Self Care and Social Justice

On the first day of my training to become a sexual assault survivor’s advocate at Earlham College in their RAINN-recognized advocacy program, I came to class prepared for the hard stuff.  I even had brought a box of tissues, knowing that the material would be difficult.  What I didn’t expect, though, was a lesson on stuffed animals, long runs, Cherry Garcia ice cream, and listening to good music.

The first week of advocacy training focused almost completely on self care.  Now, before this lesson, I suppose I considered self care in a passive sense . . . I knew that I needed to do some things that make me happy to add balance to my hard work.  However, never before had I considered self care as not only vital but the first, most primary exercise in any social justice work.

We were tasked with creating a self care plan – a carefully-crafted plan for how we would take care of ourselves as we trained and eventually worked in the trying, hurt-filled, saddening, yet incredibly fulfilling work of advocacy.  My self care plan involved eating licorice, cuddling with Chickadee Longbottom (a stuffed chick I’ve had for a long time), and listening to a mix of music that makes me most happy.

Cat Stevens “Trouble,” One of the songs included in my self care mix

My dog, Chloe, and I working on tricks

When I was in Chicago, doing some of the hardest social justice work anyone can do (teaching in a low-income school), I made time to work in clay, throwing on my ceramics wheel at least once a week.  In the midst of my crazy work hours, I always made time to take my dog to the park to learn new tricks.  Though I didn’t have much time to cook, I tried to make sure that I set aside time to prepare healthy meals.

Unfortunately, I found my time teaching to be the kind of work that drained my soul.  I am sincerely grateful to those that can sustain themselves working in the schools that most need their hard work, but my self care had to extend beyond healthy meals and pup time.  I realized that part of self care in work for social justice is finding a way to work for justice that sustains oneself, that sustains one’s soul rather than drains it.

Thus, I had to take my leave from teaching and move into the work I am currently doing.  Though in some ways I know that no work I could do could be as radically impactful as teaching, I have managed to find a way to sustain my work in social justice.  Every day I feel good, feel fulfilled, in working to help businesses and schools build more inclusive environments and working to help young people confront prejudice, bigotry, and hate in their lives and communities.  Yet even in this work, I need my own self care plan: Dog time, friend time, ultimate frisbee, and a little bit of dancing now and then.

However, finding a way to make the work sustainable does not (and should not) mean moving on when the work gets too hard – something I struggle with in my decision to leave teaching.  Instead, it should be finding the work that sustains your soul and then finding ways to realize self care within the work – particularly as the work gets tough, as it undoubtedly will.

My friend Alfie, a Pediatrician who works in a low-income youth clinic, realized a while back that her work was no longer sustainable.  In her efforts to reconnect with the work, Alfie realized that what was missing was sustained relationships with her patients, so she reached out to the administration, and since has been able to work with the same patients over a longer period of time, allowing for relationships.  Self care within the work!!

Whatever it looks like, those of us who work for social justice need to take the time to intentionally consider self care, implementing a plan for caring for ourselves as we work to serve others.

What’s in your self care plan?


4 thoughts on “Self Care and Social Justice

  1. Great post, Jamie!

    I think it’s really important for people who do service work to know that they have to take care of themselves first before they can help others. I am about to start reading, “Therapist’s Guide to Self-Care,” to help prepare me for when I start working in the counseling field next year.

    My self care plan includes exercise, time with friends, and time for creativity. Although I need to get better about keeping these things as a priority when life is stressful.


  2. I love this Jamie! It makes me realize that I need to address self care with more intention, not just personally, but with my entire clinic of colleagues!
    Self care is so important because you simply cannot do your job well, and do justice to your students/patients/clients, if you are unnable to do your job with an open and charitable heart. You need a heart full of love received in order to be able to give it away generously. Plus, the ultimate goal is to be able to do service work forever, not simply for short unsustainable jaunts.

    This brings to mind the issue of white privilege as well. It is a privilege that we are able to walk away from the work when it begins to feel bad or inadequately fulfilling, we are not expected to continue when the costs begin to outweigh the benefits. If I walk away from my clinic, there will be no direct ill effects on my friends or family. My children will not suffer if I walk away. And no one will label me a “sellout” if I take an easier road. But I don’t believe I can walk away. I believe that my daughters WILL suffer if there continues to exist a huge disparity between their quality of life and the quality of the lives of the many children living in poverty. I believe that my children are no more important to the world than every other child, and it is my responsibility to do all I can for ALL children.

    This also brings up a good opportunity to discuss the importance of affirmative action. Because social problems are so huge and because people tend to burn out and move on to other endeavors, it is essential to have people who are from these communities of need, and who are invested in the futures of THEIR own families and friends, in positions where they are able to act as doctors, teachers, etc. in their own communities. Truly, it doesn’t matter who is the “most” qualified, because we all know that affirmative action does NOT benefit people who are unqualified, but it matters who is more likely to provide service in the future in communities where they are needed. We know that people from underserved communities are more likely to return and work there after they are finished with their educations and trainings.

    I’d just finish by saying that while I can imagine that you would be a incredible teacher, I think you are born to do what you do now, because you are brilliant at it.

  3. Jamie, I posted this above, but upon further thought, I decided that the only thing of value I really had to say was this…
    It is a tragedy that some children live their entire lives in a world that we are unable to bear for short periods of time as visitors. That is unacceptable. And we should all do whatever we can do, on whatever level, for whatever length of time, until that is no longer the case.

  4. […] such, I am taking my own council from my post on Self Care and Social Justice and keeping this week’s post short so that I may take some time for […]

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