This week, we witnessed the Supreme Court roll back decades of both precedent and progress. All of these decisions serve the opposite of liberation – they are about controlling others and preserving power. And those who already face systemic oppression in this country, and in our organizations, will experience disproportionate impact. That is why it is all the more critical for us to create conditions within our organizations where staff can thrive by making and holding space for our staff to show up in Radically Human ways.
But what does it really mean to “make space” or “hold space”? And how can we do it? Our team compiled some thoughts, suggestions, and resources to help. Special thank you to Jodi Harris, Lucerito Ortiz, Tess Vigil for their brainstorming partnership!
First, there is no “one right way” and it’s not something to be done once and then checked off a list. Making and holding space is a regular practice that can happen powerfully in both more and less time-intensive ways. We think about the options on a continuum and encourage our client partners to consider where it makes sense to be on that continuum at any specific moment. This judgment may take into account the complexities and tensions that we are balancing, such as the need to hold space alongside the need to advance critical planned priorities, and differing needs among different staff members. That said, we believe it is critically important to engage along the entire continuum over time.
Fortunately, we each have opportunities to make and hold space in less time-intensive ways many times each day, starting with bringing intentionality to the first words in any conversation. For example:
- Stop asking “how are you?” Too often asked flippantly and with an expectation of a specific, right, one-word answer (“fine”), this question puts pressure on the respondent to interrupt habitual conversation patterns if they are not fine and choose to share that. Alternative options are endless; try a few and see what feels good to you: “How are you holding up?” “Is there anything you need today/right now that I can help with?” “How is your head today…how is your heart?”
- If “how are you?” comes spilling out anyway, it’s never too late to add a second, more intentional question or even just explicitly say, “Oof, I’m trying to stop asking that and instead ask a more intentional question but “‘how are you’” just spills out so habitually!”…and then follow up with a question that invites others to share anything they choose to share about how they really are right now.
- When you are asked how you are, model answering the question in a non-habitual, intentional way – which can both be healing in the moment and can convey to others that there is no “expected” or “right” answer. For example, “You know what? I’m holding up right now. I’m compartmentalizing in some moments, feeling so much intensity in other moments, finding it harder than normal to concentrate, but overall I’m holding up.” or “Thank you for asking. Let me think about it for a minute. I’m actually not doing so well…it’s hard to manage all the competing work priorities and honor my own feelings about everything happening in the country right now and the massive uncertainties ahead.”
When you’re looking for ways to make or hold space of medium time-intensity, consider how you’re structuring meetings. Remember to design for varied needs that will undoubtedly exist across staff communities and even for a single person in different times. This includes providing opportunities for individualized self-care and opportunities for healing through community care and connection with others; opportunities to process pain/rage/worries and invitations to restore hope and dream about the future. Allow staff to consent and choose between options to find the kinds of support that they most need. Specifically:
- Move things off the agenda and to-do lists – or delay them to create more spaciousness for a slower pace of conversation and work to decrease demands on staff time and attention right now. Approach meetings or conversations with less commitment to planned agendas and an increased commitment to going where the group needs in real time.
- Replace planned topics with optional space to connect. Open a meeting with a 15-30 minute dedicated time to reconnect and support each other. Offer two or three topic options with break-outs that staff could choose from. Examples could include: Breakout room 1 – Space to connect on what’s on my heart/head in this moment; Breakout room 2 – Opportunity to problem solve about how to support parents/students/partners/clients right now; Option 3 – Take the next X minutes to engage in any act of self-care (e.g. take a power nap, meditate, walk, shower, call a friend, get a meal) and we’ll see you back after.
- Share meeting topics in advance so that staff can plan for and engage in self-care before (e.g. refill water before a long meeting), during (e.g. intentionally protect boundaries on time and emotional energy), and after (e.g. schedule a time block with no meetings after to recover) the conversation to tend to their needs.
- Create options for how and when staff engage so that colleagues can make adjustments based on their individualized needs. For example, if what is really needed is a few new perspectives, perhaps the meeting topic could be explicitly shifted from required to optional. Identify (and name) times when it is fine to be off-camera or even proactively shift discussions to phone (to allow a break from on-camera emotional labor) or slack (so that staff can engage whenever in the day is best for them instead of at a dedicated time).
- Invite a variety of ways of processing information. For example, when asking staff to reflect on an idea or question, provide thinking/writing time before group discussions. Structure discussions in small groups versus whole group, consider pre-engineering groupings to mitigate for positional power dynamics or to open identity-based affinity spaces for discussions as opposed to mixed spaces. Offer walk-and-talk options for idea sharing while being outdoors and off-screen. Consider engaging an outside facilitator so that everyone can participate fully and benefit from fresh approaches.
Finally, we’ve compiled a short list of some more time-intensive ways to create and hold space through longer-term structures and systems. Consider:
- Close your doors organization-wide to create time and space for recovery. Consider offering a day off right away with flexibility for those who may be better able to use it in another moment. Consider planning ahead for broader organization-wide shutdown periods when work is paused and expectations are set transparently with stakeholder groups to enable staff to fully disconnect.
- Connect or reconnect your staff to wellness resources. This can include Employee Assistance Programs, mental health benefits and other resources for grieving and healing – especially supports that take a differentiated identity-based approach. Offer a one-time immediate stipend for self-care or establish an annual stipend for use throughout the year (e.g. Promise54 offers an annual “Be Well” stipend to all staff).
- Pay for travel to support staff members to access health care services that may be or become illegal in their state, including abortions. Many companies and organizations have already established these policies.
It’s easy to acknowledge that the organizational work we do in service of justice and equity is a team effort – the result of our collective commitments and contributions. The same is true of supporting ourselves and each other to create Radically Human spaces where we have the support we need to process difficult realities and advance our own liberatory healing.
“Barely, if ever, are any of us healed in isolation. Healing is an act of communion”
– bell hooks
Founder & Chief Executive Officer
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