A row boat on a body of water at sunset, there are seagulls flying all around
Image Credit: Nav Photography on pexels.com

Recently, Nineequa Blanding wrote a piece about a coalition in Washington state that established a $1.37 million fund to enable sabbaticals for BIPOC leaders. The piece struck a chord with many NPQ readers, as it did for the Health Justice desk. In the past year, we’ve each taken sabbaticals of our own.

Looking back on that time offline, I recognize how important it was to my work as a health justice practitioner to create space for play, creativity, and dreaming. These activities are difficult to make space for in a capitalist context. Even in workspaces dedicated to holistic health and fighting injustice, productivity and urgency loom large. Once I stepped away, I was surprised at how centering care and thriving in my own life quickly led to accepting new, healthier ways of work—and imagining new approaches to health altogether.

Stepping Back, Stepping Forward

Sabbaticals for BIPOC Leaders, the report published by the BIPOC ED Coalition in Washington that pushed for the sabbatical fund, points out that “the current climate is taking an immeasurable psychological, physical, and emotional toll, especially on women of color leaders.” In conversations with my peers across the movement and nonprofit worlds, I’ve seen this health toll manifest in a number of ways. Chronic illnesses, deep fatigue, hypervigilance, limited emotional bandwidth, and mental health stress—all are well-known phenomena to many who work on social change.

In roles that required us to envision futures and tell compelling stories, we found ourselves lacking inspiration. Truly paradigm-shifting work requires the space to think and synthesize. Instead, my peers and I found ourselves trying to cram in the minutes between endless Zoom meetings, fundraising calls, and presentations. Rarely did I encounter leaders who felt that they had the resource of time in the ways they wanted.

At first, reclaiming that time felt selfish. I worked through guilt and confusion about how much work has shaped my personal identity, and whether it was flippant to walk away from it, even for a short time. As a child of immigrants, I have watched people in my community work tirelessly to provide stability for their families. The idea of removing myself from that cycle—even if it was only possible because I had been doing the same thing, for more than 15 years.

Second, I recognized critiques about mainstream definitions of “self-care,” which today has been commodified into self-focused activities like yoga classes or spa treatments.  This commercialized approach to restoration is often disconnected from movement frameworks like healing justice, which acknowledge that addressing collective trauma requires collective solutions. I worried that taking time off would mean reneging on my commitment to work on those very solutions.

At the same time, I grew increasingly aware of the gap between preaching and practice. Many of the mentors and healers I’ve been lucky to work with were always clear about the importance of balancing energy and refusing urgency. As a public health scholar, I know the importance of rest, social connection, and a person’s ability to thrive and be healthy. Even further, against the backdrop of a global pandemic, I was surrounded by constant conversations about the nature of work, and how we change our relationship to it.

Despite these forces, like so many of those I worked with, I put the sabbatical decision off for as long as I could. Finally, my body made the choice for me. I had experienced chronic health problems for years, and during the pandemic, they accumulated to a breaking point. My brain, which I had relied on for so long in order to push through those issues, also ran out of fuel. I knew that I owed this overdue time to myself, and I finally decided to make the jump.

Flow in Life, Flow in Work

For the first few weeks of my sabbatical, I was tapped out. I’ve been an avid reader since I was young, the kid at a party with a book in tow. It scared me, then, that I had no interest in absorbing new information or synthesizing patterns. My body and brain still felt hypervigilant: anticipating task completion and looming deadlines, even though I no longer had a work-driven work list. It took me three weeks to unwind from a sense of constant pressure.

For BIPOC leaders, our time is often filled with disproportionate demands and obligations, both internally and externally inflicted. Given this, and a system of work that often limits autonomy, the freedom to move through a day in an unstructured way can feel revolutionary.

Even when we are doing work we love, the idea that we can choose how we spend our time, and how much to give of ourselves—can open up space for imagination.

During my time off, I found myself turning to works of futurism and history. Doing so helped me remember worlds outside of the traditional healthcare spaces I frequently occupied. For example, reading about the Black Panthers’ free clinic model and their community-centered approach to health reminded me that people of color have long created their own systems for health, outside the White-led medical industrial complex. I also combed through fiction that envisioned health on faraway planets, or worlds where immortality yielded a whole new set of health challenges.

Time granted me the opportunity to dive into health approaches that I had always wondered about but never had the time to explore: bodywork, ayurvedic knowledge, plant medicine, sound meditation, and more. These practices, for me, held multiple meanings. First, as a person looking to heal physically and emotionally, I found that they helped me unlock various aspects of the creativity and relaxation I had been looking for. Second, they also piqued my curiosity as a public health practitioner—as someone who knows that our existing healthcare complex, dominated by hospitals, insurance, and pharmaceuticals, can fall short, particularly for BIPOC communities. The more I read about these various healing traditions, the more I was inspired by the leaders, collectives, and organizations that are fostering them.

These unlikely sources led me to organic brainstorms, ideas for articles, and a whole host of questions that I had held off on as I was running around in past roles. They also caused me to rethink the work containers I wanted to build for myself, and for the various organizations I worked with.

Changed Person, Changed System

Sabbaticals, of course, cannot remedy fundamentally extractive systems of work. Stepping into my time off, I was deeply aware of my privilege. I had few family or community obligations to carry, a network of strong professional opportunities, and the ability to save financially. A sabbatical was a viable option for me, but it was unfeasible for many of the people whose work I admired most—from frontline racial justice organizers to healthcare practitioners treating COVID patients.

It is for this reason that funded efforts like the one in Washington are crucial. So, too, are initiatives like New Seneca Village, which launched in 2021 to bring together BIPOC healers and leaders for reflective residences. Attendees at these residencies are not obligated to produce or even talk to their peers. With funded time to simply exist, attendees could choose to flow through their days as they saw fit.

Furthermore, while temporarily opting out of the system is crucial and nourishing, it is not a replacement for labor policies such as paid leave, wage reform, childcare support, and many other elements of a robust safety net. The European Union places significant priority on mental health in the workplace, with countries like Belgium offering paid leave for burnout, accompanied by dialogues with both employees and employers about what accommodations could be made. Shifts like these ensure that, in addition to the pathway of stepping away altogether, employees also experience options to recharge on a more consistent basis as well.

One common theme I’ve observed among fellow sabbatical-takers is a commitment to rethinking structures of work we previously found immovable. Maria De La Cruz, the former executive director of the Headwaters Foundation for Justice in Minneapolis, shared in a blog post about sabbaticals and systems change that “the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors are depleting people, treating them like expendable resources. These systems are rooted in racial capitalism and white supremacy.”

Headwaters provides paid sabbaticals to all staff after five years of service and prioritizes a culture of openness. For De La Cruz, that included reaching out to senior leadership about struggles with mental health after months of spiritual toll, trauma, and stress. The organization supported her through a month-long leave of absence to focus on healing. “It is possible to create a culture of abundance where people have the time, the resources, and the space to focus on their health, their relationships, and their joy,” De La Cruz shares.

Greater cultural and funding support for these shifts is crucial at the individual, institutional, and systems level. This could look like joining advocacy efforts to promote more models like that in Washington, as well as joining campaigns focused on robust labor protections and worker support. For those in social change leadership roles, learning from grassroots and organizing groups that prioritize restorative labor practices—even while engaging in urgent, high-stakes work—is a great start. So, too, is opening dialogue with your own coworkers and collaborators to identify practice changes, as well as opportunities for collective imagination.

Creating this culture and placing it in the context of broader movements is key to ensuring the ongoing health of our work—and nonwork—settings. A sabbatical was crucial for me to remember essential truths about what it means to engage in social change. First, it is possible to imagine and build work systems that centers spaciousness and creativity. Second, implementing these systems enables leaders to both rediscover and redesign models of health that go far beyond the medical industrial complex. Prioritizing reflection and autonomy can bring us creative institutional spaces and models where wellbeing is part of the process, not just the outcome.