Why “Care” is an Essential CE&E Thread
Creative Evaluation and Engagement (CE&E) is a high-needs environment. There are multiple relationships that require care and attention, including your relationship with yourself. At the same time, you are working towards a more just and equitable world, meaning that you’ll most certainly encounter oppression and injustice and become a holder of the stories of people most harmed and traumatized by that oppression and injustice. This requires that care for yourself and your team is an essential thread that must run through your CE&E work. It may also require a new way of thinking about care and wellbeing, which traditionally have been thought of as something one does at the individual level.
I’m a co-author on a report based on three and a half years of research and evaluation on wellbeing in social entrepreneurs (what we at Inspire to Change call “Changemakers”). A major finding of this work is that there is no well-being for social entrepreneurs when it’s not supported at all levels — individual, organizational, sector, and societal.
While collecting data for the Wellbeing Project, we heard over and over some version of the following: “The higher-ups at work are always telling me to prioritize self-care, and yet if I get an email at 10 p.m. and it’s not answered by 8 a.m., I’m penalized. I want to take care of myself, but my organization does not create the space to do that. Even when they say they do, there are practices in place that show they don’t mean it.” So, while it may be true that each of us has the responsibility to take care of ourselves, societal, organizational, and sector barriers can prevent us from being able to carry out that commitment. A major takeaway of this is that we need to disrupt the narrative that individuals are solely responsible for their own wellbeing, and that self-care is enough.
What we found in the Wellbeing Project is that social entrepreneurs — people who work toward a more just world — are at tremendous risk of burn-out and even trauma. The following is an excerpt from the Introduction to the book, Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others:
So after so many years of hearing stories of abuse, death, tragic accidents, and unhappiness, of seeing photos of crime scenes, missing children, and departed loved ones, and visiting the homes of those I was trying to help — in other words, of bearing witness to others’ suffering — I finally came to understand that my exposure to other people’s trauma had changed me on a fundamental level. There had been osmosis. I had absorbed and accumulated trauma to the point that it had become part of me, and my view of the world had changed. I realized eventually that I’d come into my work armed with a burning passion and a tremendous commitment, but few other internal resources. As you know, there is a time for fire, but what sustains the heat for the long haul is the coals. And coals, I had none of. I did the work for a long time with very little ability to integrate my experiences emotionally, cognitively, spiritually, or physically. Rather than staying in touch with the heart that was breaking again and again as a result of what I was witnessing, I had started building up walls (van Dernoot Lipsky, L. (2009). Trauma Stewardship, p.2–3).
The first time I read this passage, it really resonated with me, both in what I’ve seen in other people and in what I experience myself. In CE&E, every data point is a piece of someone’s story. And it’s sacred work to carry someone else’s story. Doing this work means bearing witness and then giving voice to that witness in a way that is helpful or can contribute to change. And because in no way did my training as an evaluator prepare me to think about data in that way, or really even care about people at all, all I had was my fire: my passion and my commitment. And I did not have a lot of skills to help me understand how to take care of myself as a person — or to take care of others — whether it be my work colleagues, those at the organization I’m partnered with, or in the field or sector. Because of this, I’ve been broken more than once. I think I’ve broken, and then gotten good enough, and come back and done the same thing over again. I think I was aware of it the last time, but it’s also happened so subtly before that I didn’t realize what I was going through at times.
So, how do you do this work — this Creative Evaluation and Engagement work — and take care of yourself and your team, when you may not feel a lot of support or buy-in from the field or sector? First, you must prioritize your own wellbeing. This means striving to work from a sense of wholeness, with your inner life, core values, and outer work in alignment. It means saying yes to opportunities to support your wellbeing and cultivating an openness to ways of being in your relationships with yourself and others in your daily work (and to change-making in general). You must discover and rediscover aspects of yourself with less self-judgment and greater acceptance, and integrate parts of yourself that have been fragmented or denied. You need to experience and welcome healing and relief from burdens.
In addition to your own self-care, you must care for your team’s wellbeing with intentionality. This includes signaling through words, attitudes, actions, and policies that you value the wellbeing of each team member and the team as a whole. You must cultivate a work environment that invests in trauma stewardship by meeting oppression and trauma (career-based or personal) with care. This means tending to and responsibly guiding those who are struggling, while actively working to ensure that people (including you) are not internalizing others’ struggles as their own. Trauma stewardship practitioners believe that if we are to alleviate the suffering of others, we must not assume their pain as our own, but instead strive to create a space to honor their pain and hardship as they work to find their individual paths.
So, we need to work hard to help team members (and ourselves) acknowledge the tension inherent in this work, with the understanding that tension is often necessary for moving forward. But tension is something that must be held, not something to be fixed or resolved. And this can throw individuals and teams out of balance as they feel pulled one way or another while trying to hold the tension. A resource that may be helpful to both you and your team is the one that I quoted at the beginning of this post: the book Trauma Stewardship lists signs of having a trauma response along with ideas and exercises to combat them and live more fully into the work. I use these resources in my own life and career, and I also work hard at calling on others for support when I need it. If you’re like me — and I know that this is a common thing with changemakers — we are much better at giving help than receiving it. It’s important to keep in mind, however, what we overwhelmingly found to be true in the Wellbeing Report: having the support we need in terms of self-care will make us ever more able to do the important work of helping others.
How do you care for yourself and your team as you do change-making work? Let us know in the comments.
References/For Further Reading:
van Dernoot Lipsky, L. (2009). Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Severns Guntzel, J. & Murphy Johnson, N. 2020. Wellbeing Inspires Welldoing: How Changemakers’ Inner Wellbeing Influences Their Work [Report]. Retrieved from bit.ly/TWPreport2020