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Preventing Burnout Among Black Movement Leaders

I’m not a good friend anymore. I am burned out and have little emotional energy left to cultivate the community I’m told I’m supposed to lean on for support. I am writing this three years into my role as executive director of Power Shift Network, a climate justice organization, and parenting a toddler, during what we now just call “these unprecedented times.”

This is not a unique experience, especially for Black organizers and leaders. But it feels distinct now that it’s happening to me. What is actually a widespread, sector-wide problem has been pushed behind closed doors and turned into a private problem for individuals to solve using their personal resources. The truth is, burnout among Black activists and the organizational refusal to address it has serious implications for who remains in leadership roles and, therefore, how and if social justice movements are able to build the possibilities of a future beyond rapidly escalating climate catastrophe and fascism.

Yes, We Have More Black Leaders—But at a Personal Cost to Us

Since the 2020 racial justice uprisings, we’ve seen businesses, organizations, and foundations prioritize Black leadership to address systemic racism. In the climate justice movement, a wave of new leaders of color, especially Black women, are taking the helm of organizations across the nation (from The Solutions Project to Greenpeace to Young Invincibles and more)––organizations that were built on the backs of racist systems that we’re now being asked to transform in order to shift the horrific political and ecological realities we’re facing across the U.S. and the globe.

The thing is, these organizations were not built with us—that is, Black women—in mind, and that dearth of appropriate internal structuring deeply impacts our ability to do this transformative work and also to be human and to take care of ourselves in the ways that are necessary to continue this work.

My entire life, Black elders have told me about the “Black Tax,” which is the idea that we have to work twice as hard to get half as far. I’ve never felt that as deeply as I do right now. The way things are set up right now, I feel like I need to be a superhuman to just maintain this organization, doing the work of two or three people, balancing motherhood without the paid caregiving or house-cleaning help that my White peers may rely on, and so forth.

The Black Tax comes into play when Black leaders take on executive roles at movement nonprofits without adequate resources for our organizations or ourselves. The result is that Black leaders (as well as leaders from marginalized communities) burn out alone as we scramble for resources. Because racism and classism are interlocking systems of oppression, we typically do not have the same generational wealth, support systems, and mentors as many White peers who can step away and tap back into movement work when they’ve recovered.

White-led organizations investing in diverse leadership too often think that all they need to do is hand over the keys to the castle and step away. They do this without realizing that by stepping away, they are denying resources to the leaders who most need it and choosing to reinforce the racial wealth gap. Such a choice undermines our entire movement at a time when we need more than ever to support Black, Indigenous, transgender, queer, working-class, and disabled folks to lead our movements for justice.

Black organizational leaders not only have fewer resources and less peer and mentor support to prevent burnout compared with White leaders, but we are also expected to do even more to transform our organizations to address the crises we face. When we step into these roles, we don’t just have the learning curve of assuming the previous executive director’s work, we are also often charged with transforming an entire racist organizational culture while raising the entire budget (and more, to support organizational transformation), hiring and supervising staff, and envisioning and pushing forward a strategic plan. This has been my experience and the experience of many of my Black peers who have come into leadership roles in this time.

The Current Solutions for Burnout Are White-Centric and Individualistic

When I became executive director at Power Shift Network, my promotion came with a mandate from the board, our base, and myself to shift the organization from being majority White, straight, and class-privileged to one that is centered on Black, Indigenous, people of color, queer and trans, and disabled leadership. We’re doing that. And, of course, we do this work while we personally experience the heightened crises our communities face, from climate catastrophe to State violence. The pressure is heightened for neurodivergent people like me, those with ADHD (or autism) who hit burnout even harder than neurotypicals.

While I’m so proud of all I’ve achieved so far, I know it’s simply more than one person can be expected to do.

In the meantime, I am left to figure out how to access the support I desperately need for myself and for the organization I lead. One common suggestion is to pursue individual coaching. I’d love to be able to do this, but how can I justify the expense in my budget if I don’t have enough cash on hand to cover other organizational needs?

