Yvette & Ella talk about a ‘politics of care’ within organisations

Yvette is a good friend and collaborator of Wellbeing Architects. She has been thinking and working with us for over two years looking at how to create just, thriving organisations from the inside out. She is a human rights activists who helps people to use video and technology to protect and defend human rights at WITNESS.

Why a ‘politics of care’?

Ella: I think one of the things that has come up when we’re working with social justice organisations is the acknowledgement that as a movement our purpose is to fight injustice, to fight inequality, and this is our existence. But we don’t always recognise that these big system things are embodied in us and play out in us. And it makes me wonder: how can we fight these systems in the world if we don’t see them in ourselves? In this context, what does it mean to you to build a thriving organisation? And maybe a bit about your context and what thriving means to you?

Yvette: [Within our organisation] we are a team of about 40 people around the world. I’ve thought a lot about the privilege of leading this team. Over the years, for me as a leader, building a thriving organisation just means the best thing you can do is support and care for your team.

When I came into the organisation, I felt a lot of pressure… I inherited an incredible organisation that had an enormous network and solid reputation. What I learnt was how vision and strategy is a collective effort. And that if you are a leader, you really just need to say it’s almost care over mission. And that’s a scary thing to articulate. You can be very intellectual and say, ‘Well, aren’t you only here because of the mission?’ But I think if the care is not there, then you would achieve your mission at a huge cost to the people that are doing the fighting. In other words, you haven’t achieved things in the right way. There are people who may really disagree with me and say it doesn’t matter if it comes at a cost and we achieve human rights changes, then it’s okay. But I just feel that’s wrong, and it harms the movement. It doesn’t help the movement.

We think about care on three levels – a bit geeky, I know. Level One is the systems level: we are all in a larger system, we think about the political contexts we work in and the power structures in society and the systems we necessarily live or operate in. Level Two is the organisational or community level: we think about the organisation and the communities we work with because you can’t think of the organisation as separate from the communities that we are part of. Level Three is the individual level because every human being is different, their response to the world is different, and their psycho-social situation or history is different.

This means very concrete things like focusing on ensuring that every person in that organisation has the tools and the support structures they need to do their work. This is the extension of care – you pay attention and make sure that people feel supported by their colleagues…. You can’t think this is just automatically going to happen. And, I think when you think about us as an organization, and the beautiful wealth of backgrounds, languages, experiences, you know, it is also acknowledging that we will never just be one thing. Again, we’re like a bunch of molecules bouncing off of each other…

I also want to make a super caveat. We’re not perfect at this. There is no perfection. It’s constant work. It’s like waves that come and go. You must become a learning organisation. And as a learning organisation it means constantly building and reconstructing the right narratives and approaches on all of those three levels.

What does a politics of care feel like within organisations?

Ella: You talk about this notion of care as collective effort. And this collective effort is grounded in relationships within the organisation. Two friends of mine Tana Paddock and Warren Nilsson are writing a book about expressive organisations and they say this:

In many ways, organisations have become the places where we go to hide from the truth of relationship, not to find it. We look to higher skilled people, not skilled relationships. We design roles and assign roles to people, not to relationships. We give salaries to people, not to relationships. We fire people, not relationships… Even when we make teams, the basis of our organisational practice, we still tend to focus on getting the right set of people on the team, the right set of relationships.”

Yvette: That is such an interesting thing. Because I think first of all, pragmatically, or simply, unless you are in-relationship you cannot thrive. And I think we’ve really seen that breakdown in ways that were shocking to me to be really honest. You may have beautiful systems in place, but if the relationships don’t work, it just becomes everybody for themselves. So I would like to, at some point, do a little bit more thinking about why relationships are so vulnerable, particularly in the human rights movement. Is it that we thought we had built something, but it wasn’t the right way? Did we assume a permanence that wasn’t there? Now people are finding their relationships again, almost like the way trees or weeds grow. Very organically. Gently exploring what are the right relationships for people.

Also, relationships do not automatically mean trust. So what is trust? Because we think trust is the secret ingredient that makes our collaborative work successful. So it’s really like, how much relationship do we need to build in order to collaborate for impact? Well, what does it actually mean to have trust? What are the tools or skills we have to honor community and trust? Laura (one of our staff) has relationships, those relationships are deeply trusted, she’s been building and mutually part of that network of relationships for a long time. Maybe that is basically how we should think about our organisational model – our collective strength comes from her strengths in what she’s learning and the relationships she is building.

Ella: And so your relationship network of trust expands – through all the Lauras in your ecosystem – the depth and strength of those individual relationships strengthens and deepens the collective organisational work.

How do you build caring organisations in a traumatised world?

Ella: How do you build healthy organisations, when people themselves are deeply traumatised?

Yvette: You can say, ‘Everybody must take responsibility for taking care of themselves’, but we must also take a little responsibility for each other as a collective. Because trauma gets inflicted collectively and affects specific, particularly marginalized, people in bespoke and continuous ways. In an organizational context, the only way you’re going to get out of that or continue to manage it is collectively.

I also think the word healthy organisation is a little bit complex, right? I’m not saying we should be unhealthy, of course, as an organisation, but it implies that there’s this sort of perfect state you’re trying to get to. I think it’s more about learning how to recognise unhealthy dynamics or structures (or healthy ones), how to mitigate against certain things, when to ask somebody to maybe take some time off… the awareness that somebody else is maybe not doing well, or the awareness that people come with their own trauma. And I do think organisations have to take responsibility to try to reduce that harm as much as we can.