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By Nancy Slavin, writer

When my executive director last January told me they were letting me go, I felt my body molecularly restructure. A spiral of energy swirled from my head, through my heart, down my gut, and out to my toes.

 

For over twenty years, I have been part of a spiritual program that has a useful axiom: “expectations are premeditated resentments.” Most of the time, I know better than to have any expectations but sometimes, I forget. When I was getting ready to birth my first and only child, for example, I expected to have a natural childbirth. I had a plan, midwives, candles, the whole thing. The birth turned out to be long and complicated and, in the end, anything but natural. I spent several years working through my resentments and the parts of that experience I was responsible for, the largest of which were my expectations.

Another expectation I had to work through was thinking the United States government would take care of its people in the form of basic needs and human rights. Quality healthcare, education, food, shelter, and fair wages for employment — surely we can expect those in the land of the free and the home of the brave, right? For me, this expectation came from growing up white in a nice suburb where I had all of these things, every single day.

But, as I grew and read and traveled out of that suburb to see our country a little more, I started to learn how and why my expectations are not met for a whole lot of people. And that prompted more resentments.

I am also one of 926,000 nonprofit workers who lost their job during the pandemic; my last day was last year, January 28, 2021. For the first time in my professional life, spanning almost 30 years, I, like many people, enrolled for unemployment insurance. I have worked for nonprofits my whole professional career, mostly as an educator and a teacher, and while I’ve walked away from jobs before, I’ve never been let go.

Ironically, I am grateful my government took care of me while I was unemployed. I received my UI, and I used my time both looking for new jobs and doing a whole lot of healing because, as many on Community-Centric Fundraising’s website and elsewhere have expressed: Working in nonprofits can be traumatic. The cause of that trauma is often intersectional so, depending on your identity, there can be layers of trauma. My trauma, as a white, cis, straight-passing, educated, and married person was relatively low — a lower-case t.

In fact, as a white, educated, suburban-reared nonprofit worker, I had spent most of my career not paying attention to my traumas because they ‘were not as bad’ as so many others with whom I had directly worked and served. I even often felt guilty that I had any feelings at all about my small little traumas when other people’s traumas had been (and still are) so obviously so big. That guilt often kept me from metabolizing my feelings — other times it caused me to respond with a typical trauma response — FIGHT!

I’ve been fighting, in fact, for almost 30 years. I’ve been fighting against my reasonable expectations that people and our government and institutions would do better. I expected that white folks with advantages like I’ve had would, of course, want to work harder for more equitable world for all. I expected when we talked about diversity, equity, and inclusion that we really meant it and we would make the structural changes necessary to incorporate what we talked about. Oh, how I fought because of my expectations. And oh, how I racked up the resentments.

And you know what? We can’t push ourselves to do better from the inside either, especially by white folks like me pushing from a place of guilt or downright shame for how capitalism has advantaged me. Because the consequences of doing so are numbness, burnout, elimination, severe health effects and/or some combination of all those things.

When my executive director last January told me they were letting me go, I felt my body molecularly restructure. A spiral of energy swirled from my head, through my heart, down my gut, and out to my toes. By the next morning, I had taken full responsibility for this circumstance because I had, once again, forgotten the spiritual axiom. I saw all the connections of all my fighting energy and all of my struggle while I worked at that nonprofit, especially during the pandemic and social uprisings and wildfires on the West Coast, which all ignited my anxiety and spun up many expectations about how we all would radically systematize our social and racial justice work. By the end of 2020, I had been so moored in resentments for that organization not meeting the expectations I had been fighting and fighting and now … I was let go.

Not only had I forgotten the axiom, but I also had not really paid enough attention to the Nonprofit Industrial Complex. Frankly, even though I’d been in nonprofits for a long time, being on the development end of things was pretty new for me, so it wasn’t until I started reading Vu Lee’s Nonprofit AF and joining CCF that I began to really understand how the Nonprofit Industrial Complex thrives. Donor dependence keeps staff, especially leadership responsible for the fiscal viability of the corporation, from being able to truly integrate JEDIA (justice, equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility) work into the missions, fundraising, and even strategic planning of the organization.

And just like the Military Industrial Complex and the Prison Industrial Complex, the Nonprofit Industrial Complex is deep and complicated, and we all are mired in those systems. I worked for what is now being recognized as an Education Industrial Complex for almost twenty years. Mission statements may intend to ‘do good,’ but ultimately, even for the employee on the inside, they usually operate in hierarchal, linear ways that have compounding harmful impacts. After all, nonprofits are part of Capitalism, and we cannot push Capitalism to do better from the inside. As Rebekah Giacomantonio argued right here on this platform, pushing for change from the inside of a nonprofit is a setup for painful failure.

My healing during 2021 into this new year has been an intentional effort to reconnect my mind and body once again. The crises over the past nearly two years served only to widen the chasm in our society that has always been there. But the split is not going to be repaired on the outside if I don’t do my work on the inside.

