You can’t give from an empty cup

Funders can enable movements to flourish by helping grantees reduce burnout.

Written by: Stephanie Peng

Date: February 07, 2019

Recently, I had a family emergency that took me away from work for a couple of weeks. During that time, my colleagues encouraged me to take the time I needed to be with my family, and most importantly, to take care of myself.

And I did. With the help and support of my colleagues, I was able to focus on my family and myself, and did not need to think about my work duties.

But community organizers dedicated to making our communities better and addressing the inequities they see and experience don’t have the staff, resources and time to take days off.

This is especially true for organizers in the immigrant and refugee rights movement who are facing an endless barrage of attacks against their communities at the federal, state and local levels.

In our work building relationships within the movement, NCRP has heard from organizers experiencing burnout, working long hours day after day to reach and support their communities with limited staff.

Funders that want to see movements grow and succeed can help by funding in ways that prevent and alleviate organizer burnout.

Organizations don’t just benefit from having a full, healthy staff with sustainable salaries and paid time off, the whole movement benefits.

With less organizer burnout, organizations would have more capacity for:

  • Mobilizing people.
  • Building power within communities.
  • Healing from the trauma they experience.
  • Resilience against the threats and attacks they face.

By prioritizing mental, emotional and physical health, organizers could fight the dehumanization they face every day. They would have more power to:

  • Prevent deportations.
  • Prevent harmful laws from being passed.
  • Secure rights for immigrants and refugees.

And funders can help make the healing, resistance and power-building happen. It starts with flexible general operating support and multi-year funding, which can go a long way for an organization, as well as what the movement achieves. This support will help organizations:

  • Pay their staff livable salaries.
  • Hire more staff.
  • Ensure that staff have health benefits and paid time off.

And when organizers are mentally and physically healthy, they increase their capacity to build relationships, and connect communities so that, collectively, communities can heal and fight back.

Organizers’ emotional, mental and physical health are at stake

“Organizers and community leaders are burning out. Particularly if you are someone who is directly affected and this isn’t work, but your life. People are suffering from anxiety, depression, burning out and quitting,” said Nayely Pérez-Huerta, co-director of the Southeast Immigrant Rights Network of working in the movement.

For many leaders and organizers, community organizing is not just work. It’s their lives, families and communities that come under attack.

Like Pérez-Huerta, Mariana Deseda, organizer and law fellow at the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice also feels the effects of the work.

“I’ll drive 3 hours a day, then come back and give a conference talk. I’m tired. I often work more than 40 hours a week. My mental health and physical health is at stake, especially my emotional health. A lot of the people that come to me don’t have happy stories. It’s a lot for us to digest.”

If organizers aren’t physically and emotionally healthy themselves, how can we expect them to lead and mobilize their communities?

Relationships are the foundation of community organizing

And building relationships can be mentally, emotionally and physically taxing.

“Building relationships takes a lot of time. It’s not just ‘Come and join our network,’” said Pérez-Huerta. “It’s about ‘Who are your people, how can we collaborate, how can we support you,’ and that takes a lot of time.”

In order to build relationships and a network, grassroots organizations need to have the staff to reach and connect with communities.

“With limited funds and limited staff, there’s only so much we do. If we had more projects, more funding and more people we’d have more connections, and at the end of the day, maybe more power,” said Deseda about the importance of having enough resources for their work.

Beyond funding benefits and salaries for organizations, funders can also support whole communities to be healthy. Communities need to be resilient in order to withstand the constant threats and attacks and to continue fighting for their rights and safety.

Practicing cultural traditions heals and strengthens communities

“We are being dehumanized from a federal level to a local level,” Pérez-Huerta said. “We see culture as key in making sure that our communities are resilient and can fight back. We are centering ourselves in the fact that our ancestors have been resisting for so long and we’re here because of them.”

As Pérez-Huerta explained, incorporating cultural traditions enables communities to build solidarity and reaffirm the humanity of the people behind the movement in a dehumanizing environment.

It is also a way for communities to recognize that the battles of today are connected to a much longer history of resistance. Healing from the trauma of past and present are part of the process of strengthening and building resilient communities to continue resisting.

In a time when immigrants face daily threats in their communities, funders have a unique opportunity to make sure that the leaders at the forefront of the movement are healthy and whole enough to be able to fight back against those threats.

With flexible long-term funding, organizations can provide livable staff salaries and health benefits, and organizations can incorporate creative strategies to heal and strengthen communities. In addition to preventing and alleviating burnout, it translates to more people and, ultimately, more power for the movement.

Stephanie Peng is a research and policy associate at NCRP. Follow @NCRP on Twitter. Image by Dennis Skley, used under Creative Commons license.