopping holidays” of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, to imbue generosity into the consumption. It was initially created by New York City’s 92nd Street Y in partnership with the United Nations Foundation in 2012. Last year nonprofits raised almost US$2 billion on #GivingTuesday. This giving “holiday” may indeed make people feel better about all they bought in a manufactured frenzy of hyperconsumerism. But it’s part of a system in which governments and politicians prioritize the extraction and exploitation of natural resources and labor to feed wealth accumulation, with brazen disregard for the human lives upon which our global and local economies depend.
We know it’s not possible for the one-off donations or the actions of one individual or organization to “change the world”. Rather we need to admit how complex it really is to create change.
Healing Solidarity exists to keep pushing beyond savior mentalities, acknowledging the ambiguity, disappointment, and discomfort inherent in this work that has fueled isolation, burnout, a lack of creative thinking, complicity in unjust systems, and values/ethical misalignment in our sector.
At Healing Solidarity we believe it doesn’t have to be this way.
In this new reality that 2020 offers, the global development sector has an opportunity to concretize – in practice – our notions of interdependence, of care and consent, and of trust. Now is the time that leadership and individual actions within complex systems can challenge and transform hierarchical structures and dominant culture ways of working.
Now is the time to tell a different story about global solidarity – to risk the honesty of how complicated it is to liberate ourselves from oppressive global economic systems.
Since 2018, Healing Solidarity has been offering an online platform, an annual conference, and ongoing events to create a space for us to connect and support each other in making the changes our sector needs. It’s also been a place to have more honest conversations about racism and healing, and where we imagine the new world that is becoming possible.
It takes money to do our work – coordination, speaker honoraria, technology to give just three examples. But we’ve been operating on a shoestring budget, dependent on thousands of volunteer hours, a small grant, and member donations.
We are not asking for a #GivingTuesday “click” to assuage any feelings of sadness, pity, guilt, or shame in response to the world’s suffering. Instead, we are asking for financial contributions to our work as you reflect on the deeply-rooted and connected issues in our sector, which have been laid bare in the wake of the #AidToo sexual abuse scandals, the global COVID-19 pandemic, and the #BlackLivesMatter uprisings around the world.
Becoming a sustaining member of Healing Solidarity means committing to rethinking, reimagining, and reshaping the future of our sector. We start by aligning our values with our dollars. Together we can promote healing from the past, generate a new narrative, and establish new ways of working.
Jennifer Lentfer is a farm girl turned international aid worker turned writer/poet, writing coach, and communications strategist and a member of the Healing Solidarity Advisory Circle. Given that her hometown of Bruning, Nebraska, USA has a population of just 248 people, it’s no wonder she found her true calling in accompanying small, local groups to be strong forces for social change, which she writes about on her blog, how-matters.org.
Healing Solidarity is a space designed to connect to one another and to resource ourselves for doing things differently in global development, humanitarian aid, and international philanthropy. This includes building cultures of care and developing skill sets that model:
challenging injustice in our practice and re-imagining our sector,
resisting the working practices that overwhelm and exhaust us, and
reflecting and sustaining ourselves as people.
Healing Solidarity exists to be part of rethinking, reimagining, and reshaping the future – to promote healing from the past, generate new narratives, and establish new ways of working. Together, we are inviting people and organisations on a learning journey to avoid replication of the harm that has been done in and by our sector. This means supporting people to tackle some deeply challenging issues – both personally and professionally – which we see as long-term work and which we hope will happen in partnership with many others.
Within this, we recognise the need for multi-racial spaces and leadership as we try to model this in Healing Solidarity overall. Also, we recognise that dedicated spaces for Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour can provide the opportunity for healing, support, mirroring and affirmation, and that this must happen away from the white gaze. In our consultancy work with organisations, Healing Solidarity also offers dedicated ‘cohort’ spaces that help people explore the lenses through which they see and interact with the world and how their personal/family/cultural identities interact with their professional identity and access to resources. The cohorts are then re-joined to bring what emerges into shared space, focused on concrete actions and practices. This is long-term work we believe can be a helpful support in us all building anti-racist practice over time.
In our 2020 conference, we are offering three Black/POC only spaces. One is hosted in partnership with Diasporic Development, and two opportunities to explore creativity and its healing power, one utilising spoken word poetry with Nikita Shah and the other using collage with Takyiwa Danso.
For the purposes of our work and of access to these events, we include within people of colour Black, Indigenous, and all those identifying as a person of colour. We know that people of colour are not a homogeneous group but also recognise the value of spaces dedicated to those for who have been oppressed by the burden of racism and the ways in which that is manifest in our organisations.
