Equity in the Capital: Stacey Chimimba Ault and Darcy Totten on finding balance between advocacy and rest 

By Nick Brunner

Somewhere someone has told you how important it is to get a good night’s rest. Sure, all fine and well. But how and when, when you’re busy and if you have kids, multiply that busyness by how many kids, and then there’s your job and your partner, and your partner’s job, and the splitting up of everyday chores and just the noise of life. And then if you, by the way, happened to be a certain demographic, there’s the cultural load, both at home and at work. That is a lot.

We have two guests to help us walk through the stressors of mere existence in our age. Today, we’re going to hear about what deep rest and care means on a personal level, what it means to care for your social circle, how our work culture leads to cycles of burnout and burn through. And if you’re a woman, just how much heavier that load can be under the social systems in place, both at work and at home.

We have Darcy Totten, interim executive director of the California Commission on the Status of Women and Girls, an independent state agency that’s been around for about 60 years that advocates for the women and girls of California. We also have Dr. Stacey Chimimba Ault, founder and CEO of the Race and Gender Equity Project. She is also the founder of Restful Leadership, which is an anti-racist approach to being well at work.

This conversation is from the Equity in the Capital podcast.

Chimimba Ault: So, can I tell you my story? Many people will know the advocacy work that I’ve done specifically for Black youth in Sacramento for many, many years. And that was really born out of me wanting to create spaces that I think I didn’t have as a young person. And realizing that a multi-level approach needed to happen. It wasn’t just us providing services for youth. We needed to transform the systems that cared for, or not, our young people. …

In 2021, I lost my best friend, Dr. Linda Garrett, who died at 53. I was tired, and I’m sort of a chronic burnout survivor, and had many instances of burnout in varying different positions, and I made a decision that you’re not gonna kill me. I am not going to die doing this work. That’s not what’s required. So restful leadership was born. I was doing a lot of “DEI” [work], and expending a lot of emotional labor on transforming systems that served Black folks, especially young people, Black women, and femmes, and realized that we can’t do equity work without also prioritizing rest. And the work that we do doesn’t have to kill us, we can do that work, and not only survive, but thrive in the work that we’re doing.

Totten: That resonates so deeply in so many ways. One [of] the spaces I work in is for women and girls, but also just as a queer person who grew up hard and had to work really, really hard to get my life into a stable place. The idea of setting a baseline norm for how much work needs to happen or for how hard you need to go at things, or for what constitutes too much — [I’m] still trying to figure that out in my 40s.

Chimimba Ault: You sort of mentioned a little tiny bit of your origin story. I think that our intersectional identities are deeply indicative of how we navigate the world, of course, but also specifically how we navigate work. … I was teaching — [a] tenure track position at Sacramento State University. I took an early early retirement to sort of prioritize self-care and my own mental health. And I took a 90-day detox from work and … I vowed not to take on any new projects and no new clients. And, Darcy, within six months, I was back to being close to burnout. And I realized, oh, it’s also me. When you do systems-change work, I think I’ve always focused a lot on the transformation of the system, and recognize that there’s a lot of individual agency in that. But I don’t think I fully understood how much of it was me. It was those narratives that I had been taught about work. Intersectionally — I’m a Black woman. I’m a femme. I’m a mother. I’m an immigrant. I’m a daughter of immigrants. I’m a trauma survivor. And all of those things are a perfect storm for a successful overachiever.

Totten: I have a great therapist. … So before I came to work at the commission, I had a crisis management and communications firm with my wife. We focused mostly on progressive causes, racial justice issues, tribal government work, we were doing a lot around sort of supporting youth led movements at the time, a lot around police violence, a lot around the environment and people who were advocating for land and for stewardship, and for some amount of autonomy. And the thing about it is I completely burnt out. Like 10 years of that, and I was just done, absolutely done. And at the same time, I was also working in education spaces and doing a lot of training for leaders around worst-case scenarios, which is just super brutal, right, if you don’t get to recover from it. 

