The Movement for Wellbeing in Social Justice Work

The Movement for Wellbeing in Social Justice Work
by C. Perry Dougherty

Perhaps the biggest tragedy of our lives is that freedom is possible, yet we can pass our years trapped in the same old patterns...We may want to love other people without holding back, to feel authentic, to breathe in the beauty around us, to dance and sing. Yet each day we listen to inner voices that keep our life small.
— Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance
Some journeys are direct, and some are circuitous; some are heroic, and some are fearful and muddled. But every journey, honestly undertaken, stands a chance of taking us toward the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.
— Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak

It’s the middle of Spring, and it’s snowing. Sitting in a coffee shop, my hat and coat are still on. I’m looking out the large storefront windows at the still bare branches of trees and a planter of purple pansies threatened by falling clumps of wet snow, contemplating how flowers bloom—slowly, hard to notice any changes at first, and then, as if all at once, they open. 

I’ve watched the TED Talk “Nature. Beauty. Gratitude.” by the photographer and filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg countless times. In it, he shows stop motion videos made up of time lapse photographs of flowers blooming, strawberries ripening, skies shifting, and more. To see nature up close brings the magic of change to life—each time I see it, the images encourage me to pause, and, for a moment, to surrender to life.

This, I decide (just now, as I write) is the nature of things—change. There will be a sunny, 70 degree day in the not too distant future when, as if all at once, the chill of winter will be a distant memory. Seasons offer us perspective on change—it’s paradoxical slowness and suddenness. 

I have been collaboratively leading Still Harbor for eight years, and this year we are celebrating 10 years of service since our founding. Much in the way I’ve been contemplating seasons this morning, at Still Harbor, we have been looking back while looking forward. For us, this has also meant grappling with how to be present for, notice, hope for, and surrender into what’s next for our community of practitioners committed to elevating spirituality within social justice efforts.

While these musings might feel misplaced in what promises to be an article about two amazing women and their work, it is precisely this process of looking back and looking forward that brought me into conversation with Eliza Ramos and Alexis Barnes of Circles International last month.

Eliza Ramos, an alumnus of our now-on-hiatus Praxis Program and a facilitator and chaplain in some of our partnership work, and Alexis Barnes, a current student in our Spiritual Direction Program, recently launched Circles International, a leadership and organizational development consulting group dedicated to support people and organizations by cultivating wellbeing and preventing burnout. 

Eliza and Alexis both grew up in Oregon—though that’s not how they met. They first connected in 2012 through Global Health Corps, a fellowship program that places people into non-profit organizations for a year of service and leadership development. I also met Eliza and Alexis in 2012 in my role as a facilitator and chaplain for Global Health Corps.

In my interview with Eliza and Alexis last month, they shared how they formed a quick bond during their time in Global Health Corps, but what finally brought them together to form Circles was a few serendipitous connections: the combination of a conversation at a wedding, their mutual love for the authors and books on Eliza’s bookshelf, and a honed commitment to cultivating wellbeing in social justice spaces. 

Eliza says, “Everyone thinks I’m crazy [when] looking at my bookshelf.” Alexis did not. 

Knowing Eliza and Alexis pretty well from training, supporting, and working with them over the past six years, we are able to jump right into a meaningful conversation about how each of their personal and professional journeys led them down the path to what they are doing now. 

 “If I go back, I always felt connected to the wider world outside of where I grew up,” Eliza says. “That comes from my parents—my mom is half Sri Lanken, half Filipino. My dad is Malaysian-Chinese with Spanish and Filipino blood. I grew up hearing stories about other parts of the world, and I knew that was something I wanted to explore. So when I left home for the first time, I was 17, and I went to the Philippines. I got sick, and I went to the health clinic, and the line was outside, all around the building. But because my grandmother worked in health and had connections, I was able to get seen immediately.” 

This early experience in the Philippines helped Eliza recognize her privilege in new ways. It unlocked in her a sense of responsibility to work for justice and equity. 

