Found object, remembering Eric Garner. Photo by D. Douglas.

When news of Erica Garner’s heart attack and subsequent brain damage spread, the perennial conversation about self-care resurface din activist circles. Those who have decried that racism kills might argue it claimed another victim in the recent passing of Garner, 27, after a heart attack and subsequent brain damage, according to media reports. She was famously the daughter of Eric Garner, who died in 2014 after pleading “I can’t breathe” several times as a New York cop kept him in an illegal chokehold. In 2016, The Crisis, the official magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, addressed the issue of self-care for activists who may find themselves overwrought with the responsibility of doing movement work, written by yours truly.

As sins of omission go, Facebook is a lie. This tool, among many other social media platforms, does a grand job of keeping communities of interest tenuously connected, catalyzing the social movements that mark our time. And yet, this “reality” is highly curated, far from the truth and intimacy of our whole lives. Even when the world surrenders to injustice, efforts to correct the wrongs and celebrate what’s right tend to reflect rose-colored timelines where individuals are always on point, in full vitality, acting as productive human beings making monumental things happen in the world — All. The. Time.

This opportunity — and burden — of social media is the first thing social justice activists mention when they talk about the necessity of self-care in the age of black lives mattering. The passion of organizing and convening like-minded people to make a difference through direct action, thought-leadership, raising awareness through campaigns or holding court on Twitter, is infectious. For people convicted with the belief that getting the masses to move and act, it’s difficult not working in and being about the movement constantly.

And as in all things, there’s such a thing as so much being too much.

“Self-care is definitely a conversation in social justice circles that focuses on what we do individually to make sure we’re OK.”

Alicia Walters, movement building director at Forward Together

“Self-care is definitely a conversation in social justice circles that focuses on what we do individually to make sure we’re OK,” says Alicia Walters, movement building director at Forward Together, an Oakland, California-based nonprofit that works to help women, children and families reach their full potential. “It can look a lot of different ways for a lot of different people.”

At the most basic level, says Dr. Bedford Palmer II, a psychotherapist who teaches at St. Mary’s College of California, self-care means attending to the whole self, not just the at-work or representative self. It’s a conscious effort at maintaining balance, a conversation typically associated with working mothers but one that has meaning in activist circles because of demands that may include staying up nights, attending vigils or being engaged in community events regularly. When individuals neglect self-care, they’re not attending to their families and personal relationships, or exercising and eating (either right or at all), allowing themselves to become burned out. Even people not engaged in direct action, such as workplace “activists,” professionals in corporate environments seeking to ensure women and people of color have access to opportunity or those working to effect change in schools, need self-care.

People can get overwhelmed by the demands of leading a life of social organizing and staying on top of issues and policies that dictate their actions, Palmer says. As they become more aware of systems of oppression, such as inaction on a police shooting as in the Laquan McDonald case in Chicago or abuse vis a vis Sandra Bland in Texas, anger, anxiety and depression can set in. Often, activists get to a point of crisis where the lines between the public self and the private one become so blurred, committed workers just disappear.

Erica Garner, devoted mother, activist, and daughter of Esaw Snipes and Eric Garner.

“It’s like feast or famine, going from a place of being so connected to feeling isolated,” says Walters, who, as part of her work, helms a group of black, young, female thought-leaders called Echoing Ida, after journalist and anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells Barnett, who exercise thought-leadership as their weapon of choice. “I’ve seen this in some people, including myself: We’re just so overwhelmed, we say ‘Self-care? Can’t do it.’ ”

“What this shows me,” she says, “is we don’t have a practice set out for us, particularly as black women, to prioritize ourselves. How can we think about it as a practice, putting our well-being and the well-being of our communities first without guilt trips to our communities if we can’t stay connected?”

After all, Walters says, staying connected on social media, going to all the rallies, writing continuously — is not sustainable.

