Being a committed leader is challenging, tiring, and at times frustrating - for everyone. But during her years of work in the NGO sector, BMW Foundation Responsible Leader Sayu Bhojwani has seen and experienced first-hand that one group of leaders in particular is struggling with a great fatigue: women of color.
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, and the publishing industry. In the first few weeks of 2020 alone, every conversation I’ve had with my colleagues revolved around how we’re exhausted and struggling at best, or suffering from a specific illness at worst.
For nearly three decades, I have worked in the nonprofit world, which 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.
With rare exceptions (like Ayanna Pressley’s recent revelation of alopecia), we’re not talking publicly about our deep exhaustion for many reasons, including our own shame and sense of failure. It’s time for us to confront some of the core reasons for our suffering: the scarcity mentality and a culture of celebrity and competition that underpins even the most progressive spaces. Women of color experience this culture in particularly challenging ways.
We are conditioned to do more with less
The scarcity mindset tells us that there’s only so much to go around. Only so many leadership roles, only so much money. Therefore, we hold tight to the opportunities that come around.
Scarcity is built into our lived experience as immigrants and people of color. We may have enough love to go around, but often we don’t have enough funds to make ends meet, to build a nest egg, to own an extra pair of shoes. When we come into leadership roles, we can easily build on our lived experience, learning how to do more with less, underpaying ourselves for the greater good, feeling like there’s not enough time to take vacations. (How many of us grew up doing that, anyway?)
This is not only about resources, but also feeling like we don’t have the time or luxury to take a break. We feel guilty caring for ourselves, or even for a child or loved one. We associate success with how dependable and available we are. And before we know it, success and burnout become one and the same.
This scarcity is rooted in fear, and that fear breeds competition.
We are competing for crumbs
We internalize the idea that there is room at the table for just one of us, in part because we have explicitly been shown as much — as the “only” woman of color on a panel, on a leadership committee, in a fellowship, on a list of people to watch. In the nonprofit world specifically, funders contribute to our stress by doling out grants in small amounts, suggesting that there are too many organizations meeting the same mandates.
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, for recognition. We build alliances, certainly, but sometimes those can be shaky and unreliable, or extractive and strategic. We create our own internal competition, even challenging other women of color with purity tests; if you’re not poor enough, woke enough, Black enough, queer enough, then you can’t be at the table.
Constantly playing the catch-up or one-up game contributes to our exhaustion. Being exhausted in turn contributes to our feelings of inadequacy.
We are shaped by inadequacy
Those of us who refuse to play by the rules — or worse, play by the rules and still don’t get recognized for our accomplishments and competence — feel inadequate. We obsess over what we could have done differently to be on that list, get that grant, get that raise, to be among those invited to that meeting. Every few years, we effectively anoint a handful of stars in media, politics, and nonprofits in the form of awards, top 100 lists, and the like. 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 sometimes getting recognition also comes at a price. I have found myself code switching, performing Whiteness, at first unknowingly, and then on purpose, for the sake of my organization and leadership. These acts are often passive — not innocent, but passive. Like smiling politely during cocktail conversations filled with microaggressions or wearing our clothes and hair a certain way in order to blend in. And, when pressured to keep up, many of us have made active choices to do things that are contradictory to our communities and our values. We sacrifice our sense of selves and may even lose sight of our core values.
Denial of our authentic selves, coupled with the scarcity mentality and a competitive culture, wears us down.
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 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 corporate 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.
New American Leaders
Sayu Bhojwani is the founder and president of New American Leaders (NAL), an NGO committed to creating a more inclusive democracy by supporting first and second generation Americans to use their power and potential in elected office. For this, they offer different training modules and foster a network of alumni New Americans to support each other. NLA is the only national, nonpartisan organization focused on bringing New Americans into the political process.
Many women of color are embedded in the media/nonprofit/philanthropic industrial complexes even as we are trying to change the very culture that created our exhaustion. 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.
Supporting each other is a crucial first step to breaking down those feelings of being underestimated and undervalued.
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 no matter how tired we are, we can’t slow down or pull back.
But we also 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.
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 are just places that drain rather than sustain you.
We can also create more spaces for community and 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 front lines of the battle for our very humanity. Our survival depends on us.