Finding the joy in social change

How to balance the challenges and fulfillment that come with nonprofit work.

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“I arise in the morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. That makes it hard to plan the day." – E.E. Cummings.

This quote hangs on a scrap of paper taped over my desk – and I spend a lot of time staring at it trying to figure out how to structure my work day or the rest of my life.

Twenty-five years ago, I ran a school-based health clinic in a big urban high school in Massachusetts. Most of the students I saw in the clinic did not have health insurance, were undocumented, pregnant or parenting. They had difficult, chaotic lives, and I was very focused on helping them get through high school and preparing for adulthood. I loved that job so much. I ran into my students bagging groceries when I shopped, taking tickets at the movie theater and walking down the street. I loved it when they paged me on the weekends (this was the time before cell phones), or called me when they needed me at night. I was so clear about my purpose, and I loved that job, until I didn’t. At some point, I could no longer maintain the boundary between their lives and my own, and I started carrying their pain around with me – I was depressed and slow, and couldn’t sleep. I was not able to help my students, and I was hurting myself – so I left that job and I left that city.

I know that I am not alone – it is so hard for so many of us in the non-profit sector to figure out how to do deep and sustained work on serious and distressing issues with people in crisis, and to support our co-workers to do the same, all while taking care of our family and friends, managing any trauma of our own, and having time to enjoy our lives. I think it is harder in this moment than ever before – all the on-going problems of life in the United States and then the pandemic, climate change and democracy in crisis piled on top. It is easy to absorb the sorrow and hardship and challenge that we see at work and then take it home with us. It is easy to discount our own needs when we are not suffering the same kind of difficulties as others in our community, or the clients we serve or populations we represent.

For those of us who are dedicated to the work of social change, who want to stay in a movement for equitable access to resources, beauty and joy for everyone, we need to figure out some different ways of being. Recently, I started listening to Deepa Iyer, senior strategist at Building Movement Project, who developed the Social Change Ecosystem Map and Social Change Now: A Guide for Reflection and Connection to support individuals and organizations to find their right place in the work. She writes:

 “Social change can be fulfilling but it can also be draining at times. It’s natural to feel burnout and fatigue. People who have been subjected to generations of oppression carry trauma that shows up in behaviors and responses. And, in times of crisis, we can cycle through fogginess, exhaustion, and numbness. All of these responses are natural. We can also learn more about their roots and triggers, and build sustainability plans to tend to ourselves – and each other.”

Iyer’s work guides us to figure out the right roles both as individuals and organizations – and posits that these roles can change over time – what felt right in your twenties might not be right in your fifties. It is not just the role within the organization, but the organizations’ mission and culture that matter. If, like me, you have put yourself up against a perceived hierarchy of suffering, believed that the most valuable work for us to do is what’s hardest, and that there is a single right way to work – then these ideas could open up the way you think and how you experience the work of social change.

On the Friday night after Roe v. Wade was overturned by the Supreme Court this summer, I was at a giant party in Prospect Park. Thousands of my Brooklyn neighbors were there, dressed up and dancing. I ran into a friend, and said, “It feels wrong to be celebrating on a night like this, when we have lost so much.” In response, he gestured to the crowd, “But isn’t this what the world we are working for looks like?” And I looked at the crowd of people of all different sizes, shapes, ages, races, ethnicities, abilities, sexual orientations, and degrees of sweatiness, joining together to eat and dance and laugh in a public space.

I have been thinking about his simple question ever since. If I am motivated by that vision of the world I want, if I can fully experience the joy, and dance, the sweat and the company – and work to make that available for anyone that wants it – then it becomes a part of my social change work to experience the joy.

It has taken me a long time to find work that feels as big and on purpose as I felt at the high school clinic. And I don’t feel it every hour of every day as I once did. But when I am on purpose – when I am working to create and support equitable access to wealth and power and beauty – then I feel the joy of work right next to the challenge. Then I feel less torn between savoring and saving, and my days make sense.

Lisa Pilar Cowan is vice president at the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation and a regular contributor to New York Nonprofit Media. 

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