Working, Caregiving, and the Global Pandemic
As we begin another week of sheltering in place during these unprecedented times, our communities are beginning to experience a new normal. Children are home from school, engaging in different levels of e-learning, non essential workers have shifted to remote workplaces, families and communities are now separated in hopes of flattening the curve.
All of a sudden many individuals are finding themselves having to perform at work while balancing caregiving, homeschooling, managing anxiety and mental health, and caring for their community all at the same time. Despite the fact that many workplaces have transitioned – mostly successfully – to remote offices – many remain hesitant to reimagine beyond that. Expectations of high productivity and innovation continue to be informed by capitalism and habits of dominant culture. People continue to feel pressure to perform as if the world around them is not crumbling as we know it. Companies all around us are having the hard conversations of what is needed to continue to exist, and what is needed to continue to sustain the services we promised our communities. And too often, those conversations are headed in a downward direction: companies are having to make the hard choices between protecting staff positions or the future longevity of their organization. We continue to operate in an “either, or” mindset, when these desperate times are screaming at us to shift to a “both, and” to honor the complexity of what it means to wear multiple hats at once.
At HEART, we know these intersections all too well. Ten years ago, I founded HEART as a mother of young children, subconsciously as a direct response to not being able to find a meaningful professional experience that was also supportive of my commitment to being the lead parent of my three children. The decision to center my children and their needs was often met with judgment and patronizing praise: “Oh that’s cute. A stay at home mom working on a passion project.” It was also often met with dismissal: I couldn’t possibly be committed to building this organization if I also had to spend much of my day caring for my children. And yet, I always knew, at my core, that raising a family wasn’t in conflict with movement building, even though our workplaces and funders wanted us to believe otherwise. Ten years later, HEART is a national organization led entirely by Muslim women of color: with five staff and twenty-two trainers, an entirely virtual office across multiple time zones, and a handful of partners, babies, and pets.
It was a long and challenging journey, and it is far from over: we continue to find ourselves innovating and grappling to adapt our organizational culture the larger our team grows. There were (and continue to be) hundreds of days in which we are frustrated at building the plane while we fly it: how do we develop organizational culture that can hold both the external demands of sustaining a nonprofit with the realities of managing a team that is literally holding it all every day they come to work? How do we challenge the expectations that show up in our individual leadership and collectively as a team, that have socialized us to demand a level of productivity that is rooted in dominant culture of white supremacy? While we are far from discovering the answers to these complicated questions, there are a few lessons we have learned along the way*.
Change begins with internal work. In order for our organizations to incorporate an intersectional lens to managing remote workplaces, leadership and staff need to explore how deeply entrenched our workplaces are in dominant culture habits of white supremacy, and identify how they may have internalized those habits and consequently are leaning into them. Only then, can we begin to be in practice of disrupting those habits.
Productivity isn’t correlated with being present in an office 9-5. While this may be something that most people can intellectually understand, it often doesn’t translate when teams go virtual. Instead, managers become hypervigilant about how their staff is spending their time, and what often results is entire days full of zoom meetings and conference calls to ensure that their staff is working and not actually doing the laundry or cooking their next meal. Moreover, a discussion for another day could also explore how gendered these assumptions or anxieties might be: do workplaces have these implicit biases more often with their female staff members being distracted by such chores?
Freedom does not come at the expense of accountability. This is a practice we have had to lean into. Often, managers struggle with allowing their teams to work remotely because they fear that is giving them too much freedom: that virtual work arrangements will result in staff doing whatever they want, whenever they want. It absolutely must be communicated that freedom does not, should not, come at the expense of accountability. Finding the balance to hold both offering freedom (and flexibility) alongside accountability is extremely hard because we have been socialized to think of them as two binaries.
Intersectionality is critical to the longevity of our workplaces. Caregivers – or really anyone who holds multiple (marginalized)identities – work better and harder when they feel seen, valued, supported and allowed to bring their full selves to work. There is less staff turnover and there is higher morale.
Children are not a distraction. This is a truth our Native siblings have always known. Children are organic moments of joy built into the day, and boy do we need more of those in our movements. They are natural, forced breaks in the day, to prevent you from becoming so immersed in work that you forget to eat lunch. They are some of our greatest teachers: their commitment to truth telling is often unparalleled to adults. Our movements fall short without them.
Caregiving doesn’t just mean parenting. At HEART, we don’t just think about caregivers in the traditional sense: ie parents and babies. We also think about them as people taking care of their elders, their partners, their communities, their pets, and of course, themselves. Working with directly impacted people means that it is critical to prioritize caregiving in all its forms and to recognize that it is often a lived reality that must be addressed.
As we continue to find our new normal during these very strange times, we have an opportunity. An opportunity to slow down, reexamine our workplaces and our practices, and acknowledge they have been broken for our caregivers for far too long. We are expecting caregiving, homeschooling, and working to happen simultaneously, yet we have not built the kinds of organizational culture needed to honor the intersection of working and caregiving. Making this cultural shift requires hard work and lots of discomfort, but it might just be what our movements need to ultimately survive.
*I am grateful to my teachers, Michelle Gislason, the team at Move to End Violence, and my cohort 4 sisters who have held me with compassion and wisdom as I continue to explore these questions.
- Worksheet: Keeping Families at HEART
- PDF: Social Distancing: How HEART Works from Home (WFH)
- Video: Conversation with Parenting for Liberation as a part of an intergenerational movement building video series