Dismantling the Working-While-Wounded Culture through Accountability and Naming Harmful Practices

Sabrina Slade, Director, Racial Equity and Advocacy, John Rex Endowment
Reprinted with permission as originally published on March 9, 2022 by John Rex Endowment

It wasn’t until last year, during a staff meeting outside in our parking lot as we tried to find some sense of togetherness during the COVID pandemic, did I realize the toll that years of racial equity work was taking on my mental and physical health. I was exhausted. But it wasn’t the exhaustion induced by the pandemic alone. For the first time, I was physically feeling the toll of racial equity on my health, and it frightened me. I heard a speaker at a philanthropy conference describe that for BILPOC (Black, Indigenous, Latinx and People of Color) staff working in the space of racial equity, the work can be experienced as the equivalent of walking around with a low-grade fever. It can take months or years before the feelings of burnout are manifested in ways that can show up as illnesses such as high blood pressure or depression. I was not able to outrun racial equity fatigue although I made intentional efforts to prioritize my self-care. I rested more and praised myself for it, being reminded that rest is self-preservation which is an act of political warfare as described by Audre Lorde. I ate better which was hard to do during a pandemic. I got in more steps and drank more water. I became a master at my own self-care regime. Yet, it wasn’t enough. I wondered, was it too late for me? Why weren’t my self-care efforts sustaining me?

After years of working in nonprofit agencies in North Carolina, I shifted paths to pursue a career in philanthropy. The impetus of this shift was rooted in my desire to bring a lens of someone who worked inside of agencies that received funding from foundations. Thus far, the majority of my career in philanthropy has involved working in the space of gender and racial equity. As a Black woman in and from the South, the work of racial equity is sacred to me. At my core, I know that I am called to do this work. However, I am fully aware that I am part of a sector that both benefits me, and historically excludes funding to organizations led by people who look like me. I’m working-while-wounded in the work of racial equity – working to address systemic issues that also impact me. My position in philanthropy does little to shield me from the experience of being proximate to systemic racism.

Last year, Charity Navigator reported that of the $450 billion dollars given away in the United States by foundations and donors in 2019, less than 4% of that funding went to organizations led by Black, Latinx, and Indigenous leaders. This exclusion of funding leaves little to no resources for BILPOC-led organizations to fully address the needs of the community or the wellbeing of themselves and staff to sustain their work. Many BILPOC staff are also working-while-wounded, stretching to meet the needs of their communities while being impacted by harmful practices that bar them from the necessary resources to make true impact.

Naming harms as a part of healing

Expecting BILPOC staff to be resilient, to keep pushing through, without the willingness of organizations to support needs around healing is harmful. The pandemic has placed mental health front and center for months. As offices reopen, the phrase “back to normal” should be removed from our lexicons. There was never anything normal about having to choose resiliency over mental health and the ability to be whole.

In 2021, The Nonprofit Quarterly published an article titled, The Hidden Cost of DEI Work – And What to Do About It. It was a timely article that aided in my path towards healing. One of the recommendations calls for the centering of healing, that “If we can name the harm, and if we can create spaces for healing, then we invite continued participation in the work.”

In my experience, naming harms and speaking truths can be complicated because it often requires confronting the source, typically a person or group, to stop a behavior that is harmful or traumatizing, sometimes without them realizing it. For this reason, weighing the risk associated with naming harms must be considered. If the ability to remain gainfully employed is on the line, some may think twice before calling out harmful behaviors. Speaking up has not always worked in favor of some people. History has proven this. Healing may look like leaving an environment instead of naming harms. For those who may find it more difficult to leave, healing may look like finding others to confide, creating brave spaces to have harms addressed without retaliation. Whether spoken aloud or whispered in confidence, naming harms is part of healing and a path towards wholeness.

Disrupting the working-while-wounded culture will only happen when those with the power to end harmful practices hold each other accountable to creating cultures where everyone can thrive. While there are several harms to name, the following harms are the most commons ones that I’ve experienced in the nonprofit sector through my racial equity work.

1. Only participating in racial equity work that keeps certain donors, board members, or staff “comfortable” is harmful. While everyone has a different starting point in their racial equity journey and meeting people where they are is part of the work, it will at times be uncomfortable. This is where the growth in racial equity work resides. Coming to terms with what we didn’t know, acknowledging that we still need to know more, and knowing there is no silver bullet to having it figured out is core to authentic racial equity work. Deciding who is worthy of being comfortable speaks to a lack of awareness, never considering the feelings of BILPOC staff and board members who may have been uncomfortable for years, dodging microaggressions and unequitable policies and practices that have caused harm. Another way that the harm of comforting some people over others can show up is in grantmaking practices. For instance, foundations striving to implement more equitable grantmaking strategies may find themselves over explaining or repeatedly justifying why increased funds are allocated to BILPOC-led organizations. Questions to foundations such as, “How much of your portfolio will be used to fund BILPOC-led organizations?” could be rooted in the entitlement of those who feel they deserve funding over others, fear of backlash from White-led organizations, or the lack of trust in BILPOC leaders in organizations. Be clear on whose voice should be centered in these conversations. If the playing field was equitable, there would be no need to create funding strategies for those who have historically been excluded. Instead, a better question may be, “Since the majority of our portfolio does not award grants to BILPOC-led organizations, why haven’t we seen the outcomes in Black and Brown communities that we expect?” Organizations that are led by those most proximate to issues being addressed are aware of what it takes to thrive, yet many have been excluded from funding and opportunities to co-create policies that are inclusive of all people.

