Our interview today is with Mary Ann Clements. She has loads of experience in the international development sector and has more recently been working on her own project – Jijaze – which aims to provide a community to encourage women to look after themselves while they go about their change making work.
Take it away Mary Ann!
1. Tell us a little bit about yourself
I live in London in the UK with my husband and son who is a toddler right now. I spent much of my 20s and early 30s living and working in East and Southern Africa but I was born in the UK. After many years of travel for my work in international development I’m more home based these days. I think of myself first as a writer and anthropologist (which was my initial training), but I have also spent 20 years working in international development and grant making, learning to be a dance teacher, an action learning facilitator, a story teller, and become a specific type of coach using a process called Shadow work.
This varied experience all feels like it contributes to the work I feel called to do right now which is the creation of the community, Jijaze, which is for women engaged in change making work, who want to make a real difference in the world and want to commit to doing that AND looking after and taking care of themselves, not as an after thought but truly as a core part of the work that they do.
Finally, I am in the process of changing my last name from Mhina to Clements. Mhina, a name from North Eastern Tanzania, belonged to my ex-husband and, six years after our divorce, it doesn’t seem right anymore to hang on to it, particularly now that I am married again to a Mr Clements! I retain Mhina in brackets online though so that people still know I’m the same person!
2. What do you see as your purpose right now? What´s the impact that you want to have through your work?
I want to create a global community for women who want to change the world without completely exhausting themselves. I want the impact to be healthier, happier and more resilient change making women, women who are able and willing to take the need to look after themselves seriously as part and parcel of their work to change the world. I think that this requires a bit of a reframe for most of us. We are so, so often conditioned to think of changing the world as an act of self-sacrifice. But my belief is not only that it doesn’t have to be but that in fact, it really shouldn’t be because when we do that we are not living and modelling the kind of world we actually want to see. The central thing I want to do is build a virtual community around this but I am also recognising the need to really raise awareness of this idea and I am realising that I want to do that beyond my existing networks by beginning to really get out and speak to people in organisations and different sectors where care taking women tend to be and could use some orientation around this to help sustain and enrich them in their work and their lives. I really want to make a difference to a large group of women – and ultimately for that to have a knock on effect on what they are each able to achieve in the work that they do.
3. What do you see as missing from current non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other organisations working to solve the various issues the world faces? What do you believe causes the distress, overwork and burnout that is so common, particularly with women activists and change makers?
I think it starts with the disconnect between values and passion and the reality of many peoples’ day to day work. I think so many of us join organisations working for social change feeling inspired and committed but find that the work isn’t quite what we expected. Many of us, also have a tendency to take on more than enough – a kind of compulsive volunteering or fixing of all kinds of things – in other words we say yes a lot.
This is both personal and cultural. And I think this saying yes, being highly functioning and also not necessarily prioritising our own needs is a patterning in women which we often learnt early in our lives, in childhood usually and so it takes time and it takes the practice of doing things differently to shift this.
That means a personal commitment but increasingly I am also seeing that it means organisations committing to changing their culture and leaders committing themselves to modelling a different way of being with this. For example if the expectation in our work place is that we work all hours, are constantly available and always giving it is undoubtedly harder for us to put in place our own structures around that work. I’ve begun to talk recently about generous organisations being organisations that cultivate a culture of generosity to self and others. This is what needs to shift I think ultimately if we are generous in both directions we will I ultimately become more resilient for the work of change we want to do and that’s what I want to see happen.
I do also think that the drive to professionalise NGOs and the focus on fundraising to sustain organisations works against this. I understand why many NGOs end up veering in this direction but I do think it tends to have unintended internal consequences in the ways people work, this is compounded sometimes by leadership coming in from a corporate space where profit is a priority and growth rather than impact can become an end in itself.
The size of our organisations doesn’t necessarily make our work better, or even more cost effective and I think that’s something that needs addressing fast. I actually think international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) need to radically change their thinking in many cases and really think about how to practice their values in terms of relationships with partners and communities as well as the way staff work and are treated.
4. In some of your work, you´ve mentioned patriarchy as having a role in the way things are currently done. Can you explain how patriarchy fits into all of this?
Yes, to me patriarchy has a central role in this because it is fuelled by the over-work and under resourcing of women (and all minorities). It also contributes to the extent to which, as women we are conditioned often to be caretakers and givers. Yes this is partly biological but when we are giving up ourselves in our work without filling up our own cup so to speak it is also often women who become the most worn out and exhausted. Add the fact that in INGOs and NGOs there are usually more women employed in the first place – although, despite all the proclamations and commitments to women’s rights – often there are still more senior men – and you begin to see a pattern where our change making sectors are actually reliant on woman working over-hard and not thinking too much about their own needs. There is irony here of course as many of our organisations also work on women’s rights but working on these things at a distance without really thinking about the radical things we could do internally to make these commitments a reality is an example of the values disconnect I was talking about. Where our values are not being fully lived and that again contributes to burnout and a sense of frustration for us, for staff, in not-for-profit organisations.
