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Urgency Culture: How'd We Get Here, and Where Are We Going?

Updated: Sep 13, 2023

At Impact Organizations of Nova Scotia, in the Globe and Mail, and in my four-part series with Evenings & Weekends, I’ve spent much of the last year exploring how urgency culture is felt within our contemporary workplaces. I’ve sought to show that how we exist today is a direct product of settler colonization’s enduring influence.


Though colonization may be considered of the past, its scars run deep: colonization continues to shape our political and economic systems, our educational institutions, and our conceptions and policies on borders, immigration, environmentalism, and labour. An allegiance to colonialism also dictates our social norms around race, gender, sexuality, class, religion, and ability.


It’s not difficult to deduce the connection between these ideologies and the cultures of our modern-day work environments. Think about whose labour is assigned more value under the current system, and whose labour is made low-paid, precarious, and dispensable. Due to colonization’s reliance on urgency, hierarchy, power hoarding, resource exhaustion, competitiveness, and individuality, we live in a society that celebrates capitalism’s “winners” — most often, those who exploit enough people to generate their massive wealth.


As I look back on my journey with urgency culture and its historical precedents, I’m reflecting on where we go from here: How is reclaiming rest and valuing our time an anti-colonial and anti-capitalist practice? How do we make the case to others in our sector to slow down? And finally, how can we avoid urgency culture’s harmful impacts within our own efforts to dismantle it?


I offer some thoughts:


Start by Acknowledging the History

People often gloss over, or outright challenge, the connection between capitalism and global colonization/white supremacy. But the two systems share an intertwined history: capitalism and colonialism are inherently about using power to violently exploit both resources and people to intensify production and generate profit for those in power.


Colonialism created and thrived on racism to justify the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the enslavement and genocide of Indigenous Peoples. Capitalism used and stole the labour of Black and Brown people to generate wealth for European empires while pillaging non-white countries — which we now label “underdeveloped.”


Even if you believe that this is no longer the case, this historical wealth and resource extraction has never been addressed or corrected — the same groups of people that profited at the expense of enslaved peoples and the land are still wealthy today. Further, the labour of racialized people continues to be grossly exploited, as the care-taking and domestic work that Black and Brown women have assumed allowed white women to work outside their homes and advance their status within capitalism.


Racism has always been commodifiable and profitable under colonialism, and generations of people across what is now known as North America have built and maintained power on the foundation of racism. As a result, the assigned value of work is now solely based on what’s profitable and desirable for those in power.


Society also uses formal education (as opposed to non-traditional ways of knowing and collecting wisdom) and Eurocentric ways of being (language, whiteness as professionalism, ableism) to gain access to higher status and pay, while ensuring entry is barred via a hefty or unobtainable price tag. Hinging on exploitation, capitalism has created the myth of “low-skill” and “unskilled” work to devalue traditionally known “women’s work”, nonprofit work, child rearing and caretaking, manual labour, and minimum wage jobs. This has been used to justify unliveable wages and free labour — especially taking advantage of those who have been historically oppressed and those who lack access to post secondary education, holding them under the poverty line.


Global colonization and capitalism have created socio-economic catastrophes and environmental disasters, and then they undervalue, underfund, and under-resource the restorative efforts. The system ostracizes people, pushing them to the margins and then wears down those who are working to support them.


Therefore, to value Rest is to recognize humanity in a system that seeks to deny it. A culture of Rest doesn’t see people and the land as resources to be extracted from until they’re depleted. It understands the cyclical, regenerative nature of the earth and of living beings.


These ideas of Rest and abundance come from my understanding of Black liberation and decolonizing principles. To reject urgency culture is to collectively reassess our anti-Black, anti-Indigenous relationship with work.


Pushing Back Against “No One Wants to Work Anymore”


When you’ve long benefited from the pervasive myth of “laziness” and racist, ableist, patriarchal ideas that people are “less than,” it’s much easier to justify exploitation, poverty, low-paid work, unsafe conditions, and massive wealth gaps.


