"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."

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?

"The clock ran out a long time ago, our communities where in crisis way before this one was published and I am not apologetic about saying it," says Jean,. As executive director during this hard time Jean goes to bed every day thinking about her staff and her membership who have to deal with evictions, public assistance and losing their jobs, while also struggling with paying her own bills and rent in the same way her members struggle. As a result Jean works up to 70 hours a week and sometimes around the clock to provide economic sustainability and healthcare for her staff. However, this year FUREE has lost half its budget but doing about 75 percent of the same work, while funders continue to have three times as high of standards to produce because she is a women of color.

According to "Daring to Lead 2011," beyond their organizations’ balance sheets, the recession has taken a personal toll on executives; 65 percent. of executives reported significant levels of recession-related anxiety.

However, despite the exhaustion in her voice, Jean laughs as she tells me that this is her life’s purpose, to challenge the system but something has got to change, she cannot win this fight on her own. So for the past year, Valery has not only embarked on a journey of self-care but has taken her staff along and is using this economic crisis to build alliances within and outside of the organization.

Today, Valery creates space to take care of herself: She journals, rants on Face Book, plays games and spends more time with her children. As executive director, her and her staff have created a space to address personal challenges and respecting each other as human beings first.

As a result there is a lot more communication and support. we operate more as a team now" says Jean. "Together, we have created a women-centered model because we know we cannot organize without addressing our needs,". This is one of the major accomplishments for her today. In addition, the most important accomplishment to date has been that organizationally she has developed one on one relationship with other executive directors from Mothers on the Move and the North West Bronx Clergy Coalition.

Valery Jean has come full circle since her organizing days at Hunter College, where she took classes on race, class and gender disparities. In spite of what she has gone through, she believes that this recession is a great opportunity for funders to support organizations led by people of color led. However, they must first look at the quality of life for social justice leaders and how much is being requested of them.

"The political landscape and public policy are shifting at a fast rate and it takes lot of energy and time to address them because they cannot be predicted and forecasted," says Valery as she finally advocates for self-care, urging funders to think about pay rates so executive directors can pay themselves and their staff what they are worth.

As for other executive directors, women of color and women on the front lines, Jean has an important message for you, BREATHE!

"I know self-care seems like a long path but it only takes five minutes to breathe and reflect, take a pause and check in on how you are feeling" and NETWORK! "Make sure you have a supportive network of people that you can vent with."


For more information about FUREE log on to http://furee.org/ FUREE is a Brooklyn-based multiracial organization made up of almost exclusively women of color. We organize low-income families to build power to change the system so that all people’s work is valued and all of us have the right and economic means to decide and live out our own destinies.

This blog was originally published on In Bold Rebirth, read the original post at http://inboldrebirth.blogspot.com/2011/07/behind-movement-with-valery-jean.html

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