If you are white and feel uncomfortable in any way about not being able to access these spaces, we invite you to consider that this discomfort is nothing compared to the burden of experiencing racism for people of colour. The privilege of access to any space we choose is very often a benefit of whiteness and of white supremacy culture, a global system of injustice that always privileges whiteness. We know that many of us who are raced as white experience other forms of oppression, but privilege in relation to the colour of our skin is always afforded to us. Healing Solidarity runs a practice group for white people working in the global development sector to support them to reflect on and develop anti-racist practices without overburdening the Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour with whom they work alongside.
We are so pleased to welcome this Guest Post from Diasporic Development to the Healing Solidarity blog.
We are in *queue overstated phrases *unprecedented times, more than 100 days into lockdown, masses proclaim that Black Lives Matter, DFID and FCO are merging and the Conservative government are actively ensuring that we don’t spend a penny over the 0.7% aid budget (as heaven forbid we support anyone without a red.. or is it navy passport?). Everything we knew and understood of the world as of January 1st 2020 seems to be up in the air, and yet one thing remains critical – representation, equity and inclusion for Black professionals working in international development and the wider charity sector.
Allow us to introduce ourselves, we are Diasporic Development. A community of Black people working and interested in the charity sector in the U.K. and beyond. We want to see Black professionals leading change and being represented at all levels within the sector.
Diasporic Development came about quite organically, as five friends lamenting the challenges at work, and solidifying it through a shared idea of the change needed within our sectors and the power of social media. Descendants of immigrants have witnessed the quiet ways in which their parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents have carried out their sense of duty to those back home. We represent a demographic that straddles two worlds, effortlessly juggles multiple identities and seeks to connect those interested in developing their ties to their other home. We want to promote the sector as a viable and worthy career path. We want to rebrand, rehabilitate and reverse a generation’s worth of negative imagery and shameful programming branded into our collective psyche. We want to unlock the vast potential, resources and nuance that the Black diaspora can provide in enhancing and helping to better deliver social justice.
As people who work within the sector, we connected via the recognition of the mutual challenges of getting your foot in the door, staying in the room and progressing through the ranks. Ata time where organisations want to “out statement” each other to show their commitment to racial justice;Diasporic Development exists to push for radical change, not simply performative public statements.
Since our official launch in February 2019, we have created safe spaces where unfiltered conversations have flowed with our members. This has taken the shape of panel discussions, featuring professionals in Comic Relief, Action Aid, Shelter and more, intimate dinners, joining our friends at The Advocacy Team for their careers fair, partnering with Forward for this year’s International Women’s Day event and most recently virtual events, including a panel discussion with Devex and BAMEID unpacking hiring practices within organisations. Although a global pandemic was not part of our 2020 mood board, we plan to adapt and continue providing a much needed community, whilst also engaging organisations within the sector to ensure diversity and inclusion is more than just a buzzword.
As encouraging as the recent public statements have been, we fear much of the commentary is lip service with activism not extending beyond quaint Black Lives Matter tweets or a black square on instagram. The charity sector does not seem ready to engage and have the necessary, honest conversations, such as who holds power and why, and how power is resourced and shifted equitably. Until we, as a sector, do this and more importantly, ensure this progresses into real, tangible action we fear that 20 years from now we will be having the same conversations, and People of Colour, specifically Black people will still be excluded.
While the sector has made many strides over the years in alleviating poverty and contributing to long lasting change, we at Diasporic Development believe we can go further and faster if we meaningfully (and mindfully) engage the Global South and its diaspora. The diaspora, which we like to think of as the missing infinity stone, with the knowledge and sensitivity that comes along with this identity, could hold the key to truly snapping ourselves out of a job. After all, that is the goal, right?
Diasporic Development also aims to help demonstrate to graduates and those younger that 1) a career in the charity world is a thing and 2) that there are a multitude of ways to get into the sector (death to unpaid internships!). A notable and common experience that we at DD and our members have shared, has been the feeling that a career in International Development simply wasn’t for us. Growing up it was not something we could envision doing, it wasn’t a career path that was easily accessible or even visible in the same way as other professions.
Beyond physical and now virtual events, you can connect with us at www.diasporicdevelopment.org and on social media (@’s below). We also have a careers thread on Twitter which we regularly update with roles and opportunities, and where we can, will support with applications or find you someone in our network who can! We recognise that diversity without inclusion is ineffective, so our wider aim is to hold organisations accountable, challenging them to not only question why their senior team/board is homogenous but to also take action and create inclusive spaces where Black people, and all People of Colour can bring their full authentic selves to work.
