centering care and connectivity in organizations
by Aruna Rao, David Kelleher, Joanne Sandler, Lisa VeneKlasen and Srilatha Batliwala
The Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare the failed logic guiding the broken structures of our lives. As the Cross-Border Feminists have stated so clearly, “ [this] crisis reveals and intensifies the violence, the hierarchies, and the structural roots of oppression, exploitation, and inequality of the colonial capitalist patriarchy”. That previously hidden but ever-present violence within our social and economic structures reinforced by state power was exposed and challenged in many places even before COVID and with it, the resurgent demand for freedom and a new kind of wellbeing. #MeToo movement and #BlackLivesMatter, the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, India, and Brazil, #StandingRock and beyond, revealed what we see even more vividly today across the globe as authoritarianism is on the rise. Police and vigilante violence against black lives, immigrants, and religious and ethnic minorities, violence against women and children, and state violence against poor people have become even more acute as movements like #BLM have created a global reckoning to shape our consciousness about the many different ways inequality is historic, structural and violent. In this collective moment of rage and hope, the ideas that economic, political and social life should be organized around care for people and the planet are re-emerging as a central focus. The old idea that “my freedom is tied to your freedom” and wellbeing, is back in circulation, re-affirming that our interdependence rather than individualism is vital to our shared emancipation and future. As agreed in a recent UN Women convening on the impact of the pandemic on inequalities and structural transformation, “care is not just a feminist issue or women’s issue: it is an existential question for humankind.”
As a group of researchers, practitioners, activists and popular educators with different encounters with multiple kinds of institutions, we are interested in exploring how to center the feminist values of care and connectivity in organizational forms that tend to rely on hierarchies, uniformity and control. While organizational objectives in a racist, neoliberal world often instrumentalize people, we are interested in how to balance purpose – what it takes to make a difference — and thriving in all its material, psychological and spiritual dimensions. We come to these questions having founded and worked in international and national NGOs, the UN, large government programs and also, organizing grassroots movements and cross-border networks in different parts of the world. In our various avatars, we tried to be free of the dysfunctionalities and hierarchies of organizations and to be purpose driven against the strong headwinds of expectations that all formalized organizations follow stale corporate models.
In our attempts to create and support organizational forms that break free from the deadening and marginalizing aspects of institutions and the non-profit industrial complex, we have birthed new organizations and movements, developed new analytic lenses and tools, new feminist theory and practices and new feminist models of leadership. Through these close encounters with imperfect offerings, we have learned along with other feminists and social activists, that the principles, culture, power dynamics and systems of organizational forms into which we pour our work have remained 19th century constructs following the logic of the very systems we seek to change and are ill-suited to the transformative change needed to deal with the exigencies of our current 21st century world. Our efforts to rewire existing organizational cultures have met with some success but the struggles with and slide back to patriarchal default has never been far from the horizon.
At this current moment, a new conversation is emerging around old issues, infused with new and old ideas to help us reimagine and transform how we live and work. Feminist economists have long created alternatives to measuring the health of our economy by valuing care and reproductive labor. Dominant paradigms such as the traditional economic growth model, are being challenged and in some places replaced by new models – such as Kate Raworth’s “Donut Model” of economics – which center meeting people’s essential needs within critical planetary boundaries like climate change. The age old cosmovision of indigenous peoples that proposes a different logic of balance among people and between people and the planet, some of which has been brought to life by climate justice visionaries, are a set of ethos and ideas that can help us re-imagine and unlearn the old logics. The Black Lives Matter movement has generated a reckoning and questioning of the relevance not only of institutions in the US but also global governance systems and the racism, sexism, and toxic environments of many organizations that make up that system. Alongside the powerful demands to “defund the police”, many activists and practitioners in the international development and humanitarian sectors are, once again, boldly calling for a dismantling of a slew of institutions from the World Bank and IMF to international NGOs. “Calls to reform institutions that are founded on and perpetuate unequal and violent global structures is futile”, they say. Instead, they urge “dissolving and defunding these institutions [as] the most effective step towards building a new system that is truly based on equity and justice”. At the same time, several prominent organizations focused on women’s rights and development – International Women’s Health Coalition, the Nobel Women’s Initiative, Women Deliver and the International Planned Parenthood Federation in the United States – face loud accusations of racism, white faux feminism and of fostering toxic work environments inconsistent with their public mission. Staff in the United Nations report that racism is alive and unaddressed while sexual harassment is a decades old, inadequately addressed problem. 