Staying on message is a survival skill

Brittany “Bree” Newsome was a veteran activist when she climbed the flagpole of the South Carolina statehouse to yank down the Confederate Flag 10 days after the massacre at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston in 2015. She was prepared to go to jail, but the onslaught of attention, offers and social outreach showed she needed an aftermath strategy to avoid getting pulled in all directions, some of them decidedly off-message.

Bree’s family held a family retreat to talk about what she wanted to focus on, and which activities and opportunities supported her social justice mission, says her mother, Lynne Newsome, a retired educator. (Her father, Clarence Newsome, runs the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati.)

“She had a number of things that were not in keeping with her mission, such as advertising and endorsing products,” according to Newsome. “She’s very reflective and is good about discerning where she wants to go and what she wants to do. She’s especially interested in working with young people and committed to the young people in the Charlotte area.”

The flag action, which preceded a vote by the South Carolina legislature to permanently remove it, was just part of Newsome’s life mission to “move from issues-based organizing to organizing the community itself,” according to Bree, who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. In addition to traveling to speak about social justice, the NAACP Chairman’s Award winner is focused on building sustained community organizations that address everything from income inequality, food justice and cooperative economics.

“I’m not sure we’ve found a way to manage it,” Newsome says. “She really had to at some point disconnect. She had to take herself offline, stop returning phone calls, stop doing Twitter for a number of days and sit back, relax and commune with herself and God.”

Bree’s support circle includes her sister, Dr. Gina Duncan, a practicing psychiatrist, who offers faith-based approaches in keeping with Bree’s Christian belief system. Newsome says she and her daughter have always “been political junkies,” and Bree’s commitment to direct action just grew more after participating in Moral Mondays, protests to pressure local lawmakers on a range of social justice issues.

“I do sometimes worry about her being pulled into directions and just want to make sure that she doesn’t become overwhelmed,” Newsome says.

‘Self-care is a practice, not a project’

Grace Franklin and her fellow OKC Artists for Justice had the forethought to build a self-care plan into the watchdog efforts during the trial of former Oklahoma City Police officer Daniel Holtzclaw in December, now in prison for life. The group formed after being collectively appalled at the lack of coverage in the case of a biracial (white and Asian) policeman who used his position of authority to seek out and sexually assault 13 African-American females ages 17–57 from precarious backgrounds, including past crimes and drug use.

The group was intent on being in the courtroom at all times, for good reason, because in addition to muted national media interest, an all-white jury was selected when black potential jurors were a part of the pool. Given the climate around police abuse such as Eric Garner’s choking death in New York, or Freddie Gray’s death while in police custody in Baltimore or events that led to Bland’s arrest during traffic stop and eventual death in Waller County, Texas, Franklin and her associates felt someone needed to have the women’s backs.

The days were long.

On court days, members would split court watching into halves. Even before arriving to court, the working day started at 6 or 7 in the morning when members would respond to email or media calls, or work on videos for social media, Franklin explains. They didn’t have a lot of direct contact with the victims during the trial because their work was about community, so it was important to stay on message, amplifying a larger phenomenon about how black women are regarded in American society.

“Then you have to give a debrief,” says Franklin, noting, “on days when the survivors were testifying that was a lot. At 6 or 7 o’clock, we might respond to organizations asking how they could help, then networking or going to community meetings until 10:30 or so.”

Even on days when members didn’t go to court, they went to their day jobs, they worked on tasks, such as manning social media, according to Franklin, an insurance agent. And in “real life,” Franklin was careful to carve out time to care for an elderly parent, which speaks to the responsibilities and pressures activists face in playing multiple roles.

“You’re in a constant state of movement and creativity to get the word out,” Franklin says. “You’re never exhaling, always inhaling. That was about three months of that plus the preparation before the trial happened. It’s constantly on your mind and takes up a lot of your thought.

“One of the things we learned during this process is to take a step back. I value silence, and when you’re in the midst of activism and advocacy, there’s not a lot of silence. I have to cut it off and just be,” says Franklin, who advises doing things that feed one’s energy, like finishing a book or spending time with friends.

