Holistic Self Care for Changemakers: A Conversation with Loretta Pyles

Conversation Details

Dates of conversation: 
Wednesday, November 9, 2022
Conversation type: 

This podcast episode of Human Rights Chat addresses the topic of self care in human rights activism through an interview with author, Loretta Pyles. In her book, Healing Justice: Holistic Self-Care for Changemakers, Loretta positions self-care at the center of human rights work, drawing on her experience in yoga and mindfulness to offer a holistic approach to prolonging our advocacy. The article below provides a summary of the podcast episode.


Activists do crucial work. They fight against injustices and protect the most vulnerable. Yet this challenging work often has a detrimental effect on activist mental health. Human rights defenders are chronically overworked and under-resourced. They are frequently exposed to distressing situations, both directly and indirectly. Because of this, activists and human rights defenders experience high levels of fatigue, burnout and secondary trauma.

On the podcast, New Tactics staff interviewed Loretta Pyles, a #HumanRightsChat leaders and author of Healing Justice: Holistic Self-Care for Changemakers. Loretta Pyles, Ph.D., is Professor at the School of Social Welfare at the University at Albany, SUNY. She is a workshop leader, organizational consultant and a meditation and yoga teacher. Her scholarship centers on:

  • community organizing
  • environmental disasters
  • gender-based violence
  • racial and economic justice
  • holistic well-being and 
  • rewilding

Loretta’s roots in activism began with workingwith survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault in the anti-violence movement. She continues to work with organizations to promote healing justice, mindful practice and integrative self-care through trauma-informed and anti-oppression lenses.

Loretta’s more recent work focuses on rewilding. This movement aims to reconnect the human world with nature through:

  • ancestral practices
  • herbalism
  • nomadism
  • mindfulness
  • forest bathing
  • permaculture
  • minimalism
  • and more practices

Loretta is analyzing the impacts of these practices on human resilience and wellbeing–an interest that spurred from studying the effects of natural disasters.

In this conversation, we discuss:

  • Systemic barriers to the right to rest and leisure
  • How individuals can prioritize their own wellness, and
  • What organizations can do to counter the mental health risks of activism

What kinds of messaging around self care do we receive in our educational institutions, organizations and society at large?

Many of us are getting the same rhetorical messages about self-care–that it’s something we should be doing in theory, but unfortunately, institutions are often hesitant to change structural conditions to accommodate true self care. Additionally, most of us have received the message that the purpose of self care is just to “patch you up” and get you back to being a productive member of the organization or community. Nonprofit and academic institutions often promote self-care performatively without consideration for the wellbeing of their staff as whole persons.

What are your thoughts on the culture and stereotypes that exist in human rights work and how we can address them?

Human rights work is often one of unrealistic expectations for human rights defenders. But according to Loretta Pyles, the culture in human rights work is a microcosm of the larger culture. It’s replicating the messages and structures of the larger culture, even though it is value oriented.

We mentioned one of New Tactics’ recommended books, The Vulnerable Humanitarian, by Gemma Houldley. This book discusses the archetype of “the perfect humanitarian.” Loretta described how this idea of the perfect humanitarian is rooted in white supremacy and white saviorism–a colonial model that has pervaded the humanitarian field. We have to disentangle colonial narratives, structures and practices from the culture of human rights work. We must rethink structurally the organizational practices that continue to upload this model.

Healing Justice looks at the way violence is manifesting both structurally and internally. Both types of work are crucial to disentangling the ways colonial structures are embedded in our own minds, hearts and bodies.

Since social work and human rights work is often female-dominated, this led us into an inquiry into how patriarchy is functioning within our organizational structures. In the nonprofit world, it’s common for leadership of organizations to be male and frontline humanitarian workers to be female. Women have been conditioned to be caretakers and put others’ needs before their own. Thus, they take on a lot of the emotional labor in our organizations such as mediating conflict and regulating the team. This tends to burn women out more so than men.

What can activists do internally and individually to sustain their longevity in the field while still trying to disrupt oppressive systems?

Activists experience burnout, fatigue and vicarious trauma at the level of combat veterans. They are targeted and criminalized more and more for their work. While we cannot “self care” our way out of oppressive systems, there is some amount of internal work that can be done.

Individually, we have to prioritize ourselves first. Just like when you’re on an airplane–it’s critical to put your own face-mask on before helping others. For many people, this requires a process of relearning how to prioritize their own wellbeing.