The current zeitgeist orients toward smash-to-start over rather than reform at a time when the political forces arrayed against justice and equality are organized and strong. A new generation is naturally fed up with the failures of three decades of technocratic incrementalism under neoliberalism in the face of morphing corruption, inequality, violence. The impetus to get to an ethos of human and planetary thriving have never been higher because “there’s no going back to normal.” In short, normal sucked for the 99% and was deadly for those with the least resources and power due to gender, sexuality, caste, class, race, religion, ethnicity and citizen status. In her seminal piece, “Pandemic as Portal”,  Arundhati Roy’s words resonate with all of us across the globe longing to renew our project of liberation and collective wellbeing to create a new normal. She writes that this pandemic is an opportunity to break with the past, “It is a portal, a gateway, between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or, we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.” With that invitation, we are asking: what will organizational forms look like on the other side of the ‘portal’ and how will we get there? How do we build interconnectedness and move toward purpose while also caring for the people involved in our work? How do we build whole organizations with broken people? How do we create a shared sense of belonging and practice, the emancipation we demand and dream about, in our organizational formations?
Several actors already have jumped into this thinking space with their solutions. Analysing the present malaise of alienation of workers, depression and anxiety (all of which are real), corporate America suggests a laundry list of things to do to support thriving in the workplace. But BLM and our experiences and understanding of social movements, colonialism, development and change, especially in the Global South, tell us to look deeper into the structural basis of inequality, the diverse forms of exclusion, discrimination and marginalization including racism and patriarchy, and into the larger political and economic systems that shape our worldviews, logics and lives. Reimagining always demands unlearning.
We invite you to join us in exploring these questions. We want to learn from past and ongoing experiments about coordination and decentralized models of leadership that you’ve experienced or witnessed. Tell us about how you build interconnectedness in new and across organizational formations, networks and movements in a larger ecology of change. And, in the spirit of emergent thinking and planning, we will see where that takes us.
We are interested in bringing our own stories and close encounters with imperfect offerings, and our collective wisdom to bear on our shared predicament. What will it take to upend the old, inside and around us, and build cultures and formations grounded in feminist and radically democratic principles of relationships, mutual solidarity, love and respect, while also advancing our larger mission of just societies and a sustainable planet? Who is working to build consciousness around connectedness? What can our collective imaginings generate about how to support human thriving for a thriving planet?
 Cross Border Feminist Manifesto (https://spectrejournal.com/cross-border-feminist-manifesto/)
 See for example, Marusia Lopez, Valerie Miller and Mariela Arce, “Our Rights, Our Safety: Resources for Human Rights Defenders”, JASS, ( https://www.justassociates.org/sites/justassociates.org/files/our-rights-our-safety-whrd-manual_v1.1.pdf); and Srilatha Batliwala, “Feminist Leadership for Social Transformation: Clearing the Conceptual Cloud”, CREA, 2011 https://www.creaworld.org/publications).
 See for example, Aruna Rao, Joanne Sandler, David Kelleher and Carol Miller, Gender at Work: Theory and Practice for 21st Century Organizations, Routledge, UK, 2016.
 50 Years Is Enough was a global campaign organized to shut down the Bretton Woods institutions in the late 1980s and 1990s, and the “NGO industrial complex” has been repeatedly questioned and challenged particularly in the Global South for many years.
 Degan Ali and Marie-Rose Romain Murphy, “Black Lives Matter is also a reckoning for foreign aid and international NGOs, Open Democracy, 19 July 2020 (https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/transformation/black-lives-matter-also-reckoning-foreign-aid-and-international-ngos/
 Thalif Deen, “Staff Surveys Reveal Widespread Racism in the United Nations”, Inter Press Service, August 28, 2020 http://www.ipsnews.net/2020/08/staff-surveys-reveal-widespread-racism-united-nations/?utm_source=English+-+IPS+Weekly&utm_campaign=6fa3c67979-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2020_08_27_05_21&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_eab01a56ae-6fa3c67979-5464097
 See Ekemini Uwan, “There’s No Going Back to Normal” in The Atlantic, June 13, 2020 (https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2020/06/radical-acceptance-path-change/613015)
 Arundhati Roy, Financial Times, April 3, 2020 (https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca)
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