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In world changing circles, self care might be the word of the year. Activists and artists, writers and teachers, organizers and trauma workers are transforming and innovating tired old notions of self help. Increasingly, we find ourselves asking how taking care of ourselves is central to “the work.” Desiree Adaway is a leader in this movement.
Desiree’s work is wide ranging. She is a leading nonprofit consultant, pushing organizations to have the difficult conversations that are essential to creating lasting change. She is a coach who inspires leaders to cultivate connection and community, while fearlessly pursuing a richer life and career. She is a writer, whose words push readers to think about their own role in perpetuating injustice, especially racism. Throughout, Desiree asks folks to think about how a better world depends on showing up for ourselves. Then, she teaches folks about to do just that.
HLT: So many of us who do social justice centered work were socialized to be infinitely invested in the cause. Many of us learned to make choices that undermine our wellbeing because we believe it is the right thing to do. Over the last several years activists have paid far greater attention to the idea of self care. Your work lies at the intersection of personal transformation and social change. How do think about the tug between personal work and social justice, self care and activism, self growth and work in the world? What do you tell your clients who struggle to focus on their inner journey because their are so invested in the outer workings of the world?
DA: I struggle with it. It’s one of the most insidious ways women hurt ourselves. We put ourselves last. We have systems built on this country that make that not only possible but easy for us to place our needs last. We can’t become mothers without oftentimes placing our careers on hold. If we do have careers, then we have to fit within this very rigid mold of what a proper family looks like. Why are households run by a woman devalued? It’s because society tells us a household is run by a man. So we have all of these systems in place that are designed so that we place the needs of our partners, children, work, community, and elders on women.
So this is why I push and push and push self care on my clients. I make them define it for themselves.
I ask women to have fun. The work my clients are doing is really important and intense work. I ask them to be selfish, to have time that is holy that no one else gets. I ask them to know what brings them pleasure and revel in that. Audre Lorde said that radical self care is a revolutionary act, and she was right. A woman- let alone a black woman- taking care of herself before all else is beautiful.
I am almost fifty, and I still struggle with self care myself. I wish someone had taught me how to take care and love myself gently at 16, 26, 36. I try to be conscious of my breath. I can stay in shallow breathing if I am not conscious of taking big, deep, life filling breaths. I try to drink more water. I struggle with making the time to cook healthy meals for myself. We can spend so much time in our heads and not enough in our bodies. For me self care means I am in my body and giving it what it needs
My liberation will come in two ways– from fighting external oppression and from breaking my own chains, my internalized oppression. And for me, taking care of myself in a loving, gentle way is a big part of that fight.
I am not really free until I am free in all the ways that really count. I want women disturbing and disrupting. We have to nourish ourselves before that can happen.
HLT: You work with world changing women–thought leaders, entrepreneurs, policy makers, executives. When you think about the barriers your clients face, where is world failing the world changing women you work with? And where is feminism failing?
DA: Feminism is failing the women I work with because it is centered in whiteness. I am not white. A lot of the women I work with are not white so no matter how much privilege they bring to the table–education, experience, wisdom, skills, talent–they are not white men. This country was built for white men, and everyone else has to adjust or get left behind. That’s what white supremacy is.
For feminism to move beyond whiteness and to serve the women I work with, feminism needs to understand that the fight that many women have is not just about equality. It’s about justice. Women of color want justice to be the center of our movement.
HLT: Part of your work in the world involves building intentional communities among women (and recently men) who are looking for support and accountability. What have you learned about the power of communities in keeping us in touch with our best selves?
DA: I am committed to sharing my skills, wisdom, experience, and network with a group of like-minded women and men to help them learn to navigate the challenges in this new world of work and the systems that keep us small and bound. People’s lives are a direct reflection of the expectations of their peer group, so I create the peer group needed for personal and professional growth
Twice a year, I bring together ten women looking for mutual support and accountability. I keep them on track and energized about their work and career. These women WANT it more than they are AFRAID of it. The purpose of what I call the mastermind group is to help breathe life into business and personal development. The group also provides participants with an opportunity to develop coaching skills through offering support and constructive feedback to others. Over and over, I see women improve their ability to influence others into positive action.
Some women start their own business. Some go out and get bigger clients. And some even decide that they want to be disrupters within their organizations. It’s powerful knowing that you have other women on your side wanting what you want for yourself. This is why community is important. As you expand your network and your resources, impact, exposure, and income opportunities also expand.
We all have a decision to make. We can be average or we can be exceptional. We always have the choice to stay exactly where you are or reach for something more. We make that choice everyday.
