free radicals or the economy of consultants and liberation work


There is a part of the body that can shapeshift, that can help a liver cell take on the properties of a heart cell when such a change is needed for the whole body to flourish. This is delicate dangerous work, a gift of absolute power that is used sparingly. There is wisdom here, generations and generations of learning when to use and when not to use this power. And there is wounding here, moments when there are too many free radicals, because that, of course, is what they are called, and the body grows sick, overwhelmed, unable to find its balance.

It was sometime in the early part of the 1990s, although I couldn’t tell you the exact date. Reagan’s privatization commitment had moved from an early 80s idea into an early 90s new normal. The strategy of the wealthy, since somewhere around the 1930s, had been the erosion, the destruction of the social contract, or the agreement that members of a society cooperate together to build and share its social benefits. This strategy of destruction found home in the Republican Party and Ronald Reagan was the president who turned it from an idea into a practice. In the early 1990s, this looked like the privatization of government programs that provided care for those who needed it. It meant “welfare reform” and the redistribution of workers from public pension-held job security to private industries. I am not romanticizing the before - most of those government programs sucked. There were as defined by white saviorism, paternalism, a lack of relational accountability and racial profiling as many of the programs we see today.  At the same time, these public programs grew from a base belief: that it is our shared responsibility to take individual success and use it to build the benefit of all. 

So that belief in the social contract got destroyed and then twisted and turned back into the exhausting individualism that sprang out of Europe’s religious and economic histories.  The social contract got bled into an individual or corporation’s “right” to have full power over their own resources and to decide, for themselves, how those resources should or should not be shared. Never mind where the resources come from, who you get those resources, who your neighbors are, or how your neighbors might be struggling. 

We started it in the 1960s, with the great social justice movements turning to government and saying, hey, give us some of that cash! We can take care of our own people better than you!! And so the nonprofit sector began to grow, in small but steady ways, until the late 1980s and early 1990s when “let us take care of our people” became, again twisting and turning, Reagan’s revolution changed that to “you should all take care of all of the people, not us.” Suddenly there were these great big funding opportunities from the government.  All of these dollars that had supported public social safety nets start to become contracts for private organizations to bid on; free market capitalism and all of that. What started in the 1960s as supporting grassroots control of grassroots services became something different. Nonprofits and then, a bit later, faith-based organizations began to explode into growth. 

I remember in the 1990s, looking over this shift in the service sector and thinking, what was once a public responsibility, a stable and visible service sector, has become spread out over multiple organizations who then compete on an annual basis for funding. Social services had become, in essence, temp agencies for the government. No job security and a constant need to compete for a limited number of resources.  And once this shift from steady public support to a broad private net was established, the squeeze began. There were multiple nonprofit panics in the 1990s when massive funding cuts hit direct service sectors, when staff-full organizations began cutting staff positions and programs in order to keep their doors open on a lot less cash. And that is when I first began to see the rise of the consultant class. It was a big conversation at the time - organizations being called out for hiring consultants rather than staff; avoiding providing support for healthcare and other benefits while still getting some of the work done. It was controversial, for sure. And then more time passed, and now it’s a sector. Funding insecurity with constant shifts in funding interest and funding amounts is the new normal. And it’s growing.

I have been self-employed, contract, freelance, whatever you want to call it for much of my work life. In my 20s and early 30s, my work was of the waitressing, taxi cab driving, door to door canvassing, bookstore kind of work. From my early 30s on, or for the last 25 years, I’ve spent about a third of the time working full time in an organization and two thirds working “on my own.” My last gig with a regular paycheck was five years ago and it might well be the last one I ever have. I have contracted as a fundraiser, as a group facilitator, as a trainer, as a grant writer, as a report writer, as a copywriter, as a healer, as a coach or mentor, as an event planner, as a project coordinator, and as an extra pair of hands. I am part of a sector that is growing, One in four people work for themselves, one way or another. This is expected to increase over this next employment generation.

Now pause, take a breath because here comes a subject change. 

For the most recent medical generation, free radicals have been given a bad rap. Walk into a health food store and supplements scream that they can help the body deal with the damage caused by free radicals. Yet free radicals are an essential part of our survival. Did you know that oxygen is actually toxic to human life? That we are walking contradictions? We need oxygen to survive and oxygen is corrosive to organic matter. Oxygen splits in the body into single atoms with unpaired electrons. These unpaired electrons are free radicals. Unpaired electrons want to be in pairs so they scour through the body, looking for their other half. Free radicals are an essential part of how we turn food and water into energy; they are part of the animal version of photosynthesis. They are an important part of our immune system. They sense tension caused by too much oxygen in the body and can regulate the oxygen mix, and remember what I wrote in that first paragraph? They can also help with how signals move through the cellular membrane, and can sometimes help a cellular membrane receive a signal that it needs but has not been able to get its little cellular head around.

And it is true: when you have too many free radicals, it stresses the body out. Big time. Too many free radicals causes “oxidative stress” which can mean (we think cuz you know, these things keep changing) a whole lot of examples of pain and stress, things we call Alzheimers, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, and more. What is also true is that how our bodies experience oxygen is about a much bigger context of environmental stress, nutrition, access to clean air and water, historical and other forms of trauma, and so on. The context creates the conditions and then the conditions go back and recreate the context. That’s what trauma is. And that’s where antioxidants come in. Remember that free radicals are unpaired electrons looking for their other half? Antioxidants are the relationship they have been looking for. Antioxidants say, hey love, here I am!  How bout you come sit close to me and we’ll talk. They are the person who shows up when you are super activated and can’t think, can’t sleep, can’t eat, are bouncing off the walls and they sit down and stay with you so that you feel calm again. 

