Although I didn’t grow up in a particularly political household, I entered college a wide-eyed student ready to understand how U.S. systems of power shape life and culture here and abroad. Taking coursework on inequality in the U.S. my first year of college allowed me to articulate my struggles with class, race, and sexuality, offering me the clarity and language to truly express my hopes and doubts about my future. It also opened my eyes to the power of policy to improve the lives of folks at the margins. Since then I have dedicated my time towards ensuring any corrective policy work, especially dealing with racial equity, doesn’t leave queer and trans people of color behind – and, like lots of people doing racial equity work, found myself having to learn to avoid burnout.
My work supporting queer and trans folks of color led me to Berkeley’s Public Policy and International Affairs Junior Summer Institute, where I cultivated public policy skills and also got to learn about several policy organizations across the U.S.
Although I entered the program planning to go directly to law school after I graduated, I was swept away in particular by a presentation on the Greenlining Institute. As Danielle Beavers, Greenlining’s Director of Diversity and Inclusion, shared her experiences with the organization, I envisioned a clearer path for myself. The organization’s mission, to bring economic equity to low-income communities of color, combined with the Leadership Academy’s trainings and mentorship, had made her better advocate and a better leader. After learning about her team’s work, to create sustainable jobs for low-income communities of color, I was sold. When the Academy offered me a Fellowship, I put my plans for law school on hold, choosing to come to Greenlining as the Diversity and Inclusion Fellow.
Alongside the D&I team’s external work, we look inward as well. This year I have helped lead the organization’s workplace equity and inclusion initiative. We seek to ensure every staff member feels empowered in their role and that our organization’s culture, whether it be hiring practices or the trainings offered to staff, reflects our values and moves our racial equity mission forward. As my time in the Fellowship nears its end, I’m left reflecting on the tools that supported me through this work, taking me back to my first lessons in the Academy and how those early lessons helped me learn to avoid the burnout that’s so common in social justice work.
In the first weeks of the Fellowship, Fellows have many conversations on life as a professional of color, the passions that bring us to racial equity work, and how to sustain ourselves along the way. This marked the first time I had an explicit conversation touching on burnout in the nonprofit world that centered the POC experience. With the Academy’s support and a system for accountability, I crafted a personalized sustainability plan for the year. As the year went on I incorporated mindfulness exercises into my daily life, like 10 minute walks around downtown Oakland, and began attending therapy for stress management. I acknowledged that, like many racial justice advocates, the work I do is deeply personal and that, truthfully, I allowed my work to shape my self-worth. When I thought about how I wanted to develop this year, shifting this behavior became a priority.
At first this felt like an uphill battle. More than anything, challenging the ways I’d been conditioned to work was unsurprisingly tough, but I owed it to myself to try. By putting into practice my early lessons from the Academy, I’ve become deeply patient with myself and a more confident and empowered racial justice advocate. In my final weeks of the Fellowship, this empowerment leaves me more determined to continue the fight for communities of color. More than anything, I now know if we are to see equity though for our communities, we must learn to sustain ourselves and not get trapped by burnout, especially in the workplace.
Jimmy Donelson III is Greenlining’s Diversity and Inclusion Fellow.