Challenges: what is the range of issues that affect our ability to pay attention to self-care?

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Challenges: what is the range of issues that affect our ability to pay attention to self-care?

What is the range of issues that affect our ability, as individuals and organizations, to pay attention to self-care?

Why: what are the factors that contribute to these issues?

Note: This dialogue is PUBLIC. Do not share any private or sensitive information. For advice on a specific situation, please contact a participant privately.

Rethinking activist identity

Obviously there are many factors which impact on activist self-care (or self-neglect) like the scale of social problems encountered, under-staffing, lack of funds and resources, discriminatory practices... but in this post I'd like to consider what we mean by 'activist'.

I think activist identity is very loaded with cultural assumptions. My own context is as a white middle class Australian, so it would be good to hear other perspectives.

At a workshop many years ago I asked people to think of activists who inspired them. The participants tended to think of high profile people from history, such as Ghandi and Nelson Mandela. A strong assumption of self-sacrifice came through in what people said. Many of the stories of activism are of people suffering greatly, being targeted by powerholders, being isolated from their comrades, going to jail, being jailed or murdered. I think this history of our mistreatment is internalised in our identities as activists. To be an activist means to suffer, to endure hardship. We don't have time for frivolous things like good nutrition and happy relationships!

I think it would be good to work on a different story. Yes we struggle. But there is joy in our lives and work. We have strong motivations that guide us - including deep care for people and the planet, and hope for a better world. In struggle there is solidarity. Close relationships between people offer a powerful challenge to the soul-destroying individualism of neo-liberalism. We sow the seeds for a new society with love.

Many years ago I was active in a left-wing group that worked its members very hard. Socialising happened in the context of the political group, everything was focused in the direction of more work and less distractions. The way we lived did not look appealing. I became attracted to ideas around making the means by which we work consistent with the ends we wanted to create. If we envisage a society of equity, respect, freedom of expression, joy... why don't we start living that way now? By living well, acting powerfully, and not settling for isolation, we can inspire others to take action for change.

What does 'activist' mean to you? Is there a way we can include self-care in the picture of a well-functioning activist?

What does it mean to be an activist and a mother?

Holly - your thoughts and questions around activists and identity reminded me of a film called 'A Crushing Love'.  It explores many of these questions, but adds another layer of cultural assumptions and expectations - that of the identify of being a mother.  What does it mean to be an activist and a mother?  How do these women do it all?

Here is a description of the film that can be found on the Women Make Movies website (you can also order the film on the site):

A CRUSHING LOVE, Sylvia Morales’ sequel to her groundbreaking history of Chicana women, CHICANA (1979), honors the achievements of five activist Latinas—labor organizer/farm worker leader Dolores Huerta, author/educator Elizabeth “Betita” Martinez, writer/playwright/educator Cherrie Moraga, civil rights advocate Alicia Escalante, and historian/writer Martha Cotera—and considers how these single mothers managed to be parents and effect broad-based social change at the same time.

Questions about reconciling competing demands are ones that highly acclaimed filmmaker Sylvia Morales, a working mother of two herself, pondered aloud as she prepared this documentary. Historical footage and recent interviews with each woman reveal their contributions to key struggles for Latino empowerment and other major movements of our time. Both they and their grown children thoughtfully explore the challenges, adaptations, rewards, and missteps involved in juggling dual roles. Scenes of Morales at work and at home, often humorously overlaid with her teenage daughter’s commentary, bring the dilemma up to date. Chicana continues to be used in classrooms more than thirty years after it was made; A CRUSHING LOVE is a memorable sequel which offers us indelible portraits of unforgettable women, including one of Morales herself.

You can watch a 5-minute clip of the film on YouTube by clicking on the image below.

Thanks Kristin, looks like an

Thanks Kristin, looks like an interesting film.

One thing I've been thinking about is how activism can link into other identities, and especially our experiences of oppression.

For example, most people raised as women (whether they parent or not) have experienced socialisation as caregivers. This sets us up to prioritise the needs of others over our own, to focus on making sure others are okay, potentially at our own expense. Self-care is about treating ourselves like we're important and our wellbeing matters. It doesn't help us to do that if we have gender baggage which says it's wrong.

Another example is the way class oppression sets working class people up to work extremely hard and with little value placed on physical wellbeing. The motivations to work for social change can lock into this class baggage. In some activist groups I've been in I've noticed middle class people taking on the thinking and talking parts of leadership, while working class people undertake demanding practical work, with little recognition.This has been a combination of unexamined prejudice in group dynamics, as well as individual 'default positions' which haven't been challenged.

I've made some big generalisations here, and I'm interested to hear other people's perspectives. My broad view is that the mistreatment we experience through various identities and oppressions can get mixed in with activist identity... and the mix doesn't tend to leave a lot of room for self-care. What do you think?

Sorry, I meant to also say

Sorry, I meant to also say that I don't think is inevitable. People frequently do challenge the way they've been socialised to behave or think about themselves. And people survive and thrive and engage in really impressive action despite this 'baggage'. I do think that individuals and activist groups can benefit from increasing awareness about oppression. We can consciously set things up differently.

