Hey, I’m Akwe Amosu and this is Strength and Solidarity.
Welcome to our podcast about the ideas driving – and disrupting – human rights movements around the world.
In this episode…
- Rewriting the human resources manual for a sex workers organisation
- And in our Coda – the bible verses that fuel one Nigerian’s battle against bad government
In recent years, there have been too many stories emerging from mission-driven organisations that speak of unhappy workplaces. Sometimes the reports are of a case of harassment and failure of management to notice and act. In others, it’s less a specific instance and more a chronic state of stress – with overwork and dissatisfaction among staff, and managers who burn out. Yet we might hope that organizations that aim to do good in the world would make a better job of creating a healthy internal culture of respect and positivity. South African feminist and human rights activist Ishtar Lakhani has worked in a number of social justice organisations and was among the BBC’s 100 most inspiring and influential women in 2020. She thinks a lot about how activists can thrive and do excellent work. So I thought she would be a good person to ask about what it takes to create a positive workplace culture.
AA: Ishtar, welcome.
Ishtar Lakhani: Thank you. It’s very good to be virtually here.
AA: So I want to talk to you about your experience working in organizations that are trying to build and maintain a respectful culture in their teams, and in relation to the partners they work with. You’ve been a senior manager most recently I think in SWEAT, the sex workers organization in South Africa, what’s your experience of trying to build these good, respectful cultures, there and elsewhere?
IL: I mean, I’ve been very lucky and fortunate in my social justice career in that all the organizations that I’ve worked with have identified as feminist organizations. Feminist both in the way that they think about the world, the issues that we work on, but also how they practice social justice internally. So I must say, having managed at a few feminist organizations, I can say it’s always messy. You’re always learning and it’s without doubt, never a dull moment.
AA: Is there something distinctive about the way that a feminist organization goes about trying to build a culture of respect in its ranks?
IL: I would say yes. I would say yes, because I think from very basic principles of, the personal is political impacts how we organize, how we work together, how we look at each other, how we treat each other. The fact that I do work for organizations that are majority woman-run and woman-led, I think also brings a different perspective. The idea of – interrogating this idea of work and what does it mean? Acknowledging the fact that we are all working in a capitalist patriarchy and how are we going to make sure, as a feminist organization, we’re not perpetuating those very same structures? I think there is a particular uniqueness that comes with organizations that identify as feminist, because the idea is we come to work as whole human beings that have so many other responsibilities that pull on our time and pull on our emotions. And that makes this idea of ‘the workplace’ a very different thing than in organizations where, where I don’t think they identify as having a feminist politic.
AA: So as a manager, I’m already getting hairs standing up on the back of my neck. If you have to treat every employee as though all the aspects of their life are relevant to their immediate situation in the workplace, that’s a hell of a task for any manager to take on.
IL: Yes. The short answer – yes, very much so! When people ask, like how do you manage, I say, with difficulty. I don’t think I’m the best at articulating this. It is a messy, difficult, uphill battle because you’re fighting against systems that weren’t designed for the whole person. So it is a daily struggle, but is it an organization that I want to be in? Yes, I would far rather work in that messy organization where you’re interrogating, where you’re trying to figure out ways to live your politics, than have a much easier ride of it, where things get swept under the carpet and you don’t surface the difficult conversations, but it makes your daily life so much more easy and less dramatic. I would rather do that difficult work. It brings me much more fulfillment, even though it makes the day-to-day much harder.
AA: OK, you were a senior manager at SWEAT for five years. Give us some examples of the kind of thing you’re talking about. What did you prioritize in terms of your staff needs and how did that work out? Just give us some examples.
IL: Some of the things that we work with at SWEAT is we advocate for the human rights of sex workers and specifically the decriminalization of sex work in South Africa. And one of the interesting and amazing and incredible things about SWEAT is the way that they have adopted the approach of “nothing about us without us.” So the majority of SWEAT staff have experienced, or currently work in the sex industry. So it was something that politically I was drawn to, but it also makes managing very difficult because you’re then also given an HR policy that is like copy pasted for every other kind of social justice organization, where you’re talking about, say for example, sexual harassment. That’s a difficult one, especially in the context that we working in social justice, and now a lot of social justice organizations kind of surfacing huge problems with sexual harassment and abuse of power in the workplace.
AA: Let’s dig into that. I mean, most sexual harassment policies prohibit staff from making comments to each other that refer to their sexuality or to their sexual persona or behavior that in any way might suggest derogatory judgements about their identity. Right there, I’m already beginning to see that you guys might’ve had some challenges, if a lot of your staff was sex workers.
