As we welcome in 2015, a New year of activism for women’s rights and the rights of women and girls with disabilities, we must not forget our own needs as passionate activists. I take the below from an e-mail I received a few years ago, sources below.
Everyone has the right to stand up, to speak out and to defend human rights, women’s rights and disability rights and the intersections among all of these. Everyone has the right to defend these rights safely, without fear of retribution, such as physical violence, slander or attacks on their families. Equally, everyone has the right to defend these rights and enjoy a full life, without sacrificing livelihoods, health or happiness.
Self-Care for Activists
When I think about what self care means, I realize that I first need to begin with what activism means to me. I love human rights activism. It is my passion and my path. It makes me happy. When I make a change, even a small one, I feel joy. I feel it when my friends succeed – that shared sense of success. And renewed hope that it is worth it.
When I think I’ve failed, or struggle with that grinding sense of not being able to do enough, I am devastated. I feel like I’ve been climbing a mountain, and just can’t go a step further.
Self-care, wellness, sustainability – to me, it is all about finding a way to have balance. To keep doing this work with love, passion and fun -- and to be able to take the hard times in my stride, to have perspective and to understand that what we do is enough. That I am enough.
It means I have enough inside me to take care of – and love – my own body, heart and soul. To have enough to hold my children with pleasure and without distraction. To be present with them. To have enough to laugh and play with my lover. To be with my friends and family. Without fear, or future regret. It also means being able to afford doing the work, without sacrificing all the other, equally important parts of my life. That I am not trading in my children’s education or my chance for a peaceful retirement, for the intensity of now. We don’t like to talk about that part of it, and I know its uncomfortable, but activism doesn’t pay the rent.
How we manage our resources as individuals and organizations is integral to how we take care of ourselves as activists Self care is a human right, and it is a shared right – one we can provide for others who for any reason may be unable to provide or practice it for themselves. And as has already been stated – it is not only in reference to leisure or pleasure or "down time" activities – it is access to the basic fundamentals of life – food, water, shelter, relative safety, a means to support oneself (however self is defined) and family (however family is defined). In many cultures selfhood extends beyond the boundaries of the individual, and includes family, ancestors, the natural world, the cosmos. Nurturing, protecting and maintaining our place in this larger order is self-care.
For many activists in the south, access to resources is a fundamental issue to any approach to self-care. I also firmly believe that self-care needs to be understood within a framework of rights... and responsibilities. We have a right to do this work and be safe, well and fulfilled. We have shared responsibilities as individuals, and as organizations – to take care of ourselves, our colleagues, organizations and movements.
And I believe, with all my heart, that it is possible.
What is self care?
Self care refers to those things an individual does for herself to reduce stress and burnout in the course of human rights activism work. It Implies our energy levels are rejuvenated so that we continue with the human rights work uninterrupted.
Caring for YOU - your most valuable resource
New Tactics promotes a methodology that is based on understanding three key areas of knowledge for sound development of strategy and tactics (key to moving any issue forward) taken from Sun Tzu over 2,000 years ago: Know Your Self; Know Your Adversary or Opponent; and Know the Terrain. It follows that an essential part of "Know Your Self" for effective activism is understanding how to care for the most valuable resources in doing human rights work - each person. And remembering that includes ME - all of me - body, mind, and spirit.
I am always struck by the airline message each time I fly: “In the event that oxygen masks may be needed, place the mask over your own face before assisting others.” It is a powerful reminder that I can't help anyone else if I do not make sure that I have taken care of my own need to breathe. The air I breathe is basic to sustaining my very life. Taking time to ask myself, "what stops me from taking in the air I need?"
A formula that we have found helpful comes from "The ABCs of self-care are Awareness, Balance and Connection" (Saakvitne & Pearlman, 1996 - see the reference below). The ABCs are as follows:
Awareness: You must first be able to identify the signs and symptoms of unhealthy stress and the effects of trauma (whether experienced first- or second-hand). This requires awareness.
Balance: Seek balance among a number of different types of activities, including work, personal and family life, rest and leisure.
Connection: Build connections and supportive relationships with your coworkers, friends, family and community. All the work you do to create a better society will have little meaning if you don’t experience positive and healthy connections along the way to this better place.
Thank you for all you do on behalf of women and girls with disabilities. However, for 2015 I urge all of you and I urge myself to take the advice provided here to heart. Please join me!
President, Women Enabled
In the tiger's mouth: an empowerment guide for social action. Katrina Shields, 1991, Millennium Books, Newtown, N.S.W ISBN: 0855748923 (pbk.) This book guides you through the big issues that show up in activism: how to avoid burn-out, network, create stable groups, as well as how to approach listeners with bad news that they may not want to hear. The guide includes exercises that encourage discovery and growth, both for individuals and groups.
Transforming the Pain: A Workbook on Vicarious Traumatization. Karen W. Saakvitne, Laurie Ann Pearlman, and the staff of the Traumatic Stress Institute. Published by W. W. Norton & Co., Inc.: New York, 1996. A practical, how-to guide on secondary traumatization designed for all levels of professionals, paraprofessionals, and volunteers who work with traumatized persons. Contains exercises for individuals and groups that come from the authors' experience giving workshops on this topic.
The New Tactics in Human Rights: A Resource for Practitioners. The New Tactics in Human Rights Project, available at www.newtactics.org/sites/default/files/resources/entire-book-EN.pdf This book has a brief section on "Self-Care: Caring for your most valuable resource". You will find some questions that can be used to open discussion in pairs, in small groups or within your organization to take time to discuss the ways in which you are coping — individually and collectively — with the stress of doing human rights work.
Presentation from the Pacific Rim Conference April 2010 Advancing Disability Rights Through Strategic Human Rights Reporting (v3)
Stephanie Ortoleva, Esq.,
President and Founder
Women Enabled International, Inc.
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Washingon D.C. 20009
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