What’s next for Diasporic Development? We have some exciting things coming up, the country is rapidly opening, but for the immediate future we will continue holding online events, like our virtual socials. Black History Month is fast approaching, and the pressure is on for us to hold an event on par with last year’s sold out panel, and we think we have done that. To find out more, subscribe to our newsletter (by going on our website), and follow us on socials.
We are now at an interesting juncture. 2020 may not have been the year we all foresaw, however, what we do know, is that the old normal did not work. It did not work for the world, it did not work for the Global South, it did not work for the Global North. Let us now envision and put into action a new normal in which International Development is equitable… and eventually obsolete.
No person, or charity, or government department can do this alone. Similarly, it cannot and should not be done without the diaspora. Our insights, care, passion, and interpersonal connections are an asset that the sector should no longer exclude.
You will by now have heard about the protests across the USA, and spreading across the world, in response to the extrajudicial murders in May of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, Tony McDade in Florida, Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, George Floyd in Minnesota, and the subjugation of Black bodies for centuries prior.
The #BlackLivesMatter Global Network is calling for ‘an end to the systemic racism that allows this culture of corruption to go unchecked and our lives to be taken.’
It’s time for all of us to be clear about the side we are on, in our work and in our activism. Black and brown people have been murdered by the state both in the US, the UK, and other countries around the globe for far too long. Global economic and political systems and societies are racialised, as much as they are gendered. Imperialism and colonialism has created a global system of white supremacy, and that system is alive and well in our work in international ‘development’ and solidarity. It is still dominated by large global or white-led entities holding all of the power and resources, while building their organisational “brands.” All the while the communities they claim to help – destabilised in the past by colonial violence and exploitation – continue to receive little genuine reparation for harm. Instead their knowledge, energy, and ideas are disregarded, or worse, extracted and exploited by larger, more resourced “players” in global development, despite any good intentions.
Colonial practices and mentalities persist today in so many global systems and the ‘development’ system is not immune from this.
When up against systems as entrenched, resilient, and interdependent as white supremacy, capitalism and the patriarchy, we must start right where we are.
We are either in resistance to white supremacy, or we are upholding it either overtly or by our silence or inaction in this moment. In “social good” spaces, let us find all manner of ways to call for an end to racism and the injustices perpetuated by inequality and discrimination.
This is a moment amongst many, but it is a moment calling for clarity and action. Overturning white supremacy will likely take generations and yet – right now – there is an opening for dialogue, change, and transformation.
So what can you do? Below are ways to support the broader struggle, to bring about change in your workplaces, and guidance for your personal care and reflection. You’ll also find resources below from here in the Collective to support your learning and connecting the dots.
There are many ways to be part of the broader struggle:
Offer support to those you personally know who are engaged in action. This could be emotional support, or it could be material support (finances, food, practicalities).
Raise the issue of racism and your commitment to anti-Black racism with the people around you, with your family and friends.
Share your own commitment and actions with those in your professional network.
In your work:
Call for an end to all white boards and all white leadership. Highlight the lack of representation and real decision-making power of Black people, other people of colour, Indigenous peoples, and others with diverse lived experiences in your organisation. Be clear when leadership does not reflect the profile of the communities and societies where your organisation’s work is happening. Be clear about how this reflects on the mission and values of the organisation.
Call attention to whose knowledge, expertise and experience is undervalued. Question whose voices are being heard and respected most in the organisation overall, and do everything you can to follow the knowledge, leadership, and experiences of Black people. Make different hiring decisions and working to close the gender and race pay gap.
Be an unapologetic advocate for the redistribution of financial resources. Far too many funding decisions are being made in international headquarters and far too much money is being spent there also. Do everything within your positional power and realm of influence to channel more resources – in more dispersed and unrestricted ways than ever before – to people with the lived experience of the issues on which you are working and involve them meaningfully in your decision making processes. These people will likely be Black and brown. Invest directly in locally-driven and female, Black, and minority-led organisations. (And for goodness sake, get them their grant payments on time!)
Be an unapologetic advocate for communications that do not center whiteness in the world. Africans and people in the Global South have been calling for the white savior narrative/industrial complex, and bridge characters to be retired for eons. This matters because this is how stereotypes, generalisations, victimisation, exploitation, and heroism are exposed, challenged, and healed. Our organisations must no longer see communications as a means to a fundraising end, but a fundamental part of our impact strategy.
Examine how you live your organisational values in every aspect of how your organisation is run. Ensure those who clean your buildings, make your deliveries, collect your rubbish, provide your administrative services (most of whom are women) get proper representation, respect, good pay and benefits, proper working conditions, and a say in how things work in your organisation.