And then, cuz we are gloriously complex beings, sometimes activation is necessary because it is what tells us to act.  Liberation is being able to resource and settle when there is no danger and, when we need to act, being able to fire up and ACT.  Free radicals are active, they will rest when they are paired again. Antioxidants help free radicals or high activation not run the show into constant overwhelm and breakdown. Each loving up the other, a balancing act that is so on point for this Libra season we are in.

How I pay part of my bills and how many of my beloveds pay part of all of their bills has been whispering in my brain for the last ten years: we have to be careful because us consultants, us cultural workers, us big thinkers and help you movers, we act like free radicals and too many free radicals are not good for the body. 

There are people, powerful creative people, whose work mostly consists of traveling from one organization to another, from one city or town to the next, and then listening to the community speak and, after reflection, offering something that helps that community unwind a stuck place.  For years I have said that really really good facilitators are the way that we have kept healing present within transformational movement spaces. These beloveds walk into the room and the room settles a bit. Something that felt tight and hard before suddenly feels a bit more possible. Or, the tightness remains but maybe it’s not quite as bleak. They stand back and look at all of the pieces and help us to see ourselves, to offer a frame or story that settles us into remembering who we are and why we are here. Or they look and they see the part of what we are doing that is out of alignment with the rest, the thing we couldn’t see because we were so in the habit of it, and then they help us shift that piece of the whole so that everything reorganizes and comes back into balance. Like I said, really really good facilitators are how healers have worked in movement spaces before we had conversations about healing justice.  They are free radicals. They are antioxidants. They wind and weave between both. There is settling and then, with that settling, a stabilization comes into place, organizations remember who they are, become paired with their own deeper held sense of possibility, and are ready to move forward from a place of strength.

There are all kinds of self-employed folks: contract technicians, people who can come in and do specific pieces of work, keep the computers running, finish up grants, align bookkeeping columns, and provide one on one coaching or mentoring support. Organizations bring in people who are not part of their body but are coming in from the outside and who are able to move, backwards and forwards, up and down, to come and to go without being bound by the same things as those on the inside. These free radicals can help unexpected transformation, can shore up our immune systems or the ways in which we protect and care for ourselves. They can help us stand back and assess our resource flow, see the things that our daily habits and learned perspectives can’t quite see. We need them. When it works, it is glorious and good.

And there is a difference between bringing someone in to help with a concrete piece of work or to teach us to do the work ourselves as opposed to bringing someone, or lots of someones, in to help with ending white supremacy culture, building vision and strategy, integrating sustainability practices, and then ending white supremacy culture again - unless they help us to do it ourselves.

I have often been brought in to work when, in talking with the organization, I learn about the consultant last year or last month, and the one before them, and the one before them, and I learn of a litany of outside vision that has been brought in to help change happen. And I am the next. And then the next will come, too. And I have started to wonder about how much we are actually getting in the way of transformation. 

There are so many resources outlining the history of the nonprofit system and why it gets in the way of liberation. They all come down to the same thing: private nonprofits depend on private dollars and private dollars are tied to private interests that do not usually align with liberation. They do not provide the space (real change emerges) nor the sustainability (real change takes time which can means months, years or generations) to create the conditions through which transformation can emerge. Free radicals can be exactly what is needed to support a shift in thinking, an unexpected movement that the organizational body can’t imagine on its own. When there are too many, free radicals can make the organization dizzy, keeping its focus on the outside, on the many ideas and shifts and changes, and not doing the slow deliberate practice of applying the insights it has learned to become a revolutionary storm. 

The existence of free radicals was named only 50 years ago. The trauma brain that is the western medical system found free radicals when looking for reasons for why a whole bunch of bad things happen. When you look for why bad things happen, you usually find problems. Sometimes what you find is the full story, but usually it is not. Western medicine also looks for battles and wars. Once it hits the mainstream, everything is either for you or against you. It’s how drugs and new ideas of what it means to be healthy are packaged and sold. The research around free radicals is shifting because now, a few generations along and a lot of exhaling, the body is pushing itself forward and saying, what? You think I’m not paying attention? You think I didn’t evolve free radicals for a reason? You think they can’t act in different ways based on different contexts?

I believe we are living in transformational times. We have to, we are destroying our life support system and so we have no choice but to transform - and/or disappear. We still don’t know where we are heading. There is exhaustion and confusion across the collective body: how the hell do we deal with the extent of this, support our organizations to more deeply tie to liberation work rather than capitalism’s rhythms? How do we hold planning for climate chaos in one hand and the truth of meeting deadlines and earning the dollars to pay our staff in the other?

We need free radicals. We always need free radicals. Free radicals can help a cellular membrane shift from protecting to receiving and then back again. Free radicals take us outside of the habits and patterns that are all we think exists. 

We have to be careful of putting too much of our energy towards too many free radicals. I am starting to tell this to people who reach out to work with me: stop for a second. Who did you work with last year and the year before? Who made you hope and in what way? What happened to that hope? How much have you been able to practice, to go deep in really grounding in what has touched you, let it shape you, before reaching out to someone new again?