Toward Caring Social Change without Partitions.

his is perhaps a little late, missing the moment of dialog around self-care that emerged on the internet following an article by B. Loew. I’m a bit slower on the uptake when it comes to these things. I work in print, which means I often take a little longer writing something because I assume I have a longer production timeline. I also took my time with gathering feedback from close friends and fellow organizers (or rather they took there time in giving feedback…hehe). I wanted to be sure to get feedback from people who would be implicated in this piece before I sent to its fate in the interwebs.  So better late than never I suppose.

Toward Caring Social Change without Partitions.

Growing up my mother worked nights. Her weekend was Sunday and Monday. Knowing Sunday was a full day off, my mom would sleep late, usually until noon. As a result my brother and I would also sleep late on Sunday’s. Maybe not as late as noon but at least until ten, which for a little kid is pretty late. Once she was up my mom would always cook a breakfast of eggs and bacon for all of us. Then she’d drift away to read the Sunday paper for hours while my brother and I destroyed the house with our play. As I’ve grown up and become an adult in my own right I’ve kept up the family tradition of not starting a Sunday until late. I sleep in. I lay in bed for an hour listening to Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me on NPR and then have a bigger than usual breakfast, read the paper and go from there. My brother acts in pretty much the same way, except I think he still watches cartoons and eats bacon in the morning. My mom’s life has changed; she now works a different job that doesn’t include nights. But it remains for her too that on Sunday’s you sleep in and take it easy. For our family this is a tradition of self-care.

Something that has struck me through all the articles about self-care that have percolated on the internet is that I don’t yet see a definition being debated. It is more about how self-care is made a part of our lives in relation to our movement work.  B came at from a movement work perspective but was clearly focusing a critique on a specific area of movement work. Adrienne Maree Brown added a community friendship/kinship perspective and the very important idea of self-determination in what kind of care you need and ask for; Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha wrote of self-care through social and class identities and also added some much needed analysis around privilege and self-care. For everyone, this discussion of self-care has come to bring up personal emotions related to the self and our sense of place in our communities and our political work. For me it almost immediately brought up my mom and her Sunday morning routine and how it has influenced me in how I live my life.

In B’s original post I noted that it was directed primarily at folks engaged in movement work. In this context I appreciated a lot of what B wrote. I have seen people burnout and then use the term self-care to generally become a flake. People who have spun their wheels to death and have felt too little reward for their work start to pull away. Some continue to make commitments they just flak out on, cause conflict with their indecisiveness, or try and shut down whole projects with their foul mood. Still others just drift away and are not really heard from again leaving things unfinished and a bit of bitterness in those left holding the bag. I’ve been frustrated by this issue that I see not coming from pure selfishness but from not building movements that like Adrienne and  others write, counter the messages of the dominate culture that our lives, health and wellbeing don’t really matter.

But B, who were you writing about? You do seem to be directing your comments towards something specific, yet unnamed. Through the lines of you article I read a reflection that brings to mind an idea of privileged entitlement to self-care that I see as linked to white models of community and organizing. I see many of your points through the snark, but would have liked you to be more explicit about whom you indictment of self-care is directed toward. Your critique holds many valid points, but implicates so many (parents, the disabled, the chronically ill, the old, the young…everyone) in a critique that was directed at something more specific that’s got you ticked off. This is why Leah’s response is so needed.

When B makes his remark about not knitting our way to revolution he is, I think, not referring to the same sort of thing as what Leah means in bringing up a quilting bee. I was glad Leah brought up quilting bees. As community and cultural traditions, quilting bees have offered great gathering points for social organizing. But again, B is bringing up a specific critique of self-care within a specific context but without specificity we’re all dragged (knitters, quilters and the like) into the critique.

Leah compels us to remember that there are many community traditions that are rich in both social justice/community/movement work and self-caring traditions. Our work must be a place that supports us and where our ways of caring for ourselves and others are supported and sufficient, not separate.

But whose culture or community doesn’t support this and what gives? Not everyone experiences the work for social justice the same way as to be chewed up and spit out by the endless churning of work. Nor does everyone experience movement work as separate from the rest of their lives. But B’s piece and much of the subsequent discussion has left me feeling like the conversation is being partitioned into how we take care of ourselves in movement work is different then how we take care of ourselves in the rest of our lives.

