square bullet2020: Are We Supporting Staff Differently?

August 14, 2020

From Afrita Davis, Program Director and Equity Leadership Consultant

My name is Afrita Davis, pronouns she and her. I am a cis, heterosexual Black woman in her mid-30s. I have been teaching white people about race my whole life, but I began my focused study eight years ago after a traumatic work event. I am currently a Program Director at a local literacy nonprofit and an Equity Leadership consultant in Portland, Oregon.

As I ponder this topic of Trauma-Informed Care Principles of Empowerment, Voice, and Choice, my mind drifts to how we as institutions care for those that serve the public, our clients, and our communities. I stumbled into nonprofit work. When I learned that I could live a modest but sustainable life and take care of others, I knew I had found my calling.

Working long hours and in deeply emotional spaces in service to teens, I felt that I could do more if I had more support. I intuitively knew how to serve my community, listen with no judgment, afford grace and understanding, and be patient when serving young adults. What I did not know was how to manage all the trauma that I was absorbing. I did not know how to help my peers manage their emotions. Also, let us not forget that direct service providers come to nonprofit service work with unresolved trauma and dynamic life situations apart from the workplace.

Space for Staff

Our current organizational cultures hold the idea that when you come to work, you leave everything behind. You leave behind your trauma, pain, and struggles outside of the work environment. Firstly, this idea that people can compartmentalize their lives without consequences is fascinating and false. Secondly, those who serve authentically know that to reach people, you, yourself, must be whole. Any division of self, can and will compromise the quality of relationships you can build.

Healthy boundaries are necessary and needed in the workplace, but where is there a place for staff to be whole? Where is there space for staff to process the trauma they absorb? Where is there space for the team to find support, guidance, learning, and feedback? I would pose that that place is created and maintained by the organization’s leadership. It should be in the spaces of supervision that staff members feel most supported.

Supervision Support

Supervision is a unique interpersonal relationship designed to improve the employee’s performance in service of the organization’s mission. Supervision is supposed to be supportive, empowering, challenging, and accountable. More specifically speaking, in work environments whose success depends on the ability to build and maintain positive and constructive relationships, supervisors must equip themselves to support an individual’s interpersonal relational growth. In my experience, most workplaces do not hold this expectation around the support of the staff.

This lack of expectation must change. In today’s climate where Trauma-Informed Care and Equity is an expectation of workplaces, it is a set up for failure when supervisors are not skilled enough to support staff as they navigate traumas and challenges of the daily workplace. It is all too common to have highly passionate, competent, and heart-centered professionals fall short in supporting their students, clients, and community. This falling short is, at times, attributed to a lack of skill, desire, or knowledge. I push back and say it’s from a lack of structured support.

During supervision, it is imperative to recognize everyone’s unique gifts, strengths, and challenges. This responsibility also entails understanding the multitude of dynamics that influence supervision. From personal history with supervision to systematic issues around racism, sexism, and homophobia, to name a few, a supervisor must be aware that these dynamics are always at play and can have a significant impact on an individual’s work performance. When we begin to recognize and honor the differences that people bring to their role, we, as supervisors, can tailor staff’s support in ways that help achieve the mission and support the employee to gain success.

As we move forward in our ever-changing world, our work environments must also change. The changes in institutions are allowing historically marginalized people to gain more space in organizations. As supervisors and leaders in these organizations, we must also make sure this growth does not stop with visual representation. It must extend to the staff member’s personal growth and highlighting their value. Let us supervise better.