Global Connect! Gender Justice Writing Project

Part: 1

Leaders Who Are Women of Color: Take a Deep Breath

Friday, August 12, 2011

"There are days it is hard for me to get out of bed, the stress is literally killing me," Valery Jean says as she quickly mentions that she spent two weeks dealing with a near death experience. Jean and her almost exclusively women of color staff have been attending transformational organizing trainings with Social Justice Leadership, a nonprofit organization located in New York City that has supported them in linking biological stress with organizing.

As a result, she says, "when there is a lot going on in the organization, then we all get sick and we pass it on; our health and our work load go hand in hand, not having a big staff stresses everyone when one person is sick but we can't do less work or the organization will not be sustainable."

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On top of that, because she is understaffed, Jean holds several positions: She is lead organizer, development director and administrative assistant all at once leaving her to also take work home. This is had a major impact on her family.

"I mean how available am I, when I am filling in gaps and doing hands on organizing, building alliances and creating policies locally and nationally; I need a break" says Jean.

Recently, Compass Point Nonprofit Services and the Meyer Foundation released "Daring to Lead 2011," a national study of nonprofit executives focusing on the recession's impact on organizations leaders.

More than 3,000 executive directors participated in this study finding that 28 percent of people-of-color-led organizations were severely impacted by the recession, compared with 18 percent of white-led nonprofits. In addition, men reported a burnout rate half that of women and were significantly more likely to report having the work-life balance that's right for them.

"I thought I was going crazy, that it was all in my head. But when I spoke to other executive directors locally and nationally, especially women of color, I found out it wasn't just me. It was a good feeling to know I wasn't alone but then it made me think wow, how far have we really come?" Valery Jean said. She took a deep breath to prepare herself to continue to answer personal questions about being both an executive director and a women of color on the front lines and the impact this has had on her life.

Her question is one that people of color ask themselves everyday, not just in nonprofit and community-based organizations but also in their personal lives as they look at the world they live in today. When these two worlds collide within social justice, the feelings get overwhelming and magnified for everyone involved.

A myth seems to exist that once we become staff, a member, or a board within an organization, when we take a position of some sort that we can divide ourselves in half and that the personal lives we live stays outside the door the minute we are on the clock. Jean however, knew that the one thing she could not leave at the door when she took on the position of executive director was her gender and her race. If anything she knew that this would be the first thing people would notice and that it would have a major impact on how the organization was viewed.

Like many women of color on the frontlines, Valery Jean became the executive director of FUREE, (Families United for Racial and Economic Equality) by default. Five years ago she was the development director and when the position opened she hesitated as she not only thought about the economy and sustainability but more importantly how she would handle the unspoken challenges of being a women of color in that position and how would she handle the different standards she would have to face, created both by funders and other co-workers in the movement.

Jean recalls a very specific moment that happened when she was about six months into her position. She was told in what seemed to be an advice wrapped up in compassion and empathy but really was a condescending expectation: It's okay to fail!.

"We might have set backs but failure has never been and will never be an option for me" says Jean as she recalls what she responded. As a poor immigrant women with two children Jean stands on the shoulders of a very conscious and politically active family who taught her how to survive and value that today she can vote, sit on a bus and compete for a job.

"This keeps me being a mother charged to change conditions so my children don't have to worry" says Jean.

And I say but at what cost? At what cost are women of color , executive directors , in management positions or on the frontlines being charged with social justice, running and leading organizations both in times of economic crisis and everyday where crisis is happening in their lives and communities?

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Series Overview

Global Connect! Gender Justice Writing Project

Part: 9

A Woman In the Pursuit of Justice

Part: 8

Lives Cut Short: Trafficking from Mexico to New York

Part: 7

Family and Work: An Immigrant Woman's Dilemma

Part: 6

Poverty Is not Folklore for Indigenous Mexican Women

Part: 5

Bronx Playwright Creates to Engage Her Community

Part: 4

Mothers on the Move Signals Solidarity in South Bronx

Part: 3

Limitations of Language: A Barrier for mothers to overcome

Part: 2

A Mother is Murdered; Suspect Flees Again

Part: 1

Leaders Who Are Women of Color: Take a Deep Breath