Tell me if this scenario sounds familiar:
You work at a non-profit social change organization that you care about deeply. When you got the job, you couldn’t believe you were actually getting paid to do the work you would do as a volunteer anyway. You felt honored to be hired amidst many other great applicants, and your community and family (chosen or otherwise) were so proud. It was somewhat of a dream come true.
Flash forward a few months, or a few years, and that passion and wholehearted dedication to the organization is starting to fade (or, it’s merely a distant memory). Yes, you love the values that the organization stands for, and the work they are doing in the world is so needed. But, you’re also getting really tired of feeling taken advantage of working long hours, with little or no promotion opportunities, and feeling like you’re compromising your own health and well-being for the sake of the movement.
And, you’re paying your rent and your student loans, but just barely. You’ve wanted to ask for a raise for a long time, but you know the organization doesn’t have any money, or at least not for an entry-level position, so what’s the point.
Ok. So, if part or all of this scenario sounds familiar, the first thing to know is that it’s not just you. I can’t even tell you how many similar versions of this story I have heard in the last few years through Rabble Up. This is the story that’s replicated in almost every sector of the progressive movement, no matter what issues you’re working on, or where in the country you’re doing that work. Believe me, I get it, I’ve been there.
The second thing to know, is that your feelings and struggles are valid and real. Just because you’re feeling burnt out, it doesn’t mean that you’re a bad activist or any less dedicated to the cause. PLEASE hear me when I say that, I’ll even say it again: Just because you’re feeling burnt out, it doesn’t mean that you’re a bad activist or any less dedicated to the cause.
And thirdly, there are ways to break the cycle of feeling frustrated or stuck.
I love you deeply, and so I have something to say: It doesn’t need to be this way.
Thank you for all your hard work and sacrifice. Because of you, we have won countless fights, made enumerable advances, and are further along on this fervent path to justice.
It’s Valentine’s Day, and though I’m not normally one to celebrate, I want to extend a gift to you (and no, it’s not a fuzzy teddy bear holding a heart. It’s even better).
My gift to you, this February 14th, is the permission to put yourself first.
Now the truth is, I once thought that I had to be exactly like you, working what felt like ALL THE TIME and disconnecting from myself just to get through the day. But as it turns out, I feel most aligned when I’m operating in a state of balance. I feel whole when my self-care is a priority. I love the world by loving myself first.
It’s not your fault. In fact, I don’t blame you at all. We SERIOUSLY need to have some conversations in this movement about organizational culture, fundraising requirements, and leadership training.
But in the meantime, do what YOU need to do:
1) It’s ok to say ‘no’ to things. Like, it’s really ok. The Earth won’t stop turning, and there will always be someone else who is right for the gig. Boundaries are wonderfully healthy things.
2) Putting your oxygen mask on first means you love other people more, not less. We are all more happy when you show up as the best form of yourself. Do what you need to do to be able to act from that place.
3) Working insanely long hours ALL THE TIME is not aligned with your social change values. Yes, sometimes it is very necessary. But those moments should be the exception, not the rule, and it’s high-time we put more distributive leadership practices into operation.
4) And, lastly, remember that the younger folks in the room are learning from you. Want the next cycle of awesome social change leaders to be more grounded than you are? Yup, then practice what you preach.
Believe me, this is all coming from a deep place of love for you, and for all of us fighting this good fight together. I honor your commitment and passion, so let’s all work hand in hand to reshape our non-profit cultures. I’m ready to co-design, are you?
With love and abundance,
I talk a lot about what separates good leaders from great leaders. We know it when we see it. Good leaders get the job done, but great leaders inspire us to be the best version of ourselves. Their innovation, grounded spirit, and self-assuredness are contagious.
So, what is it that makes these people so magnetic? So alluring? So unique?
I think there are many answers to that question, and I don’t profess to know them all. But, what I do know, is that these great leaders are, at their core, artists. Their art is their very presence, and their ability to share themselves and their message with the world.
This is relevant for anyone who wants to spread their message effectively.
I was at a training a few months ago with a man who has been called many things– a master facilitator, a coach, a mentor, and even a guru. He deals in systems, processes, and structures, as much as with hearts, music, and energy. All in all, he is an inspiring leader to be in the presence of. I wish I could absorb even half of his wisdom.
These qualities that he exhibits have come from a lifetime of practice in different methodologies, which is to say, he has honed his craft. People don’t usually rise to greatness on accident.