If you identify as white, ask other white people to learn about their unearned privilege and how we recreate the systems created by colonialism and imperialism within our global development organisations. It shows up in our ways of working in harmful ways that maintain the status quo.
Healing Solidarity resources are here to help you to think through and challenge the ways in which all of this shows up in our organisations.
The previous conferences are available to download here. The 2018 conversations are also available in the Collective. In particular check out:
Angela Brue Raebrun (2018)
Pontso Mafethe (2018)
the special conversation with Desiree Adaway in the Collective,
Edgar Villeneuva with Pontso Mafethe (2019)
Marai Larasi & Neha Kagal with Pontso Mafethe (2019)
Women of Colour speak about Racism in Philanthropy (2019)
Racism, Equity and Care – What can white people do? (2019)
Bold action requires us to be fully resourced. So take care of yourself and others, first and foremost. Black people, please do whatever you need most right now – run, yell, cry, sing, or let the pain be.
As much as this is a time to be in solidarity with the broader struggle, it’s also a time to make sure that we continue to do the inner work so that we may show up for what’s most needed and urgent at this time.
Explore the parts of ourselves that support white supremacy as a system, and that draw from mental models of dominant white culture. We all play a part in upholding this system or we choose to be part of ending it.
Let the self-compassion flow. Accept that you will upset people and you may make mistakes when speaking up. When standing up for justice, there is no failure – only learning and un-learning. (Note for those who are raced as white: Do not center your feelings in multi-racial spaces and discussions about racism.)
Gather your people…because no one can do anti-racism work alone. The support and challenge offered by our trusted advisors and friendly critics is what can help us develop the self-knowledge and understanding of our own pasts, which we need to be able to make change together. So find a friend – many friends in fact. Find groups that can offer feedback, support, and resources.
For white people, keep learning about other people’s lived experiences. Just because you are part of the global development sector, you are not given a pass as ‘one of the good ones.’ Here’s some authors to consider reading/following:
Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
and many, many more! There’s so many google-able resources to explore and ways to hear directly from Black and brown people about how systemic racism impacts their daily lives and how you can use your privilege to interrupt harm.
Be in touch! Reach out to people in this space. Healing Solidarity – in action – is why we are here.
Compiled by Jennifer Lentfer. Gratitude to Mary Ann Clements, Esua Jane Goldsmith, Shawna Wakefield, Pontso Mafethe, and Swatee Deepak for their feedback and guidance on this joint statement. Washington, DC·
In this recording, you can watch Caroline Sweetman and Mary Ann Clements in conversation with Jessica Horn, Ella Scheepers, Alex Martins & Jenny Hodgson – four of the authors from an edition of the Gender and Development Journal which was inspired by Healing Solidarity.
The journal which is now available also includes writing from Brianna Strumm, Emily Wills, Diana El Richani, Nadia Abu-Zahra, Ishtar Lakhani, neha kagal, Lia Latchford, Rania Eghnatios, Francesca El Asmar, Shawna Wakefield, Kirstin Zimmerman and Tina Wallace.
‘Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.’
What does this mean, in principle and practice? This question, expressed in multiple ways, was being explored at this year’s online Healing Solidarity Conference, hosted by Mary Ann Clements, the main theme of which was Embodying Change.
This is interesting to me for a number of reasons. Firstly, terms such as ‘self-care’, ‘wellbeing’ and ‘resilience’ have become increasingly popular in both the corporate and non-profit sector; in the case of the latter this has been in response to reports of burnout and mental health problems affecting staff. Whilst the wide use of these terms may at face value seem a good thing, I feel some discomfort with how they have been exploited to emphasise the individual’s responsibility for their distress, and for their healing; thereby letting employers (and broader structures, such as the State) off the hook.
Secondly, and related to the previous point, we live in a society – particularly, but certainly not exclusively, in high income countries – that rewards doing, achieving and quick-fix solutions. There is very little space for uncertainty, for vulnerability, for not having the answers, for being with difficult emotions. Yet these are part of being human, and we need to create and respect these spaces if we are to truly learn from ourselves and each other.
I was inspired by some of the speakers at Healing Solidarity who spoke directly to these issues. Lori Michau and Natsnet Ghebrebrhan from Raising Voices – a Uganda-based organisation which works to prevent violence against women and girls – spoke about the importance of putting staff first as human beings, rather than just focusing on what they can produce (which is the tendency, even in supposedly caring professions such as aid work). They also highlighted that part of us living our values, as feminists and as change-makers, is to make self- and collective care a core component of everything we do, inside or outside the workplace. This was echoed by Mary Jane from Urgent Action Fund – an organisation which supports gender activists and human rights defenders through grants, advocacy and alliance-building. Urgent Action Fund is currently asking itself, as part of its internal learning: What would it take to practise a feminist culture of giving and sharing in an organisation? Part of this learning, they say, is to also track this process – reimagining monitoring and evaluation to include this question.
