Radical Self-Care: The Importance of Self-Care for Activists & Where to Start

First-year sociology major Shanae Smith says one of her favorite forms of Black joy she looks forward to seeing online is videos of Black people dancing and having fun. Photo courtesy of Unsplash.

If you aren’t angry, you aren’t paying enough attention. At least, that’s what most rhetoric about pro-Black activism says. As James Baldwin described, “To be a negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a perpetual state of rage almost all the time.”

But activists are urging people to try their best to challenge that. Anger is an important catalyst for social change and a normal and valid response to non-stop injustice; but consistent rage, frustration and sadness can be crippling instead of energizing. They’re also signs that self-care is necessary. 

“Anyone who is interested in making change in the world must also learn how to take care of herself, himself, theirself,” said activist and Black Panther Angela Davis, who began practicing yoga and meditation while in jail. 

“I had to recognize the importance of emphasizing the collective character of that work on the self… if we don’t start practicing collective self-care now there’s no way to imagine, much less reach, a time of freedom,” Davis said in an interview

But many don’t know where to start. The realities of modern day injustices are infuriating to learn about but the guilt of not continuing to talk about it and think about it can be just as horrifying. Fortunately, there are ways to participate in activism while also protecting oneself emotionally. 

Seeking Community with Free or Low-cost Group Therapy Sessions

“I was able to witness someone’s healing begin today. I was privileged to see that seed planted.”

Community support is often a powerful way for people to connect over shared experiences and begin the healing process in a space where they feel cared for and empowered. 

Sahaj Kohli, 32, is the founder of Brown Girl Therapy, the first mental health community for the children of immigrants. 

“One of the biggest things in the mental health field, especially in the Western narrative, is this idea of individualization. There’s this whole other part of mental health care that’s not being discussed or utilized and that’s community care,” Kohli said to TODAY. “It’s hard to believe that you deserve quality care when the care doesn’t look like you.”

Communities of color have been known to be distrustful of therapy and the field of psychology, and there is validity to that fear. The American Psychological Association reported that in 2015, 86% of therapists were white. The field also has a history of racism, even labeling slaves trying to escape as having a mental illness, drapetomania. Cultural barriers between a client and therapist can be challenging to surpass. 

Fortunately, more and more solutions have been springing up to this issue.

Heal Haus, a Brooklyn-based wellness space, offers donation-based healing workshops, yoga and meditation classes as well as free talk-therapy for BIPOC folks. “Instead of choosing to focus on why major wellness outlets and brands aren’t being inclusive, we decided to create what was natural for us,” the co-founders said to Essence Magazine.  It’s been described as the “space the Black community desperately needs.”

Ethel’s Club is a New York-based wellness and social platform for people of color that centers creativity, connection and healing. Users can pay $17 a month for workshops and classes, but there are also free “healing and grieving” sessions open to all, those interested can join the waitlist online

Other free and sliding scale options include Taraji P. Henson’s Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation which offers free group therapy for teenagers and young adults. Rachel Cargle’s Loveland Foundation fund, which covers the cost of therapy for BIPOC people, Sista Afya which offers free support groups and the Black Men Heal fund which helps cover the cost of therapy.  

Setting Boundaries Around Activism

It’s OK to set limits of how many challenging conversations you can have, how much heavy subject matter you can watch or listen to and how many brutal police killings you can watch.

“Racial inequality can result in BIPOC experiencing PTSD, racial-battle fatigue, anxiety, and even depression. These mental health issues, when untreated, can also lead to somatic symptoms such as gut imbalances, muscle aches, back aches, and even medical issues such as heart disease, high cholesterol, and more. This is why we say that racism is a public health issue,” says Minaa B., an NYC-based psychotherapist, speaker and writer, as reported to Teen Vogue

It’s also important to tend to your most simple, basic needs.

Ashley McGirt, a racial trauma therapist, urges rest and recharge, “Rest is a revolutionary act. We have to sleep. That really allows our brains time to process. When our brain isn’t getting sleep, it’s not charging. It’s literally like a charger for our iPhone. And we know how we can’t survive without our iPhone charger.”

Prioritize Finding Joy

“Black boy joy is an idea that combats the fragility of Black masculinity” Ivan Land Jr

When you prioritize examining systems of oppression, trauma and brutality, it’s unavoidable that you’ll be on edge and filled with painful emotions. Sometimes, focusing on other things can feel like a waste of time. But it’s important to do so. 

Shanae Smith, a first-year sociology student, says that Black people “should be allowed to feel any other emotion besides anger.”

“People don’t have to always be angry to be involved. I always say that. People could be the happiest person in the world and still be involved in that. I know people still now try to promote Black joy and Black positivity… we’ve been exposed to years and years of traumatic experiences and we constantly relive and relearn that. To stay with that information plus the new information coming out now. ”

Smith takes care of herself by journaling, meditating, breathing exercises, taking breaks from social media and sometimes choosing not to watch the videos of another unarmed Black man being killed, saying “it doesn’t help to have that built up anger.”

Finding ways to take care of herself is the only reason she’s able to continue engaging in difficult conversations, continuing to learn more and, perhaps most radically, living as a Black woman in America who is battling systemic injustice but refusing to have her joy taken from her. 

About Amayah Spence 45 Articles
Amayah Spence is a fourth-year psychology major, minoring in journalism and serving as editor-in-chief of the Oracle. She believes journalism should lend a microphone to those whose voices are not typically amplified without one, and that is the goal she consistently pursues as a journalist. Previously, she wrote for the River, the Daily Free Press and the Rockland County Times.