Prioritising Collective Care - If Not Now, Then When?

July 21, 2021
Ezimma Chigbo, Act Build Change
Posted by
Ezimma Chigbo, Act Build Change

Act Build Change (ABC) led a series of sessions exploring what collective care means to organisations working with refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. This blog summarises the key themes discussed throughout the series as well as links to practical tools and resources.

Embarking on the journey of collective care as organisations is never easy but can be highly rewarding. 2020 has presented new challenges and stretched us all in unique and creative ways. As we collectively grieve the world as we knew it, I am of the belief that an unwavering commitment to self and collective care is the only way to get through this. Some would argue that centring this conversation about care in our work has been a long time coming, but one of the opportunities presented to us by 2020 is the necessity to pause, reflect and rebuild in more caring ways.

Collective care refers to the communal responsibility for people’s emotional health and wellbeing within groups or organisations. The sessions led by ABC used a range of tools and learning materials to delve into collective care, with the aim of addressing the specific context of each participant's working life. Some of the topics we covered were:

  • Mechanisms for self and collective care
  • How assumptions affect the way we show up in work
  • Identifying our wants and needs
  • Questions we can ask ourselves and our organisations to think about care

These topics sparked beautifully challenging conversations about how to better care for one another in the face of such demanding work, particularly in these trying times. The sessions did not aim to provide answers, rather our hope is that people left the sessions asking the right questions about how to move forward in more caring ways through their work. Borrowing from transformative justice and disability justice frameworks, we were able to learn from those groups whose lived experience necessitates the need for care to be central to their lives and work.

“I got a huge benefit from this session - the topic and the people that brought it to life. There is a lot of online training available at the moment but nothing has touched the value this has given me/ us as an organisation, as I try to share all the learning!!” - Participant

Within this blog we would like to share some of the main themes arising from this series:

1.   Strengthening accountability around care and resilience

Throughout the sessions there were multiple conversations around accountability and challenge. Participants from across organisational hierarchies felt they faced difficulty to have an honest or direct conversation around accountability to our care and resilience. It is imperative to acknowledge the need to build trust, particularly where trust had previously been broken. Accountability is essential for creating environments where care is a priority and starting the reconciliation process will help to gain trust from those harbouring feelings of offence.

Key practices to promote accountability include:

  • Coaching Circles - This enables individuals to have dedicated time to address any issues they may be facing in their work, allowing colleagues to offer a fresh perspective.
  • User Manuals - This is a tool to reflect on and share how individuals work best, what they need to be supported and thriving at work, and to understand people a little better. User manuals are a living document that can be revisited and rejigged as often as is required and they are a helpful reference point to understand co-workers wants and needs.
  • Team meetings - Utilising team meetings to deepen relationships as well as covering logistics - this is also an opportunity to identify shared wants and needs.
  • Drama Triangle - to analyse when they are falling into ‘victim’, ‘perpetrator’ and ‘rescuer’ behaviours which are common in social justice work. By observing this, one is able to take responsibility for their care as well as acknowledge the impact of their behaviours on group dynamics.

2.   Making space for reflection

Feedback from the sessions show that most people returned to the sessions because they valued the space for reflection and pause. A running theme which came up in all sessions was the need for dedicated space to share and be heard. Considering the many difficulties organisations are facing working to fight a hostile environment, participants shared feelings of being in constant fire-fighter mode and not always feeling like there was time to prioritise care. 

One participant commented: “I keep returning to these workshops because it is the only space right now that is giving me the chance to put myself first”.

Another theme derived from the sessions was the complications accompanied with hierarchical structures and the need for people in managerial roles to always appear as if they are on top of things. Given the immense challenges organisations are facing across the sector, it is important that senior managers are given adequate space to reflect without fear of losing trust from staff.

Key practices to enhance space for reflection include:

  • Asking yourself - Is this externally expected of me, or is this an internal pressure that I am setting on myself?
  • Freewriting -This exercise helps to tap into subconscious thoughts. Some shared the difficulty they faced in identifying their own wants and needs or differentiating between the two and free writing is a great way to support staff to access potential underlying desires and thoughts.
  • Johari’s Window - This framework can support more caring and reflective group dynamics by prompting staff to improve self awareness and identify what they are contributing to group interactions (see resources document for more info).

3.   Prioritising self-care

A famous quote from Audre Lorde states: Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

But let’s be honest, it can feel conflicting to think about our personal care when working as social change agents. This internal conflict is only amplified if we compare our realities to the lives of many of the people our work aims to serve. This was a common reflection that came up during the sessions, navigating the guilt often accompanied by taking steps to prioritise our care can be difficult…and that’s ok.

Acknowledging this tension is important. It is important not to minimise the very real feelings of guilt which may come up for us in our individual roles but also as organisations. We encourage people to lean in to this discomfort because ultimately, that’s the only way to begin to develop healthier boundaries that support us to work in more sustainable, caring ways.

The first step is acknowledging the need to prioritise care, the next step is to figure out how to do this. The ‘how’ will look different for everyone depending on a number of variables, but through our sessions we were able to open up a series of questions:

  • How do we create more caring work environments?
  • What structures do we need to have in place to ensure that care is central to our work?
  • How does power and privilege impact care?
  • What do transformative processes of accountability look like?

I have learned (the hard way!), to live by Audre Lorde’s words. This quote serves as a reminder that my own care is as much part of ‘the work’ as any other tasks involved in my work. This mental shift wasn’t an easy one for me and still takes some negotiating, but every time I catch myself putting my care on the backbench, I try to remind myself of Audre Lorde’s words.

So much of what impacts our work is out of our control, thankfully something that we can control is how we care for ourselves and each other. For all its challenges, something which has been highlighted for me this year is the need to shift from engaging with care as an afterthought or add on, to a necessary requirement for our work. It is self and collective care which has kept me going this year in the face of ongoing personal and global adversity. Prioritising care is a revolutionary act, and like all revolutionary acts, it doesn’t always feel easy and will at times be met with resistance, but pushing through this and honouring my commitment to self and collective care has brought about magical, transformative moments in my practice.

You can access the tools, practices and resources here and additional training and reading from the Act Build Change team here.

This webinar series was funded through the Respond and Adapt Programme, coordinated by Migration Exchange, Refugee Action and NACCOM.

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