Why Social Justice Coaching is important

by Social Justice

Social justice coaching supports leaders

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Changing the world asks us to move beyond our comfort zones and do the work at “home”. Although we may think that showing up for our chosen revolutions is our life project, the real work is often the stuff we have a hard time seeing, acknowledging and owning. If we change our perspective to see that the inner work we do is as important as all the rallying organising, protesting and resisting, we will inadvertently play a big role in creating the kind of world that we would like to leave for future generations.

Social justice activists and leaders are committed to creating a world that is fair and just. They are the ones who have the vision, passion, courage, and creativity to build and lead thriving organisations and movements, which can create lasting social progress. To this end, they channel their energies into activities geared toward changing unequal and oppressive systems.

Perpetuating cycles of injustice and staggering levels of violence, which are the daily realities for many, place persistent demands on social justice activists and leaders. As a result, they are often so busy doing, doing, doing, that they neglect their personal lives, sometimes not even recognising the contradiction of not aligning their values with their actions both at home and in their activism.

As a social justice activist who personally inhabits and navigates these environments, I have seen many social justice leaders burn out. I have seen them struggle with recurring illnesses and with supporting themselves financially, often because all their energies are directed towards the revolution, with very little attention paid to their own lives, or their revolution within. In my coaching and personal experience, I have noticed that this activist leader mindset partly results from a paradigm of endless devotion to a cause, partly from generational failures to collectively heal and partly from insufficiently addressing the after-effects of the accumulated trauma and fatigue that results from responding to persisting social justice issues in our world. One of the reasons given for recurring cycles of fatigue, illness, mental health issues and life breakdowns is a disdain for self-care or inner work as these are considered self-indulgent and selfish.

Equipped to understand context, not deal with the personal impact of its systems

I still remember the amount of space given to understanding our context when I was a younger activist. We learned to refine our analyses and schooled ourselves to resist, challenge or subvert inequalities. Considerable space was given to reflect on walking the talk and moving beyond the rhetoric. We were clear about what walking the talk meant for those in power – the political, community or other leaders who occupied institutions that we interacted with. We even reflected on what it meant to walk the talk in our organisations and movements.

Yet, looking back, I realise we did not give as much attention to what it would mean to espouse these principles in our daily lives, given the contexts we inhabited. Perhaps, we did not think it was as political or hard-hitting to work on and build our capacities to become the people we needed to be for ourselves or our loved ones. We did not consider what it would take to be guided by our principles or to have the inner emotional and intellectual resources needed to live differently and demonstrate a commitment to the greater good through our actions, our creativity, our wisdom, and our presence in the world. Instead, we believed that we needed to put more energy into the real work of making the world a better place, and in some ways, this blinded us to the importance of us as individuals also showing up as better versions of ourselves in the world.

In the last decade, however, there has been an increasing acknowledgement that social justice activists and leaders need to grow in self-awareness and be mindful that deep inner work is required for the demanding work of social justice. It is no longer acceptable to lament the state of play, to turn that tide, and to model something different because we now know enough about the importance of linking the outer transformation work to the inner work (working on self).

What is Social Justice Coaching?

Social justice coaching aims to support leaders and activists to integrate the systemic power dynamics they experience in their journey towards personal transformation so that they can achieve balance, wellbeing and fulfilment. Traditional or mainstream coaching models tend to place the burden of self-transformation on individuals without sufficiently addressing how the systems within which they live and work might also affect their ability to make changes on individual or collective levels.

This focus on individual responsibility is often accompanied by tools for self-development and success that ignore the unequal levels of power and privilege that people experience in their homes, workplaces or organisations. Executive coaching, for example, often focuses on changes in managerial behaviour, assuming that this alone will improve organisational effectiveness and wellbeing. Furthermore the neoliberal emphasis that executive coaching places on the individual alone, often fails to address the external factors that affect people and their abilities to make the desired shifts. But is it realistic to expect individual transformation to lead to lasting improvement without also dealing with systemic issues?

Similarly, dominant definitions of resilience often place a burden on individuals to endure unequal systemic conditions. Regardless of whether these unjust conditions arise from systems of oppression, injustice or systemic violence, the spotlight is on how an individual must change rather than on examining how these systems wear one down at individual or the collective levels. The resulting emphasis on individuals’ resilient capacities mostly makes us feel burdened or ashamed, depending on where we are on the resilient spectrum.

As a coach working with clients in the social justice space, my own struggles in working with the mainstream coaching approach led me to craft a different coaching approach.

Taking a systems approach to coaching

Social justice coaching takes a systems approach, recognising that the unequal power and privilege that social activists experience in the systems they inhabit (rooted in patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism) often erode their agency. It also takes into account the social justice-related stress they may be experiencing as well as recognizing a need to include their justice-based values.

The social justice coaching approach recognizes the need for a coaching style that enables people to name the causes of power dynamics and, where possible, to build individual and collective strategies that can dismantle, disrupt or interrupt them, and thus to be more empowering and sustainable.

This approach also recognises that taking responsibility for our lives and wellbeing cannot be put off until bigger systemic forces are transformed. Wellbeing is a non-negotiable ‘need’ that must be addressed regardless of what is happening in the systems in which we operate. Creating this determination prioritises wellbeing, and also ensures greater effectiveness in activism and life. In this way, the social justice coach and their clients walk the line of building individual wellbeing strategies that acknowledge that sustainable individual wellbeing requires a change in discriminatory systems of oppression. However, it also recognizes that there are strategies that can shift the experience of the individual (and often the collective). The process of seeing the systemic, while still identifying and working with individual agency, autonomy and resourcefulness is empowering, and also ensures that individuals focus on increasing their power through the coaching process. What that looks like in their lived reality depends on what an individual values and desires.