Alexis grew up with grandparents who travelled a lot, helping normalize for her how big the world was - exciting her about the possibilities of exploring it. Alexis’ father died when she was 16 years old, and in the years following his death, as she sought normalcy, healing, ways to manage her grief, Alexis felt driven to travel: “Part of my process to feel like myself again was to push myself into communities that didn’t know me and my story, where I could just be myself in that moment,” she says.

Then in college, while traveling in Cambodia, Alexis had an experience similar to Eliza’s experience in the Philippines—one that opened her up to her privilege and sense of responsibility for working towards equity and justice. She tells us the story: “I was in Cambodia, and I was taking this bike ride out to a lake. We had passed this family who had a bag of rice on the back of their bike, and the rice had fallen over and the bag had ripped open, and there were all these little grains of rice everywhere… [We] went to the lake, and when we were riding back, [the family was] still there, hours later, picking up every single grain of rice. And that was a big ‘aha’ moment for me—[a moment] when I fully understood my privilege. I’ve never had a day where I didn’t know where my food was coming from. I’ve never faced that kind of uncertainty in my life before. It made me walk away feeling really responsible.”

These moments of deep understanding—moments that led to a profound sense of responsibility—launched both Eliza and Alexis into their studies and then careers. As we turn our conversation to talk more about Circles International’s focus on wellbeing and burnout prevention, more stories from their lives and careers emerge. As is so often the case, Eliza and Alexis learned the importance of cultivating wellbeing by becoming personally familiar with burnout.

Eliza shares how her sense of responsibility and awareness of privilege propelled her into a pattern of over-giving and burning-out. She began her career as a clinical social worker. Burnt out. Shifted into public health, managing programs in nutrition and HIV. Burnt out. Shifted into other positions. Burnt out. In her words, “I was absorbing too much of the hardship.” 

As she expands on this idea, she articulates something I’ve often heard in my work supporting people: her sense of duty set up an internal narrative that told her to overgive and overstrive in order to make up for the privileges she had in her life that she knew others did not have. “I think [it] is a dangerous, or misplaced, desire,” Eliza shares. “Or maybe the desire is in the right place but where it was coming from in me was the idea that I was never going to be enough.” That’s an idea, she adds, that will never sustain her in the work—it’s a destructive idea. What will sustain her, she shares, is “knowing that I am forever connected to my family and the communities that I work with.”

Alexis began to notice similar patterns of burnout and the ways people cope with it as she launched her career in the field of international development. Particularly amongst the ex-pat communities she got to know living in Uganda, she saw a lot of people who were burnt out and participating in what, to her, appeared to be vicious cycles of martyrdom. The lack of happiness in those communities was palpable to her. She describes how some appeared to hate the places they were in but wouldn’t leave. They just kept doing the work, numbing whatever feelings or struggles were present, and avoiding any worry about the dangers of the impact of their burnout on others. 

While observing these patterns, Alexis was also being exposed to Still Harbor’s support and trainings, which she indicates offered her valuable questions about how she wanted to do the work of international development and how taking care of herself might be connected to her responsibility for caring for others. It was the first time in any of her training, she says, that she received an opportunity for personal development that felt directly connected to, or integrated with, the mission she was pursuing at work.

These stories and experiences of times they were embedded in social justice organizations operating in the US and internationally form the back drop of Eliza’s and Alexis’ vision for Circles International. Their vision is based on their shared realization that when the tools of wellbeing and burnout prevention are integrated into social impact work, both the quality and the sustainability of the work improve. Circles International approaches this work by offering both individual and organizational services that first help people identify where there are gaps in supports and patterns of behavior leading to disengagement and burnout, and then work with them to chart a path forward that focuses on behavior change and culture shifts that promote wellbeing and prevent burnout going forward.

The centrality of wanting to prevent burnout through their work brings me to a question that I ask my own clients often, which is “What does burnout mean to you?” I ask Eliza and Alexis because I too often assume that I know what another means when they say burnout, and yet, I have found all of us bring our own complex feelings, experiences, and meanings to describe concepts like burnout. I have come to embrace that burnout is as complex in sources as it is in symptoms. 

