By Njoki Mbũrũ
This piece is part of the Slow Study Storytelling Series that focuses on highlighting practices and tools that enable equitable, sustainable, and emergent approaches in Systems Transformation work. I want to highlight that the root of my understanding is informed by my lived experiences, and guided by diverse, generational Afro- and Indigenous knowledge systems and Elders. This second part of the series will dive deeper into exploring one of the qualities I had mentioned in my most recent piece; Humility as a tool for systems transformation.
Fast is not Far
Burnout. This is where I will start today. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines burnout as “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterised by three dimensions:
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
- reduced professional efficacy.”
In 2019, the WHO officially recognized burnout as an “occupational phenomenon.” In the spring of 2022, following multiple consultations with physical and mental health experts, I learned that I was exhibiting signs of burnout. While I had observed my slow yet significant descent into persistent exhaustion, cynicism, and increased distractibility, I thought that it was a “post-winter phase”. Perhaps, I said to myself, this is another one of those odd feelings that creep up when seasons change or when the body is learning how to transition from hibernation into more activity.
However, when I realized that it was becoming increasingly challenging for me to be present in conversations, to sustain focus in a given task, to find enthusiasm in my work or personal writing projects and that I required more and more hours of rest to regain a little amount of strength, I reached out to both my family doctor, and my therapist. Alongside this, I started listening to podcasts about the long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on people’s mental well-being. I came across more and more online posts with the tag #futureofwork where people shared their preferences and two cents about how most present-day workplace cultures led to more depletion than inspiration. I read books about burnout and chronic stress and sought out scholars and researchers such as Emily and Amelia Nagoski, Anne Helen Petersen, and Greg McKeown, who shared their findings about the causes of burnout, its impacts on individuals and organizations, and strategies for recovery.
It was just after my 26th birthday when I went on official medical leave from my full-time role. I was completely depleted. I had no more to give to my work, my personal projects, and even my near and dear relationships. I needed rest as deep as the deepest ocean and as wide as the widest valley. The kind of rest that necessitated part(s) of me dying off, like leaves during the season of fall.
I am writing this piece a few weeks before my 27th birthday. In all honesty, it is almost impossible for me to believe where I am today. My mental and physical health have been through the trenches in the past year. The road to recovery has been paved with holes, barricades, fault lines, and mirages. To be at a place where I can articulate my experience without drowning in a sea of anxiety or resurfacing thoughts of panic is a win beyond any other. I have not crossed any finish line or landed at a desired destination. I do not think that the point of this journey has been to arrive at any particular place.
To me, this road has been a necessary transformation. A catharsis which has catalyzed significant shifts in my mindset, fractured many of my beliefs, inspired changes in my habits, clarified my priorities, and, most importantly, has taught me how to practically and unapologetically protect my peace and well-being. Who I am today, in this very moment, is the woman I needed last year. The person I am right now can show up with compassion and skillful insight to support the version of me that was fatigued, resigned, drained, depleted, and burnt out.
I was an anti-racism facilitator. The work that I did continues to be in strong alignment with my values. What I have learned is that, even when the work was in service to my values of enhancing equity and justice in this world, I needed all parts of me to be alive and nourished. I needed, first and foremost, to be well. I could not show up as my best — I could claim to be doing my best — when I was not well. In the process of trying to do work that was in service of systems transformation, I needed to also allow myself to be transformed. The moment I became inflexible or rigid in my habits, schedules, outcomes, and to-do lists, I broke. Unfortunately, it took my own fracturing, collapse, and enforced pause for me to learn the cost of my health and well-being.
When humility knocks, pride responds
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.Viktor E. Frankl
In order to experience and truly comprehend the events of this past year, I needed to humble myself enough to learn from my own story. As one of my teachers once shared, sometimes the most important lessons are the hardest to learn. Not because they are complicated beyond logic or cryptic beyond intuition. Rather, because pride has insidiously occupied the space between ‘stimulus and response’.
As a consequence of pride and the illusion of superiority, some of us are robbed of the opportunity to be humbled by our experiences. We miss out on the chance to have our ancestors and children teach us; we move through the wonders of nature with aloofness; we reach the end of the road with no memory of where the journey began; and we forget to pay homage to the kin whose labour and freedom paid the price for our privilege to live, play, and dream today.
In the same way, systems transformation — individual, organizational, societal, or systemic – requires that we deliberately carve out a space of teach-ability (humility) between the ‘stimulus’ and ‘response’. Transformation is a collapse of pride; a departure from the status quo; an entanglement with complexity; an embrace of the relations that we are connected to. Transformation requires pruning as much as it requires tending to a bed of new sprouts. Most of all, lasting transformation demands that we — you and I — are changed by what we endeavour to change.
Since November 2022, I have been participating in meetings and events as a member of SuperBenefit Decentralized Autonomous Organization (DAO). Specifically, in relation to systems transformation, SuperBenefit, as a decentralized autonomous organisation, aims to learn from, explore, discuss, and publicize practices, mindsets, and frameworks that are tackling complex challenges at regional and global scales to shift power imbalances, address systemic inequities, and contribute to a livable, equitable, and inclusive future.