IL: And we talk about sex all day, every day! This is the business that we’re in. Like we believe that sex work is legitimate work. So we are often talking about sex and what it means, and the implications and the politics of it. We are often having to search particular websites because that is part of our work doing outreach and making sure we involve online sex workers in the advocacy that we do. So this idea that ‘No, you can’t look at porn sites using work computers’, that is part of the work we’re placing ads for our services and our legal services on websites. We need to be able to access those things. So when it came to, ‘Okay, we need to have a sexual harassment policy,’ I mean, there’s no formula for this. Where we thought we could start was to workshop something with the entire staff. So we bring the staff together and we have formal training where we co-create a sexual harassment policy where people know where the line is and what is acceptable “Work sex talk” and what is not, because we don’t want to have people feel oppressed or violated or their privacy infringed upon. So the best way we could find was to co-create it with staff; to try and figure out a policy that works for the organization and that everyone can really rigorously understand.
AA: So where did that process lead? What did you end up with?
IL: So we ended up with a policy that looks a little bit different. It is a little bit messy. It is harder to kind of implement and to keep track of, but it is – it’s about seeing it as a process, because as we’ve seen with technology; as we’ve seen with everything in the workplace: things have changed, so everything must keep up. So for example, people exposing themselves on webcams accidentally during Zoom meetings, during COVID. I mean, the amount of Zoom faux pas that there have been in the workplace has been ridiculous, that we’ve seen in memes across the Internet. How do you deal with that with a workplace HR policy, ‘cause I’m sure there isn’t a line somewhere – ‘When you’re in a Zoom meeting, in the privacy of your own home, you have to wear pants at a Zoom meeting.’ So I think it’s seeing these policies in organizations as living documents, and not as something that you can just copy-paste between organizations that can live forever.
AA: I guess I want to know whether you ended up through this process, writing down a list of permitted or prohibited actions or whether you focused in on intent. And I’m asking that because in my experience in a workplace – which was not, I hasten to add anything like the one you are describing – I saw that there was almost a kind of ban on talking about why something happened. The fact that the intention hadn’t been to cause hurt or offense wasn’t, as it were, a defense. The question was, ‘What did you do?’ And if you did it, then you were in the wrong. And so I’m just listening to you and thinking, this is not an approach that could possibly work in the conditions that you are describing. So how did you spell out the permissions, if you like, for the workplace through this consultation?
IL: Yeah, I think exactly what you’re talking about to get across that intention is important, but also the understanding of power. So for example, in a lot of these kind of stock standard policies, you’re not interrogating power, you’re not interrogating gender, you’re not interrogating sexual orientation or class difference or privilege. So the thing with discussing an HR policy is that you’re not just discussing the policy, you discussing what it means to be a sex worker within a formalized structured organization that has work hours from nine to five. You’re talking about what it means that in the evenings, when you do sex work, there are colleagues that you work with on the street, but then also colleagues that are at work. Like this all complicates things in a very, very messy way. But for me, it’s, it’s really about the commitment of the organization to have those messy conversations. So not to say, “Oh this is complicated,” – the fact that a lot of the people do work during the day at SWEAT and at nighttime as sex workers – “We’re just going to pretend that doesn’t exist.” So having the bravery to have those messy conversations and know that there’s often not a solution and that’s okay. And that it is an unfolding process.
AA: I mean, I listening to you, I just think, the thing that strikes me is that for a manager, you’re not just describing a job, you’re describing a way of life. I mean, that idea that you should be able to reserve your private life as separate from the workplace, just goes by the board in the world you’re describing. And I wonder how many people would be willing to just see their job as a 24/7 personal commitment.
IL: You make it sound like a lot!
AA: I think it is a lot
IL: Yeah. I think it is. I think that as feminists, it’s really difficult to do this “let’s separate work and the personal,” because if we’re totally honest about it, there isn’t a separation. Like if I am having a tough time at home and not getting enough sleep and like I’m worried about my mother or whatever, I’m going to bring that to work. It is going to affect my work. The same way the work pressures that I have affect my home life. And so I think this idea that we must keep these, , very clean, clinical boxes between work and home are not necessarily useful and honestly realistic. Like childcare – it’s a thing! It’s a thing that affects us, whether we’re, I dunno, at a conference or whether we’re like having drinks with our friends. So why can’t we figure out ways that we can design organizations that are more suited to who we are as human beings? I’m not saying you should be emailing people at like 10 o’clock at night and expect responses. That would be against what I was saying is respecting people and their various commitments. But yeah, I think trying to put it in these boxes don’t necessarily lead to a fulfilling life – for me.