Coaches need to understand that people who work in social justice arenas may show up with the following types of issues:

  • They experience a disconnect between working on justice for others and working on healing for themselves.
    In these instances there is great value in affirming that social change cannot happen without healing and healing cannot happen without justice. It requires recognition that the wellbeing of all is tied to the leader/activist’s wellbeing. In other words, coaches need to support their social-justice clients to evolve the ways that they show up in everyday life.
    Sometimes this disconnect manifests as the individual being busy doing while losing touch with the purpose of what they are doing.
  • They are sometimes struggling financially.
  • They are coping with varying levels of exhaustion and a deep sense of knowing they have to do something about their exhaustion.
  • They want to be more strategic in their leadership and activism. All too often, all that’s missing is a system of tools and skills for putting fundamental success and empowerment principles into action, and a community of practice to help master that system.
  • They want to embark on their own journeys of personal transformation. They feel they are on the verge of change but are unsure about how to move forward. In other words, they want to be able to connect to a bigger picture, which is not just about their leadership and activism.
  • They have been called out on their use of power and privilege and need support to engage with their own biases, and experiences, and to understand ways to work with power and privilege that are healthy and neither harmful to themselves nor others.

What does social justice coaching have to offer?

  • An opportunity to gain a better understanding of how systems of injustice play out in someone’s life so that they can actively take steps to confront or deal with them
  • Tools and methods that help individuals set up mechanisms to feel more alive and energised, and ultimately to experience greater levels of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health
  • A space to identify ways to cultivate deeper and more meaningful relationships with loved ones
  • The ability to confront and address issues of financial wellbeing in alignment with life’s purpose
  • Being able to add more tools to the metaphorical toolbox for work and life, i.e. activities, resources, strategies, questions, and so on
  • Uncovering and unlearning conditioning that makes individuals feel stuck, overwhelmed, and unworthy
  • Cultivate unrelenting self-compassion so one can confidently take steps in a new direction
  • Redefining definitions of success and fulfilment
  • Developing tools for staying the course, even when things get difficult (and they will)

What is the role of the coach in social justice coaching?

At the core of the coaching relationship for social justice leaders and activists is transformation. For the client, transformation is about working with their core needs for growth and evolution. A holistic view of the individual is needed to support a journey of transformation. This includes:

  • Hearts & minds: all that goes on inside people; their motivations, beliefs, emotions and perceptions
  • Behaviour: all the choices that people make to act or not act
  • Structure: the external world that people inhabit; the structures, processes and rules that so greatly impact both people’s ‘Hearts & Minds and ‘Behavior’

For the coach, it is about supporting a client to surface and see what they are working with, to honour (and not judge) what they are surfacing, and then to get the client to decide what type of shifts they would like to undertake as part of their growth path. In this process, both the coach and the client are transformed as the coach witnesses the powerful shifts the client is undergoing.

Paying attention to wellbeing in the coaching process is about having a deep awareness of your client’s emotions and needs. However, this awareness must also be grounded in an understanding and awareness of your client’s context. For the coach, it is about having a framework to understand where your client is located within a system.

At all times, the coach not only connects to activism, or leadership values, but also brings in a holistic view of the body, mind, and soul as part of the broader framing of the coaching process.

The coaching process allows for inner reflection so that clients can access their inner knowing. This allows the client to move towards new insights and deeper learning and supports integration, which, in turn, allows clients to consciously receive, savour and build upon their wisdom.

For the coach, the coach/client relationship in social justice is grounded in curiosity, compassion, and courage. For the client, it is based on awareness, alignment, and action.

What coaches need to coach in this space

Understanding the social justice context

Activists and leaders in the social justice sector leaders feel immense pressure because of the needs of the communities and missions they serve. This pressure is why so many activists continually try to do more than can realistically be achieved in a sustainable manner. To be of use to social change leaders, a coach must therefore be able to empathise with the realities that their clients wake up to every day: for example, feeling the pain of their refugee community, or the looming threat of climate change.

Cultures of urgency

While the need for coaching and capacity-building may be apparent, the necessary time and attention can easily get lost in the intensity and urgency of social justice work. You will need to continually remind people of the importance of prioritising themselves and how this is likely to positively impact their social justice work.

Unsustainable ways of working

Probably the greatest complaints from social change leaders are overwork, stress and burnout. Simply making the case for better work-life balance is insufficient motivation to get people to change. Activists are too ready to sacrifice their own wellbeing for the causes they believe in. Coaches can help activists and leaders shift their beliefs about balance, create a vision for change, begin to shift behaviours and transform some of the structures that promote the overwork in which they habitually operate. But, as a coach, you also need to understand how deeply embedded these attitudes and habits are in most non-profit cultures. Be compassionate and patient… yet persistent in addressing them.’

The need for collaboration

The coaching process is a collaboration. Getting clients to see that coaching is a collaborative process that will help them with skills, insights and energy to be more effective is therefore a good way to go. When clients are able to see the value of collaboration and support their coaching outcomes will most likely be more sustainable. It is also important to remind clients that the challenges they are facing in the world require new skills and intelligence rather than just the passion, sheer will and perseverance that have gotten them to where they are now.

Join our Social Justice Coaching training if you would like to learn how to use this methodology.

Author: Shamillah Wilson

Author: Shamillah Wilson

This post was first published 28 February 2024.

Shamillah Wilson is a writer, speaker, thought leader and feminist life coach. She supports activists and leaders to navigate systemic challenges and to achieve greater fulfilment, freedom and success as they work to transform our world into a just place for all.

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