What is the range of issues etc..

At a mundane level, what I have seen is the lack of organizational or even social support for self care as a primary issue in the neglect or omittance of self care practices.  We know social support is a primary protective factor for self care---so its interesting that various social pressures to perform--achieve--accomplish--exceed (in some societies; not all) often contribute to high stress/low self care working or even social environments. Referencing, again, my recent time in Haiti--there is still a lot of talk about self care, and it does appear that for many reasons, the Haiti Earthquake may be pivotal in our understanding of the absolute essentialness of organizational/senior management/social level support for staff support/self care practices and systems.  However, despite many heroic efforts (mostly by smaller, local organizations) to really promote self care and care of other in the ongoing post earthquake efforts there, only those larger and more established NGO's with already existing staff support programs are really engaged in activities that support self care. 

question to Amber

Dear Amber, could you please elaborate on your last comment?

"However, despite many heroic efforts (mostly by smaller, local organizations) to really promote self care and care of other in the ongoing post earthquake efforts there, only those larger and more established NGO's with already existing staff support programs are really engaged in activities that support self care.

Why did the smaller, local organisaitons fail to be "really engaged" in activities that support self-care?  The obvious answer would be that they lack resources, but I suspect there might be more reasons.  I am especially interested to learn how to support  local and less-resourced organisaitons and communities to undertake such activities.  If others who read this have more experiences and examples, please share them?

Thank you. 

challenges to self care

Here is my elaboration....thanks for asking because I actually think I wasn't clear in my first comment..what I meant to say was two things:

1. Of the larger INGO's, only those with already established programs seem to be effectively supporting staff;

2. The heroic efforts were actually made by smaller, more local organizations---many of whom are staffed mostly by Haitians; therefore, the impact of the earthquake on every member of their staff is significant. So yes--while resources are an issue in smaller, local organizations abilities to implement comprehensive  staff support programs; they were also the most committed, creative, and strategic in terms of pursuing staff support programs after the earthquake.

One of the things I did was to start an NGO Staff Support Working Group that meets monthly.   As a group, we share ideas, problems, issues, resources and strategies for staff support within individual agencies and perhaps (in discussion) as a collective effort. We have provided some training so that each organization can develop staff support programs within their organizational context, culture, need and budget, and continue to find ways to cross-fertilize one another's efforts. Its been a fairly low-cost way to  promote staff support/self care. 

I do believe the humanitarian sector, activists, human rights workers might consider how we can co-create staff support programs, or systems, or resources, that we all share.  Many of us who have been working together in the area of staff support have begun to conceptualize how a coordinated effort, external to the agencies themselves, might both alleviate the burden on individual agencies  who are already taxed with programmatic activities, and increase access to staff support for  agencies (activist, human rights, humanitarian) of all sizes and budgets.

Haiti staff-care

ambergray wrote:

One of the things I did was to start an NGO Staff Support Working Group that meets monthly.   As a group, we share ideas, problems, issues, resources and strategies for staff support within individual agencies and perhaps (in discussion) as a collective effort. We have provided some training so that each organization can develop staff support programs within their organizational context, culture, need and budget, and continue to find ways to cross-fertilize one another's efforts. Its been a fairly low-cost way to  promote staff support/self care. 

Dear Amber,

Thanks for sharing your fresh “field” experience. I believe that Haiti earthquake is a very large scale disaster that also challenges NGOs in how to provide staff-care in emergency contexts, since it is a very specific one, especially if we take into consideration other staff-care realities, situations and environments.

Since the very beginning, when I was still working for Save the Children, I tried to follow the so important Haiti staff care network meetings and, as far as I remember, it was a very productive initiative. From time to time, I receive the invitation to join the network discussion held in Haiti and reading now  what you wrote about how much this network has supported local and international NGOs in the field.  I am wondering if those meetings are being somehow recorded and reported. I am sure this is a very precious example from the field in how to respond large scale emergencies during its different phases.

Do you have any material (minutes, reports, etc..) produced by this group? I have the views of the Interagency Standing Committee (IASC) Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) Reference Group in response to the Haiti crisis that I found at http://www.psychosocialnetwork.net/groups/153/ - but this is related with the MHPSS work with the communities and not with the aid workers.

Range of issues affecting Human Rights activists

Non acknowledgement of the activist  

Knowledge gaps  in human rights issues  makes  human rights activist to  lose confidence and lose confidence   of human rights  activism  especially at organizational level  where an organization may treat activism as “ business as usual”

 

Anxieties on whether the human rights work  will be carried out to completion

Over involvement in a given issue such that the activist does not have time for themselves

Range of issues affecting Human Rights activists

Non acknowledgement of the activist  

Knowledge gaps  in human rights issues  makes  human rights activist to  lose confidence and lose confidence   of human rights  activism  especially at organizational level  where an organization may treat activism as “ business as usual”

 

Anxieties on whether the human rights work  will be carried out to completion

Over involvement in a given issue such that the activist does not have time for themselves

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