AA: I’m thinking that that might be counter-intuitive for some managers – being more relaxed actually gets you better compliance. It has also been my experience to be honest, but my sense is that a lot of the people who managed around me had a very different view, that relaxing too much left room for people to take advantage and they didn’t want to be taken advantage of, um
IL: it’s called the capitalist patriarchy!
AA: So you’re seeing this as a culture of offices and management and power that gets in the way of effective management?
IL: I mean, I feel like we can come up with better solutions and getting things done other than working people into the ground and not giving people the freedom to live their best lives and follow their passions and create a conducive environment for them to do their work. I think when people are having fun, are enjoying what they’re doing, they are more than likely going to actually work harder.
AA: So, I mean, this sounds fine, but then there are often work settings where people don’t feel happier. They came into the organization, perhaps with a sense of grievance or a sense of disappointment, maybe forms of distress or wounding that have shaped the way that they view any kind of hierarchy. And there’s nothing that you, as a manager can do, in all your flexibility and generosity, to make them feel better. Have you encountered that and how does your theory stand up in that moment?
IL: Oh, without a doubt. I mean, the very fact that I had the title of manager is difficult. I mean, there were various instances where the idea of a manager was attacked and what I struggled with was the accusations without evidence. And I took it incredibly personally and I was incredibly wounded and hurt because I was, like, I don’t understand where this is coming from – all my actions show that I’ve tried to be supportive and encouraging yet I, as a manager and part of the management team are still being attacked. And it took me a long time of introspection to realize, the narrative of managers trying to screw the workers is a longheld belief across multiple industries and sectors. It is a narrative that is all-pervasive. And so no matter what you can do and show that you’re a manager who’s not out to screw the workers, you’re still competing with centuries of outside narratives that don’t have a lot to do with you. And I don’t know what the solution is, other than to try and be understanding, but not to take it personally because I can only do what I can do. And as long as my track record and my evidence and how I behave, shows that I’m actively trying to engage with the power that comes with being a manager, there are just some knocks that I’m going to have to take, because I have this title in a world where this title means a very specific thing.
AA: So personal resilience is important and you’ve got to figure it out for yourself. If you’re a manager, you’ve got to figure out how not to get demobilized and disabled by every attack or every criticism. But I guess there’s a very practical question that follows, which is somebody who’s really out to get you and is not interested in your attempt to be a nice decent manager, um, can actually be very disruptive and can really tip things over, not just between them and you, but also for the whole team. And I guess, you know, many people who manage listening to this may well be saying to themselves, yeah, that all sounds great but when it comes to the crunch, she’s going to crack down like any of us would because she can’t have the entire train go off the rails. Right? Or wrong?
IL: Right to a certain degree. I mean, I’m also a young manager, so let it be known, I don’t have like 20, 30 years’ experience in managing, I’m talking as a very young inexperienced manager in feminist social justice worlds. I also don’t have a huge amount of answers other than my own experience.
AA: Why do you think so many of the mission-driven organizations that are doing absolutely critical sterling work to defend rights, struggle with these painful experiences in terms of their internal cultures? You’ve mentioned a clear sense that the patriarchy, capitalist ideology are not helpful, but the people in these organizations have been navigating capitalism and the patriarchy throughout their lives. Not every setting or institution or community organizational structure that they’re in, goes through these recriminations. And so I’m just curious what you’ve learned or what you’ve seen that gives you insight into why those are the site of these painful experiences.
IL: Oh, that’s a big question, Akwe. I remember what I struggled with, coming up as a young activist was this idea of the ‘struggle mentality’. There was the struggle against apartheid, and that meant you dedicating your life. And if you haven’t dedicated your life and you’re not suffering, then you’re not working hard enough for the cause. Um, if you lead a balanced lifestyle and managed to have a healthy relationship and, like, get some exercise and play with your dog, you are not working hard enough! And that was really hard for me. I was working with incredible woman as a young activist and I just looked around and I was like, you guys are amazing. You are my mentors. You do incredible work, But I don’t want your life. I want to do this work. And I want to do it for the rest of my life. But I also want to have healthy relationships with my partner, my friends, my family. I want to also to be good to my body. I also want to, I don’t know, talk about fluff and watch some nonsense television and not feel guilty about it. And so I think that for me, it’s about how do I balance doing my social justice work in environments that I don’t find personally conducive or fulfilling, or, and if I wasn’t there, I would probably burn out within like 10 years. So I think it is about kind of taking all those principles that we’re applying to the outside world. So we want gender equality in the outside world – really think about how are we practicing gender equality in our own organization. If we’re saying we want democratic principles out in the world, how will we practicing democracy within our organizations and who gets to make decisions about what the, how do we make sure people can voice their opinions? So how do we kind of prioritize the principles that we’re talking about on the outside just as much, if not more internally, before we go out and say, we need to have democracy and gender equality and like interrogate privilege.
