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A major shift is happening in which BIPOC leaders are reclaiming rest, and a newly established philanthropic fund seeks to support it.

In Washington state, the BIPOC-ED Coalition—a multicultural, cross-sector collective of nonprofit leaders working to promote community wellness and restoration—has committed $1.37M to fund sabbaticals for BIPOC leaders. Recognizing that rest is essential for healing and social justice, the coalition established a fund, resourced by philanthropic partners, to launch the Sabbatical Leadership Program. This effort enables nonprofit leaders of color to take a break from work and create room for self-care—on their own terms.

The need for rest isn’t limited to Washington state—it’s a nationwide issue that needs to be addressed. Given this, the BIPOC-ED Coalition’s work raises the question: What if every state established a coalition that organizes to create avenues for rest, particularly in communities most harmed by systemic oppression? What if these coalitions were fully funded and backed the collective vision of BIPOC leaders who are drawing from lived experience and are attuned to the reality that communities need to build solutions that inspire healing?

The BIPOC-ED Coalition certainly offers a model for how executive directors can organize to create opportunities for rest and how philanthropy can work in solidarity to fund these efforts.


Normalizing Rest

What if every state established a coalition that organizes to create avenues for rest, particularly in communities most harmed by systemic oppression?Rest is vital to our wellbeing, enabling the body to heal itself on a cellular level.1 Dr. Merrill Mitler, a neuroscientist at National Institutes of Health, says, “Sleep [benefits] all aspects of our body in one way or another: molecular, energy balance, as well as intellectual function, alertness, and mood.” 2 A lack of sleep can have detrimental impacts on our bodies, including increased risk for chronic disease and infection.

Dr. Chandra Jackson, head of the Social & Environment Determinants of Health Equity Group at NIH, warns, “poor sleep is associated with a host of [chronic] health outcomes, including obesity, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and certain cancers.” 3 Jackson’s research examines racial inequities in health and notes that disparities in sleep—such as higher rates of poor sleep quality among Black professionals—may contribute to the disproportionate burden of chronic health conditions experienced by people of color.

At the root of these issues are white supremacy and its attendant systemic racism, which burdens communities of color and cause many BIPOC leaders to sacrifice sleep to support the communities they serve.

“We know firsthand how #BIPOCLeaders have been put in impossible situations—responding to decades of inequity, tasked with changing systems from within, increased demands in services—all with limited funding,” says BIPOC-ED Coalition in a Twitter post calling for applications to the Sabbatical Leadership Program. The coalition seeks to create pathways for healing and support paradigm shifts that normalize rest, especially among leaders working to advance social change.

Jodi Nishioka, the coalition’s co-founder, reminds us that we cannot advance social justice without prioritizing rest for the leaders working tirelessly to create change. In a blog entitled “How My Sabbatical Healed Me,” Nishioka describes how rest and self-care can have a ripple effect, benefitting not only individuals, but the communities they serve. She notes,

Having to earn self-care is a common narrative in our western culture. Yet, when we prioritize taking care of ourselves—through rest, therapy, and movement, we can serve others better. An empty well doesn’t provide water for anyone.

The well-being of executive directors is reason enough to support sabbaticals. Physically and emotionally rested executive directors are able to show up as their best selves for their staff, their community, and their families. And, just like an individual person, an organization will be better able to support its community when the people within it are healthy and strong.

Nishioka acknowledges that “BIPOC leaders need rest and restoration in order to heal from multigenerational trauma and years of non-stop working on behalf of their communities, and to recharge for the work ahead.” This was, in part, the impetus for establishing the BIPOC-ED Coalition. The coalition’s recent report, Sabbaticals for BIPOC Leaders, describes how the coalition was conceived and provides a roadmap for others to take similar action.

Nishioka, along with Andrea Caupain Sanderson and Victoria Santos—three BIPOC leaders serving in executive director/CEO roles—joined forces to form the coalition as an outcry against the “immense damage caused by systemic racism.”4 The co-founders saw an opportunity for BIPOC leaders to come together and deepen collective efforts underway to build social ecosystems in which communities of color thrive.


Building a Movement of Rest

Recognizing the power of collective action, more than 150 BIPOC leaders responded to the coalition’s first call to convene in 2020. “What we’re doing is movement building. This is an important ingredient in the quest for a just and equitable world,” says Sanderson. To date, more than 240 BIPOC leaders across Washington state have joined the coalition to build a shared vision and work in solidarity to advance healing and wellness in their communities.

The Sabbatical Leadership Program launched in 2022 with awards to 32 BIPOC leaders. Three-month sabbaticals have been awarded to 20 leaders, and 12 leaders received one-month respites. Each sabbatical award comes with financial resources directed to the awardee and the organization they represent. This includes approximately $30,000 to cover the awardee’s salary and benefits, along with $10,000 “in unrestricted funding for the leader to use as they see fit.”5 In addition, $20,000 is allocated to support the organizations’ overall health during the sabbatical, enabling organizations to hire a consultant to develop a transition plan while also providing bonuses and leadership development resources to senior leaders who will take on increased responsibilities while the awardee steps away.

“I have never taken a break,”6 says Jamee Marsh, a sabbatical awardee and executive director of FEEST—a nonprofit working to support youth to advance social justice by organizing for systemic change in their schools. Marsh continues, “This is an opportunity to look at what I truly need to replenish myself. Having sustained time away would allow me to…(re)establish healthy practices, and actually rest. This is an opportunity to THRIVE, not just survive.”7

Having time to focus on self and establish healthy practices is a theme that resonates among many awardees, including Hamdi Abdulle, executive director of African Community Housing & Development, a nonprofit that provides housing, education, and economic development resources to immigrants of the African diaspora. Abdulle says, “This sabbatical will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for reconnection with my family, and a time for me to cultivate peace. I will also be working on my health… As an elder, I am learning how to take care of my body in this new stage of life.”8

Moving forward, the coalition commits to funding sabbaticals for nonprofit leaders each year. It acknowledges the support of a myriad of funders—such as JP Morgan Chase, Black Future Coop Fund, Medina Foundation, Sheng-Yen Lu Foundation, Stolte Family Foundation, and Satterberg Foundation—who have joined forces to make this vision possible.

So many of us sacrifice sleep, doctor appointments, time with loved ones—the list goes on—all in service of our commitment to transforming systems to better serve our communities. It is time to replenish, and we need the infrastructure to support this.