Love and Afrofeminism: 5 Core Self-Care Principles Every Activist Should Live By

AfrofemLoveIn March, I shared my philosophy about using self care as a tool to creating sustainable movements in a piece I wrote following an appearance: Celebrating Audre Lorde with Jamaican Feminists: Media Activism, Self Care, and Virtual Sisterhood.

The responses I received–both at the event and around the post–were overwhelming positive. But the subsequent requests for practical day-to-day advice for caring for oneself while caring for community prompted me to reflect on what it means for activists to really practice self care… not just as some fluffy theoretical concept reserved for the privileged, but as an accessible set of principles, applied consistently towards a healthy, sustainable lifestyle.

Incidentally, it was around this time last year that I launched my popular Love and Afrofeminism (#afrofemlove) series, through which I explored gender, sexuality, and race issues through the lens of empathy, compassion, and self-love.

Hence, I couldn’t be happier to relaunch my #afrofemlove series with an offering of the principles that have guided me in my own journey thus far. The following principles can certainly be used by everyone, but I especially hope they resonate with my fellow activists, people whose work revolves around the practice of loving so many others that, too often, they forget to love themselves, and each others.

Here’s to no more of that.

5 Core Self-Care Principles Every Activists Should Live By

1) Self-Care Requires Planning 

Plan the pampering ahead of time. Okay, to be honest, it’s often not “pampering” I’m doing; I’m recovering, resting, slowing down. The truth is I’m a workaholic; if I don’t plan or schedule my self-care ahead of time, it’ll never happen; I’ll just keep going and going, until I crash. It’s a shame, but after years of teetering on the verge of burnout, I’ve learned to stop denying that I have a problem, and have learned to work around it. 

For instance, as a way of punctuating my non-stop work schedule with “rest stops,” my partner and I now plan at least one semi-sized vacation every 6 weeks or so, and about six months ahead of time. The rest stops could include anything from visiting family for a long weekend to traveling overseas. I apply the same planning effort to my weekly and monthly schedules as well: mid-week lunches with friends and lunchtime runs are my favorite. The best part? I usually that forget I’ve planned ahead.

Nothing beats getting a vacation calendar reminder (“France Vacation in 5 Days!”) right in the middle of a hell week, receiving a text from a friend confirming that we’re still on for cooking dinner together the following evening, or even taking a “Disney sing-a-long” break for 15 minutes on Youtube during my lunch break. Laugh all you want, it puts the biggest smile on my face and it costs me nothing, which brings me to my next point…

2) Self Care Doesn’t Have to Cost Money

Yoga retreats, spa days, and island getaways are awesome, yet, despite perceptions, they’re definitely not the only way to practice self-care, and they’re certainly not always accessible (or sustainable); such  luxurious activities require that you interrupt your regular schedule (and budget) to “recharge”, but not everyone can spend money on a last minute getaway.

As a child, I remember always being able to create fun in and out of any environment–my leftover food, bedroom walls, my mother’s lotions. Then, adulthood happened, and I went from being the child whose imagination could fill an entire afternoon to living as a young professional who only saw fun in five categories: shopping, clubbing, movies, dining out, and gyming. And whilst, I enjoyed those activities, when I left the steady paycheck for the life of a social entrepreneur, I experienced a serious decline in my mental health because I could no longer buy my way into feeling stronger or healthier.

The sudden change in income was probably the best thing that happened to me now that I think about it: after years of belonging to a gym, I learned to run outside; after years of late night takeout, I discovered the joy of cooking new recipes I found online; I got back into playing music (guitar); and most importantly, I got back into reading, writing, and in the case of no internet, singing entire segments of my iTunes library by choosing a random letter of the alphabet. (Don’t judge). The best part? All my favorite hobbies are free.

3) Self Care Doesn’t Have to Cost Time, Either

A few months ago, an important, provocative (albeit insensitive and condescending  article titled, “An End to Self-Care” sparked debate in activist circles about the elitism and individualism in self-care (vs community-care). I was pissed, yet, I must admit, the article forced me to reflect on the ways  in which I practice self-care as a lifestyle (vs. a quick fix when I’ve been “bad”); I practice integrating self-care into my everyday and approach it the way I do brushing my teeth, eating lunch, even using the bathroom–not as activities that ‘cost’ me time, but as necessary aspects of every day, healthy living.