AA: So let’s try and pull these threads together. An organization that wants a healthy culture, a culture of respect in which staff feel fully seen, appreciated, um, valued. What would you put at the top of your list as a principle for its management, for its leadership? What must it try to do?
IL: Courage. Courage and bravery. I think. Not saying that we ever did achieve that final, wonderful, healthy utopic organization, but I think it is the courage to not shy away from the difficult conversations and not be scared of it. And they are terrifying when they are knocking at your door.
AA: Ishtar, thank you.
IL: hope some of it was useful!
Ishtar Lakhani is a feminist and human rights activist, most recently in campaigns to expand global access to vaccines against Covid. I spoke to her in Cape Town, South Africa… You can find a transcript of our conversation and some reading suggestions on our website, strength and solidarity dot org.
In our “Coda”, someone active in the Human Rights field shares something that gives them inspiration or insight into the work they do…. And it comes as no surprise that for very many working to advance social and economic justice, one primary source of inspiration is their faith. For Nigerian activist Yemi Adamolekun, four verses in particular, from the Bible’s Gospel of Matthew seem crystal clear in their call to action.
Matthew five, verses 13 to 16,
You are the salt of the earth, but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing, but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men. You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden, nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven.
YA: I’m not even quite sure what part of my journey, the verses sort of jumped out at me for the first time, but they’ve sort of taken on more significance in the last decade that I’ve worked on governance in Nigeria. It’s really been about what role the church in Nigeria has played in speaking up for social justice issues. A lot of Nigerians talk about the fact that the church should not be involved in politics because politics is dirty, that it’s corrupt, so that because churches are meant to represent all things clean and holy, we stay away from politics and pray from a distance.
YA: But these verses, for me, speak of something very different because they talk about the fact that wherever we are, we’re meant to shine a light. And I think for me, the verses represent that, as Christians, this is what we should be. If you’re cooking, you put a pinch of salt in it, a little bit of salt, a bit of light makes a difference and salt also preserves. So when you think about corruption, something that’s corrupt is something that’s rotten, that’s going bad. So you use salt to preserve things from going bad. So even in the context of governance in Nigeria, if Christians are truly salt, they will stop corruption because they will preserve and keep things from going bad.
YA: When church people tell me that the church shouldn’t get involved in politics, my personal frustration with the church in Nigeria and their silence and the silence with social justice issues, I’m like – this is embedded in your faith. It’s embedded in who you’re meant to be. It’s embedded in personal leadership. So it has nothing to do with the fact that I’ve found myself in the human rights space.
YA: Over my journey. I’ve come to realize that in a lot of ways, being light and being salt will make you unpopular. So if you take the context of sort of human rights work and the church’s decision to shy away from engaging on it, it’s because it would put them in a sense against the state. And it’s a much safer place to be, not to be seen to be anti-government. At the heart of that, as I’ve come to realize, is just a fear and a fear of coming up against the state and not having the courage to say the right things and do the right things.
YA: I’m in a country that has a lot of darkness and particularly now, I mean the insecurity in Nigeria, it’s on another level. It’s the challenge of trying to live it out in a way that makes sense. And not just in a way that makes sense, but hopefully in a way that then makes Nigeria a better place. Because ultimately if one does shine, then Nigeria is not as dark.
YA: I don’t think I’m courageous. I mean, there’s situations that I’ve been in – either we’ve been in a protest or a couple of years ago when the secret service took my phone and rough-handled me a bit. So there are moments that I’ve been sort of shaken, but the challenge of my faith is sort of a heavier weight. Faith must mean something. I mean, the fact that I say I’m a Christian just must mean something. Otherwise it just doesn’t make any sense. And especially in a country like Nigeria, where we’re so incredibly religious, so incredibly religious. if you say you’re a Christian and you are meant to be light, then we just get on with it.
Thanks to Yemi Adamolekun, director of Nigeria’s governance and accountability organization, Enough is Enough, and most definitely, salt of the earth.
And that wraps up Episode 11. We’re always keen to find new listeners – do you know someone who’d like this podcast? Please consider telling them about Strength and Solidarity! And – as always, we welcome your feedback. Send us an email – the address is email@example.com. Big thanks to Alethia Jones for reading our bible verses, Matthew 5: 13-16 and a shout out to our producer Peter Coccoma. I’m Akwe Amosu – See you next time.