Tributaries: November 30, 2020

As I write this piece, cases of coronavirus continue to rise, both here in Minnesota and across the country. Like you, I am managing so much uncertainty. My wife, my kids, and I are all working and schooling from home. We’re stocking up on the essentials and adjusting our routines based on real time pandemic updates. We’re preparing for a long winter, with plans to have little to no contact with friends and family. I’m so fortunate to live with the people I love most in the world. Even on our worst days, I’m grateful for simple gifts that each of my family members provide me. Long conversations with my daughter about our favorite books. My son’s ability to tell a hilarious joke in a deadpan tone. My wife’s endless lists and post-it notes scattered around the house.

At Headwaters, we’re also continuing to adjust. My team has been working remotely since mid-March, and I recently announced that this will continue through next summer. We’ve supported our volunteers, grantees, and donors—centering relationships while prioritizing safety. We’ve shifted from in-person convenings to online meetings. We’ve been there for each other—showing up when things are tough and when it’s time to celebrate each other’s successes. We send each other inspiring quotes, funny GIFs, and birthday cards. We miss being together, and we miss seeing you.

One of the most frequent conversations I have with other leaders lately is how to care for staff during the pandemic. Organizations are trying to figure out how to advance their missions and support the people who make their work possible.

Within movement spaces, organizers and activists have already been suffering from burnout and exhaustion from fighting against injustice and oppression to liberate all of us. Organizing takes years of dedication, with real changes that take generations of work. People on the frontlines are consistently under pressure to keep their eyes on the long-term, while also responding to moments of urgency and crisis. Now, with two pandemics—racism and COVID-19—running rampant, self-care can feel like an out of reach luxury for all of us.

I’ve learned a lot about leading an organization through crisis. Just seven months after taking the helm at Headwaters last September, I’ve faced so much uncertainty about how to show up for the community, be there for my family, and care for my team all at the same time. The truth is that leading through this level of crisis has surfaced every doubt I have about my own leadership. What I’ve come to realize is the importance of being a good listener, of being nimble, and of getting out of the way.

Lesson One: It takes a team. At first, I felt the enormity of making the right decisions for my team and I took that responsibility to be mine alone. Very quickly, it became clear that I could not bear it on my own. So, I called on two senior leaders—my biggest worrier and my most pragmatic team member—to join me to create a COVID-19 task force. Together we tracked the spread of the virus plus guidelines from Governor Walz and the CDC. This helped us create plans and protocols for our team. Later, I would roll out of the day-to-day work of this committee as another senior leader joined the team. Now the task force advises me on how to best care for Headwaters’ staff. They meet as needed and then bring their thoughtful recommendations to me.

Lesson Two: Communication is key. Team members not only want to be kept updated on policies and protocols, but they also want to have input into decisions that impact their lives. The COVID-19 task force has one-to-ones and organizes surveys to learn about their colleagues’ needs, and then they integrate that feedback into their recommendations. We document policies and protocols, send out memos to staff, and review my decisions in staff meetings. With so much information—and misinformation—overload about the coronavirus, we know that team members need to read, hear, and be reminded of Headwaters’ safety guidelines and employee benefits.

Lesson Three: Create policies, benefits, and protocols that are people centered. Headwaters staff are parents, siblings, partners, and children who have responsibilities to the people they live with and beyond. While I need them to raise money, make grants, and support our volunteers, there’s no way they can do that if they are too stressed to focus. Centering our people means caring for their mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health first. Here are a few examples of ways I’m caring for my team:

  • Staff can access unlimited sick time. They can use the benefit to recover or support family members to recover from the coronavirus, the flu, or other illnesses. We know that employees who live with depression, anxiety, or trauma may not feel like they can use sick time when they are going through extra tough times. So, I’ve made it clear that team members may use sick time to take a mental health day when they need it.
  • We give staff a monthly stipend to help cover the expense of setting up and maintaining a home office. Whether it’s the cost of internet, purchasing a comfortable office chair, or finding a good set of headphones, I want my team to have the tools they need to do their jobs well at home.
  • Headwaters has established a wellness program that includes a budget for each employee. Staff can access dollars to support healthy living. Ideas we’ve started to brainstorm are virtual meditation retreats, fitness classes or equipment, or art therapy. 
  • Our Wellness Committee hosts weekly online events. Wellness Wednesdays are optional 30-minute drop in opportunities to pause the work and share space. Some days we meditate or do yoga. Other days we watch funny videos or listen to an inspiring talk. By the end of our sessions, I can see the visible impact of our time together. We all look more relaxed and happier.

Lesson Four: Lead by example. Over this past summer we shifted to a four-day work week. The intention was that people would work 32 hours over four days and take a long weekend to decompress and find joy. At one point, I realized that I wasn’t the only one squeezing in a few hours work on Friday, which was supposed to be our day off. At least two other staff members were secretly working. My team members weren’t taking care of themselves because I wasn’t taking care of myself. I wasn’t taking care of myself because I wasn’t drawing boundaries around my time and energy. Now, I make conscious decision to both take care of myself, as well as to show my team what’s possible. I start my workday at 8 a.m. and end it at 4 p.m., because that’s what works best for my family. I schedule work blocks so that I can focus on specific projects, like writing Tributaries. And I take a lunch break every day—giving me time to prepare a meal for my family and escape from the glare of my computer screen.

Lesson Five: We need to take care of our people, even when there isn’t a pandemic. I’m proud of the ways that Headwaters adjusts and shows up for our staff. And that has me thinking a lot about what we should carry forward. We can do better to care for our team, and we should. As a workplace, Headwaters can be different—we can give people meaningful work and support them to show up as their best selves. We can commit ourselves to the communities we love and promote healthy boundaries and self-care at the same time.

The coronavirus has exposed layers of struggle people experience and the ways our society expects folks to figure it out on their own. People like me are incredibly privileged. I have a reliable income, and I have no reason to fear that my work hours would be cut. I can work from home and meet with people by Zoom or by phone. My board of directors is supportive of the measures I’ve put in place to prioritize safety and wellness of my team.

What if society started seeing self-care as a priority rather than a luxury? What if all employers gave resources to people to nourish their mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health? What if people didn’t have to bank their personal time off for fear of not having enough sick time if they take a week or more off for vacation or to welcome a new family member? The truth is that our society reserves such benefits for an elite few. We’ve created terms like “unskilled labor” or “entry level” to justify why some people receive little to no employee benefits. We require advanced degrees and undervalue lived experience in determining job qualification, competency, and compensation.

Caring for people requires resources. Institutional funders and individual donors who give general operating support send organizational leaders a clear message to prioritize their employees’ wellness. The real work of changing the world takes a toll, and the philanthropic community can play a big role in supporting the health and wellness of the people on the frontlines.

Taking a people-centered approach to compensation and benefits requires employers to value every member of a team—not only director and executive level staff. It requires leaders to interrogate the policies and protocols they uphold. Caring for people means living into the values of racial, gender, and economic justice. It means dismantling white supremacy in the workplace while identifying and actively resisting implicit bias.

The grassroots are critical to our movement ecosystem. The impact of COVID and racism in our society are showing us just how depleted people are. Imagine what we could achieve if we tended the soil of our communities. If we used money as nutrient-rich compost. If trust in BIPOC leaders was as abundant as sunshine in the summer. If caring for people was treated like life-giving water. Imagine the world we could create.