Activists are getting exhausted by the endless stream of attacks from the Trump administration. Those on the front lines have to protect themselves to keep up the fight.
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“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare,” the late Black lesbian feminist essayist, poet, and activist Audre Lorde wrote in her 1988 essay collection, A Burst of Light. Activists on the front lines of battle after battle against the Trump administration have been taking a page from Lorde’s book, caring for themselves in various personal ways to build and maintain the kind of physical and emotional reserves that the writer described. From watching their favorite shows to chatting with friends to dancing—one step at a time—to scheduling and keeping their medical check-ups, outlets that fill and refill activists’ wide-ranging needs are a necessary respite from Trump’s unrelenting onslaught. All are forms of self-care, quite literally the act of taking care of oneself.
Self-care became a hot topic after Trump’s election, but it isn’t a new concept for activists. New York Times culture editor Aisha Harris traced the politicization of self-care to the mid-20th-century women’s liberation and civil-rights movements. “Women and people of color viewed controlling their health as a corrective to the failures of a white, patriarchal medical system to properly tend to their needs,” Harris wrote for Slate last year. Medical needs are just one part of how today’s activists take good care. Self-care can be as simple as logging off Twitter. It can look like enjoying a glass of wine—or abstaining from alcohol, as writer Sarah Hepola, a recovering alcoholic, underscored in her essay, “Refusing to Numb the Pain,” in the anthology Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America. Whatever it is, it’s constructive, not destructive. And it’s fuel for the resistance.
More than a dozen reproductive, immigrants, disability, and LGBTQ activists, all of whom were doing the work before Trump became president and are now fighting like hell against his administration’s corrosive policies, told DAME that self-care is crucial to their lives—and to their work. Only when activists have secured their own oxygen masks can they help others. They can’t organize or protest or fund-raise or advocate or sue without it.
Pamela Merritt, co-director and co-founder of the abortion-rights and reproductive-justice group Reproaction, begins her days with meditation and “whenever possible,” arranges a “Trumpless evening” for Netflix and British crime dramas. Self-care and activism are intertwined, she said, “in part because I’m a better activist when I’m rested and fully present, but also because I matter too, and I am worthy of a happy, healthy, empowered life.”
Merritt didn’t always practice self-care. Early in her career, she failed to manage her stress levels and ended up physically and professionally exhausted.
“Building on those lessons, I now see self-care as a critical component of any progressive strategy,” Merritt said. As she and her fellow Reproaction co-director and co-founder, Erin Matson, take good care, they wage campaigns demanding accountability for “crisis pregnancy centers”—fake clinics that lie to women to dissuade them from abortion—and raising awareness about self-managed abortion.
For Matson, activism is a form of self-care. “An activist is who I am,” she said. She’s not “whole” without it. Neither is she without loving her family or spoiling her dogs (“My dogs have it good”). So, she makes good on what feels good. She’s not the only one to reap the benefits. “Others—including my daughter, but also other activists—are watching me closely,” she said. “If I treat myself like shit, I am telling everyone to treat themselves like shit. That is not my goal.”
Practicing self-care, activists leaders not only set a good example, they also strengthen their organizations from the inside—to Merritt’s point, improving progressive strategy. After more than a decade in leadership at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, Executive Director Jessica González-Rojas, who regularly carves out time for doctor’s appointments— “health care and reproductive justice is a human right,” she said—recently took a sabbatical.
“Unplugging for 12 weeks provided me the time to rest and reflect,” she said. “I returned feeling rested and rejuvenated, and with a renewed spirit.” She further described the benefits of unplugging in terms of the organization, of trusting her team members and investing in their professional development.
“My staff has stepped up to the challenge and [staffers] have grown as leaders themselves because of the trust I have in their ability to execute the work in my absence,” she said.
Hearing activists’ stories, it’s easy to understand how caring for themselves is a radical act. But self-care comes with baggage. Multiple news outlets reported that Google searches for the term spiked in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. It’s still all too easy for, say, white women—53 percent of whom voted for Trump—to post #selfcare photos of face masks and juices and ignore the struggle outside their shiny Instagram feeds. “The irony of the grand online #selfcare-as-politics movement of 2016 is that it was powered by straight, affluent white women, who, although apparently feeling a new vulnerability in the wake of the election, are not traditionally the segment of American society in the greatest need of affirmation,” Jordan Kisner wrote for The New Yorker. No, that would be activists who often live in criminalized Black and brown bodies, yet still repeatedly put their bodies on the line. Self-care in that context is survival.
But mere survival isn’t enough to sustain anyone, let alone activists. They often find joy, upping the ante on Lorde’s “political warfare” under the Trump administration.