My first introduction to this online, global community was through my current supervisor and fellow systems transformation and web3-enthusiast, Michelle Baldwin. As described on the website, SuperBenefit’s mission is “to develop the social and financial flywheels that enable the invention and acceleration of a better world. This includes strengthening capacities for systems innovation and supporting people to clarify pathways towards shared goals.”
Most recently, our conversations as SuperBenefit DAO members have focused on the following research question:
“What key intentions and practices do DAOs, which are working towards systems transformation, embody or portray in their teams, purpose, mission statements, and impacts/outcomes?”
Over the past three months, each core member of SuperBenefit DAO has been selecting a DAO (or two) to look into as part of our self-paced systems transformation research. Over this period, we have developed an internal collection of DAO profiles based on the information we have gathered from online sources or 1:1 conversations with contributors and affiliates from the vast and rapidly growing ecosystem of DAOs. These profiles highlight how a particular DAO incorporates or embodies any/all of the six transformative intentions and practices that we have theorized as being essential to systems transformation.
As part of this process of learning from numerous other decentralized communities whose purpose is to create or contribute to livable, equitable, and inclusive futures, we (as members of SuperBenefit DAO) have also deliberately committed to self-introspection. This is our practice of injecting a necessary pause before ‘stimulus’ and ‘response’. It is our recognition that, as much as we are learning about and from fellow systems-transformation practitioners, we, too, are responsible for the narratives, practices, patterns, and frameworks that continue to be prevalent in our world today. We cannot simply consume and publicize our findings without acknowledging that (i) we are part of the DAO ecosystem and (ii) we are continuously being changed by what and who we encounter in our learning journey.
As a team, we move with awareness that we are not passive consumers of knowledge. To remain rigid and unchanged by the people we meet and the philosophies we encounter is a form of self-deception that runs counter to our commitment to inner transformation. In this way, we also recognize that ‘neutrality’ or ‘objectivity’, in the work of systems transformation is sometimes used by some as an excuse to disengage from or to avoid uncomfortable, difficult, necessary conversations and shifts. Sometimes, our choice to abstain from making decisions or holding back on expressing our opinions might seem like the easiest way out of complex and sensitive discussions. But, what is the cost of such an approach and how sustainable is it in the work of systems transformation?
Humility, then, is a willful embrace of incompleteness. It is a purposeful rejection of the fallacy which modernity perpetuates — that as human beings and human systems, we have absolute control, knowledge, and understanding of our own functions and faults, as well as that of fellow life forms. Humility is bewilderment infused with a commitment to inner transformation.
Within the study and/or practice of systems transformation, humility might look like:
- Acknowledging and attending to policies and practices in our teams and organizations that replicate inequities, erasure, and patterns of harm
- Generating questions without haste for response
- Making room for silence as teacher
- Holding ourselves accountable to and responsible for our words, actions, and inactions
- Honouring our intentions and attending to the impacts (regardless of intentions)
- Tracing the stories, structures, and systems that make it possible for us to have the positions of privilege and power that we currently hold in our family systems, communities, teams, organizations, etc.
- Allowing ourselves to be continuously transformed, morphed, and to become undone by who and what we encounter in our study and work of systems transformation
Soil, seed, and sprout
Over the course of writing this piece, I repeatedly returned to an online resource that has been instrumental in helping me develop an understanding and ritualize a set of practices to comfortably engage with the discomfort of accountability, fragility, privilege, power, and personal transformation. This resource is a deck of cards that was developed by Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures, which is an arts/research collective at the University of British Columbia.
This deck of 55 cards, named ‘WITH/OUT MODERNITY CARDS’, was created in 2019 as part of an annual conference where participants were invited to consider the following question: “What infrastructures and architectures of knowing and being operationalize the denial of relational entanglement, foreclosing possibilities for orienting our existence otherwise?” I urge you to play with this deck — by yourself, with your kin, team, etc. and see what emerges out of this, as well as how you are changed in/by the process.
For this piece, I not only drew my inspiration from this deck of cards but also from my colleagues at SuperBenefit DAO, the scholarship of diverse teachers (including other-than-human life), and the intergenerational and intertemporal wisdom of Elders (as modelled by Victor Beausoleil). Finally, with utmost respect, humility, and gratitude, I know that it is only because of my experience of tectonic and holistic transformation over the past year, that I now have the capacity and words to articulate my reflections on this page. I have to admit, however, that there were many days where I did not want to show up for the lessons that life was offering me. I preferred to remain in the comforts of my beliefs — unchanged by my evolving circumstances or relationships, unresponsive to the call of personal responsibility, and callous to the aching world around and within me.
As such, it took me a long time to share my experience with those near and dear to me. To share it here with you today was a decision that required (i) the consistency of courage and (ii) the resonance of humility. I hope that my story, lived experiences, ongoing recovery from burnout, and inner transformation offer you soil, a seed, or a sprout for your own systems transformation journey(s) as you continue to build livable, equitable, pleasurable, and inclusive futures.
Freedom is being forged in and across forgotten places. I am being transformed by witnessing, in these times, the multiple and often decentralised forms of community and collective care that stand to interrupt age-old patterns of determining who is able to live and who is left to die.Robyn Maynard in ‘Rehearsals for Living’
Vanessa Andreotti: Allowing Earth to Dream Through Us [The Green Dreamer Podcast]
Rehearsals for Living by Robyn Maynard and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson [Book]