Women of color leaders are guarding a dirty little secret — our work is eroding our mental, physical and emotional health. We are slowly wrecking ourselves as we try to transform political organizations, foundations, media rooms, nonprofits, the publishing industry. Every conversation I’ve had with my colleagues in the first few weeks of 2020 alone revolves around how we’re exhausted and struggling at best, or suffering with a specific illness at worst. With rare exceptions like Ayanna Pressley ’s revelation of alopecia, we’re not talking about our deep exhaustion publicly for many reasons, including our own shame and sense of failure. It’s time for us to confront the core reasons for our suffering — the scarcity mentality and culture of celebrity and competition that underpins even the most progressive spaces. […]
We are complicit. For nearly three decades, I have given everything I have to a world that I thought was focused on justice and love. So have many of my peers. But we have also, often unknowingly, become complicit in a capitalistic system that encourages competition and compromise.
Earlier this month, the organization I run, New American Leaders, received a commitment of 1.5 million to support our work to close the gender gap in state legislatures, particularly by increasing the representation of immigrant and refugee women. Unlike most of our grant commitments, this one was accompanied by a public announcement and media attention. It’s exciting news, but also raised these concerns. Funders will think we have so much money that we no longer need their help or alternatively, will think of us as more credible. And will our colleagues leading women-only organizations resent us for receiving support from a fund dedicated to women?
Each of these thoughts was rooted in the culture of scarcity, competition, inadequacy and celebrity which pervades so-called progressive spaces. And women of color experience this culture in particularly challenging ways.
Conditioned to do more with less. Scarcity is built into our lived experience as immigrants and people of color. We may have enough love to go around but often don’t have enough to make ends meet, to build a nest egg, to own an extra pair of shoes. When we come into leadership roles, we can build on our lived experience easily, learning how to do more with less, underpaying ourselves for the greater good, feeling like there’s not enough time to take vacations (who grew up doing that, anyway?). This is not just about resources, but also about feeling like we don’t have the time or the luxury to take a break. In the nonprofit world, funders contribute to our stress by doling out grants in small amounts, year to year, or shifting priorities, or suggesting that there are too many organizations meeting the same mandates.
Competing for crumbs. This in turn contributes to the kind of competition that causes us to protect our donors’ identities, to be reluctant to make introductions to influencers, and to take space instead of making space. We internalize the idea that there is only room at the table for one of us, in part because we have explicitly been told as much. Building trust among leaders becomes hard when these same leaders feel they have to compete — for money, fellowships, a spot on the top 10 list. We build alliances, certainly, but sometimes those can be shaky and unreliable, or extractive and strategic. In progressive organizations, the purity test can also be a proxy for competition — if you’re not poor enough, woke enough, black enough, queer enough, then you can’t be at the table.
Shaped by inadequacy. Those of us who refuse to play by the rules or worse, play by the rules and still don’t get “anointed”, feel inadequate. What could I have done differently to be on that list, get that grant, be among those invited to that meeting? Every few years, we effectively anoint a handful of stars in media, politics, non-profit. Having been among those anointed, I can say with great confidence that we are complicit in creating a celebrity culture that keeps some people at the top rung of the ladder and some at the bottom.
But it also comes at a price. I have performed whiteness, at first unknowingly, and then knowingly, for the sake of my organization and leadership. These acts are often passive, not innocent, but passive. Like eating with an array of cutlery at a well-set table. Like smiling politely during cocktail conversations filled with microaggressions. But when the choice is active — and we have all made them — take this grant and be the beneficiary of extractive practices for communities of color; attend this event at the home of a conservative philanthropist, then as leaders, we become standard bearers of a system designed to stymie our people. Some of our choices are analogous to those who accepted money from Jeffrey Epstein, or denied the truth of Harvey Weinstein’s accusers to protect their immediate needs.
Lost in performance. So what does this all have to do with health and well-being? Performing whiteness denies who we are as women of color — hearing our names bungled; seeing our stories essentialized, denied or whitewashed; hiding our truths from shame or fear — all of this eats away at our core. This denial of our authentic selves, coupled with the scarcity mentality and a competitive culture, wears us down.
Navigating white supremacist institutions while focused on inclusion and equity is a long and weary road. Burnout is common, but recognition of it is not. We use euphemisms like tired, stressed, overwhelmed. All these are true, but what we also feel is underestimated, undervalued, under resourced. In 2019, Race to Lead, reported on women of color in the nonprofit sector, documenting exactly this.
Many of us are embedded in the media/nonprofit/philanthropic industrial complexes even as we are trying to change the very culture that created that complex. We’re struggling to ensure our organizations’ sustainability within the constraints of the system as it exists today — the hamster wheel of conferences and seeing and being seen, foundation opaqueness, the creation and preservation of celebrity leaders, donor cultivation that can feel inauthentic. And these are just external factors. Within our organizations, we grapple with a range of management challenges also rooted in scarcity thinking, competitiveness and inadequacy.
A new way forward. No one appreciates the urgency of now more than Black, indigenous, immigrant and refugee women, whose suffering from both misogyny and xenophobia have increased under the Trump administration. It feels like we can’t slow down, or pull back.
But we can’t keep playing a game in which the rules are rigged against us. Instead, we must commit to valuing ourselves and our time in ways that feel uncomfortable at first but can lead to a shift in culture more generally, and to embracing our self-worth more specifically.
For me, this entails stepping off the treadmill and stepping into more spaces of solidarity.
Stepping off the treadmill. We can refuse to participate in the culture of seeing and being seen. High-profile events and glamorous conferences often just create a false sense of urgency, drain energy or fan celebrity flames. While uncomfortable at first, it can become second nature to turn down invitations to spaces that are tokenizing or not offering a platform that showcases the full power of our work (for example, here’s a breakout session at the very end of the conference where you can briefly talk about immigrant political power).
Spaces for solidarity. Spending more time in the company of women leaders has become my primary form of self care. This is not systemic change, but supporting each other is a crucial first step to breaking down those feelings of being underestimated and undervalued. In one group I belong to, we support each other in person and through group texts and accountability centered on valuing ourselves and our time. Often, the role we play is a “gut check” — did I do or say the right thing?
In the long term, women of color will create the America we can be. In the short term, we must affirm one another, linking arms as we stand at the frontlines of the battle for our very humanity. Our survival depends on us.
Restless citizen. Writer, speaker, advocate. Check out my book People Like Us — https://bit.ly/2Odt3SK