A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
Thriving as a BIPOC woman in leadership
Combating racial battle fatigue with SMARTe goals
By Marissa McGee | September | October 2023
“I find I am constantly being encouraged to pluck out some one aspect of myself and present this as the meaningful whole, eclipsing or denying the other parts of self. But this is a destructive and fragmenting way to live. My fullest concentration of energy is available to me only when I integrate all the parts of who I am …”
Audre Lorde, in her book “Sister Outsider” (1984/2007), captures the challenges faced by many Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) women leaders.
In the world of leadership, it remains important to recognize and address the unique circumstances and challenges faced by BIPOC women leaders. Intersectionality, the interconnectedness of various social identities like race and gender, plays a significant role in shaping one’s experiences. BIPOC women leaders may find themselves grappling with racial battle fatigue, a form of emotional and mental exhaustion resulting from navigating racialized environments. Until inequities are dismantled, there are some proactive strategies that one can take to combat racial battle fatigue and empower BIPOC women leaders to thrive in their roles.
Understanding racial battle fatigue
A term coined by Dr. William A. Smith, racial battle fatigue describes the psychological and physiological impact of navigating racial discrimination, microaggressions and systemic inequities. As a result of intersectionality, BIPOC women leaders often endure a double burden of marginalization and bias as they navigate both racial- and gender-related challenges in their professional and personal lives. This consistent exposure to stressors can lead to mental and emotional exhaustion and decreased job satisfaction. In such a state it can be challenging to survive, let alone thrive.
Sustaining yourself in leadership work that centers equity
As a coordinator of diversity, equity and inclusion, I recognize the importance of sustaining oneself in work that centers equity. DEI roles often entail being called on to remedy inequities. My intersectionality as a Black woman means that I have experienced (and unfortunately continue to experience) similar inequities that I am attempting to disrupt. As educators, we often put the needs of others before ourselves. While it remains important to advocate for change and disrupt systemic barriers, BIPOC women leaders must also prioritize self-care. Thriving as a leader requires recognizing that we sometimes have to put our oxygen masks on first in an effort to sustain ourselves in the work. To create change, one must be sustained. Additionally, prioritizing our well-being is one way to model healthy practices and inspire others to do the same.
SMARTe goals
Setting SMARTe goals is one proactive approach to combat racial battle fatigue. SMARTe goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound and Equitable. By utilizing this goal-setting framework, BIPOC women leaders may be able to proactively address racial battle fatigue while fostering professional growth. Consider this example of one of my goals as we explore the components of SMARTe goals.
“By March, I will enhance my ability to sustain myself in the work by actively engaging in regular self-reflection, communicating boundaries, and participating in at least two trainings that are offered in affinity.”
1. Specific: Set well-defined goals that target specific areas of growth. More precise goals make it easier to identify actionable steps and measure progress.
2. Measurable: Quantitative and qualitative measurements can help to gauge progress and identify opportunities for adjustments and growth. To notice trends around my ability to sustain myself in the work, I use a five-point scale to capture how I feel going to work and how I feel at the end of the day. In addition to the numeric scale, I allocate at least five minutes daily to jot down highs and lows.
3. Achievable: Considering your available resources, time constraints and commitments can increase the likelihood that goals are attainable. Being honest with yourself about your workload and commitments can lead to communicating that to others. That communication might entail asking for support and/or creating boundaries when asked to take on more tasks.
4. Relevant: Goals should be aligned to the specific challenges that you face as a BIPOC woman leader. They should be in service of addressing the racial battle fatigue that you may experience as a leader. The effects of racial battle fatigue can be exacerbated by the fact that due to systemic inequities, BIPOC leaders may not be surrounded by people who share their racial identities in their local contexts. Being “the only” in a space can feel othering and lead to a decreased sense of belonging. So finding spaces where you can be in affinity can prove helpful because affinity spaces sometimes allow you to just exist without being called on to explain.
5. Time-bound: A clear timeline with manageable milestones is crucial. In the example that I shared, March may seem a bit arbitrary. In my nearly two decades in education, I find that it is around March when educators really start to feel the impact of burnout. Goals should include a start and end date, along with opportunities to celebrate victories along the way.
6. Equitable: Goals should promote equity, justice and inclusion. As a BIPOC woman leader, it can be important to consider how your goal can create more equitable conditions for yourself and others. This might be a time to lean into collectivism. This can prove challenging in certain roles where you’re either the only person in your particular role, or the only person with a certain identity marker. So sustaining yourself in the work might look like finding someone in a different context doing similar work, or finding co-working spaces that are frequented by people who share various aspects of your identity.
Too often, BIPOC women leaders are praised for being resilient. Resilience can result in exhaustion, especially for people who have been historically marginalized. We must recognize the unique challenges that BIPOC women leaders face, and actively pursue strategies to combat those challenges. BIPOC women leaders deserve to do more than survive; we have the right to thrive. Not only will this have an effect on BIPOC women leaders, but it will also impact others. To show up for others, we must show up for ourselves.
I will end where I began, with Audre Lorde. In “A Burst of Light and Other Essays” (1988) she wrote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Lorde, A. (1984, 2007). Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. The Crossing Press.
Lorde, A. (1988). A Burst of Light and Other Essays. Firebrand Books.
Marissa McGee is coordinator of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion with Menlo Park City School District and Ravenswood City School District.