The next step on my feminist journey… is a break

Guest Post by Helene Wolf

Three years ago, I set out on my journey to challenge our long standing system of power and leadership culture by establishing FAIR SHARE of Women Leaders. Starting an organisation from scratch with only seed funding has been exciting, but it has also been an intense journey of self-reflection and unlearning: What kind of organisation do I want to build? Who am I as its founding leader? How do I, and we as a team, define our values and ways of working?

I found many answers and guidance in concepts around Feminist Leadership, an approach developed by women – mostly grassroots feminist activists – in the Global South. By working closely with some of these thought leaders and practitioners, I started to develop my own understanding of leadership and organisational culture. In many ways, this required un-learning how things are done in relation to hierarchies, partnerships, teamwork and decision-making. 

This journey has also been exhausting. So, in four weeks from now, I will take two months off! But I don’t see this as a break from Feminist Leadership, but rather an extension of it. 

Feminist Leadership centres on collective leadership – challenging the current model of hierarchies with one person at the top. This means it’s time to make space for others to take the lead. We have developed a lot of collective decision-making processes and extended ownership across the team, yet, we all still lean a lot on me to make final calls.   

Feminist Leadership is about re-distributing power. My leave will inevitably change our internal dynamics and power structures, so when I come back, the plan is not simply to return to the current set-up. Instead, we will take this opportunity to re-think our structures and processes so that everyone can continue to grow and lead in different areas of our work. 

Finally – and that is probably the biggest challenge and learning for me personally – Feminist Leadership includes self-care. For many people working in our sector, this is still a radical idea as we tend to put all our energy and heart into our work, often with little to no boundaries. This can be counter-productive: if I am exhausted, I cannot support others, develop creative ideas or convince new donors of our vision. But ultimately, these two months are for me, to remember who I am outside of my work and what nourishes me: books, sleep, sports, time with friends and family or…?

There is also a very personal side. My partner and I share childcare duties equally and he has been working fewer hours since I took on my first leadership position after the birth of our first child. However, I still tend to have the general overview of our family matters. I know that mental load has become somewhat of a buzzword, but I was so relieved when I first read about it, feeling there was finally a way to describe the dynamics I observe (and am an active part of) in my private life. So these two months are also a chance for us as a couple and family to re-assess and further develop our feminist family structures.  Even though I am convinced that this is the right step to take, I’m still scared. Will I be able to fully switch off mentally? Will I lack purpose? This will be a new experience for me as someone who always defined herself through her work. I never took this much time off. 

In The Rights Studio’s post last week, they beautifully captured the ambiguity around rest: Knowing that you desperately need it, while struggling with the privileges and expectations you (and others) have of yourself. The weight of responsibility, constant worries about the financial future of the organisation and many hours of intense and ambitious work over the last three years have over-nurtured my worrisome and serious sides. My main wish for the next two months is to reconnect with the light-hearted part of my personality. And maybe, in doing so, I can make my own small contribution to the idea of taking a break becoming less radical. Let’s work towards this re-framing of rest together!

Helene is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of FAIR SHARE of Women Leaders, an initiative to ensure equal representation of women leaders in the social impact sector and to advance Feminist Leadership models. Helene is a member of the Women in Dev Steering Committee and the Responsible Leadership Network of the BMW Foundation. Before co-founding FAIR SHARE in 2019, Helene served as Deputy Executive Director of the International Civil Society Centre. She lives in Berlin with her husband and two children.  

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