Collective care sees wellbeing as relational; it is not just about what is happening with our own mind, body and emotions, but also how others are around us. It calls on us to be more intentional about building relationships, and in doing so building trust, in order for us to support each other better.
If we are to build healthier relationships, we must also build our empathic muscle. This links to what Hitendra Solanki – a mindfulness and wellbeing advisor in the aid sector – was saying about mindfulness; the value of pausing to bring awareness to our thoughts and emotions, in order that we may respond to others with greater empathy and compassion. This surely is essential not only for how we interact with our colleagues, but also how we interact with the communities and affected populations we serve in aid and development work. In this sense, we are also talking about our power relations – as discussed by Shawna Wakefield, who works on gender justice and feminist leadership, as well as teaching yoga and body work for transformative healing. Both mindfulness and more somatic (body-focused) techniques help us become more aware of how power is felt in the body, as well as in our organisations, and encourages a self-inquiry into why we are here, and how we can be of benefit to others.
These rich ideas and insights have meaning to me on a personal level also. If I truly wish to embody feminist values of self- and collective care, I have to ask myself gently: do I practise what I preach? This is a pertinent question at a moment in my professional journey where I spend so much time on the computer, on my own, pushing myself on a regular basis to keep doing better, to keep working towards my goals. Yet at times I need to soften – to ease off the ‘doing’ treadmill and listen to my body and when it is actually calling on me to slow down. And human connection is also key – not the online version that can take over at times when we’re in the midst of networking and sharing our ideas – but the moments where we are face to face, listening deeply, giving and receiving gestures of care and understanding. We all need this in our lives as we try to make sense of this frenetic, at times hostile and alienating, world we inhabit.
My feminist values also call on me to continuously question the power dynamics in any relationship; how this may manifest negatively, and my role and responsibility in cultivating a space where all feel welcome. And so my desire to build relationships also entails a willingness for discomfort, as I not only dare to express my vulnerabilities but also navigate my own privilege and how this affects others. This is where the rubber meets the road, and where self- and collective care become a political act; if we can confront who we are in relation to others, with kindness and a gentle curiosity, then we stand a better chance of truly understanding our role in this world and how to take action from a place of compassion.
This blog by Gemma Houdley was originally published as ‘Care as a political act’ at gemmahouldey.com on 2nd December 2019.
You are invited to this, the first of our Member-led events for 2020, hosted in the Healing Solidarity Collective byJennifer Lentfer, and happening on Thursday, Feb 6th at 4 pm GMT / 11 am EST / 8 am PST / 7 pm EAT / 9.30 pm IST
Scary and vulnerable as it may seem, we need more people in the global development sector to tell their stories, the “why” behind what their work. Because the stories we have about ourselves are basically the river that flows underneath everything we do. In it flows our deepest motivations – often unconscious – that push us forward, that present obstacles or dictates our reactions to obstacles, that keeps us going.
We are free – right now and always – to tell as much or as little of our story as we want. We can share snippets, or the whole long thing. We can go deep into it, or tell is as if it were something emotionally separate from ourselves. Your story is always under our control.
When we “own” our story, we are valuing our own voice, and asking other people to do the same. When we share our story, it invites every single person who hears it to think about their own story as well…thus stories are where we go to liberate, to heal, to build community. Stories are powerful and they are needed as a source of strength and solidarity to shift the power in global development.
In the session we will: ● Explore the role of our life stories/lived experiences and our professional identities. ● Recall and reflect on our first experiences of knowing we wanted to “help” people and probe/understand the circumstances or the motivation around that moment/”knowing”. ● Practice sharing our stories to invite other people into our inner lives, affirming transparency, self-worth, purpose, and interconnectedness.
About your host for this session: Jennifer Lentfer is a farm girl turned international aid worker turned communications strategist, writing coach, and facilitator/trainer. (But she is mostly a poet.). She is one of Foreign Policy Magazine’s “100 women to follow on Twitter” @intldogooder, an author (smartrisks.org) and a blogger at how-matters.org, in which she called for an examination of racism in international aid with its first post in 2010. She was most recently the Director of Communications at Thousand Currents, a foundation reimagining equitable approaches to philanthropy and impact investing. With her students at Georgetown, she published “The Development Element: Guidelines for the future of communicating about the end of global poverty” in 2014 and has been teaching “Storytelling and Communications for Social Change” at the University of Vermont Masters in Leadership for Sustainability Program for the past four years. She has served with various organizations in Zimbabwe, Malawi, Namibia, and the US, including Oxfam, the Red Cross, UNICEF, Catholic Relief Services, and Firelight Foundation and has consulted with InterAction, Mama Cash, the Global Fund for Community Foundations, Nike Foundation, Feedback Labs, and the Congressional Hunger Center. Jennifer is currently writing her first play about family violence, misogyny, ableism, and U.S. healthcare, which she swears will include laughter.