That said, as a business owner who works *all the time* (’cause when I stop working, I stop getting paid–most startup entrepreneurs don’t get paid time off), coming up with accessible, every day self-care practices that I can seamlessly incorporate into my day has been critical. Sure, there are days on which I can afford the time,  and thus choose working out, taking leisurely walks, playing video games, watching films on Netflix etc. But I have many more “hell days” when I’m up  at 6 am and can’t stop working till 9 or 10 at night. How to sustain myself then?

Several simple ways, actually. For one, I make sure that I enjoy my workspace. As this is a room in my home, I need to make sure it’s tidy, organized, and flowing with clean, fresh energy, since this boosts my productivity. I build in a reward system into my workplan (e.g. “Once I turn in this article, I will make myself some yummy honey-ginger tea!”); this may seem silly, but it keeps my work outlook positive, and based on successes (rather than failures), which reduces the risk of stress.

4) Self-Care Doesn’t Come in a One-Size Fits All

Quite often, when I mention that I’m feeling overworked or managing stress, people will tell me to do yoga. “Yoga is awesome. You should really try it. There’s nothing better. Om Om Om. Namaste.” I love asking other people what they do to recharge, how they integrate self-care into their routines, and what new home remedies I can try out for myself, precisely for the reason that not every “revolutionary self-care practice” will work for me.

Take yoga for example: one cannot deny the benefits, but I’m not disciplined enough to practice yoga on my own and attending group sessions filled with white women dressed in fancy yoga garb (and who repeatedly give you weird, othering looks) only reminds me of my work as an activist–fighting racism and classism everywhere, even in a damn yoga class. This is not my idea of relaxing. But, when I voice this to others, I’m often told, “You haven’t tried it long enough… Find another class… Trust me, it really will do wonders for your mental health.”

But the truth is this: I tried yoga for ten years. I prefer a good, sweaty run outside to sitting still and breathing any day. On cold, rainy days, dancing in my living room to Afropop music for 30 minutes works just as well. For nurturing mindfulness, I write in my journal while listening to epic movie scores, such as my favorite from Lady in the Water, “The Healing.” And for a sense of “inner peace,” I sit on my porch next to my favorite tree, Sanchez, and daydream. Sometimes, I draw my daydreams–stick figures mostly; I trace out scenes from my life as it is and call forth the future I want using colored pencils and magazine clippings. See, what works for others, won’t always work for me, and that’s okay; caring for yourself means taking the time to learn what your self needs.

5) Self-Care and Community Care are Interconnected

There’s been quite a bit of debate between proponents of self-care and community care, but they needn’t be oppositional forces. In fact, I’ve found but personally and professionally that both are critical for sustainability and survival.

The fact is this: If group spaces practiced mindfulness more intentionally, I wouldn’t have to retreat into ‘self-care defense mode’ as often I as do. If all my bosses respected vacation days, if meeting facilitators integrated more 5 minute breaks, if activist leaders extended their principles of self-care to the management of their teams and partners, if companies — hell, I’m on a roll here — reimbursed gyms alongside all the fancy dinners and booze, we’d all be better off; we’d all feel better supported in our own efforts to take better care of ourselves. 

So that’s it folks–my work in progress: 5 self-care principles to help guide (y)our practice, and help ensure that we’re living and sharing self-care and community care tips, advice, and tools that are accessible to as many people as possible. I hope you find them useful. 

What other core principles would you add to this list? 

