My Dear Feminist Activist,
I’m writing this article in the form of a letter to you. It feels farcical to write about self-care from the midst of a melt down that maybe is not a melt down but a regular part of my work hard –> burn out –> recovery cycle. A cycle I would prefer to cease as I enter my 40s. So perhaps this is a letter to me too.
Maybe this is for professional feminists —the only kind my 70s era mama believed were true “feminists,” thus excluding herself from this category until I was in college. Feminism was not so professionalized when she came into consciousness as it is today. Our movements worked hard to build institutions, in part, to pay for our time to do the work. This professionalization has also come at some costs; I fear that young, hopeful feminists may likewise mistakenly believe they can only be feminists if they are working a 9 to 5 for some “feminist” institution. The first mistake may be thinking the work is ever 9 to 5, and the truth is we can carry our feminism and other vital liberation frameworks with us into whatever type of work best suits our skills and soul.
Those of us who enter activist work often carry in trauma and pain. We can be so disappointed when the institutions built to realize our liberation, to manifest justice, are plain old American workplaces – complete with office politics, discrimination, ego-laden hierarchies and sexual harassment. You can – suddenly or slowly — feel uneasily trapped within a rat race you perhaps thought you were organizing to dismantle. Many of us still carry that trauma and pain, and probably a bunch of fear, and revisit that upon each other.
With this, compassion becomes essential and self-care crucial.
This personal investment in our “issue” can also drive us to work beyond our capacities. We push ourselves to push the change that feels obvious and woefully overdue. The work is URGENT and IMPORTANT. Other people need us! Maybe we all suffer some savior/martyr complex. Maybe we are so earnestly trying to do our thing the best we can, that we do not notice the water around us starting to simmer.
I am currently mentoring a 20-something on fellowship to a grassroots organization doing night outreach in a city to folks at high risk for HIV infection. During our last call, she noted that her colleagues drink a lot of coffee all day then drink a lot at night. Ooooo, Nelly! Work hard play hard! I did that both in Washington, DC and in New York City and – if you count the travel – in cities all over the world. I cannot do that anymore. I could in my early 30s and did with gusto in my 20s.
In my early 20s, I also sorta believed that if you just share information then things will change, that people will make better choices, create better policies and bring a brave new world into being. Turns out, that’s not true!
Although change may sometimes look instant and spontaneous, it is ever glacial. Change moves slowly forward on the thinking, discourse and actions of people of infinite variety all over the world; power dynamics shape the course, and the samskara of the world are brutal and deep. So – all social change is marathon not sprint, and engaging for the long haul demands both training and care.
Reclaiming care, and centering it in our movements, is feminist. Care is one of those quaint lady things systematically devalued by societies around the world. Just as our bodies – women’s bodies, queer bodies, bodies of color, maybe all bodies in our increasingly virtualized world – are systematically both devalued and objectified. So too, then, caring for these bodies and then also our whole selves becomes an act of resistance.
To care for our bodies requires good food, sound rest, exercise and access to health care. These are all also social justice movements; we are fighting for related rights, for culture shifts that enable us to do these things. Yet if we do not do them, we do not have the energy for these fights.
To keep up with my life, I took up “shredding” with Jillian Michaels – which may be the most “mainstream” thing I do. Over-wrought, in and out of the emergency room with “you’re really stressed out” as the common denominator identified by MDs, I needed to connect with my body. I began by doing a few sun salutations every morning then tweaked the yoga to be more of a work out with moves like mountain climbers. This got me in a daily habit. Then my up-stairs neighbor introduced shredding, and now we docardio/strength/abs together a few times a week, catching up and cursing JM. Especially when we are busy, part of self-care is setting routines, cultivating healing/rejuvenating habits. To generate sustained energy, we must balance life like a meal (not that the meals some of us resort to are models; I resort to 99 cent slices and eating peanut butter straight from the jar); how do you nourish yourself?
Community can also feed us. Comrades in the struggle are vital. Your tribe – those with whom you relax in utter sympathy and understanding, who share your language and context – help you heal from daily life. As is your alone time. A disclaimer: I am an introverted only-child who grew up as a latch key kid with an introverted artist single mom and at 5-years-old spent several months in traction then a body cast – I can really jam on some alone time. Also, I may be easily overwhelmed. The trick is to be alone not for numbing or withdrawal but to facilitate wholeheartedness. This is very tricky for me…to find the line between recovery and escapism.
It just does not do to be stingy with yourself; give yourself pleasure. Maybe that is sex. Solo or with company. Though not just carnal pleasure: relax, play, create. Gently stretch. Learn something new. These acts prevent ruts and fuel your work in world. Do the things that bring together your body, mind and heart/soul; this is integrity.
Self-care is not just yoga, lunch and a walk in the woods. It means taking action in how you manage your work in the world so it feeds you rather than EATS YOU ALIVE.
Despite knowing that setting clear boundaries is critical, it is hard to say ‘no’ in a lean in culture. Besides – you have a report due to the foundation this week.
My first word was ‘no,’ and I have gotten steadily worse at using it. In any case, I am not writing this piece from Bhutan, where the government measures Gross National Happiness. No. I am in the U$A, where business culture and ideas increasingly influence paid feminist or feminist-ish work or the work that feminists are paid to do by institutions. A perverse, exhausting capitalist ethic pervades: BE AS PRODUCTIVE AS POSSIBLE AT ALL TIMES.
Many of our workplaces, especially in the non-profit sector, were pinched in the recession and workers continue to be expected to do more with less. Some of this same capitalist culture stuff sometimes keeps us from self-care, because we think we need to buy it. That consumer culture equates self-care with buying things or experiences, we may think we do not have the money, or it feels self-indulgent, and we judge that.
In a discussion on self-care among activists from around the world who work to resist religious fundamentalisms and the resulting subordination and persecution of women and queer people, one long time Iranian activist said: Sometimes self-care means leaving the movement. For a short time or for good. Her call was both for people to consider that an option for themselves and to support others who leave in acts of self-preservation, healing or growth. Like birds migrating in their aerodynamic V formation: when the lead bird gets tired, she flies to the back and another in the flock takes the lead.
Sometimes, like my mother who thought you basically had to BE Gloria Steinem to be a feminist, you may just be suffering a narrow definition of “the movement” and can find a less insane way to continue to live your ideals in the world.
Any way that you are in the work, and especially if you are in a position of leadership, please practice self-care. Not only for yourself but to model it for those around you and give permission to care for themselves, to ask for what they need.
Recently, one of my favorite younger colleagues posted: “I’m 26. I can’t be burnt out. I can’t get jaded. Vulnerability via FB. My activist elders, throw some knowledge my way. Go.”
Here is my reply: “hey! here’s my half-cent quick thought: It is called The Struggle for a reason. And it has been grinding on long before you and will continue in new iterations in generations that follow – seems it is just tough work for humans to figure sh!t out. So even if you take a break – short or looong – it will be there. Somehow – usually the reasons that got you here – there’s a way to meet the work of it with love & joy (even if it is a dark sort of joy, riddled with blasphemy and dead baby jokes). Plus – and best – you aren’t in it alone! Finally, eat cake.”
About the author: Vanessa Brocato is a freelance writer, facilitator, and general global feminist good witch based in Brooklyn, NY. She is a queer femme with more than two decades of AIDS movement experience and a well-worn passport. She talks with an alarming number of burnt out social justice activists. She earned her law degree from Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, DC, where she won the international human rights award for her graduating class. Follow her on Twitter @glitter_sweets for musings on SRHR, global justice, glitter and cake.