Archive for category Healing Organizational Trauma

The Post-It Question

Now that I’m settling in to San Francisco living, I am pondering one of life’s too-big questions: What am I here to do? What should I do here?

I have this belief that there’s a life out there where I get to only do those things I love. If I have to do a bit of crappy work, it’s clearly in service to a larger purpose that I’m dearly committed to. That there’s a magic job in which life will magically be filled with ease and rainbows and kittens frolicking in the sunlight.

But even people who do what they love sometimes have to swallow a frog. And even people who are great at asking for what they want – they don’t always get what they want.

It feels like I’m expecting some magic pill to swoop in and deliver a life of ease. It is so hard to break this mindset, as it’s pounded in to me daily by advertising that the way to make my life better is to buy something. Take something. Drink something. Buy something else that will make you sexy and irresistible. Just keep buying and you will eventually feel better.

So if the perfection of a job does not exist somewhere out there*- how do I evaluate what kind of job would fulfill me? Would make me feel of use, like I was contributing to making this world better?

That which each can do best, none but his Maker can teach him. Where is the master who could have taught Shakespeare? Where is the master who could have instructed Franklin, or Washington, or Bacon, or Newton? . . . Shakespeare will never be made by the study of Shakespeare. Do that which is assigned you, and you cannot hope too much or dare too much. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Jenny Blake’s Post-It Question has been my favorite prompt so far. I have been daily looking at my post-it note where it is still pasted on the edge of my monitor: “How can I get paid to help people get past what’s blocking them?”

It’s been challenging for me to see how many people come to me for help to get past their blocks – friends, family, acquaintances – people realize that I’m good at this, so I become their go-to coach. And it’s hard for me to really complain about this being a challenge because I LOVE doing this. I love to hear their story – messy, emotional, confused – and tease out what’s important. To find the most emotional point where this person is being triggered, to make sure that part is heard and respected, and to start to brainstorm possible solutions.

I’d love to do this work all of the time. This is the challenge – right now, none of my work is directly about helping people get past what’s blocking them. And I’m always recommended to be a therapist – yet I’m not that interested in individualized solutions to feel like I could do that all day, every day. I’m curious to find ways to apply this in groups. Like I love group dynamics and thinking about how groups can get past their blocks. And I’m curious if I can better describe my process for getting past the blocks – so that it’s easier to train people to find their own solutions more quickly and easily than picking up the phone to call me.

*The Buddhist in me wants to remind myself that perfection is much more about what’s happening on the inside than the outside.


I’m participating in the #trust30 challenge to reflect on quotes and writing prompts from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self Reliance. I hope to develop more trust in my writing, more self reliance that what I write is worthwhile, even if just to me.


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Who’s Got Your Back?

What do you do if you are the low person in the pecking order with little influence and limited job security – and all the sudden your colleagues break out with one sexist comment after another in deciding who to interview for a job?  Or you’re watching client after client come through your nonprofit’s door, and no one else seems to notice that it’s weird that they are almost all white?

Let me say first – it’s okay for you to be worried about how speaking out might damage your reputation or cost you your job. We often twist ourselves into knots of guilt, feeling inadequate as feminist anti-racists when we pause to look out for our own interests. We feel like sell outs, that when the choices get tough we bail on our values in favor of our own self-interest. Our friends call out our inconsistent politics, and we feel ashamed.

But the reality is we are all too often in positions where as individuals we have very little power or influence in the situation. Maybe it’s our boss who is making these comments, or she’s overhearing them and not doing anything about it. The economy is tough, and we’re not sure how we’re going to feed our kids if we lose this job. Given our reality, the best option seems to be to put our head down and keep working toward more security.

Ugh. When did I become the person who is too scared to fight back against injustice?

Isn’t There Another Option?

When I’ve only got two crappy options to choose from, it’s time to find a third option.

What if we took this impulse to look out for our own self-interest as a simple but clear signal that we cannot take on this fight alone?

When you fight something alone, its easy for *you* to get labeled as the problem. If you went away, there would no longer be a problem. Solution found! But when a group of people come forward with a shared concern, its harder to label any one of you as the problem. The racism and sexism is more likely to get looked at as the problem, and you are more likely to find solutions to the real problem.

