‘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.
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.