Do join us for this first Member-led event of 2020 which will be happening via our dedicated space the Healing Solidarity Collective – join us there to get access to this event at collective.healingsolidarity.org.
I entered the Healing Solidarity, Embodying Change conference with one particular topic on my mind: aid worker wellbeing. I’m passionate about wellbeing because so many of my friends and colleagues are experiencing debilitating rates of exhaustion, overwhelm, burnout, depression, anxiety and PTSD. I recently went through my own struggle, as well.
Despite recent conversations about safeguarding, diversity and toxic cultures within organisations – we in the aid sector have yet to instigate widespread changes in our practice when it comes to: 1) how organisations treat their staff, and 2) how we care for ourselves and one another.
I’m keenly interested in how we, as people and organisations, can more effectively embody the change that we want to see in the world. How can we apply our humanitarian values to ourselves and each other while delivering effective and high-quality assistance to and with affected populations? With that in mind, here’s what struck a chord for me last week.
“We said we wanted to do things
Mary Jane N. Real, Co-Lead of Urgent Action Fund for
Women’s Human Rights Asia & Pacific
When Mary Jane and others started UAF Asia and the
Pacific, they wanted to do things differently. The way they had worked before
was unsustainable and resulted in burnout. Here are some components of their
new way of working:
Co-leadership: I’ve run a network of organizations before. If I do
it again, I don’t want to do it on my own. We’ve clearly defined our areas of
work. My co-lead raises the money and I spend it. We’re clear on who makes
decisions about what.
Friendship: Build close friendships with the people you work
with. There will be less misunderstandings and miscommunication. Deepen
relationships with each other so they don’t break in highly repressive
emergent learning framework: We
have a learning question as a team that is internal to the organization: What
would it take to practice a feminist culture of giving and sharing in the
health coverage: In addition
to conventional health insurance, we set aside money for other health needs not
covered by insurance, like eye checkups and acupuncture.
off: When we take
our leave, we’re respectful of each other’s time off. We don’t expect colleagues to respond to emails or work
calls or work-related matters. They should fully take the time off and not feel
guilty about it.
Despite offering psychosocial counsellors to staff, none of the team members have taken up the offer. “It’s so easy to get into the default way of doing things of how we’re so used to overworking ourselves, of putting ourselves last, of thinking that these types of practices are more privilege than a necessity.” Many organisations don’t even have the money to run programs and activities; they do their activism or service by exploiting themselves. We have to be more overt and deliberate about surfacing these practices that we want to change before we can even begin to change them.
means ‘right living’ or ‘one living.’ It puts us within the broader ecosystem.”
Solomé Lemma, Executive Director of
Sumak kawsay – or buen vivir, in Spanish – is the worldview
of the Quechua peoples of the Andes that describes a way of doing things that
is community-centric, ecologically-balanced and culturally-sensitive. Solomé
Lemma asks, “What does it mean to build your practice of ‘Buen Vivir’ within an
organization – where staff are taken care of, where we work on transforming ourselves
so we can contribute to the transformation of the world? How can we build a
culture of wellbeing that’s so different from the existing work culture… that
challenges Western mainstream ideas around leadership and productivity?”
In Thousand Currents, a board member talks
about “SOUL care” rather than self-care. Team members can take a wellness day
and a creativity WEEK. When Mary Ann asked Solomé about her leadership style,
she replied, “In this culture, a lot of leaders are understood to be extroverted.
I am an introvert… One thing that’s important to me is to
show up authentic, fully as I am, to be as open as possible to the world of
ideas and possibilities and people that we engage in this work, and to be fully
grounded and centered around why we’re doing this. What’s the bigger purpose?”
Solomé brings up a question many of us
face as our teams become more dispersed and remotely based. “How do we keep this culture – the culture of
relationship, the culture of humility, the culture of community – in a virtual
about what you already have. Don’t think about raising tons of money.”
