Hearts on Fire (Fighting Organizer Burnout)

I have always thought of my movement work as a demanding, aggravating and irresistible lover – one it’s impossible to marry, or to leave. I know it has an air of pathology, but I am not alone. For most of us, the passion precedes the paycheck. Sift through the ashes of organizer , and you’ll likely discover a saga of love and hope, betrayal and loss. That quality of lover-ship sets the tone and intensity of our commitments, break-ups and flame-outs.

Here’s a recent tale from the trenches. A talented young community activist with several years of work experience takes a job in a union, inspired by a vision of justice and the opportunity to make a tangible difference. She’s given minimal training and soon finds herself working close to 24/7. She’s moved around the region at whim, often for weeks or even months at a time. She has a home, but lives out of a suitcase. She loves the members and the mission, but she has too few supportive colleagues and no time to make friends. The last straw is when her male supervisor hits on the staff women, uses sex as part of the promotion and punishment structure, and implies that this organizer wouldn’t understand because she’s a lesbian. “I just couldn’t stand it any longer,” she explains, “and I don’t know what I think about working for the labor movement again. In fact, I’m sick, I’m exhausted, and I have no idea what to do.” By the end of the recitation, she’s weeping. It takes her months to recover.

Another local union has just fired a terrific organizer of color for supporting her co-workers’ rights to organize a staff union. Now, in the tradition of union-busting employers everywhere, the local is fighting her unemployment claim.

Recurring Situations

Every week, the National Organizers Alliance fields calls like these from practitioners on the edge. Sometimes it’s blatant workplace injustice, made unbearable by the contradiction between what we espouse every day and the way we ourselves are treated on the job. Sometimes it’s isolation. Most often it’s just too much work over too long a time. Add to that the fear of failure, guilt that you mightn’t be dedicated enough, standards of machismo and martyrdom – and you’ve got the components for burnout. Every case is a bit different, but here are situations that recur with alarming frequency:

Don’t Stop ‘Til You Drop. Rather than seeing the health of the organization as tied to the health of its organizers (or leaders), we often act as if it depended instead on working organizers to death. One frequent habit is to hire a lot of young organizers, pay them next to nothing, and work them until they’re too exhausted or pissed off to stay, assuming the few who remain are the ones we want.

As in so many lover-ships, guilt and martyrdom are rampant. We exhort organizers that, “the other side never stops, the other side never sleeps.” And since we’re suckers for tough odds, and eager to make the defining difference, we’re all too ready to be convinced that those extra hours we put in are all that stand between us good guys and Armageddon.

My friend once had to choose between a union election and her parents’ fortieth wedding anniversary. “We were right down to the final days,” she told me, “and my mentor said, ‘Look, it’s your choice. You just have to figure out how you’re going to feel if we lose the election because you were away and didn’t get to make those extra house calls. You’re going to have to live with that down the road.’ So I opted not to go. Well, my father died shortly after that. There was never a forty-fifth. And I live with that instead.”

There is also a class, gender and race cut on the question of time. Parents, especially women, especially single moms, need to have time for their children. Sure, I know some two-organizer families with nannies, but expecting all organizers to have them would clearly be a class barrier to who could afford to be an organizer.

Too Much Too Soon. Many of the problems we have in progressive organizations, especially small ones, boil down to Not Enough Money. That means too few staff people to do the work, not enough training, no transition time between one director or lead organizer and the next. Never mind that you have only six months of job experience and have never worked in a rural community before – you can run this show!

So we try. And surprisingly often, we – and the organizations – survive. But the stress and exhaustion that accompany the effort take their toll. After a few years of such constant pressure, a dog-walking service or a pottery studio in Santa Fe look pretty damn good.

Too Little Too Late. The flip side of too much too soon often happens when you have a director or a board unwilling to relinquish any power. Frequently, “field hands” are so desperately needed in the roles they currently hold that we are unwilling to promote them out of those slots. Yet, to keep people in slots they’ve outgrown is a sure route to disaster. And we don’t even think about how to provide adequate elder and mentor roles for our experienced practitioners – many of whom cannot afford to take time off between jobs, much less retire.

