Updated on June 8.
In light of the wave of continued protests against police violence — prompted by the death of George Floyd — we asked two prominent activists how they are maintaining their well-being during this time. Read their essays below.
Charlene A. Carruthers is a community organizer and the author of “Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements.”
I am in a fight for my own wellness every single day.
What I know for sure, as black people contend with a global pandemic and rise up against policing across the United States, is that this moment is different from any other moment in my lifetime.
The convergence of racist, capitalist, anti-black, patriarchal, transphobic and white supremacist violence has required me to call on every resource I’ve ever known as a black queer woman, radical black feminist and abolitionist.
Everything is on the table. Acupuncture, meditation, cooking, writing, protesting, organizing, exercising, taking care of my niece, gardening, sleeping, drinking a delicious cocktail, talking with my friends and family — these things have all become necessary. There is no simple trick to guarding and maintaining my mental wellness. Some days are hard and others bring much welcomed levity.
Despite immense loss and grief, I refuse to hand over my aliveness, joy and dignity to the same institutional powers that never wanted me or my people to survive beyond chattel and commodity. I know what it is like to not allow myself to feel a range of emotions for the sake of my own survival. I cannot go back to that place.
The choice to not let this country take me out isn’t about being strong or impenetrable. It is about giving myself permission to be a full human being.
This moment is calling me to be in my body and say what I am feeling. As black lesbian poet and activist Audre Lorde writes in her poem “A Litany for Survival”:
The act of speech, be it through protest, poetry or prose, is central to freedom making.
After weeks of being in my bed, alone and quarantined, I discovered my own voice as a poet. I’ve written a few dozen poems and shared many of them publicly. I am in awe of how others see themselves in my words.
The economy of words offered through poetry allows me to get out angst that could otherwise break me down. Weeping, being honest about who I have become and cleaning my own house (physically, mentally and financially) all give me the brain space to transform. And I need to be transformed on the other side of this moment.
Now is not the time for anyone to tell us to be silent about our pain. Be it inside of our own homes, our workplaces, our mosques, churches or temples — we have a right to name what is happening in our minds, our bodies and our communities. We can name it by writing, drawing, painting and singing. We can also name it by joining an organization, doing political study and making commitments to individual work within collective struggles for liberation.
If something is screaming inside of your body that it needs to be let out, it might be rage. If you find that it is rage, it is likely also connected to a deep love for black people. I encourage us all to channel that rage and love into what makes us feel alive and connected to ourselves and our people.
That is the work our freedom-fighting ancestors took up. It is our collective responsibility to do the same.
My line of work is not just a job; it’s a commitment, a lifestyle and a discipline. When I co-founded the Black Lives Matter platform and chapter-based network in 2013, it was in response to the outrageous acquittal of George Zimmerman, who murdered 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida. As more documented incidents of racial injustice were brought to light, Black Lives Matter evolved to become a rallying cry.
Many of you have joined in, which means you’re likely feeling the weight of this moment and movement. To be an activist is to fight a never-ending battle with society, as racial injustice is systemic and therefore self-sustaining and seemingly unending. So, it’s equally important to recognize that this is a marathon, not a sprint, one that requires us to take steps to preserve our will, recharging ourselves when needed.
There was a turning point in my career as the BLM movement was finding its legs and I was working as the executive director of Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI). I was pulling all-nighters, prioritizing work over my health and generally not taking care of myself.
With the current uprisings happening in the middle of a global pandemic that is disproportionately affecting BIPOC people and exposing the structural discrimination that has adversely impacted the health and wealth of our communities, it cannot be overstated how much we need to consider our health, both physical and mental, at this time.
For me, that meant diving deep into the teachings of feminist and civil rights activist Audre Lorde, who said: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
I took this to heart. I knew that to be able to maintain and prepare to take on a heavier workload, I had to allow myself to recharge. I do this by having daily practices of prayer, meditation and exercise in the morning or evening before I sleep. I am also mindful of what I consume, from food to media to news.
Although I’m far from perfect, my goal is to approach every day with intention and focus, doing what genuinely feels good for my spirit so I can continue to support our movement while also holding mental space to connect the dots around the root causes of these injustices.
With over a decade of serious leadership under my belt, I’ve found it can be difficult to process all the injustice I have witnessed.
I’m driven to do human rights work because of my love and passion for black communities around the world. There have been points where I almost burned out and stopped.
I’m glad I have not, and I hope you won’t either.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this piece mischaracterized George Zimmerman. We regret the error.