I’ve also come across an array of rural retreats (most often on land White people own) and short, unpaid sabbatical programs that span a few weeks to months. While I would hypothetically relish the opportunity to stay in a farmhouse for a while to rest and rejuvenate, these options don’t account for those of us who are caregivers and financial providers for children and aging parents, and who are more likely to be Black people without generational wealth to lean on.

Another common suggestion is to figure out how to take extended, unstructured time off––something that, again, requires wealth, savings, and access to health insurance outside of my job.

In short, all I see are individual White-centric options that place the onus on Black leaders like me to fix a structural problem that is caused by the racial wealth gap itself—a gap on which the entire philanthropy sector is premised.

This reality leaves me with a constant tension. On the one hand, I can stay in a leadership role for racial and climate justice, where I am fighting to build a livable future for my kid and for all of us, but with the knowledge that my immediate well-being and long-term health is damaged by the untenable conditions.

On the other hand, I can find a different job that could pay me well enough to be able to meet my and my family’s needs. But then I would not be able to offer my 15 years’ worth of experiences as a mentor to youth leaders, and that would simply continue the cycle of burnout.

Foundations Must Focus More Resources on Supporting Black Leaders

Instead of leaders like me being left to figure out how to solve this structural problem, why don’t organizations and the foundations that fund them build in the extra support needed to address burnout in the first place? Even an infinitesimal fraction of the wealth that philanthropy holds redistributed to support Black leaders specifically would reflect the stated values of true community care.

From where I sit, I see foundations refusing to spend down their endowments beyond the required 5% of the millions to billions they hold––but broadly benefitting from the successes of my organization’s work as we elevate Black and Indigenous youth leadership in the climate justice movement.

What if instead of looking at a shoestring budget for a powerful organization and thinking, “Wow, it’s incredible that they do so much with so little,” more funders thought, “We really need to shore up our support to make sure their staff is supported for long-term movement building.” The implicit celebration of “doing more with less” self-selects the more privileged among us.

Foundations should also be allocating specific funds to support leadership transitions and succession planning, including making dedicated grants for executive director overlap, staff leadership development, and supporting consultants as needed. Leadership transitions could be a time to invest more deeply in our teams so we can more fully share the workload, build interdependence, and be compensated accordingly.

Holistically supporting organizations through transitions sets up new leadership to thrive in relationships, instead of for a solo sprint that no one person can sustain.

This is particularly relevant for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion work, where the expertise of leaders of color could be integrated into permanent positions in the organizations instead of being primarily led by consultants, as is so common now.

Ultimately, though, an organization is the sum of its parts: the people and relationships between them. Our leaders need to be supported to transition to different roles over time. One way to do that is to make it a movement-wide norm to fund yearlong sabbaticals after leadership transitions that come with a full salary, benefits, coaching, and wellness support, in addition to regular general operating and transition support.

Such sabbaticals would encourage people to explore their next role in the movement while feeling less of the pressure that living in a capitalist society brings. It would also encourage them to come back into movement spaces in a generative way instead of being rushed to extract from it.

Think of this as a form of a much-needed wealth redistribution—one that would also rightly compensate for the failure of the State to provide adequate health care, education, child care, and other social support, which we’re all fighting to change for all of us. We can begin by providing such supports within our own movement and ensuring that our leaders can rest, rejuvenate, and thrive.

I am reminded of what self-appointed bishop Tricia Hersey of The Nap Ministry says: that rest is both our birthright and a form of reparations, and a portal for reflection, innovation, and dreaming of a world beyond the unjust systems crushing our spirits.

Widespread burnout of Black leaders is a preventable failure that has huge implications for how our movement progresses. We have the opportunity to reimagine what it would look like to truly support Black leaders on a sector-wide level to transition into new roles in our movement, and to support the next generation to thrive as they work for the future we all need.

Dany Sigwalt is a network weaver for climate justice, youth power, and racial justice. She is Executive Director of Power Shift Network, a network of 100+ organizations led by and committed to supporting youth climate activists, and she is a current Atlantic Fellow for Racial Equity and author of the forthcoming “This Book Will Save the Planet” from Quarto Press. She can be reached at her website:
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