"I was 100 pound lighter before I became an executive director," shares Wanda Salaman as she offers me fruit that she is eating for lunch as part of her self-care action plan this year.
"People don’t understand how hard it is for an executive director to make decisions," says Salaman. There are days that she doesn’t sleep, being stressed about everything, "I m not only carrying the whole community on my shoulders, but also staff as well, making sure they have bread on the table."
In addition, Salaman shares that when she is stressed she does not show it and keeps it within adding to the anxiety she already has. She also believes that this is a cut-throat business so she guards what she can tell people and as a result she feels like she does not have a safe space to express issues that may arise for her personally or about the work.
"I am not the best in practice yet, but I know that working 70 or more hours a week is not sustainable, actually, it’s not cool. I have learned over the past year that if you have people take care of themselves, they have more love for the work, if not then you develop a cycle where the movement is on their backs" says Salaman.
In 2010, the Movement Strategy Center published Out of the Spiritual Closet: Organizers Transforming the Practice of Social Justice, validating the sentiments of Salaman. The report is the first in a series looking at how leaders and organizations are transforming the social justice movement by integrating transformative and spiritual practice.
The report contextualizes the stories of social justice organizers as they deal with leading within the current global environmental, economic and political crises.
Confronted with the burnout, isolation and fragmentation so common in the progressive movement, many leaders are seeking a "new way" to practice social justice — a way that can meet the challenges of our time, sustain our leaders and transform our movement and the world.
"For staff appreciation day, I took my staff to the spa. After everything we have been through this year, we all needed it and if we want to have a sustainable place then the people need to be sustained," says Salaman.
There were times over the last two years that the she and her staff did not get paid. They had to work together to have the necessary foods to eat and depended on their partners and family for support. Salaman also lost some of her staff as they needed to go find other jobs. These where hard days in which she had to make hard decisions, either stop, become more dedicated or continue for the love of the work and for each other in the organization.
Salaman says, "There were a lot of days I couldn’t sleep worried about closing down." There were questions running through her head like how do you pay Peter and leave Paul starving? And do you pay rent or pay staff?
Knowing that there are other organizations with a lot more money, one of the biggest questions Salaman had to ask herself was: Does her organization go under another organization and possibly lose their identity but knowing the staff will be okay?
The sad part about all of this is that Salaman is not alone. She is one of over 100 women of color executive directors in New York City having to ask themselves the same questions. Since 2006, organizations have been feeling the impact of the economic crisis at devastating rates. "I know that there are a lot of executive directors going through the same things but not having the conversations as a group, says Salaman.
In 2006, collaborating organizations: Artemisa, Elige and CREA published the Self Care-Self Defense Manual for Feminist Activists providing a unique tool that supports women in social justice in working through "the breach that exists between our discourse on human rights and social justice, and the reality of the labor practices adopted by our organizations and work spaces."
They put this manual together because they believed that we don’t recognize ourselves as workers with rights and duties and therefore create a "sacrifice" mentality that justifies forms of violence that we would never accept in a factory or workshop, yet continue to live with and perpetuate every day in our very own NGOs, collectives, and groups.
Although Salaman had been organizing in the South Bronx many years before, she didn’t become the executive director of Mothers on the Move until 2002 and "sacrifice" is what she has been doing for the past nine years.
"When I took the position, I had a white man as a co-director and he had different relationships with funders than I will ever have," says Salaman. As a woman of color, Salaman feels like she was not prepared for the position. All she knew is that she wanted to make changes but didn’t really understand how much it was going to take and all the skills she needed to have. Salaman wanted to be outside with people, that is what she knew how to do as a resident of the South Bronx herself. She would later find out that that was not going to pay the bills of her organization.
Salaman was up against a lot when she took on the position, not only was she the youngest leader and had a different organizing style; she was also Black Latina women with no status. This meant that she had to get creative, know who her allies where and create relationships with people.
What she created instead was a transparent organization that can make it through the toughest economic times. Everyone in her organization can read the financial reports understanding how much money they have at any given time as well as decide when they need to collectively fundraise or come up with a different strategy.
This is a major accomplishment for Salaman and the South Bronx. "My accomplishments at the end of the day have nothing to do with the work but the transformation a person goes through because of the work." says Salaman. Salaman recently cried after seeing one of her co-workers Nova Strachan singing in a play, her dream come true.
Another major accomplishment for Salaman is that Mothers on the Move is turning 20 years old next year. In preparation for the big celebration, Salaman is combining self-care into her sustainability and fundraising agenda. She is also is taking Mothers on the Move to the next level and going green.
As I walked into her office today, I was greeted by over 20 summer youth employees that have organized a farmers market for the community and had installed an herb wall in the meeting space that they will be harvesting throughout the year.
Building a green economy is part of Salamans strategy for personal, organizational and community self care and sustainability.
"The South Bronx has the biggest food market in the world and although it’s kicking our ass because the community gets the poorest fruits and vegetables, we are going to use it to our advantage and grow fruits and vegetables, herbs and make food to counteract its impact on the community".
Not only is Salaman going green, but also Salaman is committed to doing it differently. She is going to put herself first, know her limits and be 100 pounds lighter. But, she doesn’t want to do it alone.
This year, Salaman will be organizing healing support circles as part of her plan.
"I want to do a women’s group because we have to cry, we need to build sisterhood, break bread and share stories that is the only way we are going to build trust. Only then can I say, ‘I can do this project because we are on the same page and have the same vision.’"
Salaman is asking other executive directors to join her and learn from her mistakes. "Please don’t think you can do this on your own. It’s good to have solidarity. We need to hold each other’s hand and not compete."
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