2. Asking BILPOC staff to help navigate emotions of guilt experienced during racial equity work is harmful. Deepening one’s understanding of the ways in which racial inequities exists can evoke several feelings including guilt. Feelings of guilt are real and can be a triggering part of a racial equity journey. White staff may experience conflicting feelings with advantages either born into or benefited from through systems that prioritize some over others. In contrast, BILPOC staff may find themselves experiencing feelings associated with being most proximate to systemic racism. There is a disproportionate labor that BILPOC staff bear in the work of racial equity. As a Black woman, I’m navigating many of the same inequitable systems that I am striving to solve for. The work of racial equity looks different for me than my White peers. The mutual liberation that can be experienced through racial equity work will happen when those benefiting the most from current systems have the willingness to challenge and act upon ways to create equitable systems for all people, regardless of race. White staff have the opportunity to lean into each other and unpack feelings associated with racial equity work, sharing ways to support each other through the process.

3. Performative acts of allyship are harmful. There are numerous books, articles, podcasts, and other resources to help assist individuals in their racial equity journey. Yet, these tools and increased knowledge overtime should translate into ways to reduce participating in harmful practices. This is the path to authentic allyship as well, using advantages and positional power to call out inequitable practices as we see them. For example, authentic allyship could take the form of speaking up in meetings when microaggressions occur in real time, using it as an opportunity to model the behavior that builds a more inclusive culture. Asking someone to unpack comments such as, “Where did you grow up because you are so articulate?” or “You are truly a credit to your race.” places the burden on the offender to provide context to the microaggression and relieves the recipient of the microaggression from being viewed as angry or combative when speaking up or even left feeling deflated by remaining silent. Authentic allies understand what it means to stand in the gap. While the work of racial equity calls for giving grace to each other as we learn and grow in our journey, the giving of grace does not exclude holding people accountable to harms that are committed on a repeated basis. There are opportunities in allyship to dismantle harmful norms that have become the water that we all swim in.

4. Adding BILPOC board members for diversity purposes only is harmful and tokenizing. Organizations attempting to create equitable environments know that having board of directors who are racially diverse with multiple lived experiences supports the culture they are striving for. Yet, inclusion of all voices, perspectives, and beliefs does not occur without the ability to listen, learn, and trust each other. Inclusion is not asking others to enter toxic spaces and expecting them to assimilate. Board members are responsible for creating and maintaining an inclusive space, holding each other accountable through self-awareness and an understanding of what it takes to maintain spaces where all people are welcome. Also, shifting the responsibility to BILPOC board members to be the sole recruiter of other BILPOC is tokenizing. For example, only asking Black board members to refer the names of Black people who would be a “good fit” for board membership is coded language. Instead, use the opportunity to unpack the intent of the request. First, question what a “good fit” looks like for a Black board member verse other racial identities on the board. Realize that a question of “fit” when recruiting Black board members may be coming from a deficit in the lack of authentic relationships with Black people. It also brings into question the willingness to authentically be inclusive. Secondly, ask in what ways could a board’s culture and recruitment practices shift so that Black board members are retained, and recruitment becomes the responsibility of all board members. Replacing Black board members as other Black board members roll off boards infers that the number of board seats for Black people is limited and/or that the board culture is not conducive to retain Black board members. If the intent is to build diverse and inclusive boards, the membership makeup should not be predetermined. Figuring out ways to learn and grow in one’s racial equity journey in the absence of relying on those most proximate, in this case Black people, is important.  

Although I’ve named harms in the work of racial equity in the nonprofit sector, I acknowledge that any sector or organization can be inserted in its place, and it would read the same. This is the unfortunate reality of systemic racism in multiple systems and its impact on all of us. I also recognize that naming harms is not the only way to heal. Healing can never be prescriptive and will look different for each person.

I’m not sure what my healing journey will look like over time. However, I’m just grateful to finally be on this journey.

Sabrina Slade, Director, Racial Equity and Advocacy, John Rex EndowmentSabrina Slade has been a member of the John Rex Endowment team since April 2019. In her role as Director, Racial Equity and Advocacy, she designs, implements, and manages initiatives and programs through a lens of racial equity, and works with nonprofits, communities, and boards to lead the development of equitable frameworks for grantmaking and advocacy efforts. Sabrina is a board member of the North Carolina Center for Nonprofits and vice chair for the Board of Visitors for Salem Academy and College in Winston-Salem. She was previously executive director of Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Durham and Orange Counties (now Triangle BBBS); director of The United Way of Forsyth County’s Volunteer Center; and director, strategic Initiatives for The Winston-Salem Foundation. She earned a BA in psychology from UNC Charlotte and MBA from University of Phoenix.