We are seeing remarkable examples of community organizing in Tunisia, Wisconsin, Egypt, Bahrain – people coming together to have power to change a situation when they have little power to do so individually. As we have seen especially painfully in Libya, people find power together to organize against extraordinarily violent repression, even as thousands have died in their cause.

Dismantling sexism in your academic department or covert race discrimination in your nonprofit organization looks small compared to these broad-based movements for freedom. And maybe you aren’t ready to stage a protest outside of the department chair’s door, and it doesn’t make sense to bring guns to your next staff meeting. What does community organizing look like on a smaller scale?

Find Your People

If this fight is too big to take on alone, you’ve got to find your people. The folks who get this issue 100%, who won’t quibble with you over whether the comments were sexist “enough” to make a big deal about, who won’t defend the comments and will be equally outraged with you.

It’s often helpful to first go to someone outside the particular organization you are in. Someone who totally has your back on issues of sexism and racism, and knows that your intention to fight sexism and racism is clear even if you aren’t feeling clear on what to do in this particular situation. Every situation is unique with nuances and challenges that don’t have clear rules about how to proceed. This person can help you process the anger you feel, and brainstorm potential allies in your organization or department.

Who Else has the Potential to be Your People?

You may not be sure where people in your organization exactly stand on this issue.You have to do some guesswork, based on what you know of people and how they responded (or might have responded) to the situation.

  • Who else might have been uncomfortable in the situation?
  • Who was actively participating in making inappropriate statements?
  • Who had power to stop the statements and didn’t exercise that power?
  • Who else in the room might have felt similarly powerless like you?

Place everyone on a continuum, with folks on one end who are “Total supporters of you” and folks who are “Total racist & sexist bigots who will fight to keep their bigotry” on the other end. You may end up with people in the middle who you just aren’t sure about because you just haven’t talked to them about these issues before.

Get excited about those folks who fall on the side of potential supporters – these are you allies who will help you sort out what to do and help you feel not quite so alone.

What if NO ONE sticks out as a Potential Ally?

Maybe you are the first woman of color hired at a nonprofit that has been run by white folks for years. Maybe you just started your job, and don’t even know who is friendly in the department, much less trustworthy.

If you are in a university department, is there a provost who cares about diversity or a division that focuses on inclusion and support for people on campus who are marginalized because of race, gender, sexual orientation, or disability? If you are in a nonprofit, is there a coalition member, a funder, an influential community member who you’ve heard speak out about the need for more inclusive and diverse ways of working? Are there people on the internet who might understand your cause? If you are feeling totally alone, feel free to email me for support and help brainstorming ideas of people who might be allies!

Start Talking with Your Potential People

Start talking with the people who are likely to agree with your concerns. Go in to the conversation with an open mind – what are they most concerned with? Do they see the problem the same way you do? How concerned are they with looking out for their own interests? How much does it pain them to not be fighting for justice?

Your goal here isn’t necessarily to get a posse of people who will stage a protest. (Though you could, if enough people are sufficiently angry about it to move forward to that step). Sexism and racism have been around for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. You probably aren’t going to solve them in the next month.

Your goal is to recognize that sexism and racism are alive and well in your working environment, and that you aren’t ever going to have enough power to address them on your own. If you start to build your team of allies now and build a sense of collective outrage against sexism or racism in your workplace, the next time it happens (and you know there will be a next time) you will have people to go to immediately to process and make a plan for how to respond.


More to come on:

  • How do I approach people who *might* be my ally, but I’m not positive?
  • I wanna do more than sit around and chat with my team of allies. How do we come up with a plan of action?
  • In the meantime, how do I not throttle my co-workers who made stupid comments?

If you’d like to hear about one of these sooner rather than later, or have a question about something else in this kind of situation – let’s chat about it in the comments!


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When You Can’t Fight Back Against Sexism & Racism

Sometimes you see sexism or racism, and you feel like you have the power to call it out. You do and you feel righteous. Or you’ve already been fired because of some sexist bullshit, so you don’t have much to lose by fighting back.

But sometimes (and we’ve all been there), you are in a position where you feel pretty powerless to do much about it. Maybe intervening would put you in physical danger. Maybe you are the low person in the pecking order with little influence and limited job security. Maybe you just froze in the face of such idiocy, and now you are kicking yourself for not knowing what to say.