When a system is invested in maintaining its power, it needs us to believe that we’re broken if we can’t keep up with an unforgiving pace. It’s not that people don’t want to work, or that they’re not working hard — it’s that we are subjected to a capitalist, white supremacist valuation of our labour, and thus, our lives.


Rejecting urgency culture is to embrace the belief that everyone has gifts to offer and everyone can contribute in different ways. That everyone is worthy of a dignified life regardless of their race, gender, class, ability, etc.


Because all contributions are valuable and necessary, a functional society would respect different abilities and honour individual strengths. This is dramatically different from our colonial system which prescribes what roles are valuable, and what traits will enable you to earn a wage that allows you to live. There are enough resources in society that everyone could be housed and fed, but rewarding individualism and power hoarding are tenets of colonialism.


The fact that some people have accumulated unimaginable wealth while others lack sufficient food, face housing precarity, or are forced to work multiple jobs to barely survive is a result of this power imbalance. And when capital and status are the ultimate indicators of success, we’re taught to strive for more and to just work harder. That we too can achieve success if we exist more fulsomely in and for capitalism.


Capitalism needs to keep everyone working under the duress of urgency to retain its control over the population and to create wealth for the wealthy.


But Shouldn’t Some Work Always Be Urgent?


We often hear that nonprofit organizations and frontline community groups can’t rest since the issues that they tackle are constantly urgent. The people they work with are frequently in precarious situations and their safety is jeopardized.


But why are people in these situations in the first place? What oppressive systems have manufactured these conditions?


I further ask, if there weren't thousands and thousands of such organizations addressing the repercussions of colonialism and capitalism, what would they be free to do? Where would we find our joy and impact when we’re not stemming the bleeding of a broken system? What would you do, how could you exist? What could you create, build, cultivate, grow, and be?


Decolonizing and liberating work will never be a priority for a system that benefits from oppression. It’s hard to practice Rest, and I am still unlearning and navigating the guilt and unease.


I — we — still need to survive in this world. But know that your waking hours were not meant to be monetized. Your inherent value is not determined by a warped, oppressive system. You don’t need to burn out before you can rest. This work is shared, you’re not the only one.


Radical Hope for the Future


Combating urgency culture and prioritizing Rest is a decolonizing practice, but it’s bigger than our organizations. It’s the undoing of capitalist expectations that our lives must revolve around labour — a mindset shift to redefine what “work” is and to affirm a more holistic view of “being.”


Though the work is urgent, it’s going to take time. And unlike the models that capitalist hyper-productive society has engrained in us, this work has no clear timelines, linear processes, metrics or measurements, and it will constantly feel unfinished. I take solace in the fact that it's probably a lifetime of resistance. This reimagining work existed well before me, and it will continue beyond me.


I recently heard the term “radical hope” and was deeply moved by it. I believe a just world exists. And I do this work for Black, Indigenous, racialized, disabled, queer, poor people. For those who will walk the land after I’m gone, for the people I care deeply for even though they don’t exist here yet. I do this work for those we will be ancestors to — those who will resist capitalism, live radically, and rest deeply.


To those of you who have been along this series with me, or who perhaps have been on your own journey, thank you for being here. If you’ve felt seen and validated, or if you’ve learned new things, challenged my ideas and words, and perhaps stuck through it despite the discomfort — I do this work for you too.



***


Lydia Phillip (she/her)

A published writer and researcher, Lydia has been purposeful about building a communications career where storytelling, advocacy, and education meets social impact. She has been recognized nationally for her leadership, anti-racist initiatives, and her work towards gender equality. Lydia is passionate about using her voice to inspire new ways of being together, to disrupt oppressive colonial systems, and to help create a just future. Lydia has the privilege of living on the land near water in Mi’kma’ki, the unceded territory of the Mi’kmaw People. Visit Lydia on LinkedIn.


To learn more about urgency culture, read Lydia’s original blog post and three previous posts with Evenings & Weekends.

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Shahzia Noorally
Shahzia Noorally
Sep 13, 2023

This entire series is brilliant and so thought provoking - kudos to Lydia for such a thoughtful and insightful series.

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