Paradoxically, while we suffer from too much turn-over at the bottom, many organizations have directors who seem to be there for life. That also makes it hard for the next people in the chain to move up, or achieve the recognition that encourages people to endure.

All Skilled Up and No Place to Go. There are some good reasons that directors don’t want to give up their positions. Although it’s currently a job seeker’s market, the number of wonderful movement jobs paying a living wage is actually quite small, not to mention part-time work for organizing moms, or jobs for highly skilled people who don’t like administration. Frequently our organizations are just too small and too poor to add another job slot to the mix. Eventually, this lack of opportunity yields to malaise, and the fire dims.

The Alone Star State. A new union organizing director was picking my brains about what organizers really need. I suggested that organizers needed to work at least in pairs, so that they didn’t get too tired or lonely, and so they had a safe person with whom to debrief at the end of the day. “You must be kidding,” he scoffed, “we don’t have the money do that.”

Being alone is a major factor in premature burnout. Sometimes it’s the organizer or director in the one-person office. Other times, it’s the person sent to a distant regional office as the sole organizer in someone else’s operation.

Then there is the isolation of being the only woman, only woman supervisor, only person of color, only person under 30, only gay person in your organization or office, with no one else who shares your cultural stress points. To make things worse, you are often expected to represent all others in your category.

Machismo. My husband defines this as, “frequently wrong, never in doubt.” Often it boils down to “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Don’t ask for help. Don’t admit uncertainties. Never take a vacation, never go home before 8 p.m. Don’t be a wimp. Too often, this means we let ourselves and our co-workers ignore serious problems, like alcoholism, depression, illness. A long-time organizing mentor hangs himself, and it turns out everyone knew for years that he was an alcoholic on the edge. Another colleague is diagnosed with diabetes and refuses to take appropriate steps until he’s seriously ill.

Race to the Bottom. While racial diversity is near the top of progressive organizational rhetoric, it frequently falls to the bottom of the real organizational agendas. When push comes to shove, many organizations will abandon affirmative action hiring rather than keep a job open until they find the right staffer of color.

We frequently hear colleagues wailing about how they couldn’t find any qualified candidates for the job, or that the staffer of color they hired just didn’t stay long enough to rise through the ranks. The consequences are obvious: organizations have staffers of color in the clerical and entry level jobs – and painfully few lead organizers and directors of color. Or staffers of color are promoted without training or support and then held accountable for failing to meet unrealistic organizational expectations.

Not surprisingly, women of color experience burnout disproportionately. Mid-career women of color are in high demand on the job market, but are frequently burning out from being over-displayed and under-valued, without enough colleague-ship, support and/or real power to define organizational agendas.

This is not a pretty cycle. Where there are few lead staffers of color, there are fewer mentors of color, and the organizational culture remains white-dominated. These situations are not merely personal, but systemic. If we are serious about diversity, we’ve got to be serious about defining, and then creating, the conditions that enable workplace diversity to flourish.

Si se puede

So what can we do to make our organizations just and joyful, fueling both movement fire and personal commitment for the long haul?

Consistency between the values we preach and the values we practice may be the biggest life-saver of all. If we say we believe in unions, we shouldn’t fight the development of staff unions. If we say we believe in pay equity, our pay scales should reflect that. If we preach family-friendly policies, we should offer child care assistance and parental leave.

YouthAction, based in Albuquerque, New Mexico developed personnel policies that reflect this spirit. For example, “Because YouthAction is committed to the health and welfare of its staff and believes in placing realistic expectations, compensatory time off from work will be earned by staff working beyond the normal work week…” Or “[YouthAction] will reimburse an employee for 100% of childcare costs resulting from work-related activities, such as travel and meetings.”