A few months Back By Jonathan Matthew Smucker wrote an excellent piece on Alternet about the dangers and limitations of the activist identity. He writes about how the stratification of activist doing activist work and everyone else lets people off the hook and sets up an us/them dichotomy that actually works against the interests of deep social change. I think of that article now as I think of my traditions of self-care and commitment to being engaged in social justice. To be engaged in movement work is as much a tradition in my family as sleeping late on Sunday’s. You don’t get one without the other. What is more, for some the act of engaging in social action work is the start of self-care.

I think of the community I work in; HIV+, poor and heavily challenged. I think of what self-care means to chronically ill, drug users, to those in recovery to those living on the streets, to multigenerational care takers living with not only HIV but also diabetes and heart disease. I think of the complex trauma histories of many in this community and wonder what they would think of this conversation. Instead of an end to self-care they may call for a start of self-care. Not because community and family don’t matter, but because those things or the dugs or the streets have always come first. But on AIDS Lobby day they show up. At 4am at South Station they are getting on a bus to DC for a protest. They, very often, see those acts as putting themselves first. Collectively joining forces through shared bonds is both a function of community and an act of healing.  Is this not also true for many of us?

On community care –

Of course I want my community to be there for me, to support me in taking care of myself and to take care of me when I can’t and to let me be a part of taking care of others. But I am still the one most responsible for taking care of me.

A dear friend of mine, Brenda who recently passed away after over a year battling health scare after health scare, was often heard saying “we have to teach people how we want to be treated”. I can’t just expect people to know how to take care of me when I’m depressed or consumed with grief. I have to teach them by asking for what I need and sharing what’s on my mind. In having supportive community I am able to take care of myself.

As a person who struggles with depression and ongoing complex grief surrounding the death of my dad I’ve needed my whole community at different times and in different ways to keep me going. I’ve had to learn to ask for help, advocate for myself and let people know what I’m capable of contributing at any given moment. What Adrienne wrote in her piece about self-determined care struck me hard. It has been just over four years since my dad passed away. Since about a year after his death I have been receiving messages that I need to be beyond my grief by now. In many aspects of my life I feel a pressure to have moved on through the grieving process – that my hurt, anger and sadness shouldn’t be so acute. I felt a great sense of relief in reading Adrienne’s article. It reminded me to stay strong in my conviction that the community that in working for social change and community justice needs to also have a place for my grief. It breaks my heart to think that this part of me would not be supported or a part of movement work I am engaged in. Perhaps this is partly why my movement work looks so different today from four years ago.

In the past year as Brenda’s health deteriorated her community rallied in a way that I think exemplifies the give and take of supportive community care that is connected to community justice work. Over the year friends helped Brenda by taking her to medical appointments, staying at the hospital and driving her to events. Through it all Brenda stayed involved with her organizing work in the HIV+ community. Recognizing that this sort of involvement was a part of her health and self-care, her friends helped her to do this. For Brenda, who had become so dependant on others to still have a role where others were depending on her to get work done was a source of strength. For Brenda, caring for her community was a way to also care for herself. As both B and Adrienne said – movement work can be healing work.

Communities are amazing sources of care. When my mother had cancer her friends responded to her need to be taken care of by stepping in and coordinating support. I’ve been to many “rent parties”, organized by a group of friends to help another friend raise money for the next months rent when times were hard. This is the stuff we and many other pockets of community just do for each other. These are the same people I’m in struggle with for social justice. A lot of the carrying on with the carrying on of life is just part and parcel with working for social justice.

I won’t pretend that it’s as easy as just saying “be gone your silly boundaries!” Social movement organizing has gotten a little more complicated then all that as B points out. Given the rise of the 501 c3 empires what is social movement work is so differently defined by different groups of people its almost useless to talk about. In fact I keep using the word ‘movement’, but I’ll admit it….I don’t know what that means. I haven’t felt a part of a movement since 2003 when we I was in the throws of the last hurrahs of the anti-globalization movement. Since then I have simply been in it to win it with my friends and community members working to hold each other safe from a world out to get us.

Self-care and community care are to me the stuff of life; Rooted in identities and forged in tradition new and old. They are the things we hold individually and collectively that bring us closer together, give us joy and rest and tie us to our past and prepare us for the future.