5. Self-care often seems to be the thing we know feels great when we do it, but for some reason we don’t do it until we’re at our edge. What’s your take on why this is, and how can we change it?
Yes, yes I have been here and I have come to believe – after burning out myself and putting my life back together – that we need to make this a habit rather than a fix in a crisis or a once a year spa date kind of a thing. Again, I think we are conditioned not to do this in so many personal and social ways and so I believe that the way we can begin to address this for ourselves (and then to be able to share that with others) is to commit to developing a habit. At Jijaze, we provide our community as a support for women to practice this as when they join they are signing up to be reminded! The reminders come through our events, prompts, resources – everything we do and share in the community is designed to invite them into this habit. It’s deliberately a community rather than a course for two reasons. First, we want to keep reminding you and support you to develop a habit of practicing self-care – rather than whizzing through a course and forgetting about it when you are done! Second, we want to support each other and take care of ourselves in community. One of the ways patriarchy and capitalism have impacted us I think is to drive us apart, but supporting each other in healthy ways is part of how we can take care of one another, part of how we can really make a shift.
What replenishes us is personal and so in our community we invite people to really think about, what are the things that truly replenish them and then focus on those habits. The things they truly enjoy. That doesn’t take away this fact that most of us find ourselves avoiding even the things we enjoy until we reach crisis, that’s a familiar pattern to most of us, but by bringing awareness to this and positioning it in our minds as a habit I do think, over time we can begin to shift this for ourselves.
Committing to this work personally has been really powerful for me as it has forced me to keep asking myself am I truly practicing what I preach! I’ve learnt that I am a person who has the instinct to work hard and so I allow myself that sometimes, while committing to what I need to fill myself up so that I can be capable of doing it without burning out.
One of the most effective things for me has been our monthly away day when I switch off the emails and the social media and seek replenishment or focus on a strategic piece of work (usually a bit of both). I’ve found this SO beneficial, having regular appointment for that in my diary and so I also think that scheduling is an important thing we can do as well, to make taking good care of ourselves a reality in our lives.
6. Can you share with us, who are some of the key thinkers that have influenced the way you see the world and your work in it?
So many! Coming to this work has been a significant personal journey for me, for sure. It started about 8 years ago when I was at this burnt out exhaustion point and it was three things I think really that helped me turn the corner and I want to credit here. The first was a personal mentor I had at the time, Bernie Trude who sadly passed away in 2009. Bernie encouraged me towards Action Learning (which I later learned to facilitate) and it was in that work, through the space it gave me to honestly share what was happening in my work. That was where the penny first dropped for me that my life didn’t have to be as exhausting as it then was. Secondly, in 2009, I attended a programme called Women in Power, and the women behind that work, who created it, have influenced forever the way I understand myself and my life. Sometimes I think encountering them saved my life but certainly what I learnt from them helped set me on the path to refusing to put my own needs last and that is the commitment which ultimately, has brought me to where I am today, in particular I would mention Alisa Starkweather, Nicola Kurk, Jude Blitz, Karen Higgins and Sally Bartemeolli (but in truth it takes a village and that is why I am so committed to the community element of this work),
I’m also going to credit my study of anthropology and in particular Pat Caplan my research supervisor with giving me a perspective of the world and on cultures which is here to stay, and causes me to question everything and challenge accepted concepts and ideas. That sensibility has been critical too in the development of Jijaze.
Subsequently I have studied a movement practice called Nia and Shadow Work Coaching, and those studies have influenced my own investigations into how to really take care of myself.
From all of this the idea for Jijaze came out of a process I ran last year called the Birthing Circle where I was supporting a small group of women to develop their own ideas for change – working with them was pivotal to the birth of my own idea! Since I began the project I have been delighted to discover others (like you!) who are walking this path and feel like there is a rich space for collaboration around this too.
7. Do you have any resources (books, podcasts, poetry, videos, etc) that you´d like to recommend?
A few things I love, and keep close, in no particular order:
In Search of our Mother’s Gardens, Alice Walker (I think it’s a great call to activism and questioning the way the world is)
Women who run with the wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estés (I first read this as a teenager and have been dipping in to it again and again ever since)
Maya Angelou’s poetry, especially Still I Rise and We are More alike than unalike (these poems have been walking with me for decades)
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Ted Talk – We Should All be Feminists (her novels too!)
Nia for pleasurable movement classes that Feel Good! – https://nianow.com/
Thanks so much for being here Mary Ann! To find out more about Mary Ann and how to connect with her work, have a look at her bio: