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Origins of self-care and why activists and advocates need to practice it

Natasha Takyi-Micah
Treuhaft Fellow for Health Planning
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April 10, 2023
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We live in a highly stressed society in the United States. According to a survey conducted by The Harris Poll, adults mainly cited violence and crime (75 percent), inflation (83 percent) and the political climate (66 percent) as major sources of stress. Another significant source of stress is the current racial climate (62 percent). This is not surprising, given the fact that racism has been embedded in our systems and institutions. Non-white individuals who endure discrimination, racism and prejudice everyday deal with stress that negatively impacts their health. And for those who are activists or policy advocates, they are stressed to the point of experiencing burnout.

 Self-care can help manage stress and burnout, as demonstrated throughout both the civil rights and women’s movements.

Self-care can help manage stress and burnout, as demonstrated throughout both the civil rights and women’s movements.

Origins of self-care and its impact in civil rights movement and women’s movement

Before the Civil Rights Movement and Women’s Movement changed the notion of self-care, it was originally used as a medical concept by health professionals. Self-care was a concept used for patients to either prevent or manage ailments by eating well or exercising. Before the late 1960s and early 1970s, self-care applied to patients who were mentally ill and older adults who needed long-term care.  

During the Civil Rights Movement, self-care evolved into a political act. In 1972, the Black Panther Party hosted their Black Community Survival Conference in Oakland, California. It was a street fair, a rally and block party where information about their programs were distributed to the public. The Black Panther Party’s programs consisted of access to healthy foods and clinics established across the United States for medical professionals to treat Black individuals for illnesses and diseases that were common in the Black community (e.g. sickle-cell anemia and lead poisoning).  

The purpose behind their free programs was to use them as a coping mechanism against both the police and government harassment and surveillance Black people endured, and to help fill gaps in the lack of medical resources in their communities.

 Self-care wasn’t viewed as a luxury, but as a technique for self-empowerment to continue to fight social injustices.

Some women leaders from the Civil Rights era were engaged in self-care. Ericka Huggins and Angela Davis of the Black Panther Party used yoga, mindfulness, and meditation practices while incarcerated as a form of self-care. Rosa Parks practiced yoga for many years. Self-care wasn’t viewed as a luxury, but as a technique for self-empowerment to continue to fight social injustices.  

Individuals in the Women’s Movement also engaged in self-care to manage challenges stemming from the political and social environment in the United States. Sexism was prevalent in the medical field, as staff perceived female bodies as “‘inherently sick’” if they were middle or upper class, or as a “vector of disease’” if they belonged to the poor or working classes. Due to medical staff and providers’ hostility toward women’s reproductive rights, women’s liberation activists opened their own clinics.

Activist burnout exists and what individuals can do about it

Earlier this year, I attended the Families USA Health Action Conference, where I learned about activist burnout and resiliency in the advocacy space. Activist burnout occurs when a social or political activist feels depressed, overwhelmed, hopeless, or frustrated after an extensive period of activism. Activist burnout is not a medical condition, but it can lead to mental health ailments. According to Cecile Hyewon Bhang and Latifat Cabirou—speakers from this particular conference session—some signs and symptoms of activist burnout include:

  • Lethargy
  • Depression
  • Cynicism
  • High blood pressure
  • Exhaustion
  • Memory concerns
  • Helplessness or hopelessness
  • Anger and frustration
  • Inefficacy
  • Weakened immune system Fortunately, self-care can prevent activist burnout. One of the sources that the speakers provided was a list of ways for activists and advocates to get involved in self-care. Some strategies are reducing some tasks, meditation, exercising and acknowledging that negative thoughts about yourself and your work might not be legitimate.
 Activism and advocacy are closely related.

Self-care sustains us while we do the hard work

Activism and advocacy are closely related. While I was listening to the session, I was in the room with other advocates who were all fighting for health equity for various populations. We regularly experience challenges while providing services or making changes in policies, which can be a lengthy process to accomplish. As for activists and advocates who are non-white, like myself, our stress magnifies because we are advocating for equity for our populations in mostly white settings—settings where we feel invisible or unheard. As an advocate, some ways I engage in self-care are watching my favorite TV shows, working out, and at times, travelling. Reflecting on how advocates and activists practice self-care, I think of a famous quote by Audre Lorde:

 Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.

I believe activists and advocates need to acknowledge this, because in order to support others, we must participate in self-care so we have the energy and tenacity to face systems that don’t favor marginalized populations.

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