HLT: When you’re not working with individuals, your work focuses on transforming the culture and strategic visions of nonprofits. In the era of Black Lives Matter and a resurgence of feminism, what are the biggest challenges facing nonprofits?
DA: The majority of my work centers on leading difficult conversations about race, class, and gender. These conversations help building resilient organizations.
The majority of nonprofit budgets go towards salaries, and yet the majority of folks that work at nonprofits are women and/or brown. These folks may representative of communities they serve, but for the most part, they are not representative of Boards or the executive leadership.
When you have white men running organizations when the staff is majority women or brown, you always need to have conversations about race, class and gender. I come in and help board members, senior leaders, managers, communities have those hard conversations so that they can get the work done. There are some organizations getting it right but they are really focused on collaboration and partnership rather than the traditional nonprofit structure.
HLT: Women of color have spearheaded sharp critiques of the nonprofit industrial complex. As an expert on nonprofit organizations, are nonprofits the route to a better world?
DA: No they are not. I spend a lot of time telling folks not start anymore. I think the model is archaic and no longer serves communities. Yet we have 1.5 million in this country and they are not going to disappear tomorrow, so how do I dig in and try and paint a new vision for the work they are doing. When I consult with nonprofits, I’m asking myself out of the box questions. How can I make these institutions stronger and better places for women of color to work? How do I help them build more collaborative and participatory cultures?
I think nonprofits know they are not the answer and sometimes they need help visioning an exit strategy– those are the types of difficult conversations I like to help lead organizations through.
HLT: You have a powerful social media voice. Recently you wrote a piece in TFW entitled “You Want the Power But Not the Pain: Notes for White Women Who Love Cookie” in which you ask white women to think about how they romanticize and appropriate black female characters. And yet we find ourselves in a culture that pushes women to be nice, which too often is code for not having the hard conversations or calling out injustice. I think that being vocal is a kind of bravery that is largely underestimated. Can you describe how you came to embrace your voice? How do you think about telling the truth in a culture that tries to convince us that to be successful, especially as a solo entrepreneur, we should turn down the politics?
DA: I honestly got tired of seeing black women become more and more invisible. If you are not Oprah, Beyonce, or Cookie, then we are invisible. I got tired of seeing black women and girls destroyed in school, at work, in church–all the places we were supposed to be safe. I got tired of seeing women of color struggle, get degrees, get great jobs, and still get pulled out of cars and murdered by state sanctioned violence.
Ashata taught me that it is our duty to fight– and that’s what I do in my own way. I focus on talking about ways we break down the systems that want to keep me small and hidden– including those that I have internalized.
I have always been courageous about speaking up. You can’t grow up on the South Side of Chicago and NOT know how all these isms impact your world. I have been stopped by the Chicago police. I know what it’s like to live in certain neighborhoods, attend certain schools.
I left home at 16 and lived in Germany as an exchange student, and this experience gave me an entirely different view of what it meant to be black– a black American traveling. As my world opened up and I found myself in more and more situations where I was the only brown face–you know at a small college where they want me to rep the catalog but my voice was never found in the syllabus. When I am at the pharmacy in town, I am watched and followed.
Those lived experiences were always in me. I am open and friendly and willing to talk to anyone about anything. I naturally make people feel comfortable and safe. Yet, I know that I am not safe and neither are my children. When my daughter called me crying after Zimmerman was acquitted for Trayvon’s murder something in me broke. I realized no matter what I do I cannot keep her safe from the reality of being black in America. So I fight. More and more we see violence used to intimidate women, used to intimidate black people. We see poor people being shamed.
I ain’t free until all of us are free. When poor people are intimidated, my kid is being intimidated. When a cop flips over a baby sitting in her desk in math class, that is my daughter he brutalized. I am no different her.
HLT: You are a master curator of resources? What are you reading, listening to, savoring that you recommend for world changing folks?
DA: I love the podcast Another Round by two young black women Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu. They are so smart and amazing. I always learn something new. I recommend that everyone listen.
I am reading A Race Is a Nice Thing to Have: A Guide to Being a White Person or Understanding the White Persons in Your Life by Janet Helms. It’s a guide to being a white person, and it really breaks down whiteness in this country for white people. People of color know and understand the meaning of race in society, but white people don’t ever get those lessons, and they desperately need them
I have also been reading Abernathy, an online magazine devoted to black men. I love the writing. It’s fresh and smart. And it features new voices talking about what black manhood is currently
HLT: What questions do you wish I could have asked?
DA: Do I think we will win? Yes, I do. How do I stay hopeful? I use the anger for energy. I am never bitter. I stay hungry and will not stop until oppressed people are free.