She was tall, she wore a tattered yellow sari with green trim on the edges. Her too thin arms hung on her long frame, a melodic jangle accompanied her when she walked into the dark examination room generated by the bangles on her too thin wrists. Her shackles, both to her husband, his family, and to the poverty that bound them all.
She held my gaze, strongly, as I told her, sadly, that the baby inside of her had died. She then looked down. Her mother in law then told us both that it would be cheaper for her family to replace this young, brave, mother of two, than to pay the $50USD to save her life. They shuffled their dirty, dusty feet out of the room and I watched them go. In that heartache, anger, powerlessness (how dare I feel powerless in that interaction, and thanks to my infusion of white privilege, I sure did), and despair, COHI was born.
Twelve years later, we’ve done well. We’ve provided over 3 million women, girls and their families with quality maternal, reproductive, and newborn health care. We’ve trained over 7000 health care and social service providers. We’ve delivered over 1 million dollars worth of life saving medicines and supplies. We’ve midwifed the birth of several women-led, women powered community based organizations. We’ve led and facilitated five delegations of health activists, advocates and providers. We are building, brick by brick, a thriving feminist organization in COHI that provides paid maternity leave and unlimited PTO days for our staff to live a work life balance in keeping with our values.
We don’t talk enough about this institution itself, Circle of Health International. COHI and the big, brave innovative work we are doing to build this organization to be a leader in supporting its employees. We need to talk more about this. Sadly, there are no shortage of dysfunctional nonprofits out there, especially feminist groups. Too many of these organizations doing outstanding work supporting others, but don’t do a very strong job of supporting their employees. At COHI, we are trying to change the culture of not just non profit organizations in this regard, but especially humanitarian groups.
Too often, the leaders of nonprofit humanitarian organizations expect too much of their staff. Unrealistic hours, unsustainable pay, inadequate opportunity for real professional development are all too common in the nonprofit sector. I’ve heard statements in the leadership of organizations say things like “I work hard, but it’s not like the genocide I am working so hard to fight is happening to ME. How dare I complain about long work hours”. Such dangerous expectations enable a culture of entitlement, cynicism, and power inequity that, ironically, the we are working so hard to combat for others.
At COHI we are actively working to change this. Flex hours are a norm for all of the staff enabling our team to go the gym in the middle of day, attend school events with their kids, and go to doctor appointments to maintain their own health. Unlimited PTO days, determined by the staff members to claim when needed. These days are intended to encourage staff to take care of themselves according to their own needs. COHI’s staff do not take days off according to a calendar based on holidays we don’t observe (Columbus Day???) but rather based on the needs of the individuals on the team (take your birthday off) and the expectation that COHI’s staff are responsible, capable grown ups who will get their work done and don’t need to work when and if they’ve done their work.
My kids and I have a mantra when are with each other, and it applies to COHI’s work culture: work when it’s time to work, play when it’s time to play. When you are working, be present to that. When you are playing, be present to that. This wackadoodle world that we live in where we are tethered to our phones, and therefore our work, is complicated. While it ensures an unparalleled amount of flexibility, this kind of “always on” access is not sustainable or realistic. At COHI we have a code of conduct about texting and email on nights/weekends meant to maximize our efficiency while enabling us to turn off when we are off, and be completely on when we are on.
I don’t make a mountain of money, I probably don’t make what I am “worth” but I love my job. I love the people I work with, and the way we work together. We don’t do mean here. We laugh, a lot. We support each other and cheer each other on as we work to achieve our individual and collective professional goals.
I recognize the privilege inherent in much of this reflection: I am a heterosexual white, married, educated woman with a safe car that runs, clean water coming out of my tap, access to healthy food and money with which to pay for it. And because of this privilege, how dare I not work to create an organization that treats people well. If people like myself, sitting in positions of comfort and safety, can’t push against the social norms about work life balance, then what chance do others stand?
I invite, no I challenge you to take a stand about the changes that you’d like to see in your workplace. Change doesn’t make itself, folks. What can YOU do today to change the culture of the place where you work to be a more healthy, integrity-filled, balanced, and kind institution? Great, now go do it! Those with much more to lose are counting on your courage and creativity, don’t let them down.