Last year, I wrote this widely circulated piece about the collective exhaustion women of color in leadership face as we both navigate white supremacy culture and try to dismantle it. In the year since, we faced new demands created by COVID-19 and the country’s racial reckoning. We became even more critical caregivers — for our democracy, for our organizations, and for our families, friends and neighbors. Women of color are the linchpin of every institution in America, so fundamental that we are taken for granted. Black women in particular, as this piece highlights, get thanks, but little else.
While women of color may recognize the systemic and structural barriers created by white supremacy and patriarchy, we often don’t appreciate how pervasive they are until we’re in key leadership roles. Still, we often see our own exhaustion as an individual failure rather than a function of the systems in which we operate.
Sacrificing ourselves to work comes at a cost to our mental, physical and emotional health and is unsustainable. I know this from personal experience. Last year, I left my role as the President of New American Leaders, unable to find a work-rest balance. I am ashamed to admit this, especially because I encourage women of color to run for office or otherwise lead. But I believe we can’t keep up this pace and need to acknowledge that rest is critical to our work.
Leading in systems not designed for us. For years, my work at New American Leaders centered the importance of the proverbial seat at the table. But the table we’re now sitting at is not set the way we need it to be, for ourselves, our communities. Representation is a necessary first step toward reformation, reconstruction or replacement. If you’re an early “representative”, you’re lonely and isolated in a system that not only wasn’t designed for you and often doesn’t want you there. Our mental health and emotional well-being are paying the costs of shrinking ourselves to fit in. How can we expand our institutions to fit our vision for a collective future?
The new face of power. A series of police killings of innocent Black people, including Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, prompted a long overdue racial reckoning in 2020. It surfaced or accelerated conversations about racial equity in institutions across America, and forced me to acknowledge my positional power as the head of an organization. I wasn’t alone. Leaders across the country faced demands for accountability that are legitimate and overdue. However, as women of color, we shoulder a disproportionate burden for systems that have perpetuated inequity long before many of us came into leadership.
Squeezed on both ends. Productivity guilt on the one hand, and white supremacist institutions on the other, squeeze women of color from both ends. The work after the work — being on Instagram, showing up for events, frequent updates, multiple stakeholders — is often more draining than the work itself. Being all things to all people, even via Zoom, places an extra burden on our time and energy that is unfair and often uncompensated.
All of these factors influence why women of color report higher rates of attrition than their white counterparts. I am one of those statistics. But leaving does not always feel responsible or financially feasible, and those who remain have had their already difficult jobs become even harder, as confirmed by this report on nonprofits led by people of color.
Every time there is a crisis, locally or nationally, communities of color are disproportionately impacted and women leaders stay in the game to restore and repair. Lifting rather than being lifted up. It’s time to break this pattern and begin to value rest as our new work. That is not our job alone.
Philanthropy can help. After all, foundations and donors are major culprits in celebrating our wins post-facto.
Support us with early faith in our work and the commensurate resources to make it happen. Pay us generously for our time — as you develop strategies, host conferences, seek our expertise.
Provide resources for what I call a rest residency, offered as a paid sabbatical or transition time as women of color explore exits from their leadership roles.
Invest in reshaping the culture of boards for a new generation of social justice organizations. Boards of directors need to become better stewards of care for organization leaders, and philanthropy needs to invest in the care of leaders and staff.
Some foundations began making grants to support wellness in 2020 and that’s a start, but we need a more comprehensive approach that acknowledges our humanity instead of celebrating us she-roes or martyrs.
Women of color are one of our country’s most precious natural resources. Our preservation and the country’s future are intricately linked, and it’s time to start acting that way.