For Taja Lindley, her work is her activism and vice versa. The Brooklyn-based performance artist and founder of Colored Girls Hustle leads girlhood programs for mostly girls of color that include life-mapping, conflict resolution, and engagement with social justice and feminist topics.

“I think self-care is a practice, not a project,” Lindley says.

Lindley, one of the 22 Ida’s of Echoing Ida, acknowledges that when people do work they really care about, they’re often willing to put important things on the backburner, like drinking enough water “because we feel we need to be present for the quote unquote movement.” Self-care, for her, is a daily activity that includes playing Miles Davis on Pandora after a long day working, lighting candles and allowing herself to make the mental transition to being her at-home self. She also writes in a journal and regards the act of brewing and drinking tea a contemplative pose that feeds her emotional and spiritual well-being.

“Working for non-profits, people are up to amazing things. Some of us are able to handle responsibilities better than others, and for some people in our community, taking care of ourselves can come in seasons,” Lindley says. “I’ve learned, regardless of what’s happening externally, it’s important to have a constant practice of checking in.”

For Walters, checking in has meant checking out.

She’s been off Facebook for about a year, and got off Instagram, too. Walters now monitors Twitter to follow discussions rather than starting them because being on social media became another obligation that cluttered her brain and didn’t contribute to her well-being.

“People put the way they want the world to see them on Facebook,” says Walters, noting that she “was constantly comparing myself to people and never measuring up. This person is in Brazil. Look at this person’s beautiful family, and I don’t have the family I want yet. Look at this person’s artistry. Just on a personal level, it didn’t make me feel good and [I was] creating stories about their lives while feeling bad about my own.” Professionally speaking, Walters understands the pressure to leverage social media for messaging purposes, and to share information and articles that can drive the discussions of the issues forward.

“But I could go down the rabbit hole with that,” she says.

And with the young women who represent Echoing Ida, the pressure to engage via social media is palpable, Walters says. As millennials, they’ve been weaned on social media, feeling obligated to be present often while being trolled or in a space with other people given to drama. This can affect how they feel about themselves while they’re doing “vulnerable, heroic” things as organizers, always putting themselves out there.

“The whole hypertension piece, the obesity piece, drinking, substance abuse,” he says, which confront so many African-Americans? “That comes from living in an oppressive space.” 

Dr. Bedford Palmer II

Moreover, in activism, the work is never done. For OKC Artists, that means formalizing the organization by seeking nonprofit status to provide services for women of color, be it domestic violence, sexual assault or referrals. Also, they’re educating local citizens on the issue of jury selection, which is tied to having a driver’s license not being registered to vote, as is the case around the country. Black voters who move frequently or don’t update their addresses can’t count on being called for jury selection, which has proven a critical exercise of the democratic process, as the Holtzclaw case shows.

In the final analysis, Palmer says, racism is exhausting.

“The whole hypertension piece, the obesity piece, drinking, substance abuse,” he says, which confront so many African-Americans? “That comes from living in an oppressive space.”

A raised consciousness can be heavy because it involves going through stages of revelation that include asking a lot of “whys” and efforts to “separate from the bad stimulus,” Palmer says. Add to that “stereotype threat” that extra layer of mental processing marginalized people often reflexively do in a subconscious effort to avoid confirming stereotypes. Palmer suggests working from an intentional, mindful space to avoid physical and mental setbacks while making a difference. Consider what’s at stake and be aware of the tradeoffs, such as acknowledging if a day job will be affected or if going to jail is an option as a result of engaging in direct action. Avoid isolation, and work to dissipate anger and tension by doing healthy movements like exercise or dance.

“Whatever your hamster wheel is, we all get caught up in it,” Walters says. “There are things we’re obligated to do; family and job fall in that category. Other than that, what do you really have to do?”


This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.