Additionally, we have to frame individual self care within the context of collective care and Healing Justice. The healing work we do on our own behalf affects everyone around us. Caring for ourselves has a positive impact on other people in our lives. It can be helpful to reframe self-care from a holistic perspective that reflects all dimensions of the self–body, mind, heart and spirit. We have to tend to each of these areas. For example, daily exercise might also have a positive impact on your emotions and creativity. 

“Healing justice is both a paradigm and a set of practices that allows practitioners to heal themselves at the same time that they heal the world.” ~Loretta Pyles  

Ideally, self care includes activities that bring joy and pleasure. Loretta mentioned Adrienne Maree Brown’s book, Pleasure Activism, another read which comes recommended on New Tactics recent reading list: 10 Reads for Human Rights Activism.

We must be aware of the ways in which patriarchy, white supremacy and capitalism ultimately damage our hearts and relationships with one another. Self care is necessary for the work, but self care is also necessary for the self. It’s crucial to keeping us in this work for the long haul. Loretta discussed the process of “aligning the inner with the outer.” We should bring compassion to our own selves–attention, care and breathing space. When we are stuck in our own personal cycles of struggle, we have a hard time tapping into our own creativity, which is necessary in order to imagine a new world forward.

Do you feel that there are issues of equity and accessibility surrounding self-care, especially for activists living in low-resource contexts?

There’s a lot happening in the world. 100 million people are displaced and many more are living in areas affected by conflict. Many people in the world seem indifferent to the struggles of “the other”–either by choice or by ignorance. Self care has become another commodity in the Western neoliberal marketplace. For people who are marginalized, the “wellness gap” is exacerbated. 

The trendy, western notion of commodified self-care only contributes to narcissistic tendencies that maintain the status quo. But self-care doesn’t have to be something we purchase. We don’t need yoga pants or green smoothies in order to prioritize our wellness. We can honor indigenous and traditional healing modalities that allow people to practice resilience. Our organizations must create structural conditions that allow individuals to engage in these healing practices in peace.

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” ~Audre Lorde

How can our organizations, both structurally and culturally, prioritize self care in humanitarian and human rights work?

Ultimately, we want the structures of our organizations to reflect the kind of world we want to live in. If we want to live in a democratic world, where people have a voice and we practice relationality and participatory democracy, then we would want our organizational structures to reflect this. Oftentimes, the details of these structural practices depend on the size of the organization. It could include:

  • how the organizational chart is set up
  • compensation practices
  • communication patterns
  • decision-making patterns, etc.

For an organization with hundreds or thousands of employees, unionization of NGO workers could be a solution. In smaller organizations, workers might favor a non-hierarchical cooperative approach–where people work collectively and choose not to replicate the hierarchies of patriarchy that pervade the field. But change is difficult. Once organizational structures are established, it can be difficult to make dramatic changes.

Organizational culture is more about the norms, implicit ways in which workers function and the day-to-day sense of what it feels like to work in a particular organization. This could include things like:

  • the symbols and images that are present in the office
  • whether communication practices respect working hours of staff
  • whether workers are encouraged to take breaks and time off

These cultural practices are sometimes reflected by structures and vice versa. Ideally, each organization would have a group of people committed to moving conditions forward to prioritize workers’ wellness.

If you could give your students one piece of advice when entering this field, what would you tell them?

“Follow your heart.” These are the words of Loretta Pyles–that you should stay connected with their own hearts and do work that nourishes you. It’s important that we all find nourishment and joy in our work. In the humanitarian and human rights fields, we deal with horrible atrocities, but there’s no reason that our work can’t be joyful.

Is there anything else that you would like to add? Is there anything that was missing from this conversation?

We have to keep the planet in the conversation when it comes to self care. We continue to harm the planet. Our very existence causes harm, but it doesn’t’ have to be that way. We can learn to receive wisdom and beauty from the earth, and at the same time, we can give back. We can practice reciprocity. We must continue to keep the earth in these conversations.

Stay tuned for our next Human Rights Chat!

New Tactics is program of the Center for Victims of Torture which helps activists become more effective through strategic thinking and tactical planning. Check out resources that might help you in your work, such as our tactical database of more than 250 successful human rights tactics, other online conversations, and Tactical Mapping Tool.


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Loretta Pyles
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Melissa McNeilly
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