I’ve taught bystander intervention for years, helping people identify and practice situations in which they have the power to intervene as bystanders when a situation is oppressive or violent. Those skills can be helpful to people who’ve never thought about intervening before, or who never thought they had any power in situations to intervene.

But the problem with bystander intervention is that it assumes that the racism, sexism, homophobia, or violence are individual problems that require individual solutions. Idiot white d00d thinks we should build a fence between Mexico and the US, I put him in his place when I tell him we can build it once all the non-Native Americans go back to their country of origin. Problem solved.

Except it’s not. Because all these oppressions are structural problems that require structural solutions. Did I really solve discrimination against immigrants by my comments? Did I even change this guy’s mind?

In this analysis, I lose out on my ability to feel instant righteousness when I intervene in these individual encounters. But I gain new options in the more numerous situations in this world in which I feel powerless to do anything in the face of oppression. It becomes clear that I’m not meant to solve it alone.


More to come on:

  • How do you go about finding a structural solution? I don’t know what that is, much less where to start. (Step 1: Find your allies)
  • Am I off the hook, or should I keep intervening when someone says or does something oppressive? (Keep intervening when you can, though you might be in for a longer conversation than your arsenal of quick one-liners)
  • You are bat shit crazy if you think I’m going to have a long conversation with some asshole who just laughed at her own homophobic joke. (OK, you don’t HAVE to talk to them. But it could be useful to have some expanded conversations skills, just in case it happens to be your boss or your best friend or your best friend’s boyfriend)


Edit to give a hat tip to the brilliant and sexy Cackle of Radness for starting the discussion!


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Change Only Comes from Suffering

Sun Showers and Rainbow

Creative Commons License photo credit: SearchNetMedia

This said, I don’t believe that you can have a rainbow without a storm first, and unfortunately, I don’t believe that it is the nature of man to substantially change without the aid of what I call “legitimate suffering” ….  increasingly these days there is a lot of economic pain being felt around the world. In short, the world needed a dose of pain in order for it to change. – John Hope Bryant in The World on Reset

If this is true, what does it mean for those of us trying to create change in the world? Do we wait with glee for times of suffering, because we know that suffering is what breeds change?

Instead we often get bogged down, depressed ourselves when we see this amount of suffering. We identify with the suffering rather than the resilience. We focus on our own kvetching, on giving other people space to complain about their troubles. Perhaps instead we should be pouncing on these opportunities as the rare windows we have to create change.


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Does Your Nonprofit Care about your Personal Development?

I think we should all be careful of dividing the world into meaningful non-profits and soulless corporations. Caring for each other has more to do about the people who we report to and manage than the goals of the organization. If your boss comes to work every day genuinely looking to help you grow, and you do the same for the people you manage, then that’s a great workplace. If your boss is a jerk, and you are a jerk, then it’s a terrible place to be. It doesn’t really whether your company is making tons of money or saving lives in Tibet. What we do ourselves—individually, with the people next to us each day—is what establishes meaning in our lives. Penelope Trunk

How about a workplace where your boss comes to work every day genuinely looking to help you grow AND you are saving lives in Tibet? Is that really such an impossible task?

In the for-profit world, I’m finding that at least there is not the disappointment when you find out you work for a soulless corporation that prioritizes many other interests over my personal development. I even work at a decent corporation that attempts to care about my development, but the reality is that many, many other things come first. But when my own needs are shunted to the side, it’s fairly easy to let that roll off my shoulders. It’s not a personal attack, it’s just business.

In the nonprofit world, especially in the social justice world, personal development of staff must be a key part of the mission. At SASO, we are working to heal the trauma of sexual assault survivors. With so many staff identifying as survivors, how can we only work to heal people “outside” the agency while retraumatizing those “inside” the agency?


