My social justice penis is bigger than yours.

Ivy HestIndividual Sustainability, Real Talk, Supervising and Mentoring

(About 4 minutes to read)

Sometimes I feel like I need to carry around a measuring stick to keep track of everyone’s ego at any given time.  Not just because it irks me, but also because I need to keep expectations of myself in check.

This weekend, my friend told me that she was going to be late because she needed to make 30 calls or else Racism won’t ever end.  As I mentioned on my Why This Blog? page, I fall prey to that way of thinking too.  It’s how we’re trained.  “Here are the keys to making real, sustainable change.  It’s up to you.  Oh also it’s snowing out and there’s black ice.  Make sure the car doesn’t come back dented!  The world is depending on you!”

And at the same time, we’re taught that the work isn’t ours, it’s the people’s.  Real people going through real issues.  And your job is to simply teach them the skills they need to fight back, and then fade into the background.  Empowerment is the name of the game.  Ultimately, you aren’t important, and you’re doing it wrong if things can’t happen without you.

Oh, plus, there isn’t actually time to supervise you.  Try things out, fail, you’ll get the hang of it.  Or you won’t, and we’ll let you go.  But it should be ok.  Just organize!

Wow.  My stomach feels like I just ate a peach, whole, including the pit. (Pit in my stomach!  Get it?  Ha! I’m so clever!)

Generations of organizers and other social change workers are brought into the work in this way.  It’s perpetuated over and over again, like some sort of sage advice we all must adhere to, but no one talks about how we’re supposed to do it.

I was preparing for an event where we expected 2,000 people to protest some proposed cuts.  We had done turnout, prepared our speakers, and planned this event for weeks.  The event was going to be amazing.  But somehow, it was the night before, and I realized we had no way to track the buses coming to and from the event, or a way to make sure everyone got fed and back home. What’s worse (and wonderful) is that we had people who spoke 8 different languages aside from English, and so ensuring they too were not left behind was an added complication.  It was a complete oversight that led to a lot of frantic phone calls, clever bus titles, lunch counts, list making, and begrudgingly using Google Translate.  At 10pm, my partner came to the office with dinner for me and my co-workers.  At 12am everyone left but me and my partner.  At 2am I declared us finished, and at 4am I was really finished now.

The next morning, I had no energy for this high energy event.  Adrenaline and lots of caffeine helped, as did our Motown sing-along on the bus, but I knew I’d tired myself out and would be completely useless for the rest of the week.  I approached my boss to tell her how late I had worked, that we should put my partner on payroll because he practically works here, and how I needed to take the next day off (and it had to be comp time, not vacation time.)  And here’s how she responded:

“Yeah, tell me about it.  I was up until 7am working on this grant!  Napped for 15 minutes until I had to get up so I could finish by the deadline.  I’m exhausted, but there’s just so much going on.  Isn’t it exciting how much our organization is growing?  All these funders want to give money to the work we’re doing!”

My heart sank.  I deeply respected this woman for her organizing abilities and strategic, creative brain,; and she meant it, genuinely, about how happy she was and that no sleep is just what comes with the territory of the job.  I wanted to say back to her “Yeah?  Well…my penis is bigger!” , but I thought that might be confusing and not helpful at the moment.  Suddenly I felt like I was in a competition with her to prove which one of us was more dedicated, me or her.  My goal had been to advocate for myself, but it became clear to me in that moment that I not only didn’t have a supervisor to model healthy work-life balance, but also that there is just no acknowledgement that the amount and quality of work we were trying to accomplish was unrealistic and unsustainable.

The belief that this is just how it is has to stop.  Expect yourself to put in 40-50 hours a week depending on the time of year (I know, I wish I could say 40 or less, but I’m trying to be realistic that we can’t shake all of our feeling that more hours = more dedication).  And then, turn off your computer.  Put your phone on “Do Not Disturb”.  Go to your regular woodworking class and make it clear that no matter what, this is your night every week that is no one else’s but your own.

But it shouldn’t just rest on the individual to maintain this balance.  This is a movement-wide issue, after all. 

I propose we stop the measuring competition, and focus instead on:

  1. Are our goals achievable and measurable?  Is there a time when we can take a little breather and celebrate a job well done?
  2. What is our organizational culture?  How do we measure whether a staff member is effective in their job (Answer: It’s probably not how many hours they work)
  3. Do I as an employee/supervisor/director/human have a healthy work-life balance?  And is the way I achieve it the same way the rest of the staff does? (Answer: Probably not.)  How can I cultivate my leadership in this so that I permit others to do the same?

If your staff feels like a revolving door, you could chalk it up to those folks just not having what it takes OR you could take it as an opportunity to look at what kind of expectations are you setting for your staff.  It’s easy to blame the other guy, but your organization will be for the better if you use the opportunity to reflect on what’s happening.

If you do social justice work, you care.  Chances are you aren’t going to slack off, because you believe in the work that you do (I hope).  If you’re a supervisor, trust your staff in the same way that you trust yourself.  Set realistic goals and expectations for each other.  And I give you permission to leave your measuring stick at home. 

Your turn: What has your experience been like for work/life balance?  Have you had supervisors that have been healthy role models for you?  What do you do for yourself to maintain a balance?

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