So, in early 2019, I was like, OK, I think I’m done this, I’m gonna let this go. I came to work for the commission. And the commission was like, hey, guess what, we also have lots of needs over here, and a lot of them align with the kind of work that you’ve been doing. I had the same sort of aha, where it’s like, oh, it’s me burning myself out. There’s always going to be too much work. And one person cannot do this. This is why we need community. It’s why we need collective movements and [to] work together. It’s why we need to work across all of our differences to get things done, because there is no way it makes any sense to burn us out one woman at a time or one person at a time, all that’s doing is sort of helping things not change at all.

Chimimba Ault: Restful Leadership looks at a multi-layered approach, including self-care, squad care, and social justice or systems transformation. And so I think that the image that I see is sort of a strand of DNA, right? And it’s spiraling and we have to, at all times, always think about what does this change making look like — individually, collectively and institutionally? You bring up pay equity, representation, and thinking about the emotional labor of women in the workplace, and how often women will not only be paid less, and working more will take on all of the other community responsibilities within a workplace setting. Some of that, like my learning how to set boundaries, learning how to understand productivity differently, learning how to shift my own internal narrative. But leaders in the workplace, also need to … have policies and practices that support that boundary setting that don’t rely on an individual person sitting up and saying, No, I’m not doing that shit at 8 p.m. tonight. …

Much of the work of the Race and Gender Equity Project is centered in youth, voice and being an infrastructure of support for young people that are creating change. I think about my own daughters and even, generationally, how different they are. My youngest is 19. And Gen Z is setting boundaries! They’re showing up differently in the workplace.

Totten: I actually love this. I mean, the generation gap right now is the Grand Canyon. … I’m so impressed and excited and some of the things that women, especially my age, that we pioneered [and we’re] watching Gen Z take it and run with it. Like, they will quit a job before they will sit through a toxic boss. … They care deeply about pay equity, not just for themselves, but for their co-workers. They’re not quietly whispering, asking if it’s OK to walk up [to you in the] kitchen and ask you how much money you make and how you got there. … I’m simultaneously here for it and also worried. Because it’s deeply capitalist, it’s deeply committed to a specific worldview that is individualist also. Yet, I see them show up for each other globally, in protest movements, climate change, especially things like what’s happening right now on college campuses. There is a sense of the collective. … 

I’ve been really blessed to have young people who are willing to teach and I think that’s super important for leaders now to not just be willing to listen to the folks who get to inherit the future, but [also] similarly to women.  Women often get shuffled into kind of an advisory capacity. Or really anybody with a historically marginalized identity — oh, we need to hear from you. So pick one and send them in and … [have them] speak for everyone. That’s insane, right? Instead, it’s got to be so fully integrated, where everyone is power sharing, and everyone is resource sharing. So I’ve been very blessed to have lots of really incredible people in their early 20s, who are willing to do everything from explain the punctuation problems, and what emojis I can’t use, to sort of a worldview, which has been wonderful.

Chimimba Ault: Audre Lorde talks about [how it] is not the role of the oppressed to teach the oppressor. But it makes me think of what does a multigenerational conversation look like about transforming workplaces? What does liberatory leadership look like, taste like, smell like, feel like, inside of a workplace? Whether that’s a small business and nonprofit or governmental agency, thinking solution oriented, some of the things that we thought to be true, especially pre-pandemic about hybrid workplaces about the amount of hours that you have to work about, who does or doesn’t have autonomy over their workflows. I’m embracing the opportunity to be in collaboration with Gen Z younger and younger people around co-designing workplaces.

Totten: I think the hybrid thing is huge. The commission, during the early part of the pandemic, the legislature tasked us with investing resources and doing some research on the economic impact to women. So we wrote this blueprint for women’s pandemic economic recovery, we did this original research with UC Berkeley’s Policy Lab. And we were really trying to dig in on sort of how women were impacted. And from that takeaway, some policy proposals and things that we could learn from what happened. Astonishingly, right, like most of it’s bad. It’s almost all bad. But there are some bright spots and they’re really, really, really important bright spots.

