Despair got you down? 8 lessons in inspiration for nonprofit leaders

October 19, 2020
10 minutes

People are struggling right now. Many of you are nonprofit leaders working in partnership with communities who've been especially hard hit.

For leaders who work with communities of struggle—including those of us who do our work as guests—what does it take to build our own resiliency to fight off despair?

Funraise CEO Justin Wheeler put that question to Jeremy Courtney, Founder of American nonprofit Preemptive Love, whose audacious goals are to unmake violence and end war. Preemptive Love works in 10 countries, and began in Iraq, where they developed a model for peace-making that "interrogates U.S. complicity" in war.

If you're questioning whether your work matters, maybe the first question is, are you close enough to the front lines? For me, I never feel more hopeless, I never feel more scared... than when I am far from the front lines. [...] When I have an immediate, direct experience of what it is we're about and who it is we serve and what we're doing, I feel energized. I feel the risks are worth it, the costs are worth it. And it helps me push in and hold out another day. —Jeremy Courtney, Preemptive Love

I appreciate what Jeremy's saying here. Because in a way, he's saying, I don't have the answer. He's pointing out that the frontlines is where he goes to find inspiration.

In that spirit, I turned to my own frontline education from practitioners and thinkers who are Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC). Below you'll find a selection of insights on the nature of despair, and the way out of it, broken down into three themes: interdependence, self-exploration, and new models of leadership.

Next time, we'll break down some actionable strategies for how to bring these themes to life.

Before you dive in, it's important to know that many of these articles are written with an audience of women or women of color in mind. If you're white, trust that you'll need to put in your own work to make meaning from what they're saying in your own life.

Let's get to it.

Beating despair by building cultures of interdependence

How changes get started, from facilitator Sage Crump:

Nothing happens in isolation. There is always a squad, collaborators, a body that supports change occurring.¹

How to move past competition, from Detroit activist adrienne marie brown:

Most of us are socialized towards independence—pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, working on our own to develop, to survive, to win at life. Competition is the way we hone our skill and comfort with the opposite of mutual reliance. [...] We compete for fun, for ego.
The idea of interdependence is that we can meet each other's needs in a variety of ways, that we can truly lean on others and they can lean on us. It means we have to decentralize our idea of where solutions and decisions happen, where ideas come from. [...]
Interdependence is basically the song 'Lean on Me' in practice: 'For/ no one can fill/ those of your needs/ that you don't let show.' ²

Seeing the lessons of oak trees in New Orleans, from artist and educator Naima Penniman:

Amidst the whipping winds and surging water, the oak tree held its ground. How? Instead of digging its roots deep and solitary into the earth, the oak tree grows its roots wide and interlocks with other oak trees in the surrounding area. [...] How do we survive the unnatural disasters of climate change, environmental injustice, over-policing, mass-imprisonment, militarization, economic inequality, and displacement? We must connect in the underground, my people! In this way, we shall survive.³

Overcoming despair through self-exploration

The "conversion from loneliness to solitude," from academic and poet bell hooks:

Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving. When we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a means of escape…. In solitude, we find the place where we can truly look at ourselves and shed the false self. […] The difficult road is the road of conversion… the conversion from loneliness into solitude… Loneliness is painful; solitude is peaceful. Loneliness makes us cling to others in desperation; solitude allows us to respect others in their uniqueness and create community.” ⁴

The value of embracing your own identity struggles, from academic and nonprofit leader Notisha Massaquoi:

Self-exploration is one of the keys. For me, personally, understanding, focusing on and sharing my experiences with others is at times difficult, but also empowering. It highlights for me the fact that the most effective means of resistance can come from my own identity and the struggles that I have encountered as a result of this identity, as well as the opportunities and barriers society puts in front of me because of my identity. ⁵

How to transform your relationships, from the intersectional feminist icon Audre Lorde:

Make no mistake… nothing neutralizes creativity quicker than tokenism, that false sense of security fed by a myth of individual solutions. You do not have to be me in order for us to fight alongside each other. I do not have to be you to recognize that our wars are the same. What we must do is commit ourselves to some future that can include each other and to work toward that future with the particular strengths of our individual identities. And in order to do this, we must allow each other our differences at the same time as we recognize our sameness.

If history has taught us anything, it is that action for change directed only against the external conditions of our oppressions is not enough. In order to be whole, we must recognize the despair oppression plants within each of us - that thin persistent voice that says our efforts are useless, it will never change, so why bother, accept it. And we must fight that inserted piece of self-destruction that lives and flourishes like a poison inside of us, unexamined until it makes us turn upon ourselves in each other. But we can put our finger down upon that loathing buried deep within each of us and see who it encourages us to despise, and we can lessen its potency by the knowledge of our real connectedness, arcing across our differences." ⁶

Lessons on navigating despair within individualistic cultures

The dangers of spokespeople, from the (often unsung) civil rights organizer Ella Baker:

There is the danger in our culture that because a person is called upon to give public statement and is acclaimed by the establishment, such a person gets to the point of believing that he is the movement.⁷

How to promote genuine dialogue as an 'outsider' in community work, from Harvard public health expert Alicia Ely Yamin:

Dialogue, in a Freirian model [referring to anti-poverty activist Paolo Freire], is not merely a tactic of participatory approaches –– a way to engage community members in a particular task, for example. Nor does it simply imply a shift from teaching to listening, as so many participatory approaches have tended to emphasize. As Ute Buhler has written, "the assumption that whatever 'local people' say is valid is as patronizing as its opposite. Both stand in the way of serious engagement... Rather, dialogue for Freire is an acknowledgement of the "social and not merely individualistic character of knowing." [This] challenges the contrived restriction of the outsider's role to "facilitator," just as it does that of the professional expert who takes over. As Buhler argues, "both can stand in the way of genuine dialogue and exchange." ⁸

As a leader, your vision and motivation are what drives your organization. Your team, supporters, constituents, and cause all rely on you for that spark, so when you're in danger of losing sight of what really matters, everything becomes fragile. For inspiration strong enough for leaders on the frontlines, listen to those who've spent time there and made it back.


¹ Brown, Adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. AK Press, 2017. p. 98
² Brown, Adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. AK Press, 2017. p. 87, 93
³ Brown, Adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. AK Press, 2017. p. 84-5
⁴ Hooks, Bell. All about Love: New Visions. Harper Perennial, 2016.
⁵ Massaquoi, Notisha. “To Radicalizing Social Work Practice and Education.” Doing Anti-Oppressive Practice: Social Justice Social Work, by Donna Baines, Fernwood Publishing, 2017.
⁶ Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press, 2007.
⁷ Payne, Charles. “Ella Baker and Models of Social Change.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 14, no. 4, July 1989, pp. 885–899., doi:10.1086/494549.
⁸ Yamin, Alicia Ely. “Suffering and Powerlessness: The Significance of Promoting Participation in Rights-Based Approaches to Health.” Health and Human Rights, vol. 11, no. 1, 2009, p. 5., doi:10.2307/40285214.
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