  • Lesley

    I’ve been an activist for more than two decades now. I made all the right noises and did all the right things to love and care for myself but it still hijacked me. Its not always enough to visit friends, go on vacation or just disengage. Whether we like it or not the same kind of nurturing we are giving is the same kind we need. You need to tackle the rage and the anger that made you become an activist in the first place. We need to fight for ourselves. We need to face our demons, the ones that brought us to the work and its a daily ongoing process. You can’t EVER work all night or not make time to run or do yoga or whatever other exercise you do (sex does not count as exercise though some people seem to think it does, it helps though its an important part of the self care). Maybe cause I’m older I feel it more. When I was younger I did the same thing, some days I just had too much to do and I didn’t feel it quite so acutely when I put work before myself. Now I can’t get away with not sleeping 8 hours, or not getting up and doing yoga in the morning or not stopping work at 6pm even if the deadline is first thing in the morning. And I know that this reduced capacity and the myriad health issues that I am battling now are the result of those choices to put something someone else first. The 4 hours a night of sleep, the 12 hour work days, taking calls at midnight cause you know it could be some woman that is in trouble, well now I’m in trouble. Where do broken activists go? What am I trying to say? If you run everyday at 6pm dont let anything get in the way of that short of a force majeur. If you go to bed at 10 pm turn off the computer at 8.30 no matter what. A wise man and a good friend told me “Lesley, you’ll die and these people will look for someone else to save them”. Sorta like Jesus dictum about the poor will always be among you. the work doesnt end, it will never end. You must come first no matter what, and while I know that the fact of being self employed seems to suggest you must work harder and longer hours that shouldn’t be the case. Your clients will respect your time and your principles when you do, if youre the one to do the job where else will they go? Time management. If you think it will take 3 days to deliver tell them it will take four or five if you can get away with. Don’t put pressure on yourself. Of course I’m just projecting my experience but I could name a number of activists that died recently at way too young and I wonder if te accolades we said at their funerals really make up for it. I want be around to enjoy my grand kids. the care you take of your self now will pay off or the neglect could reduce your quality of life or even shorten it. the world will still need changing, there’s always something that needs changing in the world. Love and power to you and all your readers

    • Spectra Speaks

      So… if you ever wanna guest post on my blog, PLEASE let me know. I really appreciated this passionate call for so many activists to WAKE UP. Yes, our work is important. Yes, lives are at stake, people are dying, etc etc. But we’re not absolved of our humanity simply because we seek to improve the experience of it. We need rest. We need sustenance. We need SUPPORT. We matter, just as much as the people we’re fighting for. I wonder if we deny that truth because deep down so many of us feel devalued, insignificant, undeserving of the kind of commitment we give to others… almost as though we’re trying to earn our way to love? I don’t know. I just know that I woke up one day in my mid twenties, and realized something was VERY wrong with the lifestyle I had chosen. This path for “social good” was literally killing me. I felt empty, unappreciated, burnt out… never again. If we REALLY are committed to change for others, we will do our best to make sure our work is sustainable. We will remain HUMBLE in the truth that when we die, the work will continue, as you say. Thanks so much for all those truth nuggets. (And I’m dead serious about the guest posting!)

  • demetria

    I absolutely love this! I especially appreciate what you said about self care and community care being interconnected. So many times we see them as two completely different and polarized events that happen when in actuality they depend on one another. This polarization of self vs community care is just another way that an individualistic culture emerges and manifests. We have so much work to do to move away from the “me of centre” type of responses that we’re conditioned to use and value and move towards the recognition that we’re all interconnected and deeply interdependent.

    Also, I’m really bad at planning self-care time for myself, so that tip was invaluable to me!

    Thanks :)

    • Spectra Speaks

      Thank you so much @demetria! I toiled over this post for a while. And, funny enough, I’m still thinking about expanding upon each of them — particularly that last one about community care. I agree the polarization isn’t helpful; in some cultures, the “me center’ is default, but in some others (like mine), the “community / never – me” attitude can be just as, if not more, detrimental to each person’s and their community’s health overall. We need to get into the habit of seeing ourselves as connected to others, never shying away from the responsibility we have of creating the kinds of communities we wish to live in, but also never denying an individual’s right to survival. Thank you also for commenting! This was a very personal piece to write so I appreciate that you took the time to let me know what it meant to you. #communityloverocks

      • demetria

        I love this! Thank you for bringing up the other side of the coin. Balance is so key. I have so much hope for our capacity to bring greatness, love, light and accountability into this world :)

        So much love & gratitude,

  • meadowgirl

    i don’t like yoga either!!!!! thank you thank you thank you for this. it was reposted onto our Austin NOW FB page. this is an excellent reminder of things i can do to help care for myself and others. <3

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