“It doesn’t always have to be an exercise of despair to do this work and care for ourselves,” said Rebecca Berry, the If/When/How legal and policy fellow at the Black Women’s Health Imperative. Much of Berry’s self-care revolves around “finding healthy outlets for my anger and deep emotions about what we’re facing.”
“I am writing more and using my social media as an outlet for my thoughts, but I also try to take breaks from it when it gets to be too much. As Audre Lorde said, ‘your silence will not protect you,’ so I’ve used speaking out as a mode of self-care,” she said. Black organizing spaces have been crucial—”Spending time with and loving on other Black folks who are ultimately hit the hardest by Trump’s policies has lifted my spirits and given me more motivation to continue the work”—as has therapy. “Although it is not always accessible or affordable, its benefits have been invaluable to my everyday functioning in a world where my right to live is threatened constantly,” she said.
Young Women United Executive Director Tannia Esparza finds joy in running—”a ritual I do for my body, a time for connection and prayer with my ancestors, an alignment of my humanness.” She also practices social justice leader Norma Wong’s Forward Stance, a mind-body practice, with her colleagues at the New Mexico–based reproductive-justice organization. Staff hail from one or more marginalized communities; Esparza is a queer Xicana from an immigrant family.
“At a time when trans, queer, immigrant, black and brown people are constantly under attack, our very existence is an act of resistance,” Esparza said. “Generations of our people have had to thrive while surviving some of the most horrendous memories of U.S history. It is because of this that my self-care practices are not only about sustaining myself as an activist, but in knowing that cultivating my joy has ripple effects in my communities, my families across time—generations ago and generations to come.”
Civil rights icon and longtime U.S. congressman John Lewis captured the same spirit of radical joy in advising Rebecca Cokley, director of the disability justice initiative at the Center for American Progress.
“‘Joy is one of the best forms of resistance. The other side wants to see us demoralized, they want to see us sad and frustrated,’” Cokley recalled Lewis telling her.
That’s because there’s power in joy. Consider how Trump’s White House refuses to recognize Pride Month. Consider how much more meaning joyful Pride parades have taken on against the backdrop of an administration rolling back LGBTQ rights. The Center for Media Justice chronicled the public displays of Black joy—the dancing, the chanting—that eclipsed two dozen white nationalists trying, and failing, to “unite the right” in Washington, D.C., last month. Black Youth Project 100 and Black Lives Matter DC “organized one of the most joyful and resilient counter protest[s] against white supremacist[s] and fascists,” Black Lives Matter Co-Founder Patrisse Cullors tweeted. “I Love Us more than they can ever hate us!!!”
Rep. John Lewis’s words marked a turning point in Cokley’s life: “I was at a point where I would purposely put off lunch with friends, or tickets for a concert, because I felt like I needed to be pushing back 24-7,” she said. “I do a lot to still reinforce the Congressman’s words of wisdom so I don’t slide back there.” That’s where playing with her kids, playing video games with her husband, and talking to activist friends in different parts of the country all come in.
Self-care is joy. And joy is important for activists, whether they’re full time or volunteers devoting their nights and weekends to social justice. Activism demands much—often, too much—of their minds, bodies, and spirits.
Demonstrators, thousands of them, filled the nation’s airports after a newly inaugurated Trump issued his first Muslim travel ban in January 2017. Immigration attorneys slept at Los Angeles International Airport and “rubbed away bloodshot eyes” at Washington Dulles International Airport. That summer, people with disabilities repeatedly staked their lives on saving the Affordable Care Act. U.S. Capitol Police forcibly removed and arrested advocates staging a “die-in” outside GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office.
Trump’s presidency has only made a bad situation worse for reproductive rights and racial justice activists. “With anti-abortion extremists feeling emboldened by the current political environment, [clinic] trespassing more than tripled, death threats/threats of harm nearly doubled, and incidents of obstruction rose from 580 in 2016 to more than 1,700 in 2017,” the National Abortion Federation found. The Obama-era Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was already surveilling Black Lives Matter activists. The Trump-era FBI is now targeting “black identity extremists”—not the nation’s police, who disproportionately kill Black people, or mass murderers with deadly “alt-right” views—as violent, Foreign Policy first reported. Rakem Balogun, a Black activist, was reportedly the first such target. He spent five months incarcerated as the government tried, and failed, to prosecute him, released only “when the FBI admitted it had nothing more on him than a few overheated Facebook posts and advocacy of black gun ownership,” per Vox. Balogun lost his job, his home, and time with his newborn daughter, according to an interview he did with The Guardian.
New York Times national correspondent John Eligon in March reported the toll specifically on young social justice activists. “Along with the long hours, constant confrontation and frequent heartbreak they experience, activists work for little or no pay and sometimes struggle for basic needs like food and shelter even as they push for societal change,” he wrote. At least five young Black Lives Matter activists, including Erica Garner, have died in recent years, according to Eligon’s reporting.
