“Doing Too Much”: Lessons Learned From the Collective Pause of 2020
By: Clarissa Lynn Harris, Center for Participatory Change Co-ED of People and Culture
“There comes a pause, for human strength will not endure to dance without cessation; and everyone must reach a point at length of absolute prostration.” – Lewis Carroll
The Center for Participatory Change in the beginning of 2020 had just begun reacquainting itself with the communities it had been working with for the last decade. It was under new leadership. After an abrupt melt of the previous cohort of CPC leadership due to the tale as old as time burnout of working to support marginalized communities who are incessantly under attack, there was the rapid hire two young EDs whose assumed freshness and eager would revitalize the fatigued and overworked org structure. It was the classic add new blood and stir vigorously solution that many of us, liberation movement based collectives assume will be an effective jumpstart to reviving the work and sustaining the energy needed to meet direct service needs of the communities we serve. But often what we don’t realize is that this model is neither sustainable nor kind for at its’ roots are the very formational blocks of supremacy culture we hope to unbed from our organizational structures; a sense of urgency and progress is bigger/more. This urgency to replace without intention as a means of sustaining what we assume is the vigor of supposed progress and continuing the good work at all cost really just comes off as a clumsy and ill fated attempt at literally throwing the baton to the next runner on the line and yelling “RUN!!” For the work that we do in liberatory collective movement spaces is not that of running a race to win (there is no “winning” to be won) but more the long game of tilling good earth, seeding intentional crops, lovingly tending the sprouts, and then sustainably harvesting the sustenance all while preparing for the next new crop. And we, like many other folk, had to figure out what this reflective stillness would mean for us. We, a tiny non profit organization nestled in WNC that asserts our belief in the right of all folk to a just and healthy life fought for through collective liberation, had to get our shit together.
So for the last three years CPC has been using our pause to do some deep reflection. We realized that over the last two decades and several leadership cohorts that we were perpetuating harm without really meaning to by accepting the MO of business as usual at all cost. That “getting there” came from hitting the onramp at 60 mph and accelerating straight into the fast lane. That pumping away like John Henry through the mountainside was the only way to achieve progress without really realizing that at the end of the doomed tall tale our bodies give out and that’s not really progress at all. We too, the workers, are also part of the communities we serve and the way we were caring for folk was not loving. So when the pause came, and the stillness settled, we took advantage of making full use of the slowing of the grind of providing direct services and sustaining the physicality of the org to reflect deeply on what was keeping us from being sustainably loving to each other. Out of our deep reflection we found patterns of harm and from those patterns we worked on developing learning themes that would help us to slowly uproot those patterns from our infrastructure. Here is what we learned…I call it the Fourrrr R’s (cause who doesn’t love alliteration?):
Urgency and the myth of progress being big, fast, and more are the mirepoix of supremacy stew 101. It only leads to lack of clarity, disorganization, and inevitable harm. Work takes time. Good work takes even more time. And loving intentional work takes a lifetime of patience. Here is where I borrow a term used by a colleague of mine, former Georgia county commissioner Dr. Mariah Parker, “radical patience”. bell hooks says to love the most radical act we can commit. And to be loving enough to lean into the intentional slowing of oneself to allow folk to come along with, move together forward, to bring everyone aboard and leave no one behind in our progress takes patience that is beyond just purposeful…it must be radical. So we at CPC began to make decisions intentionally not in silos. We checked in a lot more. We listened much deeper. We paced ourselves. We rested when needed. This made the work much slower and the acceptance of this took patience. We were still progressing in the development of our work and achieving outcomes but with the process of getting results being all the more thoughtful and loving…we felt better at the end of the journey than we had in the past. And this led to the most amazing result of all, trust.
Where there will always be injustice there will always be the activist. Burnout and fatigue are all too common among folk doing the work. It is expected that if you are indeed doing the work you will suffer. Rest is often seen as slack or weakness. Oh how the myth of supremacy embeds itself in movement culture. Taken from the Nap Ministry “rest is resistance”. To choose not to dismantle one’s being is why dismantling systems is a radical act. And if we as liberation workers are committed to all folk living just and balanced lives…we need to not just preach the prosperity gospel of rest, we need to physically make space to prioritize it in movement. For this CPC did the deep dive into our policies. Paid parental leave? Check. Actual unlimited PTO? Blam. Trusting folk to take time and communicate what they need? Mhmm. Sabbaticals for all? You got it. We had to go to the intimate place as a collective where it wasn’t about “allowing” rest, it was about “supporting” rest.