Hybrid work is one of those that when we looked at sort of what happened to women, at the stats, you’re going to get her that women got overwhelmed completely in no small part because they were doing the majority of all of the teaching of children, all of the housework, all of the home care, plus their regular jobs for which they are wildly underpaid. And they were just sort of collapsing. And we are still seeing mental health impacts, we’re starting to see reports about physical health impacts from people maybe coping in ways that weren’t super healthy. But we also started getting stories back from people, unfortunately, specifically, women without children who had college degrees, who saw their careers take off — that all of a sudden, everybody was in a crisis, and they were able to shine. Like women who had historically maybe just been sort of told to sit down and get in their lane took off. They were able to do all kinds of things: we saw them get promoted, we saw them start to earn more and take on leadership roles, we saw so many women start businesses, which still aren’t getting enough money, and they’re not getting the appropriate amount of investment.

It is impossible to have a conversation about what women can and can’t do anymore when it was so clearly demonstrated during this period of time, that the only thing missing is support.

Chimimba Ault: There’s burnout, which is my individual responsibility, in part; boundary setting, understanding what are the internal narratives that I tell myself about work and value, and community. I grew up in an era of if not me, then who? Right. And even in our collective movements, oftentimes we will [be] burning out because collectively, we’re all deeply committed to this work, and want to create transformation. And the system will also burn us through … 

Totten: Well, and we do it to each other, we do it to ourselves with that whole if not you [then] who kind-of mentality … which is convincing everyone that if you’re not constantly trying to make a difference, you’re doing something wrong. And people gotta rest.

Chimimba Ault: The concept of burn through is the system — and by system, I mean, the institutions, the culture, the climate — rewards overwork. We get validation — internal, external — for being over-extended, showing up, always available. Oh, my gosh, you’re so busy. … We sort of wear this as a badge of honor, in a sense. But it’s rewarded by, I think, a system that the busier we are, the less we’re actually dreaming, reimagining, transforming anything because we’re tired.

Totten: Well, it’s also a system that requires that from people who are still trying to work their way into it. Our systems were not built … for women. There’s nothing in this country that was built in any way, shape or form with the idea that women would be active participants, leaders, part of its workforce. The expectation was that women had a role when we built everything in the foundation, everything we built on top of it, and then there were differing expectations for women of color. Queer people didn’t even exist in that sort of mentality as we built these things, right. 

The process now of what we’re trying to do, this is one of the sort of big changes we’ve been kind of exploring at the commission right is how do we sort have changed the conversation? How do we change the narrative where we’re not talking about gender equity or equity as a moral obligation? Because if people were going to do the right thing, they would have done it by now. How do we start to talk about just using an intersectional gender lens to look at every single aspect of society, everything we’ve built? Where are people missing? That’s really sort of where I’m living right now. Unfortunately, because there have been barriers and barriers on barriers up to this point, especially even the folks who have gotten through and are bravely leading the charge on all kinds of issues and all sorts of spaces, there’s not enough of them, and they are tired and we are burning everyone out.

What is driving you personally, to do this work to burnout and keep going and come back and try again, and to not quit? What keeps you moving on it?

Chimimba Ault: I think the work is deeply rooted in my lived experience and my passion for justice. Like Race and Gender Equity, the acronym is RAGE, because it’s deeply rooted in my anger, and frustration, at the way the world is on fire and the impact that has specifically on my community and my young people. I see the resilience and the resistance of all of us, and the beautiful moments that we rest and care for each other, that we play, that we love, that we find joy, that we prioritize enjoyment. I know that creativity, innovation, dreaming, reimagining comes differently when you’re not burnt out and overwhelmed. What about you?

Totten: I didn’t get here easily. Like I survived a lot of things. And I’m just now starting to say, OK, I didn’t sneak in the backdoor. Because I’ve always felt like I like sooner or later, I was gonna get found out. I hate the term imposter syndrome, because that’s not what it is — like you are in systems that weren’t built for you. You were actually not supposed to be there, you’re just making the space.

I’m just in the last few years starting to get more comfortable saying, Hey, these are the things that happened to me, this is where I come from. My birth mother did not get past eighth grade. I have a master’s degree. I have spent chunks of my life in the foster care system when I was very young and was raised by fancy middle class white people in the suburbs, and then also thrown right out. When it turned out I was queer, like I have ping-ponged through multiple sorts of places in life. As a result, [I have] gotten to see all these different ways of living, and different ways of being and all of these different people who are all surviving their own things, and who are all going through something. And watching all the ways in which we haven’t connected and haven’t worked together, and haven’t done a good job elevating each other and taking care of each other’s needs, or have just burnt ourselves out.