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Whole-Hearted Work

Heart at WOrk
Creative Commons License photo credit: AchimH

If organizational leadership/management doesn’t invest in a staff member, why should a staff member be invested in an organization? Why should they be loyal to organization leadership/management? Sure, in a tight economy people may feel more tied to a job that usual. But, if you were leading an organization, would you want people working with you to achieve your mission only because they were afraid of unemployment as an alternative? Doesn’t sound like a happy place to work to me. – Trina Isakson

Trina suggests some key ways to engage people more deeply into an organization:

  • Ask them for their opinion
  • Involve them outside their program area
  • Cross train
  • Make investments in their personal development

I’ve found that as people become more engaged and find meaning in their work, they also look to their workplaces to really see them for who they are. When we ask people to connect their hearts to the work we do, we can’t ask them to leave parts of their hearts at home for the work day. If they have children, we need to support them to with maternity leave and flexible schedules to pick their children up at day care. If their hearts are crushed by the daily realities of racism, we need to support their anger and their healing. When we want people to show up whole-heartedly for our cause, we have to let their whole hearts be part of the work we do.


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We need a therapist

This is the phase in our social movements where we are dealing with our emotional, mental, and spiritual trauma. Not that all of the threat of physical trauma is gone. People are still being murdered, dying slow deaths of neglect, committing suicide because of their race, sexual orientation, gender, and ability. But with some of that threat lessened, our other traumas are coming out.

I see this in how we act out against each other, how we play out our internal traumas on the faces of other folks in our movements. Bearing the brunt of this kind of projection can be painful. It hurts enough when the world tries to tear you down. But when your own people, the people who are supposed to have your back are lashing out at you, it’s devastating.

But projection doesn’t have to be all bad. In therapy lingo, projection is expected between a client and therapist. If you can recognize it as projection, as you reacting in the present to something that happened in your past, you actually have a ripe opportunity to change your patterns.

We need new movement strategies. We need a movement therapist.


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compassion practice

The Buddhist practice of compassion as one of the four heart practices, called the Divine Abodes or the Four Immeasurables. In compassion practice, you meditate on a particular person – yourself, a loved one, a neutral person, an enemy – and repeat a set of phrases focused on compassion.

Wintry BuddhaCreative Commons License photo credit: C-Ali

Winter of Compassion

Compassion Phrases:

  • I care about your suffering.
  • May your pain be held in compassion.

This is the work I did at Sexual Assault Services Organization (SASO); it is the work many of us do in the name of social justice. It is a constant practice of compassion, of holding space open for others’ to feel their pain. I did a particular compassion meditation a month ago. The first instruction was to imagine a person who embodies compassion. I immediately envisioned my coworker at SASO who has spent one-third of her life holding in compassion the trauma of sexual violence. Yet I found it hard to imagine her radiant in compassion. Just a week before, she had left her job at SASO, too tired, spent, and wiped out to go on. There was some part of me that felt guilty. Guilty that we had destroyed her ability to be compassionate. Terrified that I had destroyed my own ability to be compassionate. I’ve not been willing to hold open my heart for others’ sexual trauma for the past year. Tears streamed down my face as I felt how terrifying it was to think that our burn out led to some fundamental scar in our humanity that would never be healed. I realized in this meditation that we had not destroyed that ability. That the compassionate person I envisioned was the picture of the woman I had hung out with just the week before, having coffee, no agendas, no projects, no traumas. That while my compassion for trauma survivors was not active, I had held the pain of several different friends just that week. I am a person that many of my friends turn to when they are in pain, and want that pain to be both held sacred and made sense of. I’m seeing clearly how an overuse of compassion – without an equal measure of other heart practices like lovingkindness, appreciative joy, and balance – was a key factor in our burnout. Knowing this, how can the heart practices be used intentionally to help manage compassion as the fast track to burnout?


Are you codependent with your nonprofit?

Are we too codependent with our nonprofit jobs? Does mission-based work encourage codependence?

David Noer writes about organizational codependence in the corporate world, as encouragement to no longer expect workplaces to take care of you forever.

But when I applied the Cosmo-style quiz to my nonprofit work, I was at high risk of organizational codependence.

How susceptible are you to organizational codependence?

  • How much of my social life revolves around my business and organizational affiliations?
  • To what degree is my sense of purpose, relevance, importance associated with my title, level, and organizational affiliation?
  • Who and what I am is where I work.

Can we be healthy people if we have codependent relationships with our work? How does our work toward the mission suffer if we are overly reliant on the work to define who we are?