The obsession with the expectation that stability is built on “the way things were done in the past” is literally gonna be the end of us all. Not to say all things shiny and new are the trump card to old dogs and their new tricks, however, thinking about a method of operation should probably be more compatible with the image of a google doc than stone tablets. If things aren’t working for us…why can’t we change them? If we truly believe in the possibility of liberation is not the basis of our pedagogy transformation and adaptation? We cannot be afraid to start anew if things are not going how we intended. If we come part way, halfway, heck most of the way through a process and it is clearly not working it is okay to begin again. Never should there be such a dedication to a process that when you pull back the curtain on the stage of the unveiling of a result there is a massive graveyard of the body count it took to get there. The goal is to always always minimize or eradicate harm if possible. If we believe this we have to embrace the concept of the reset. At CPC this looked like being ok with scraping anything that was no longer serving us despite the love of legacy. This looked like months and months of review and then months and months more. This looks like restarting processes two, three, and even sometimes four times. This looked like dialogue and calling in. This looked like rebuilding and sometimes intentionally tearing down. It looked like work, hard work. Work that we had to consistently explain why we may not have a finished product yet and being comfortable with the discomfort of not getting the satisfaction of completing something for the sake of it being completed. It looked like us admitting when we had made mistakes and done things we wish we hadn’t. It meant us putting in the time to repair those things we may have botched. Resets are not always refreshing but when done well they can be regenerative.
Another colleague and friend of mine, Manny Ayala, often jovially spouts this saying I love “clarity is kindness!”. In our haste to do and get the work done in movement we rarely, it seems, have time to record what it is we are doing let alone explain to or teach others what we are doing. One human can be the entire keeper of multitudes of history, knowledge, and skills quintessential to the work we are doing collectively. When that time inevitably to set on that one human’s leadership often we are left with a void, a void usually hastily filled without any support, clarity, or guidelines for how to go about replicating the work of the former body that filled that role. The amount of effort and energy spent acclimating to and adjusting a role to better fit the new body there is often great. There is seldom enough patience to compassionately take into account this curve in inheriting the work. We simply often equate it to a deficiency on the part of the new body filling the role and an act of neglect by the predecessor or negligence on the part of the organization. This, too, is supremacy at work in movement. For at the root of this situation is the hoarding of power. This is not loving. This is not kind. At CPC we identified a pattern of “throwing folk in the deep end and demanding they do a perfect backstroke while performing several difficult unaffiliated tasks”. The idea of the “transformational hire” is a destructive and unfair myth. If we care about the humans we are asking to do this already difficult work we go the extra mile to make sure we set them up for success. We make sure support systems are in place for not if they falter but inevitably when they falter at something new and foreign. We accommodate differences in learning, communicating, and performing. I used to tell a joke to folk about how I have kept all the manuals I’ve ever received from my past positions on how to do my job. I then turn around and lay a mythological “stack” of air on the surface before me and hand them over to folk one by one. Transition into, out of, and throughout organizations should be handled as intentionally as possible if possible. They should include overlap and intercommunication. They should be slower and patient. They should be clear and kind. That is why at CPC we began to put in a concerted effort to make sure our work was documented and accessible, our roles are clear and transparent, and our culture is welcoming and replicable.
We took the themes we identified from our pause and have found ways to implement them in actual practices of how we run our organization. What we gathered from the pause was not merely an intellectual exercise but one of true learning and application. But all of this began with not just acknowledging the need for pause and reflection but acting on and making use of the motivation to intentionally make space for the pause. Pausing is a gift. If it can be seen as such, rather than a hindrance to progress…we’d most likely see much more intentionality in decisions being made within our social societal spheres. That is why we at CPC would like to encourage and support other folk in movement work, regardless of whatever form that is, in taking their own pauses. If it would be at all helpful for you and your collective or to your personally to connect with us and talk through the details and minutiae of pausing, we’d feel lucky to collaborate. The practice of pausing has been so helpful to us that we have embedded timelines for further pauses in future or our work. We are hopeful that as folk move forward in making decisions about the landscape of how we will all continue to do collective liberatory movement work, those decisions are embedded with intentional and loving pauses for collective reflection.