Alexis honors this complexity in her response, sharing, “It really depends on who you are.” For her, sometimes burnout feels like apathy, where things she is typically passionate about feel like a mountain too high to climb. Other times it feels like depression—a real lack of hope. But in either case, it’s about being disconnected from self and from the things she cares about. Her personal and professional experience emerge clearly as she turns to exploring the ways she and others numb and try to cope with feelings of apathy, depression, and disconnection. She then articulates the ways that self-awareness techniques can help people catch themselves in such patterns of numbing so they can make changes.

Eliza offers a perspective on some of the red flags that she sees as warning signs for burnout. She shares that when individuals, teams, or whole organizations begin to perpetuate the very injustice or social ill they are trying to work against, it is a huge warning sign: “So, when an organization is working toward peace and you see part of the staff really angry, or when an organization is trying to catalyze a community to use their voices and a lot of people are just shut down and silent.”

This dynamic Eliza points to—what David LaPiana calls “The Nonprofit Paradox”—echoes the theme of disconnection and serves to illuminate it further. Burnout, for both Eliza and Alexis, can be summarized as a disconnection from self and values that, over time, can become a lack of passion for and integrity in the work of social impact. 

Eliza points here to her own experience as a social worker: “Someone would come in and say, ‘I feel helpless,’ and my anger at the system was pushing me to throw resources at them that I knew wouldn’t work. I felt the helplessness. And I was not able to honor the fact that they felt helpless, because I did too.”

As we talk, I can feel how engaged this leadership duo of Circles is in tackling the complex and nuanced challenges of burnout in the field of social justice. They are deeply committed to what they believe about the importance of building structures that promote wellbeing, and while they shared with me that Circles International does not have an explicitly spiritual approach, I’m struck by what I know of both of them as alumni of Still Harbor programs and my own bias towards the spiritual technologies that I have seen support people in recovering from and preventing burnout. So I ask the spirituality question: How does all of this work that you are seeking to do relate to your own personal sense of spirituality?

They both frame spirituality as connectedness. If burnout is disconnection, then it seems the value of practices or beliefs or a sense of being that offers connection cannot be underestimated. Eliza finds a connection to something greater in nature or stillness, and it helps her honor that she is not holding her work alone. And she also points to her spirituality as the space where she has been able to respond to deep inner questions like, “What am I meant to do in the world and how does that connect to other people? And what am I not meant to do? When do I say, ‘no’? What are my gifts? What are the conditions I’ve been given that form inner talk that say, ‘I’m not enough’ and ‘I have to push’? And what does it actually look like to say that there is abundance, and I am enough, and I am deserving?” Working with these questions, she shares, has become a matter of integrity for her. She wants to be able to say, “you are enough” to the people she works with and to believe it deeply for herself as well.

Alexis speaks to the importance of language in her unfolding spiritual journey, sharing that she is learning new spiritual language that resonates with her to explain things she has felt but not been able to describe. She entered Still Harbor’s Spiritual Direction Practicum at the beginning of this year and, through the program, is deepening her understanding of the differences in her sense of relationship with the world around her when she is engaged in spiritual practices that nurture connection. It sounds to me as if she is looking back and looking forward at her own life in the process of discovering language that moves her spiritual orientation from an individual focus to a collective imagination of what is possible when together we cultivate a sense of connection.

There is so much richness in their explorations of spirituality. As we move on to talking about the pragmatics of their work—the weekend retreats, the virtual online circles, the one-on-one supports, the organizational workshops and trainings, the program design and organizational strategy work—the values they hold around the theme of connectedness are still present. They are taking on the challenges of making the work of wellbeing and burnout prevention accessible to those who want to do it while also working within systems and structures for long-lasting impact. There is a movement for wellbeing afoot in our social impact spaces, and they want to help lead it.

I think now, still in the cold coffee shop, about this movement for wellbeing, and I think about how many people it will take to bring this work out into the world, how many hearts and minds need to shift. When I met Eliza and Alexis in 2012, my colleagues and I were “planting seeds” through our training and support—we were offering small experiential moments that might help demonstrate why this work of turning inward and reflecting upon the spiritual elements of one’s service is important to building sustainable leadership for social justice. Today, those seeds and so many others are flowers blooming—Eliza and Alexis are stewards of the work, carrying on the lessons in their own unique way, and offering to others the space they feel they were offered. 