Working as an artist is about the process of creating, not just the finished piece. It takes commitment, discipline, time, patience, and deep passion for what you do, whether or not anyone else happens to be paying attention. I come from a long line of artists who painted because their souls had to, not because fame or attention were even remote possibilities.
Similarly, finding your footing as an activist and social justice leader takes time, patience, and a commitment to the journey. Often, our fights are long and enduring, striving for changes in policy, culture, and the hearts and minds of the public.
The message to work for change may come from your soul, but the work actually happens day in and day out, whether or not it feels as if progress is being made.
Looking at your work as a masterpiece constantly in the process of being created, and reconnecting to that inner fire, might help to alleviate some of the burnout associated with the long haul.
So, with your artist hat on (beret or otherwise…), I pose some questions:
When you do social change work professionally, it tends to get personal, fast. We all come to this work with stories from our past and communities, the reasons we feel called to fight for justice.
Many of those experiences are felt very deeply, quickly creating bonds between us and the people we work with every day. I have so many beautiful and enduring friendships that have been born out of being co-workers first.
It’s also true, that this closeness can breed a difficult dynamic where boundaries are crossed, and staffers are left feeling exposed and raw without much space or separation between work-life and personal life.
So, let’s talk about boundaries.
Boundaries are difficult to set, and even harder to maintain. They require inner knowing, commitment, and a bit of tough love towards others. But, when structured well, boundaries can actually make us feel more secure, lighter, and free us up from other peoples’ stuff.
I used to have a boss that disguised her nosey nature as “getting to know you” leadership. It took me months of feeling uncomfortable, and slightly ashamed, after our conversations to realize that her supposed leadership style was, in fact, just straight up gossipy. As an introvert, I’m prone to this feeling of overexposure. But, for anyone, crossed boundaries are a sign that we need to raise our defense shields.
I find that boundaries get especially murky when issues of power and privilege are at play. If you’re already marginalized at work, it’s a much bigger challenge to stand up for your own needs.
In need of some boundary setting with your co-workers? Try out these tips.
Guest Post by Gregory A. Cendana
Cendana is the first openly gay and youngest-ever Executive Director of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA) of the AFL-CIO, and Institute for Asian Pacific American Leadership & Advancement.
I’m known by many for having a Can’t Stop! Won’t Stop! kind of lifestyle.
And it’s true.
I’ve found a way to balance all the important things in my life: family, friends, work, dance, local DC politics and the list goes on.
Believe it or not, there is no secret potion or pill to my seemingly endless energy. It lies in the practices that I’ve developed for personal sustainability and the amount of self-love I have and continue to prioritize.
People, especially students and young professionals, are sometimes made to believe the only way you’ll be successful is if you work non-stop, and that pushing one self toward burnout is part of a process of “paying your dues” before you can ascend into leadership.
This was definitely how I felt, especially when I moved to Washington, D.C. more than 5 years ago. I found myself waking up early, staying up late, and constantly on the grind. During meals—if I even ate them—and when I was with family or friends, I’d be on my phone answering emails or continually adding to my never-ending list of things to do. There was always someone to respond to or something urgent that needed to be addressed (or it seemed that way, anyway).
I’ve been told before that organizing, fighting for social change and movement-building should be treated like a marathon, not a sprint. My life experiences have reminded me over and over that this is true.
Personal sustainability is the best thing you can do for yourself and our collective quest for social justice. I believe success should not be calculated by how long or much you work but rather by how effective you are in the goals you set for yourself.
You may be asking, “how did you do it Gregory?”
Here are some of the things I did that helped me find balance in my life:
You’re a social change professional or student in your 20s or 30s. You’re pretty burnt out, financially strapped, debating what your next steps should be.
You’re ready for a change, wanting to reconnect with your inner fire, but not sure how to make that happen.
The problems in the world are only getting bigger, and you want to make local and global impact.
You have unique leadership skills, but no one else seems to truly appreciate that yet.
It’s time to create some openness.
Join a FREE webinar on the “10 Lessons Every Social Change Professional Needs to Unlearn.”
Turns out, the things you thought you knew about being an activist may be myths that are just holding you back.
Is it possible to have a meaningful job AND a thriving personal life? (Hint: Yes, but only you can create it.)
Join the call to take your first step in that direction.
When: Tuesday November 5th 8:00pm-9:00pm EST
Where: Online, details will be sent after registration
Join live to be eligible for a special offer at the end of the call (recording will also be made available).
Bring a friend and receive 20% off your first coaching session from Rabble Up (must be used within 6 months).
Register now by emailing email@example.com with “WEBINAR” in the subject line.