Setting Boundaries in Mission Driven Work

The Changemaker Authors Cohort, a partnership with the Unicorn Authors Club, is a yearlong intensive coaching program supporting full-time movement activists and social justice practitioners to complete books that create deep, durable narrative change, restructuring the way people feel, think, and respond to the world. This interview series features participants in the inaugural cohort.

Shannon Cumberbatch is a public defense attorney and the founder and facilitator of Uproot.ed, an organization committed to providing programming to uproot oppression through education and action. Her writing project is entitled, The Least We Can Do: Critical Steps Toward Uprooting Inequity Within Your Institution. It is a nonfiction instructive resource that will explicitly discuss how racism, anti-Blackness, xenophobia, cisheteronormativity, ableism, classism, elitism and the intersection of each permeate common policies and practices embraced in institutions. More specifically, the text will unpack oppressive conventions and offer tools for transformation in recruiting, hiring, and retention; and cultivating an anti-oppressive office culture; and sustainably supporting marginalized peoples within the institution, including amid uprisings against systemic oppression in the world.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Narrative Initiative: The Least We Can Do: Critical Steps Toward Uprooting Inequity Within Your Institution. Where does the title come from?

Shannon Cumberbatch: In addition to the full time work that I do within public service institutions, my business Uproot.ed, for which I’m the founder and facilitator, is committed to uprooting oppression through education and action. In this context, uproot means “to unearth” – to expose the roots of the types of systemic oppression that we are observing that are so deeply embedded within these institutions that people accept them as norms, as natural, as part of the fabric [of their daily lives].When I say uprooting, we’re exposing the roots and we are talking very explicitly about their origins. And how those rotten roots permeate all of the fruit that is born from them throughout these institutions.

And then the verb part of “uprooting” is also to shake at its foundation, to lift it from its roots to try to disrupt its growth. That’s what I mean when I’m talking about uprooting oppression, uprooting inequity. When I say it’s the least we can do. That part really comes from acknowledging that even the steps that I offer and that I identify as critical steps are not going to completely eradicate oppression or inequity in the world or even in your specific institution. The reality there needs to be deeper abolition work happening in the systems that converge with those in which we operate in the workplace and in racial capitalism at large.Shannon Cumberbatch

There can sometimes be a tendency to oversell things that are really the bare minimum of what we should be doing for humanity as the peak action of liberation. Although it sounds radical to some, or outlandish, or even going too far, it’s actually the least we could be doing. It’s the least that we should be doing.

Even as I produce the book, I don’t approach it with the understanding that I am an expert now and this is the final word on this subject. I’m still on the journey of learning and unlearning. I expect that there will be things that I will have written and put out in the book that two years later, I will have ideas about how that point could have been even stronger, even clearer. I think that to the extent that I would potentially have any regrets in my book, it won’t be that I went too far. It’ll be that I didn’t go far enough.

Narrative Initiative: So you’ve spoken very broadly about institutions. I want you to get specific, what institutions are you trying to shake at their roots?

Shannon Cumberbatch: We’re talking about workplaces. And although the framework and practical steps will be applicable to a vast variety of workplaces including academia, corporate, community organizations, I do take a distinct approach to focus on public service institutions or mission driven organizations. Specifically taking a lens to those environments and walking through examples that commonly come up in that context, which is something I really wish that I had access to in the earlier stages of my career.

Some of what I found in the corporate world offered transferable guidance and a values aligned approach, but it still didn’t speak to the very unique challenges that we may encounter in mission driven organizations – specifically in organizations that say that their whole purpose of being is to challenge some type of inequity or oppression but are replicating those same exact types of harm that they purport to challenge inside of their workplace.They are not making the connections between the nonprofit industrial complex and the prison industrial complex, for example. I plan to highlight very explicitly those connections through a combination of my experiences within these workplaces, but also the lived experiences of myself and my loved ones.

Narrative Initiative: What are some of the examples that you’re shedding light on in the book, and what are some of the lived experiences of the harm that these institutions do when they don’t do the least in trying to uproot the inequity?

Shannon Cumberbatch: I plan to discuss how a lot of workplace norms and expectations are disabling in conventional public service workplaces that expect people to extend well beyond their capacity, well beyond anything that is humanly healthy or sustainable, and well beyond anything that is compensated, if it’s compensated at all. That can not only disproportionately exclude marginalized and disabled people, but be disabling in and of itself. I plan to talk about my own experiences of both doing the work while being the work and advocating on behalf of individuals ensnared in carceral systems. And also being in the courthouses presumed to be one of the individuals ensnared in carceral systems because my black skin is associated with criminality.

Even if I’m wearing a suit, even if I’m wearing my identification, even if I’m carrying a case file that says what law office I work out of and who I represent, I am still presumed to be the person in need of representation. And then I enter the workplace where some colleagues may also assume that I’m a community member or someone brings in a criminal defendant seeking services in these institutions even when I have several years of experience as an attorney or as a person in leadership.

