Ujima’s Tenets for Resisting White Supremacy Culture (and Burnout) in the Workplace
January 4th, 2023 -- #HowWeWork is a series dedicated to how we get sh*t done at Ujima. We’ll unpack the inner workings of our culture, participatory processes, and how we advance our mission with a team of economy-builders.
The Boston Ujima Project is a Black-led, democratic, member-run organization building a cooperative business, arts, and investment ecosystem in Boston with a mission to return wealth to working-class communities of color. Our executive director, Nia K. Evans, always says, “We must create the air we are walking in,” so for us, culture is a powerful thing. White supremacy culture is the belief that White people and the ideas, thoughts, constructs, and actions of White people are superior to those of people of color. There are a number of resources on this, but we often refer to “White Supremacy Culture in Organizations,” a resource created by the Centre for Community Organizations. We see White supremacy culture permeate the nonprofit world with little examination and believe it goes hand in hand with another workplace phenomenon: burnout. A 2021 study conducted by Hue found that marginalized employees experience burnout at higher rates than their White counterparts. As an all-Black staff, Ujima takes burnout and White supremacy culture seriously and strives to reduce both in our culture. These are our tenets for resisting White supremacy culture (and burnout) in the workplace.
Rest. Rest. Rest. All employees have unlimited, paid time off, and as an organization, we build in mandatory seasonal breaks — during which our office is completely closed — four times a year. In August, we suspend our team meetings for the month and avoid having external meetings so we can focus our attention inward. It’s become a vital resetting practice that allows employees to feel restored moving into the final third of the year.
Take time to focus. Every staff member is empowered to have one “No Meeting Day” a week, during which they can use their time to work on bigger strategic projects without the interruption of a meeting. I’ve personally found this to be liberating, and I find that my morning momentum continues into the afternoon when I have more space to think. We’re still working remotely, so everyone’s life at home looks very different. It’s important that we make space and time for that.
Professionalism without performance. My favorite part of Ujima’s culture is the freedom I feel just showing up as myself. Previously, in majority-White workplaces, I felt I had to present a hyper-professional version of myself in how I dressed and spoke, which left me feeling drained at the end of the day. At Ujima, we encourage everyone to show up as nothing else but themselves and believe in a professionalism that isn’t performative. As Black employees, we’re often pressured to play into “respectability politics” in order to be taken seriously, so we’re disrupting that.
We don’t exist in a vacuum. Democracy doesn’t happen in silos. We’re intentional about including our community in decisions and mindful of the social, political, and cultural landscape around us. Sharing opportunities with partners, asking for help, and leaning on our ecosystem gives us the capacity to work smarter, not harder. For instance, we regularly host a #CoDirect meeting with our community members, where we share updates, pose live questions, and brainstorm challenges we’re facing in our ecosystem. Ujima wouldn’t exist without the guidance and support of our members and partners.
Combat gender and sexual orientation biases. Currently, 66 percent of Ujima’s employees identify as queer. While that proportion may shift as we grow, we view gender and sexuality diversity as vital to our community work. All employees undergo a gender and sexual harassment training as part of the onboarding process. We also bring queer perspectives to our fundraising and cultural offerings in a world where conventional cis-het voices are still prioritized.
Open feedback loops. Feedback at Ujima is as dynamic as the work itself. Everyone is encouraged to share feedback with their peers and managers as it comes up, not just at annual performance reviews. Because so much of our work in the solidarity economy is unprecedented, we try to approach it with a continuous improvement mindset. Everyone has areas they can improve on, and it’s never too early, or late, to have that dialogue.
Make time to reflect. Most meetings at Ujima start with a check-in prompt or question. Intentionality is core to how we work, because we know what happens when actors move without intention. Checking in invites us to reflect on how we’re showing up in that moment and beyond, and be mindful of how we’re working. Building in time to reflect also combats a sense of urgency that pervades many nonprofits. There will always be more work to do, but there is always enough time to reflect.
A democratic approach to decision making. Internally, we generally believe that more ideas are better than one and seek to solicit feedback from members and employees alike. We often troubleshoot challenges or share new ideas together, then use consensus to make final decisions. Staff may have different opinions and conflict may arise on the team, but this is what it means to govern democratically. We employ this same process when working externally with collaborators and community members.
Collaboration over competition. Among major cities, Boston has one of the highest rates of locally focused nonprofit organizations. Where some see competition, we see collaboration. It’s impossible to build an ecosystem with one entity. For us, a healthy solidarity ecosystem means bringing together more businesses, artists, organizers, and investors to find new synergies and connections. Our United Black Economies Campaign is just one example of how we fundraise collectively with the belief that there are more than enough resources out there for everyone.
Celebrate wins, losses, and everything in between. When you’re tackling issues around race and economic justice, it’s easy to strive for perfection at every turn and be hyper-critical of your mistakes. Across our investments, assemblies, and major programs, we build in time to celebrate our accomplishments. People are at the center of what we do, and celebrating the highs and lows is how we bring compassion and care—for ourselves and partners—to this work.
Paige Curtis is the culture and communications manager at the Boston Ujima Project and a freelance climate writer.
This article originally ran in Issue 09 of the Boston Art Review, titled “BURNOUT”