Setting boundaries so working on DEI doesn’t overwhelm my life
When working on diversity isn’t really a choice, what can we do to make sure we’re giving ourselves time to heal?
A decade ago, when I was new to industry and worked at The Washington Post, I only had a vague understanding of what the union did, and even though many journalists outside of my team would almost always mix up the names of the Asian American women on my team, I didn’t care to correct them or teach them the impact of these regular microaggressions. Back then, all I wanted was to become a better journalist-coder-designer-storyteller. My love for building my craft was intense, and that love, padded with the support of my team and some real naïveté, let many things that would bother me today bounce right off.
A few years later at ProPublica, I was more perceptive, had more life experience, and when there came an opportunity for me to do something proactive and positive to change the diversity of my newsroom, I chose to take it. I co-founded what would become ProPublica’s diversity committee, and side by side with Lena Groeger, we made ProPublica’s first diversity census. In the next year or two, we made our internal staff census results public through annual ProPublica diversity reports, starting with this one in 2015.
That led me to eventually create new diversity committee-run programs, new hiring and recruitment standards, and work to make the systems in my newsroom as equitable as possible. It was years of work that took a huge emotional toll, and because of that, I had to learn how to take breaks — how to step back so that my foot wasn’t always on the gas, knowing that if I didn’t let up, I’d soon run out of fuel.
When I talk with other people of color who invest themselves so deeply in changing our industry, I can feel in their words how much this tension is shared. On top of the many reasons why everyone is struggling in 2022, journalists of color who are trying to make the industry more equitable have another reason to be burning the candle at both ends: When it comes to dismantling racist systems, there is no end in sight. While I believe that all the work we do now will have a real impact, I also know that ending systemic racism will be many generations worth of work.
Which is why I want to talk about boundaries.
At OpenNews and as a part of my RJI fellowship, I choose every day to share knowledge, create resources, and use my skills to further the power and potential of the DEI Coalition for Anti-Racist, Equitable, and Just Newsrooms, and OpenNews’ many programs that seek to make journalism a more equitable place. In order for me to keep this work sustainable, I need to set boundaries — making sure that doing DEI work doesn’t overwhelm my life or mental health, and setting aside time where I can recharge without guilt. Many of the techniques I share below will also apply to anyone who just needs to set healthy boundaries at work.
An incomplete list of techniques I use to maintain boundaries:
- Blocking off 1 hour for lunch every day and rarely making exceptions. It’s literally a meeting of one in my calendar, set to “show as busy” for an hour every day until the end of eternity. If someone tries to book a meeting during that time, I say I’m not free, and suggest another time. During this hour I walk my dog, sometimes cook, eat while watching a show, or eat and then read a book. I know many people who block off this time just like I do, but whether it works depends on your willingness to enforce it.
- Blocking off 1 hour before bed every day as just time for myself. I chose this time based on when I can most reliably create a space and time that’s just for me. For you, this might look like 10 minutes to meditate in the morning, or 30 minutes to take a walk in the afternoons. It’s also a legit calendar event, and my devices let me know when it’s 5 minutes away so I can prepare anything I need (like grabbing a book).
- Phone calls instead of Zooms. I don’t do this for every meeting, but in 2022, I’ve been doing every call audio-only if possible, and via phone if possible. Everyone on the call can walk around (like a long-distance walking meeting), stretch, do yoga poses (I cat-cow during a lot of my phone calls), lay on the floor, go to the park, anything you want, and it feels so much easier on my brain. As an introvert, I also appreciate not needing to spend any effort on how I look on Zoom, or whether my camera is positioned well to give my partner privacy.
- Not installing Slack, Twitter, or Facebook on my phone, and not having access to work email on my phone. As journalists, it’s usually not feasible to be completely disconnected from social media, so I limit the use of these sites to my computer, and during work hours. I respond to direct messages from coworkers on Slack pretty quickly when I’m on my computer, but when the workday is over and I’m logged off, I make sure it’s clear that I’m not checking messages — and people have my number for emergencies. I also don’t connect my work email to my phone, because I know myself, and work email is the No. 1 thing I’d be tempted to check. Organizationally at OpenNews, the default assumption is that when we’re not working, we’re not working — so no one expects anyone else to have checked their email or DMs outside of working hours. When I worked at ProPublica, the only modification I needed was to keep email access on my phone, but to be signed in through a different app that I had to manually search my phone to access — basically, I needed to be checking it on purpose, and not because it happens to be there.