Lori Michau, Co-Founder and Co-Director of
Financial constraints are a barrier to investing in staff care that has come up in several of my interviews for the Cultivating Caring, Compassionate Aid Organisations initiative. Lori Michau of Raising Voices has a response:
“You don’t need huge budgets. We’ve really tried to get away from this Northern idea that self-care is going to a massage and a yoga class. Most women don’t have access to that, so we’re trying to re-conceptualise it in a different way, that self-care can be about safe relationships that we have with ourselves and each other. It can be about joy and pleasure in very simple and free things.”
Simple policies make people feel a little bit more seen and heard. We have policies that support people as whole people. For breastfeeding mothers who need to travel for work, the organization will pay for a caretaker to join them and the baby. We have flexi-time for staff.
Take a look at your environment. We like colour, so we have a lot of colour around the office. We have beautiful murals that people have painted. We try to make the environment nice. You actually want to be in it.
And then processes. How are you getting together as a team and engaging with each other and building that collectivity together? Do you have a team meeting? Can you bring a small game to connect people in that space? Can you do a breathing exercise at the beginning of it? Can you ask people how they actually are, not just what they do?
I start a well-being cluster?”
Solanki, Senior Lecturer, MSc Development Studies London Southbank University
Faye Ekong, Managing Director at
RavelWorks Africa, in her interview with Mary Ann talks about the importance of
investing in care for staff who are on the ground, who are from the country of
operation. “They will remain after you have pulled out and all other staff who
are not from that country have been flown out. They really need the support.”
Hitendra gives an example of what that
could look like. On 30 July 2018 the first “Wellbeing Cluster” was launched in
Cebu in the Philippines. It was envisioned as a new model to support aid
workers and communities more effectively before, during and after a
humanitarian response, where they often witness and experience the suffering of
others. It pools knowledge, expertise, services and
resources of local and
national NGOs, INGOs, governmental departments, academia, youth organisations,
the private sector, CSOs, and other key stakeholders.
Hitendra tells the story of the Cluster’s formation. His original plan was to promote mindfulness practice among humanitarian aid workers – “plug it in” to existing well-being frameworks. But he found there were no real well-being frameworks in existence. Staff well-being was not being prioritised by organisations in the sector. So the model itself of a well-being cluster was to say, “Okay, let’s create little nodes in areas where these are needed, such as the Philippines where there is frequent recurrence of emergencies. This could be a way of, one, having a very cost-effective, localised approach to well-being and mental health well-being, in particular with communities and aid workers on the ground. And that model itself could then be developed as part of humanitarian architecture globally as well.”
Hitendra created a Wellbeing
Cluster in the Philippines. Should
we try to create Wellbeing Clusters where we live?
vision. Someone helping you put some glasses on and look at how you work.”
Pip Bennett, Feminist Mother and Youth
Pip had seen so many development colleagues burnout but not doing anything about it or change the way they were working. She came across an approach used in other professions, like social work and counselling, that could help. It’s called supervision.
Supervision is a relationship – between a
supervisor (preferably not the line manager) and a supervisee – built around
Professional support, making sure that you are following policies, procedures, and doing things how you should be doing them
Self-care, checking how is your personal life coming over into your professional life and vice versa and how is the balance going there
It can be one-on-one, or group or peer
supervision. It helps people stay in their jobs for longer and avoid burnout,
partly because it keeps people connected to their purpose. It can also create
space to address sensitive issues as they arise in the workplace.
“How do we make
more of a connection, an interdependence, between how we care for ourselves
individually, how we care for our family sphere, our community sphere and work?”
“More and more I see folks that are realizing, well,
we can’t really do this work. They understand that relationships are broken,
that solidarity is broken, that trust has been broken. In the NGO industrial
complex, we’ve lost relational piece. And the piece that brings in why are you
of value simply because you’re human, because you’re living. We have to stop
doing some things that are harmful to ourselves and others, to be better in
Shawna clarifies some important
Healing is any process whereby one becomes a more whole version of themselves – coming back to a sense of living life more wholly, more present, in community with others
Resilience helps us come back to a sense of being centered – a sense I can be with others and organise with others, support others and get my needs met as well
Shawna practices yoga, meditation
and somatics. “When we’re in our bodies, we’re much more able to listen, we’re
much more able to perceive, we’re much more able to feel, we’re much more able
“We have, for better or for worse, professionalised social action.”
Danny Sriskandarajah, CEO of Oxfam
Allesandra Pigni wrote in the “Idealist’s Survival
Kit” that “we burn out from overwork and are disillusioned by a mismatch
between what we thought things would be (making a difference!) and what they
are (writing reports that no one reads).”
Danny explains that Oxfam was around 12-years-old before it employed a paid member of staff. Before it became Oxfam, it was comprised of volunteers raising money and campaigning. It was very much internationalist, based on solidarity and humanitarian principles. And then eventually, like many other social formations, it started to institutionalise. Organizations register as “charities,” their processes become formalised, their groups become professionalised, and bureaucracies are born.
I myself have been struggling with the unintended
consequences of professionalization – or bureaucratization – of the sector for
years. That’s why I got behind the Less Paper More Aid
Campaign to find ways to streamline
requirements around reporting, audits and partner capacity assessments. I
wonder how we can maintain the benefits of professionalism but also return to
the positive ethos of our volunteer roots?
“Folks who have had power and privilege
may have to take a back seat or a step back. And that’s where the rubber meets
the road, because folks don’t want to give up power.”
Edgar Villanueva, author of “Decolonising Wealth”
Edgar Villanueva, a member of the Lumbee
Tribe, says, “Most folks are good people. We’re just not aware of the systems
that have been baked into our work for generations.”
His book asks us to trace back the roots of wealth and come to terms with the origins of the inequity that has led to aid funding coming out of countries that benefited from colonisation and slavery. Well-meaning, charitable organisations and people can “actually perpetuate colonial dynamics and harm on communities if they’re not aware of privilege and how they’re showing up and how they’re trying to support and build relationships with community.”
Edgar asks us to acknowledge these
histories as part of a pathway to healing our relationships to one another and
to our work. He suggests we bring “love and humanity” into these conversations.
“When we can speak the truth in love, I’ve found that many people are able to
actually listen and receive it and make some change.”
I myself have been confronted by
my privilege. What should I be doing differently?
Culture, values and power
The topic of culture came up in many of the Healing Solidarity conversations. Gozel Baltaeva talked about “blame culture” that does not allow for mistakes. Smruti Patel asked if we work in a “fear-based” culture. Danny, mentioned above, said culture change within Oxfam – “putting our house in order” – is one of his top priorities at the moment. Faye Ekong, Managing Director at RavelWorks Africa, wants to see HR move beyond the role of administration and timesheets and leave requests and policies to “building the cultures necessary for proper execution of high-quality humanitarian programs.” Jennifer Lentfer shared a list of characteristics in white supremacy culture, including perfectionism, a sense of urgency, quantity over quality, either/or thinking, power hoarding, fear of open conflict, individualism, and progress as bigger/ more. These traits can be found, she points out, in the interlocking operating systems of patriarchy and capitalism. Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken recently published a policy brief in which she describes culture as “primarily about informal, covert belief systems” driven by various factors. To address the root causes of recent scandals in our sector, she argues, “NGOs will have to do sustained and disciplined culture work themselves.”
Values were also mentioned several times. Danny said, “I want to work in an organisation that I can hold my head up high, not just because of the people we help or the impacts we have, but because we walk the talk on the values that we hold dear.” Edgar said, “My way of dealing with that is one, deciding to take care of myself and stay sort of grounded in my values and who I am and what I would not give up. We have bills and the paycheck might be good, but we have to come to terms with like, what are our values?” Alex Martins discussed the creation of an Equity Index. Shawna asked, “What practices help us to bring our values to life? And how can we do that through embodiment?” Jennifer Lentfer observed how much our organisations are expressions of dominant society values. Nurhaida Rahim said what is missing is the human connection – instead of looking at our phones, ask the person next to you how are you, how is your family?
Shawna remarked, “there’s tough conversations about power that need to happen. We want to talk about power, but then when you really get into it, it’s tough, it hurts actually. It genuinely hurts people.” Edgar said “colonisation is a force, I think of it as a virus. I call it the colonising virus. That has just permeated every aspect of our being and it’s all about separating, dividing, conquering, exploiting and amassing wealth and power by any means necessary.” The issue is very political – not just resisting but dismantling the structures where self-worth is tied to productivity and results, inequities of power, etc. Dr. Gemma Houldey’s June 2019 article on “Humanitarian response and stress in Kenya: gendered problems and their implications,” concludes by prompting us to reflect “on the responsibilities of both staff and management in recognising power and privilege within the sector, and how these factors affect behaviour, organisational culture, and the ability to remain committed to the humanitarian cause.”
Melissa has been working in humanitarian affairs since 2003 wearing different hats: donor, UN member state, multilateral, NGO coalition, independent. She’s also a mom, bookworm, and burnout-survivor. She and Mary Ann, the initiator of Healing Solidarity have been working together recently on a project being incubated by CHS alliance which is looking at building caring and compassionate organisations.
Downloads of all the talks from Healing Solidarity: Embodying Change, our 2019 Conference, are still available here.