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
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?