I’m spending my lunch break and my evenings advocating for my own loved ones going to police stations to negotiate their freedom using my checks to pay their ransom. I’m still trying to balance pulling us all out of poverty while doing unpaid internships and underpaid work within public service institutions that purport to be committed to these communities that I come from. All of those things cumulatively contributed to my experience with chronic illness, and how it became exacerbated when I was no longer exclusively engaging with actors within carceral systems as my adversaries, but when those who were supposed to be my allies in the workplace, because this is their stated mission became adversaries as well, and barriers to the equity work that I was trying to do to support the same communities that they say they’re so committed to. It became that much more disabling.

Narrative Initiative: Are you tired? Because you sound tired. I want to back up because it didn’t just start when you became an attorney. I’m assuming that it started when you were in undergrad, and then you were pursuing your JD and you did a three-year law program and then you go and you get the job and the internships and you’re underpaid and you’re undervalued and you have an adversarial workplace. When did you say, Enough is enough! I have to do something different?

Shannon Cumberbatch: Right now!

I am exhausted and last year I honestly felt like I was near death. Last year was the peak of all of the disabling things in my body and my spirit. My soul said to me, “Regardless of what you think intellectually, if you continue, you will die. The reason why you persist the way that you do is so that you can be a buffer and a support and advocate for people who have less privilege than you, who experience marginalization in ways that you don’t, and who need that support. But if you allow these things happening in the world to take you out, or to take you away from caring for yourself the way that you need to, especially with all else that you carry in the world, you can’t be of use to them and you can’t be of use to yourself.”

We have so much that we have to give to someone else. But last year said to me, “You have to give to you. You have to pour into you.” That is also an investment in equity work. That is also justice work. That is also resistance. Sometimes your way of resisting is withdrawing for a moment to take care of yourself and re-arming yourself to decide your next approach in the fight.

Narrative Initiative: What does uprooting inequity and oppression look like when it has been so taxing on you personally?

Shannon Cumberbatch: It looks like leaning into disability justice and recognizing the ways that we inadvertently hadn’t been and how that was ultimately undermining our fight toward equity.

I inadvertently became complicit in creating expectations of chronically ill and disabled people that were just able to kind of keep going anyway, because what people put in their mind is, “Well, Shannon also experienced that and was able to produce this and was able to do that.”

The more we collectively set boundaries with how much we are willing to produce when it takes us away from taking care of ourselves, the more we contribute to an environment where workloads and efforts are more reasonably distributed, so that no one person–even in the fight against inequity–feels like it all rests on them so much that they can’t take the reprieve they need to when they need to. Also, taking the time away, to be well enough to share the message about how these harms, how an equity within these institutions can be disabling is further a contribution to uprooting inequity and and equipping folks with the tools and the frameworks and the skills that I’ve been able to acquire over time to implement in their spaces.

Narrative Initiative: So then, in uprooting oppression, what does liberation look like?

Shannon Cumberbatch: Liberation looks like the abolition of racial capitalism. Liberation looks like not laboring for a check from some institution in order for us to be able to survive. Instead of us having to go through a nonprofit organization, usually run by people who are so far removed from the actual issues, in order to come back around and pour into our communities the resources that were extracted. [It means] putting [those resources] back into our communities, rather than withholding them to be doled out incrementally in a paycheck. We invest our time and labor into those communities on the ground without the bureaucracy and the additional stress and inequity and everything else and the erosion of autonomy and be able to work toward our collective liberation.

I will not oversell by saying that you will find the roadmap to liberation in this book, but you will find critical steps in that direction to at least mitigate what we are experiencing while racial capitalism, and these industrial complexes still exist.

Narrative Initiative: What is it that you want readers to take from your work once they come to it?

Shannon Cumberbatch: I want people in positions of power who have been so deeply invested in the status quo to feel challenged. I want them to get comfortable being uncomfortable until it’s not uncomfortable anymore. I want them to engage in the necessary introspection and self-location work to not only understand the roots of these things that they’ve been complicit in, that we’ve been complicit in, but to also have the courage to divest from them and to become co-conspirators in uprooting them.

I want the people who have been subjected to these complexes for so long, who are having a hard time articulating exactly what they’re experiencing, or are not being heard and given the appropriate credibility when they are identifying these issues and discussing their experiences to feel affirmed, to feel heard, to feel held. I want those who experience marginalization in ways that I don’t to feel like I considered them and that the people who are normally relegated to the bottom feel lifted up in this writing and feel more empowered and like they have a tool and something that they can cite to, to say, “No, I was right and although you have weaponized the law, in your experience of how it’s always been done, there are different ways to do things.”

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