The ways movement culture fails activists of color doesn’t sit well with Laurie Bertram Roberts, co-founder and executive director of the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund, a reproductive-justice group that funds abortions. She prioritizes self-care, “whether it’s petting my cat or playing a game with my kids.” She’s also creating a more inclusive reality that accounts for her needs as a Black, queer, disabled woman, and those of her fellow activists. She started a self-care Amazon wish list for the fund’s leadership. And she always feeds her volunteers—all of whom come from low-income or working-class backgrounds—at the fund’s meetings.
Of course, Bertram Roberts’s work on top of the work reflects the unpaid labor that society continually demands women, especially Black women, to do. But she’s doing it, anyway.
“I want to live a long and full life,” she said. “I’m tired of seeing women of color activists exhausted and worn out not just due to living lives under oppression but being [also] ground down by movement work that often goes unsupported or undersupported and a movement culture that uses us essentially as mules and doesn’t generally value our work equally nor our self-care.”
Some activists are creating tools that help others practice self-care.
For nine years, Sarah Massey was running a public relations firm that worked in arts and activism. After Trump was elected, Massey reentered activism full time at the National LGBTQ Task Force and launched a program of her own called Powerful Resistance.
“We need to find the place inside of us that allows us to be okay even in the face of horror,” said Massey, who led workshops that helped people confront and overcome their fear. “In this way, we will be ready to be brave, strong, and peaceful, even in the face of tyranny.”
Creative expression that springs from the self similarly can be a powerful means of self-care. Alejandra Pablos and a friend started BRWNXBRUJA, a “political and lifestyle” YouTube show “based on two brujas”—witches—”navigating repression and criminalization.”
“We talk about patriarchy, we talk about brujeria and protections spells,” Pablos said. “All of this [is] on video, so we can share, so we all get free. That is organizing that is also healing for me because I get to be creative and live in the world that I am creating.”
Pablos is a reproductive-justice and immigrants-rights advocate and a storyteller for the National Network of Abortion Funds’ We Testify program. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained her earlier this year in alleged retaliation for her activism. She was held for more than 40 days at Eloy Detention Center, which a watchdog report called “the deadliest detention center in the nation.” But she refuses to be silenced.
“Being a criminalized person, I know what justice looks like. I try to live as if I am already free,” she said. “I walk this land owning my body, my decisions, my things, knowing my history and the history of the oppressors. My self-care has given me the tools to survive it all. Knowledge is comfort. I don’t worry much because we are organizing and fighting back in creative ways, collectively more than ever. I love campaigns like #AbolishICE and #protectroe.”
Even as they help fellow activists, Massey and Pablos remain dedicated to their own forms of self-care. “I eat well, take dance classes, meditate, ride my Harley, go to sexy parties, and I focus on my family and loved ones,” Massey said. As for Pablos, self-care “looks like celebrating myself in a world that doesn’t always.”
“It looks like dipping my whole body in a bath full of oils and herbs and roses that will cleanse me and revitalize me,” Pablos said. “It looks like hanging out with the ‘Black and Brown Girl Magic Meetup’ group that I started right around the 45th administration because I needed a squad of women to hold each other through it all.”
Self-care was a new but no less significant concept for legendary civil rights activist Angela Davis when she spoke at Pacific University in 2014. If someone had told Davis, once upon a time, to practice yoga or meditate, her reaction would have been that “that person’s head is in the clouds, they’re not thinking about revolution,” she said. But the next generations taught her otherwise.
“[Self-care] has to be incorporated in all of our efforts,” she said. “I had to learn from younger people that it is as important to take care of yourself—and to do this within a collective context.” “So, yes, this means exercising the body. This means finding a space for spiritual expression. This holistic approach to organizing is, I think, what is going to eventually move us along the trajectory that may lead to some victories.”
Brigitte Amiri helped achieve one such victory. She is the lead American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) attorney in the ongoing case involving Jane Doe, an unaccompanied immigrant minor whom administration officials were blocking from obtaining an abortion. The ACLU won Jane’s constitutionally protected care, and Jane accessed her abortion.
But Amiri couldn’t wage the next battle without recovering from the persistent cough and fatigue that accompanied the case. She rested. Rest is one of her self-care practices. She cooks for her family and spends time with her daughter, too. And she takes a ballet class whenever she can. “While in class, I can only think about the steps that come next, which gives my mind a break from thinking about work,” she said. Beyond preventing burnout, taking that break made Amiri a better activist. “Downtime gives me the space to think creatively about legal theories and bigger picture strategy,” she said.
When activists cultivate their needs, they can change the landscape. What radical acts it takes to fight.
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