On solidarity and not burning out and doing movement work well
I’m going to make a confession: I’m not awesome at yoga or meditation. I don’t care much for silence in general. I tried being a Quaker for a month in college because on paper it was the perfect match, but after about ten minutes of silence, I would find myself thinking of spiritual conversation starters. I would have been better off with pacifist socialist Pentecostals.
In the Bay Area, this is a character flaw, particularly in my very socially conscious and down for the cause while up with our self-care crowd I aspire to be a part of. And I know that when I force myself to meditate, I’m the better for it (the East Bay Meditation people of color sit is particularly awesome, although I always feel like the people who don’t know me shoot me a little shade for presumably being one of those entitled White people who sometimes show up because they think it’s wrong that people of color practice exclusion like that one day a week). My mind settles and I slow down and I breathe more deeply and I may even connect with the divine in a more profound way.
But for me, meditation is like kale: I consume it because it’s good for me, not because I’m jonesing for it. I would rather have Taco Bell or the spiritual equivalent of Taco Bell: reruns of Sex and the City. Sometimes I manage to make the right choice instead, but not always.
This is a particularly big deal because I care a lot about the issue of the culture of burnout within the justice movement. Now I think about the burnout question like I think about everything: systemically. It would be unhelpful to think about burnout ONLY systematically, and meditation is one of the easiest and most effective ways of addressing burnout individually, so I want to talk about that more in a minute.
Fortunately for me (and how I’m wired to think systemically about EVERYTHING), with movement burnout as with most issues, we usually only talk about the issue individually.
So let me lift up for a moment some background on systemic issues related to burnout:
The very popular and controversial article “An End to Self-Care,” which I keep referring to as “Community Care as Self-Care,” tackled the potential classism of addressing self-care as an essential element of movement building in ways that made it just one more thing for poor people in the movement while middle-class folks could much more easily plug into it. I would also add concerns about the “missionary mindset” of bringing things to people and then removing oneself to refuel as if I am less enmeshed in life on the ground than the community with whom I work–it makes me removed and better if I’m not careful to look at the issue as one of all people getting equal access to rest and retreat.
There were numerous critiques of the ways this article was itself elitist (my favorite being for badass disability justice, working-class and poor lead models of sustainable hustling for liberation). They named that eliminating self-care wasn’t the solution, especially for people for whom self-care might mean 7 hours of sleep instead of 5, for example.
Just this month there was a critique of Steve Jobs’ (and others’) encouragement to “Do What You Love,” because it denigrates the work of so many who have a job in order to feed themselves, even if it’s not their dream job. It also talks about how this encourages overwork in exploitative ways. The article, “In the Name of Love,” is well worth reading.
What ties all of these articles together is this: the justice movement is not just about getting rights for individuals and groups. It is about building up what MLK called the Beloved Community. It is about being in right relationship with one another. It is about honoring one another’s gifts and limitations and our own. It is about caring for others first and having them care for you first.
It is not about extricating work from the devoted in service of the cause, without valuing their wellbeing.
And yet that is what a lot if nonprofits do, and remind us to be grateful that we get to be part of the movement.
I promise, I’ll talk about the individual stuff in a minute.
A group gathered at the Oakland Peace Center on Thursday night to talk about creating a culture of community care and self care interwoven. Here’s the list of what that would look like from us:
Creating a work culture that:
- honors work
- thinks that family matters
- thinks self care can be community care
- has a sense of fun and family within the workplace
- honors a life-work balance where your work does not need to be your whole identity
- trusts us
- awards and fosters and invests in our creativity.
If we had had time, I would have also lifted up the values of an anti-racism community, because I believe we’re at our best when we are being the community we wish to see in the world:
- both/and thinking
- abundant worldview
- transparent communication
- cooperation and collaboration
NOTE: I learned these values from Crossroads Anti-Racism Organizing and Training, and they are really powerful in practice.
The tension here is how to bring meaningful class awareness to our work. Some of that comes through deep listening to one another and creating priorities and vision and values together for what we want to see in wider society and how our organizations can embrace those principles right now. And some of that comes from checking our sense of entitlement at the door; movement work isn’t easy. I don’t get to complain just because it’s hard. Uma, my co-facilitator, suggested we flip the script on the article I had talked about: self care as community care. (She would never have used a phrase as hackneyed as “put on your own oxygen mask so you can help others with theirs,” but I would. So I just did.)
One of the things the Community care as self care article did point out is that self care often comes with a price tag (massage, vacation, meditation retreat) instead of recognizing when the community is actually energy giving.
So I asked the group to come up with a list of cheap and free self-care that we could share with each other, as community for one another:
- checking in with ourselves and breathing in ways that center us
- HALT (Am I Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired? What can I do about that?)
- Kid therapy (hanging with the fam)
- Noticing others’ responses to us
- Potlucks–cheap ways of being with friends
- Dancing for no reason
- Free yoga classes (such as Niroga Institute‘s Monday and Wednesday night classes at the Oakland Peace Center or the above mentioned EBMC)
In our session, my colleague Uma led us through some amazing breathing and meditation practices that really shifted our energy. I may eat kale because I like it yet!
I do want to close with a serious tension in the work that one of the participants lifted up: urgency of work and self care.
We do work in the movement that is literally life and death work, whether it be at a food bank or addressing police brutality or fighting environmental racism or advocating for affordable housing. Literally, lives are on the line. We cannot afford to lose our sense of urgency. At the same time, if we never take time to breathe, we’re a martyr to the cause instead of a living servant in it.
I find myself turning yet again to the poem by Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw wrote that is commonly known as the Oscar Romero Prayer. I will let it be the final reflection on self and community care:
It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent
enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of
saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master
builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.