- Saying no to general asks to “pick my brain” for free. Unless I’m taking it as a paid, consulting job, I don’t take meetings to pick my brain. Such a vague ask usually means the asker hasn’t taken the time to understand their needs to make the best use of our time yet, and usually, these asks also come with the assumption that my time is worth less than $5 an hour (aka, the offer to buy me coffee or tea). I first learned that I could say no to these asks because my friend Rose Eveleth did so in such a graceful, genuine-to-her kind of way. If you also want to start saying no in these situations, here’s my favorite article on what you can do when someone asks to pick your brain, especially if you, like me, really enjoy helping people and want to make ways to do that.
- Figuring out what DEI work is most emotionally draining for me to do, and not doing it. To get to our end goal of a more equitable industry, it’s 100% a team sport and I trust that we are all making our own contributions. I cannot shoulder every single type of work on my own, and put that kind of pressure on myself. For example, it’s really emotionally draining for me to run DEI training courses for big groups. I can easily teach dozens of people how to code, but I’d much rather talk about DEI 1-on-1 or in small groups so I can directly connect with people. So anytime someone asks me about teaching a DEI workshop or classes, I refer them to someone who is happy to engage with the work in this way.
- Not duplicating work. I don’t do work that feels duplicative instead of additive. I first learned to articulate this from Erika Owens, my co-executive director at OpenNews, because she feels even more strongly about this than me. If someone else is already doing a great job at something (teaching, consulting, facilitating, coding, anything), we don’t need to compete. Instead, we send people their way.
- Having a support system that I can vent to. I have a couple of friends in my life, some of whom also do a lot of DEI work, that I know I can always vent to about anything. I vent when someone emails me to basically ask for free work. I also vent after strangers on the street point at me and ask if I have COVID because I look Asian. The conversation is different every time, but what I need is the same: a safe environment to let my emotions flood out, and then a safe environment to figure out what, if anything, I should do next. Is thinking about the email/conversation/incident something that’s worth any more of my time and the emotional toll it might take? My support system helps me figure that out.
- Having a support system that can take on emotional labor on my behalf, when I need it. Sometimes, ignoring a hurtful, ignorant, or emotionally fraught email/request/ask is not an option, especially in a work context. In these cases, I’m extremely grateful that one of the million ways Erika supports me is by making it explicitly clear that I can always forward her the email and ask her to respond instead of me. While I’ve never had to take her up on it, it’s extremely comforting to me to know that the option is there, and I frequently do take her up on talking through problematic emails together.
- Balancing the non-fiction I read with a lot of fiction. I always have a stack of books at home I’m reading, and many of them are nonfiction books that dig into racism, sexism, organizing, and white supremacy. I also have an equal number of books that are fiction — like Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood trilogy, which I could not put down, or the latest sexy romance novel by Helen Hoang. I’m still in the process of learning that I don’t need to feel guilty if I’m reading just for my own enjoyment, but I try to do it often, especially if they’re books that help me imagine a better future world, or just a more romantically simple one.
One of the techniques you don’t see in the list above, however, is trying to limit when I think about DEI to only work hours. That’s just not possible. Even though I do a great job of not working when I’m done for the day, racist policies and systems are extremely present in the rest of my life. It shows up in my hobbies, in daily decisions I make about personal safety, and in the hours-long phone conversations I have with loved ones.
Ultimately, my goal is to make sure I can continue doing the DEI work that I care so much about, because I’m purposefully carving out space to heal and relax, and guarding against the work becoming so porous and absorbent that I unknowingly let it take over my life.
Sisi Wei is Co-Executive Director of OpenNews, where she envisions and executes transformative initiatives to help create a journalism industry that is more inclusive and equitable, especially for journalists of color and local journalists. Previously, she was the Assistant Managing Editor at ProPublica, during which she edited and managed news apps, graphics, visual investigations and large, interdisciplinary projects. Sisi has won numerous Malofiej, SND Digital and ONA awards, the Gannett Award for Innovation in Watchdog Journalism, and the 2016 Data Journalism Award for Best Individual Portfolio. She has served as an adjunct professor at New York University, The New School and CUNY, and she is also the co-founder of Code with me, a high-impact, nonprofit workshop that teaches journalists how to code. She is based in New York City.