“What changed at the organization that made you want to leave?” a friend asked. I thought about it and responded, “nothing. They are the same as they always have been. It was me, my boundaries and needs that shifted.”
7 years. 7 years that I have been at this organization. 7 years of strategy sessions, travels, collaborations, friendship, and partnerships. The thing about time is that you don’t often feel how fast it is moving until you get a feeling or shock that allows you to look up. Over the years, working at one of the largest INGOS in the world, I found myself learning new skills and moving into various departments and roles. I was lucky to have chosen each of them. However, over the years I was able to see the many sides of this organization. I was always determined to do great work, learn all I could, be in service to colleagues at headquarters and around the world. Additionally, I had become more and more active in local racial justice work and causes. I had become deeply a part of conversations that question systems, institutions, practices, and politics. And as a Black woman, living in a white supremacist world, the onslaught of anti-blackness in the work, in addition to my daily existence, was requiring a shift and a refocus on where my energy was going and for what purposes. I had intentionally and quickly become a part of a world that was questioning the place that I worked and thrived in, I was partnering with people and organizations developing training and panels to subvert and challenge the status quo. These were my jolts.
I know that liberation and the reimagining and building of alternative systems require us all. It will require all organizations, institutions, and advocates and activists to see their place in the systems and work to dismantle oppressive policies and practices or themselves be dismantled. I have known this since the beginning of my work at this organization and that I had an important role that was necessary in this struggle for liberation (I was often the only Black person with my politics or beliefs in decision-making spaces. If I left, who would take my place?) but over time, and as much small progress and deep kinship as I had felt in the fight to shift things in my organization, I reached a tipping point in knowing that it wasn’t enough for me. So what prompted my shift? It wasn’t one thing or person but time; a series of choices and work that was not aligned. It was my 3 yr old son who looked at me as if I could do anything. It was a pandemic that was (and is) killing my community. It was the many friends (mostly Black women) who worked in many layers of this liberatory work, who saw a more expansive path for me, my voice, my skills. It was my own deep desire to put more energy and focus on work and actions that could support more dramatic, long term change.
I don’t think a major life shift is easy. Even when you have the best community, stable housing, alternative quality insurance options, or the possibility of other opportunities. Systems of oppression seek to exhaust, minimize and invisibilize. Self-doubt becomes standard and isolation seems daunting.
However, I was at the point where I knew that I had learned all that I wanted or could at this organization and in this role; that the shifts I needed weren’t coming from inside of this organization. It was a supportive community, creative, professional visioning sessions that allowed me to see a world beyond my current reality. It was a desire to rest, the need to be renewed by work that was inherently built on taking risks and challenging systems, and it was the deep need to be seen and valued. I wanted to be surrounded not just by feminist theory and an anti-racist environment. I wanted to be enveloped in pro-Black, feminist, and intersectional culture. So I left. Ok, it wasn’t that abrupt but once I made the choice, I knew it had to happen.
I wasn’t sure where I was going but I put my feelings out there. I became clear to all those that I admired and respected that I was available to be of service to liberatory work. I utilized my supportive and aligned network to get me out of my head of self-doubt. I listened to the struggles and successes of those that took risks. I hired a coach to help me envision the future I wanted for myself. I sat with myself and found my internal voice. I gave myself a clear deadline to leave and a flexible timeline to take “risk” in this new path.
And time surprised me again by showing me opportunities that I had never known possible. I choose to utilize part of my time supporting a visionary in building a new organization built on dismantling old ways of thinking about data and evaluations. I dedicate another portion of my time to an organization working to build alternative economic systems. I work with philanthropists wanting to shift their practices and understanding. I re-dedicated myself to a life with my family, being present and thinking about embodying liberation in our bodies. It isn’t perfect but needed.
We are all tired these days. We all have to evaluate where we want to put our energy. I had become complacent. I knew this system and sometimes thrived in it, but it wasn’t reviving me nor was it serving me anymore. I truly believe that the choice I made to leave was what I needed to stay invested, committed, and hopeful about social change. I am hoping now, although not perfect or even heavily defined in terms of title, my work is about building and growing. It is about using what I know about systems and institutions in service of building the world I want to see and my child to live in. I feel closer to all my communities and I find rest where I can. I am devouring this new stage of being and shifting, no matter how long it lasts.
Dannielle Thomas (she/her), a Black Woman raisedin the US south, has deep pride in community and her ancestors, and believes that liberation requires collective action and healing. She has lived in various communities around the world to learn, grow, support, and advocate for community needs and issues surrounding Women’s health and empowerment, social and political power, and child advocacy. Her career has spanned from working in client services to fundraising and stewardship efforts for various organizations including International nonprofit organizations. Additionally, most recently, she has worked with black-led organizations and community-based collectives to address injustice, disparities, and social marginalization during the COVID-19 crisis. Currently, she is the Chief Operations Officer for a firm seeking to decolonize research and evaluation, and place communities and equity at the center.