By Luigi Fu
If we continue to ask our colleagues to take care of themselves, without providing them the space to do it, then we’re all doomed to burn out. In the midst of two pandemics – COVID and institutional racism – we’re sending mixed messages to our friends and colleagues that can lead to serious harm, especially for folks in marginalized communities.
In our shift to the virtual world, we didn’t reset our culture, expectations, or organizational priorities. Instead, we’ve made a few adjustments to make sure that everything seemed as normal as possible, without reflecting on the institutional changes that needed to occur to protect our people. As a result, our spoken & unspoken norms for virtual working centered around white supremacy culture and communities least impacted by COVID and institutional racism – white, cisgendered, childless, able-bodied, and primarily men. These practices include:
- Maintaining traditional 9-5 business hours;
- Continuing to expect perfect or near perfect work;
- Either/Or Thinking About Work Culture; and
- Creating a sense of urgency around all work.
We are expected to show up to Zoom calls showcasing the chaos of our lives, the trappings of poverty, the consequences of racism, and much more. We are not allowing space for folks to care for themselves or their families, many of whom are struggling with finding childcare while avoiding a disease that could severely harm them or their family.
We are pushing ourselves to try and become normal, as before COVID, when everything felt like it was going fine – except it wasn’t for folks who are marginalized and experience systemic racism everyday, who deal with childcare on a daily basis, who struggle to find healthcare for themselves, and much more.
Only five months in and we can see how we’re trying to reverse course on how we approach this crisis. We are yearning to go back to a time when it was “normal” and folks did not have to worry about healthcare or systemic racism, when these issues were relegated to marginalized communities. We are being shown a glimpse of their lives, and as a result, we want to go back to the space where we ignore these consequences of capitalism. We can see it in how organizations force teachers into going back to work or reversing accommodations, protections, and bonuses for our essential workers (or Heroes, as we once knew them). It’s reflected in people’s push for individual accountability versus a community-centric approach, which is symbolized by advancing their “constitutional rights”.
We need to pause, reflect, and understand the structural problems that allowed our lack of accountability to each other to happen. We need to build a better culture, a culture of care that prioritizes people, specifically doing the least amount of harm to the greatest number. One where we include marginalized voices into the decision-making process, understanding that when we prioritize the most vulnerable groups, we all benefit.
Our offices, and our society as a whole, need to revisit how we approach the ways we see each other, because when we don’t center the most vulnerable communities, we miss so much. We miss:
- Parents trying to balance work and childcare, as deadlines approach and Zoom calls are stacked upon on each other;
- Black, Indigenous, and People of Color struggling with anxiety and mental health issues amidst the rise of racist violence against our communities;
- Immunocompromised colleagues who are worried about the rising rates of COVID infections and death due to the lack of action by our administration;
- The mental health problems that stem from extreme isolation for an extended period of time, and much more.
Without creating a culture of care and centering the most vulnerable communities, we’re perpetuating the very harm that we’re vocal against. We need to take a look at our own actions, and change our own behaviors and norms to recognize the severity of the crisis.
There are steps that we can take in our offices to support marginalized voices and create a culture of care:
- Include employees at all levels in the decision-making process for policies;
- Review and reprioritize your organizational, group, and individual work projects to provide breathing room for all staff members;
- Normalize accepting work that’s “good enough” (bullet points, summary/overview, etc.) so employees can focus their attention on projects that are required to be “perfect”;
- Work with parents to set “core business hours” so that their life, and their child’s, are not at the mercy of their colleagues’ schedules; and
- Take time off as a team or office, instead of asking folks to use their PTO or sick days, so that you can all relax without having to worry about catching up on work afterwards.
These are only a few steps you can take to shift your culture, but there are more out there. I would suggest that you learn from your peers on how they support their coworkers during these difficult times.
Luigi Fu, MPA (he/him/his) is a nonprofit and philanthropy enthusiast. He is passionate about building a pipeline of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color leaders so that nonprofits reflect the communities that they serve. He works in an organizational and leadership development nonprofit that centers intersectional racial equity and is curious about how we operationalize equity day-to-day. He is based in Oakland, but originally from Brooklyn, NY and will never give up his 718 area code.