Eliza states unequivocally: “Circles would absolutely not exist if it weren’t for me finding Still Harbor and re-writing my narrative of what spirituality is, and expanding that definition, because, honestly, I think I would have stayed in the cycle [of burnout] for years, decades. And I think I would have done okay work, but those cycles and systems would have continued. This path of breaking those apart and looking inward is so hard and yet so important [to doing social justice work].”

I have seen, sometimes up close and sometimes at a distance, both Eliza and Alexis do the hard work of looking inward, of tending to their authentic selves even when it is hardest, and of asking themselves what it means to lean into their gifts. That process of witness and deep listening, for me, has often been enough to sustain my work. And yet, it is nice to sit in an interview like this and hear what it has meant to others.

I can’t help myself at the end of our call. There is a particular situation that has been on my mind from a workshop I led in which I absorbed the group’s toxic sense of disconnection. The experience tested my ability to lean into my own practice as a person and as a spiritual director and facilitator—it made me feel a twinge of burnout. I wonder what Eliza and Alexis might have to say about the situation, and more than that, I wonder how they are approaching the very real cultural resistance to doing the work of wellbeing in a structured way. I share the story of my experience with the group, explaining how the group resisted the very premise of inward reflection as a privileged lens on reality. And what Eliza and Alexis offer me is a testament to their work, and something I will likely never forget.

Eliza responds quickly, saying that she is going to share with me something I shared with her a few years ago: “Inner peace. It is privilege. Full stop. Not everybody has that,” she says. “And, again, this is what you asked me: If you look at a person or community you are trying to serve, what do you want for them?” She continues, “When I looked at it from that angle, I want the woman who has been waiting for three hours at the clinic to get meds, yes, and I also want inner peace for her. Is that going to solve all of the structural inequities? No. But is that going to give her the inner tools to fight this day, and get through this, and push for what she deserves? Absolutely. So, yes, it’s not everything, but is it all connected? Absolutely.”

I hear this, perhaps not exactly as Eliza intended, but just as I needed to. My sense of disconnection was not just the group’s, it was also my own doubt that got triggered in the space—my doubt about whether pausing, surrendering, taking time to cultivate equanimity in the storm is really useful at all. I could put the blame on the group, and yet, as I hear Eliza, I know that if I really want to continue to offer the space to move through resistance and tackle the big questions, I need to honor that same resistance lives in myself. And yes, I desperately want the privilege of peace for those in that group, for those that group serves, and for myself—I want it for everyone. My desire alone doesn’t make the work easy, and it isn’t a silver bullet solution.

Alexis chuckles and shares that she will offer something I offered her years ago as well. She pauses and says, “When you feel like you are being circled by questions of why this thing isn’t going to work, what’s the mantra that you are going to hold true, that is going to help you make decisions as you move forward?”

My own mantra has three parts: “We are in it together. We need each other. We are love in action.”

Alexis, in her question, and Eliza, in her reflection back to me, support me in looking inward at a moment when I need to lean into connection. And I believe their work is destined to support so many others in centering wellbeing in their lives and organizations. They will always be part of my reminder that we are all in it together, we need each other, and we are love in action. 

As if all at once, the collective vision I have been working toward my whole career is crystal clear—I am not in this alone. We are all—Still Harbor, Circles, and so many others—planting the seeds of a movement for wellbeing, for spiritual transformation, in the world that we hope will bloom. 

Like time-lapse photography, looking back on ten years has helped me see how Still Harbor’s vision to elevate the inner spiritual work of what it will take to create a more kind, just, and equitable world has rooted, sprouted, matured, blossomed, and scattered many more seeds that will do the same. §


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C. Perry Dougherty (Editor) serves as a facilitator, spiritual director, chaplain, and writer in her role as Executive Director of Still Harbor. She has made a career working with non-profit social justice organizations. Perry tailors her programs, workshops, and efforts to the exploration of how spiritual practice, courage, and creativity can enrich leadership for social justice. Perry is an ordained Interspiritual Minister.