I was a caregiver for both of my parents when they had cancer, and both of them have passed. As a result, I burnt myself out completely, and being able to sort of admit that, was its own journey. It took a long time, and a lot of help. And so one of the things I’ve really tried to come to understand is like, what is this thing that women in particular have, where we have this sense of barreling through life alone. I’m the farthest thing from alone. There are so many people who have come before me and there’s so many people I admire who I’m following now. And yet, we tend to feel that way. We tend to feel overly burdened with the world’s problems and as though it’s up to just us individually to solve. 

This really intentional kind of community, this sort of community that I grew up in that I helped build as a queer person when I was young — I want that for everybody. … One of the most valuable things about being kind of kicked out of society is that you’re not beholden to any of its rules. There’s no sense of there being a way you have to do things. Everybody just figures out what works. And you’re starting from scratch. That has served me incredibly well in my own career journey and my own ability to sort of just try stuff, because why not? … I’d like collectively, for women to try to do that with and for each other, even when we don’t personally benefit. I think that’s so important to kind of build a different system where we’re not all tunneling through walls with a teaspoon by ourselves. We’re taking a collective pickaxe to the wall itself.

Chimimba Ault: I think there’s so many models of that. Yes, there’s so many models of that historically, contemporarily and futuristically. …

Totten: And I’m inspired by that. I think that’s incredible. I tend to be inspired more by movements than by individual leaders — leaders are great, but they are representative of lots and lots of people working together to make change. I feel strongly that everybody needs to get some credit for the work that happens and for what we do.

Chimimba Ault: How can we not get burned in that? What do we do? … What do we do immediately to prioritize rest? And then what are we doing in terms of fire prevention to ensure that the tables have the voices that need to be sat at them, and that we get to go home and sit at our own table? We get to divest from the ongoing grind that I am now more rested, I wouldn’t say I’m fully rested. But I have autonomy over my calendar. I work with dozens of predominantly women, but not solely women, in leadership positions that are learning how to prioritize rest differently. … And based on our historically marginalized identities, what I found and I work with a lot of Black women leaders, is that some folks will catch a hold of the rest of this message, and prioritize that for themselves with no concept of community care, even within the workplace. 

So if I access rest for myself, what impact is that having on the rest of my colleagues at work? Dr. Melissa Harris Perry says self-care has always worked for Black women, specifically, we need to be thinking about squad care. And so what does squad care or community care look like in the workplace? Because often, folks with those layered intersections of marginalization will end up being left with more work. Oftentimes, because we’ve been taught, you have to work twice as hard to get half as far. So we’re over here working quadruple amounts of work, just to gain a seat at the table. And then when we get there, often not always, we’re the one, which in and of itself is exhausting.

Totten: I am always the only one of me. So it’s not the same, but I can empathize with what that might feel like. The way that I grew up, queer community built itself, and we built our community, largely because we didn’t have family support, and we didn’t have institutional support. Even when I was young, it was hard to get work. Hospitals were scary places. This is still true for lots of people in lots of places — prior to some pretty important legal steps — was still violent, and it was still dangerous, and we struggled a lot in those ways. Poverty is sort of a through-line across the board and all of that is intersectional. Because, of course, men and women were impacted differently trans folks were impacted differently. …

In some of the environments I was raising myself in, as it were, the community came first at the expense of everything else. The work came first at the expense of everything else. It didn’t matter if you were sick. … Like I had pneumonia and I was still working and trying to make sure it was my night to feed everybody. … So the community first approach doesn’t work, either. We have to find a balance where we’re doing both. And some of that requires that our systems change. One of the things we’ve sort of come to the end of the road on is the idea that we can build parallel systems and settle for representation in the existing culture. Representation’s great, but it’s not enough. We’ve got to structurally fundamentally tweak how stuff works.

This story is part of the Solving Sacramento journalism collaborative. Solving Sacramento is supported by funding from the James Irvine Foundation and the James B. McClatchy Foundation. Our partners include California Groundbreakers, Capital Public Radio, Outword, Russian America Media, Sacramento Business Journal, Sacramento News & Review, Sacramento Observer and Univision 19.

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