Save demands for heroism and martyrdom for the times that require them – and learn to tell the difference between the urgent and the critical. Encourage co-workers to take vacation time, and keep your eyes open for signs of exhaustion and spiritual implosion. Don’t force colleagues to choose between work and health or work and family. Remember, even organizers who are unmarried, un-partnered and/or childless have parents, homes and hobbies.

Share power, and know when to turn it over. Make room for new leadership. “I have always taught that the first job of a leader is to identify and train their successor. That applies to staff leaders too,” says John Ruoff, (a white man) who turned over the directorship of South Carolina Fair Share to Lenora Bush Reese (an African-American woman). “When we started Fair Share in 1986-87, my being the executive director was a matter of default,” Ruoff continues. “I was the only staff person. As we were looking for a second staff person in 1992, I knew I was hiring my replacement – even if she didn’t. There was a conscious (if sneaky) training process for three years. When I went on sabbatical, it was the perfect time to implement my scheme to switch jobs with Lenora, and after some initial skepticism, she agreed she was ready. The central issue is trust, in both directions. It’s not just, ‘Will this person be undermining me?’ but also, ‘Will this person give/accept supervision?’ I knew we had successfully transitioned when Lenora started supervising me.”

Develop depth as well as breadth of skills and representation. To the best of your organization’s ability, try to make sure that particular people are not the sole repository of critical skills (organizing, computing, fundraising, training). Overlapping talent provides exciting chances for brainstorming and companionability – and relieves the pressure of having too large a piece of the world on one pair of shoulders.

This principle also works for diversity. One of the things NOA has done well, although our first efforts were intuitive rather than strategic, is to build a board where there is depth of racial and generational representation. More than a third of our steering committee is under 30, more than half are organizers of color. To do this required a larger (and more costly) board than common wisdom might dictate for a smallish organization – but it’s worked well for us.

Take time to mentor. Take time to learn. We usually think of mentoring from the top down – and that sharing of experience and wisdom is critical. But we also have much to learn from our peers, and from our colleagues who are just starting out. The recent WTO, IMF and World Bank actions in Seattle and DC illuminated the lessons to be passed up from a new generation, including a new cultural spin on collective decision making and an awesome savvy at web-based organizing.

Fight cynicism. Laugh. Exercise trust. Celebrate often. Build community. Eat chocolate. The culture of longevity lies not merely in the rules and the written but in the culture that emerges between the lines. It is hard to let culture mutate, rather than inflicting the existing norms on new staffers. But it is periodic reassessment, collective ownership and validation of the rules and norms that provide a basis for both clarity and comfort. And it is the times we share together, hard at work, in the lull between storms, at meetings and at meals, that make the relationships that make the movement.

Leave Room to Grow. I’m actually writing this story as I return from a three-month sabbatical – the first time I’ve had that much time off in roughly 15 years. I finally had the opportunity to think about my work away from the press of day-to-day minutia, and also to not think about work at all. In the process, I’ve been forced to draw some new distinctions between the consuming exhaustion and disappointment that characterize burnout and the healthy need to change our lives and our vantage points as we grow up in the movement.

Our co-workers do not cease to be our compañeros when they leave our organization for another, or when they reconfigure their lives to accommodate children, health, age or new interests. So long as we share the fight for justice, and the commitment to progressive change, we can afford to let each other change.

It Takes a Movement

To address burnout and change requires not just an organization, but a movement approach. NOA has concluded that providing pension plans, health care and sabbaticals can fully succeed only when they become movement practice; the same is true for the other conditions that deter or forestall burnout. That way, we can become a growing, diverse cadre of innovative practitioners rather than a shrinking pool of exhausted purists.

Then we can keep our passions and our co-workers alive – and set the world on fire!

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Kim Fellner is former director of the National Organizers Alliance. She works in the labor movement and lives in Washington, D.C. She is the author of Wrestling With Starbucks: Conscience, Capital, Cappuccino (Rutgers University Press, 2008).

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