From Me to We: reclaiming the need for collective care

Written by Leila Billing and Anik Gevers

A co-operative and nurturing field where knowledge is shared and people collaborate and support each other is a central outcome of SVRI’s Strategic Plan. We have integrated self-care and wellbeing at SVRI events and produced a report and guidelines on the subject of vicarious trauma. There is now scope to do much more: as part of our new, USAID-funded We Care Project, the SVRI aims to advance staff care, wellness and resilience within our organisation and across our network by developing a knowledge exchange series and a free online course primarily focused on collective care and institutionalising policies and practices that support staff wellbeing.

In November, we asked SVRI members and partners what they would like to see in the online course and knowledge exchange series. We also wanted to understand more about members’ understandings and practices of self and collective care, as well as some of the care-related challenges they have been facing during the Covid-19 pandemic. Fifty-seven people from diverse geographic regions responded to our survey, most of whom work for local, national and international NGOs.

Almost three quarters (74%) of respondents described how the pandemic had negatively affected their ability to practise self and collective care. They described increased workloads, an inability to separate their home lives from their work lives and having to undertake more unpaid care work. Those affiliated with institutions mentioned that collective care had suffered during the pandemic largely affected by remote working arrangements and lockdowns. Some respondents told us that their organisations were struggling to know how to create spaces for collective care when the workforce is so dispersed. Others shared their feelings of isolation from friends and family, as well as a sense of being disconnected from their colleagues.

Respondents clearly articulated a need for more connection and collective care in their lives, but interestingly, their self-perceived levels of understanding of collective care were low: 31% of respondents said they either had no understanding or little understanding of what collective care is and 36% of respondents said they only had ‘some’ understanding of the term. Levels of perceived knowledge relating to the concept of self-care were much higher – 72% of survey participants reported having a good or very good understanding of the term.

In some ways, these findings are not surprising. Many of us are surrounded by narratives on social media that tend to individualise notions of care and don’t explore the limits of self-care. These narratives fail to acknowledge the ways in which stress and trauma can be collectively felt – the idea that when one member of our teams or groups is hurting, all of us do – and how working in isolation to alleviate our stresses and trauma has limited effectiveness. Collective care, meanwhile, encourages us to see wellbeing as a shared responsibility of the wider group rather than the sole burden of an individual. It encourages us to work collectively to change the oppressive systems that cause us stress, trauma and harm. Audre Lorde reminds us that, for many groups who were not part of the ‘mainstream’, collective care has always been an integral part of self-care: ‘In queer feminist and anti-racist work, self-care is about the creation of a community… assembled out of the experiences of being shattered’.

We are not the first group to critique dominant approaches to self-care, resilience, and wellness – largely rooted in western paradigms – which place the burden of care and coping on individuals, often in their personal capacity. The individualised focus does not acknowledge that our work spaces and work cultures themselves may be contributing to our stress and trauma nor does it highlight the role that institutions and organisations must play in preventing burnout, and promoting and nurturing wellness, care, and kindness. We are not the first group to emphasise the importance of self and collective care in our work nor to share tips and other resources to strengthen these efforts in our field. We are joining these efforts in the hopes of institutionalising collective care across the field. We want to challenge pressures on individuals to “bounce back" and become resilient to ever-increasing burdens. Instead, we would like to encourage the integration of collective care and kindness in all we do internally and externally with people and organisations. We are excited to spark innovations in care practices and systems that are created by, meaningful to, and effective for the people and organisations in our field, acknowledging that these may be different for different people and organisations. We look forward to sharing a kaleidoscope of ideas that can help us all to start building new communities of care.

Thank you to all the survey respondents – we have heard that while they would like to learn more about healthy self-care strategies for dealing with things like burn-out and vicarious trauma, they also want to explore what managers and leaders can do to institutionalise collective care, how we can develop trauma-informed workflows and how we can ensure greater accountability for collective care in our organisations. These are just some of the topics we will be exploring in our upcoming knowledge exchange series and integrating into our free online course. We’ll be sharing regular updates on the project via the SVRI newsletter and the We Care project page. We hope you’ll join us on this journey towards meaningful, transformative care for all.

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