Self-Care 101: An Activist’s Guide

It was only a matter of time. Not if, but when.

After five months of going to protests with a sign in one hand and a voice recorder (and/or camera) in the other, the anger, stress, and fatigue caught up to me.

The result? I almost lost a couple friends after lashing out in self-righteous anger.

While I had wanted to talk about self-care for a while, I couldn’t have guessed how perfect the timing would have turned out. As someone who doesn’t excel in the area of self-care, I wanted to talk with someone possessing a little more wisdom on the subject.

I’ve known Kimberly for nearly 10 years. When we met, we were undergrads at Calvin College, protesting and organizing against the school’s homophobic policies. Since then, our roads have taken us in different directions. While I followed a crooked path to Flint, Kimberly ended up in Kansas City where she is a child-care worker and an active member in the Fight for 15 movement.

In our conversation, we touched on some of the different causes she’s fought for over the years, the difference between volunteerism and activism, what it means to be an activist, and, of course, we talked a lot about self-care in the hope that there might be some helpful insight here for those fighting for the city of Flint—and in countless other causes around the world.

 

How did you get your start as an activist? Was there a particular event or person who inspired you?

In a sense I grew into activism. I grew up in a family who believed in participating in community and doing work to make the place we live in better. When I was younger, I volunteered many places. I grew up volunteering, but I think activism takes it to a new level.

Two connected things spurred me to action. This first person who led me to action was someone my family “adopted” into our family. Alan became like a brother to me and I loved him dearly. Alan also happened to be gay. As I grew older it became clear to me that he was not treated like other people because of who he was. I knew I wanted to make things different for him and other LGBTQ folks, but I didn’t know how.

In college, the Soulforce Equality Ride (a bus full of young people that travels to colleges where queer/trans students are discriminated against) came to my campus. After the bus of activists left, a group of students—myself included—met and started the first school-recognized Queer-Straight Alliance (QSA).

Although Alan passed away unexpectedly from heart problems before he could see me try to make the world a little more equal, I know he would be proud of me.

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Kimberly speaking at a rally for $15.

Tell us a little about your work now with Stand Up KC. Why (and how) did you get involved?

I’m really proud to be working with Stand Up KC. Stand Up KC and I were meant to be. My church actually rents space to them and my pastor, Donna Simmon, is a huge ally to the movement. That’s how I started going to their major events.

I knew right away that I wanted to be involved because they work from an intersectional social justice approach. We are a diverse group of people—black, brown, white, queer, straight, transgender, cisgender, people of faith, and atheists—united to gain $15 an hour, end racism, gain union rights, and get immigration reform. So, when I found out child care workers were joining the movement, I jumped in and took off running.

What’s amazing about this movement is that it is by the workers and for the workers.

It’s funny, I went into teaching for two reasons—teaching gives me great joy, and I saw there was a dire need for justice in the education system. Students who weren’t white, cisgender, straight, able-bodied, and middle class were being left out. What I found out as a teacher was we needed social justice too.

When I started as a sub, I made $9.50 and hour. As a teacher’s assistant, I only made $10.31 an hour. That’s very hard to live on. Now that I am a lead teacher, I’ve gotten a raise, but I still make under $15 an hour. I struggle to pay all my bills. I find myself 30 and not really saving for retirement and I have no financial safety net for emergencies.

What keeps you going?

On one level, what keeps me going is a sense of urgency; I need this change now. My roommates need this change now. My students’ families need this change now. This is a matter of life or death for some. For example, our last action was dedicated to Jeffrey Pendleton. His story is a motivator for me.

Honestly, though, doing this is fun, too. I am building friendships, making the world a better place, and I get to yell—what a fun form of self-care! I love days of actions. Going to a protest at McDonald’s and shouting for justice is cathartic.

In your opinion, what defines an activist? Is activism something you do, or who you are?

For me, an activist is one who acts. Activists work for change for the betterment of all people. Activism is certainly something you do, but for me it’s also a core part of my identity. (Just like being a worker, queer, femme, and Christian are big parts of my identity.) I think this is the difference between a volunteer and an activist. When I volunteered, it was something fun that I did, but my activism shapes how I see the world.

For me, it’s also very closely tied to my faith. I think Jesus was an activist. He saw people in the margins and worked to lift them up. Sometimes I’m in the group on the margin, and other times I’m an ally, but I’m always acting to lift everyone closer to equality. It’s a balance between reflection—educating myself on the world and injustice so I better know the work to be done—and action to bring about change. The best kind of activist looks at all kinds of injustice and works to lift everyone up.

When we leave some behind or push others down, we are no closer to justice. We are only as free as the person furthest on the margin. So for me, being an activist is who I am because it encompasses my whole life.

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“Doing this is fun, too. I am building friendships, making the world a better place, and I get to yell–what a fun form of self-care!”

Who has taught you the most about activism? What lessons do you draw on in your work today?

Soulforce really shaped me as an activist. In the summer of 2009, I attended Soulforce Q camp, and learned about intersectional social justice work and my life has forever been changed. I now understand that if we don’t work for the betterment of everyone, we will not get far. The labor movement is founded on intersectional ideas. If we aren’t ending racism, making the world better for immigrants and queer people as we work to lift up low wage workers, then we will not win.

So, how do you find ways to take care of yourself? You already mentioned how going out and yelling at protests can be cathartic. How else do you practice self-care?

Self-care is so important; life is hard and so is the work. Taking care of myself means I can keep doing the work and enjoy my life. Without it, the burnout factor is high. For me, self-care doesn’t take me away from the work; it’s an important part of activism.

As far as finding way to do self-care, I just try to listen to my body. If I need rest, I rest. If I need time alone, I spend time alone. If I need people time, I hang with a roommate or call a friend.  Even though it’s called self-care, it doesn’t mean you have to do it alone.

I once saw a video about how one man deals with his depression and he says he “chases that happy.” I love that idea. He says it can be small stuff like fake typing on keyboards like you’re a crazy secretary in a silent movie.

It can cost money—buying something, going to a concert—or doing something nice for myself, like painting my nails, writing in my journal, or snuggling with my cat. I was even contemplating writing this, but staying hydrated and a hot shower also help me. It makes me pissed that this isn’t an option for so many people in Flint.

Self-care isn’t just doing fun stuff. It’s also doing my laundry, vacuuming, washing my dishes, getting enough sleep, walking, eating a salad (or a pizza—fueling your body is important). Self-care is sometimes just doing the not-so-fun adulting stuff. For me I also go to therapy. It’s good for anyone. Having someone to talk to about life’s tough stuff is important.

Here’s a pretty rad list of self-care ideas.

One thing I struggle with personally is knowing how hard to push myself. If I’m not doing something, I have a tremendous sense of guilt. When do you say, ‘Enough. I need time for myself, I need time to recharge.’?

Like I said before, self-care is learning to trust what our bodies say. If I’m tired, I sleep (or try). If I need to walk, I walk. I get that guilt, but guilt doesn’t get me anywhere. As a teacher and an activist I have come to realize I can’t do my best if I don’t take care of myself. No one can say exactly for someone else when they need a break; but if you need one, take one. (Easier said than done, right?)

I know how much you love music. What are some songs or artists that keep you going that you think other activists should check out?

More than anything when it comes to music, I like what makes me feel good. I like listening to labor movement music like Pete Seeger and I like The Almanacs. I like socially conscious hip-hop like Janelle Monae, Talib Kwalli, Mos Def, K’Naan.

 

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