And you know what? We can’t push ourselves to do better from the inside either, especially by white folks like me pushing from a place of guilt or downright shame for how capitalism has advantaged me. Because the consequences of doing so are numbness, burnout, elimination, severe health effects and/or some combination of all those things. It’s like what happened for me when I tried to birth my child. I was so uncomfortable for so long, and I just really wanted relief. I had so many expectations childbirth would be different that, ultimately, I pushed too soon and too hard and my baby’s head got twisted and stuck, leading to complex complications. I’ve often wondered, what if I had just slowed down and allowed for a more organic emergence?

Then, during 2020, I kind of forgot about that question all over again.

My healing during 2021 into this new year has been an intentional effort to reconnect my mind and body once again. The crises over the past nearly two years served only to widen the chasm in our society that has always been there. But the split is not going to be repaired on the outside if I don’t do my work on the inside.

This past year, I have done (and will continue to do) more committed healing through writing, therapy, exercise — and most recently, through a somatics course for White Racial Justice Organizers. In 2020, I deflected my own needs, ignoring complexities of my own physical and mental health, ostensibly for the good of the organization I worked for, but I suffered the consequences. Indeed, as adrienne maree brown says, we are all “in the age of consequences for inhumane choices.” My inhumane choices meant I had to stop forcing myself and others to “make something happen.”

As my (and many others’) government help ends, I have started work at a different nonprofit because the above-mentioned baby is now almost a teenager, and I have bills to pay. I appreciated Giacomantonio’s ending points about how to survive if you must stay in your nonprofit job or, if like me, you’re choosing to accept another one. I suggest you read them too, and to contribute to that conversation.

Here’s the sum of what I’ve learned from my time healing this year: Have no expectations but continue to do your Work with the capital W.

I believe wholeheartedly in what the Community-Centric Fundraising movement is doing and I will work to follow the checklist and principles in my new position, but I will not have expectations that leadership will respond accordingly, even though I will continue to share articles like this one from Kim-Monique Johnson that make helpful suggestions to ameliorate the pain of the nonprofit sector. I’m more committed now than ever to paying attention to how to effectively see positive results at my place of work and in my life.

Here are some additional commitments going forward:

  1. I will center in my body every day, at least twice a day, feeling for any expectations and releasing nascent but fomenting resentments, primarily about the Nonprofit Industrial Complex, but also about all those other industrial complexes too, which we all navigate every day.
  2. I will continue to do racial climate liberation work outside my nonprofit job. On the outskirts of the nonprofit industrial complex, I can still act radically and specifically. I am a leader in our county’s Showing Up for Racial Justice chapter, and a volunteer on our countywide Equity Coalition. I will continue doing volunteer work for true JEDIA, with other people in my community informing what energy I bring to the nonprofit sector.
  3. I will continue to write my own creative and personal analysis and story of what it means to be a white, educated, cis, straight-passing, married, able-bodied, mother, and woman of a certain age. Mostly what it means, as someone with a lot of advantage and social power, is I am here to lift up and show up for people in co-creative ways, for the sake of our collective liberation.
  4. I will give myself and many others the space to find our own alignment with the natural processes of earth, with organic ecosystems, with loving communities, practice mutual aid and lead to healing and grace.
  5. I will continue to read and follow Black, Indigenous, and people of culture leaders who are the founders of the movement.
  6. I will remember (like, re-member) the words I heard in my very first week of my very first nonprofit job: “Remember, change in [fill-in-the-blank] is like pouring molasses in the winter.”

I realize you may be reading this and thinking, “But Nancy, we don’t have time!” If you’re thinking that, I’m guessing you’re a white person. I encourage you to read how Urgency is one of the Characteristics of White Supremacy and step back from that ledge. Although, I mean, I get it. I got it. I feel you. I had to both evacuate because of fires and get through eight days without power after a major ice storm only two weeks after I lost my job.

But you know what I did in that ice storm? I sobbed and grieved the depths of climate devastation and then I danced and twirled in my living room. Because I knew my urgency had pushed me right out of an income that helped support my family and many friends and fellow writers and Patreons I care about. My deemed-not-important ‘little t’ traumas were still traumas for which I had a response and, over time, turned my body into a hard, thick tension cocoon. I can’t live in that tension any longer. Not for a second more.

I am now committed to living my life from my heart, a place full of love and trust. I now allow my body (and expectations) to dissolve into goo (molasses!) and in the process, I relax into an embodied human still working toward an equitable and abundant world for my child and future generations.

Nancy Slavin

Nancy Slavin

Nancy Slavin (she/her) is a writer, editor, poet, mom, spouse, and GenXer. Not necessarily in that order. She was a longtime rural community college English and writing instructor as well as a violence-prevention and anti-oppression educator. She now works in development for a mid-size nonprofit. You can find more of her writing at nancyslavin.com, or on her new newsletter, The Nano, on Twitter at @nancyslavin1, and on Instagram at @nancyslavin1.

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