Self-care Can Be Social Justice

Self-care is critical for all educators. But for BIPOC educators, it can be a first step toward self-sustaining, anti-racist practices in schools.
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“Caring for my self is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.” —Audre Lorde

We live in a time where the terms “self-care” and “treating ourselves,” albeit well-meaning, are common and commercial language. The terms bring to the forefront the ideas of placing oneself first, caring for our mental and physical health, and—in many cases—affording ourselves the pleasures that will allow us to feel good. But Audre Lorde’s popularly quoted phrase about self-care means much more than that for me, a Black woman who has worked in schools with mostly Black children.

Audre Lorde embodied intersectionality, a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw that refers to the multiple forms of oppression people of color belonging to multiple marginalized groups experience simultaneously. A lauded poet, essayist and activist, Lorde nonetheless experienced multiple forms of oppression because of her experiences as a queer, Black woman. Lorde’s writing was not separate from her experiences, but was, in fact, rooted in them.

For Lorde (and all Black women, particularly those of us who teach and reach the children who look like us), caring for herself was radical and dangerous, an intentional act of resistance. It’s resistance to a country that, James Baldwin cautions in The Fire Next Time, “set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish.”

Lorde’s work centers the experiences of Black women, who not only experience oppression based on race, but oppression due to gender identity, sexual orientation, and for many, oppression based on class. For Lorde, caring for the self is a way to sustain ourselves, honor ourselves, and actively resist systems of oppression that have been intentionally put into place to destroy us. And in this sense, thriving and surviving in a system that has sought to destroy oneself is radical; it is political warfare.

Those of us who see education, particularly teaching, as a vehicle for resistance and liberation must realize that if we are silent and do not resist, then we are complicit, passive, and aid in perpetuating the systems of domination and oppression that do exist in schools. Teacher-activists, scholar-warriors, social justice educators, and anti-bias educators can also apply Audre Lorde’s words and declaration to our work and to our lives. If those of us who are in the trenches are not actively caring for ourselves, if we are not preserving ourselves so that we can carry on in this work, then we cannot resist, we cannot liberate, we cannot educate for freedom, we cannot transgress, we cannot heal, and we cannot educate our students in ways that will lead to their own freedom and the freedom of others.

What does it mean for educators, particularly educators of color, to care for ourselves as we engage in this work, as we work through and deal with issues and challenges that our white colleagues may not be experiencing?

The work that we do requires the deepest and fullest attention to ourselves and our well-being. How can we engage otherwise?  How can we turn some of the outpouring we so readily give to our school communities and to our students to ourselves?

How can we remember ourselves, too, on this journey? How can we replace our beliefs around what is selfish and self-centered with a celebration of wholeness and wellness? How can we prioritize preserving ourselves so that we can keep going?

How can we honor our physical and mental health alongside that of our students? How can we plan for our financial future and stability so that it is not an added stress or pressure? How can we advocate for the compensation we need and deserve?

Many teachers today are also experiencing mental health issues that are directly related to the work. How can we prioritize preserving ourselves? How can we structure our time to understand what may be happening with us mentally? How might we address the work environments and demands that compromise our mental health and overall well- being?

How can we insert joy into our teaching and into our own lives? How can we add time for ourselves and the pieces of our lives—be it health, food, dance, hiking, therapy, yoga or sleep—to our lists of the things we “must” do?

How can we be gentle and caring enough to ourselves to believe and act on the premise that caring for ourselves and being good social justice educators, being good teachers, are not mutually exclusive?

To teach well is an act of selflessness. To engage in education in a way that leads to liberation, disruption, joy and resistance is radical work. And in our current social and political climate, the work that we are doing is political. But if we cannot do the work—because we are burnt out, because we are tired, irritable or hungry, because we are stretched too thin, because we are sick and afraid—then we cease to be our most powerful selves. And to engage in the work that we have been called to, we must be our most powerful selves. 

Caring for ourselves and being anti-racist, social justice educators are not mutually exclusive. Anti-racist work requires questioning, deep critical thinking, original and creative lesson planning, resisting and finding sometimes-crafty ways to do what we know is best for our students.

At times, this means engaging in uncomfortable discourse with our colleagues, administrations and peers. It means having conversations and expectations for students that others may not have with or for them. It means working late sometimes, and it means working differently so that we can honor our bodies and life commitments and limit how often we work late.

It means beginning to have conversations around boundaries, and believing, truly believing, that boundaries and self-care are not selfish, but self-preservation. It means explaining to others, even other educators who are engaging in the work, that forms of resistance may begin to look different for you—as they often have historically—and for you, it may mean saying no and setting boundaries so that you can show up each day your fullest self, so you can continue to engage in work that takes everything out of you.

For educators of color, especially Black women, this is painfully true. White educators cannot, and will never, fully understand the weight of what it means to educate the students who look like you. They will never understand the weight and burdens you carry, even when you try not to, because you are seeking to teach about and mitigate systems of oppression while you are living and experiencing them. They will not, and cannot, understand the gnawing and sometimes empty and lonely feelings of aiming to teach our children well. Because no one understands in the ways you do that their liberation, their freedom and their healing are inextricably linked to your own.

So it is OK, dear teacher and advocate, to say no to leading that club or new initiative, to save that energy to push back to defend culturally sustaining lesson plans and ideas that will lend themselves to deeper and fuller understanding for your students.

It is OK to spend a bit more time preparing what you will place into your body than responding right away to that email. It is OK to not engage in work-related tasks or banter on the weekends (although I know you do).  It is OK to take a moment in the break room to breathe. It is OK to step outside for two minutes to catch a glimpse of the sun.

If we are not well, we cannot fight. We cannot be the advocates our students need, and we cannot commit to the journey of work that lies ahead as we use our profession to bring humanity just a little bit closer to freedom.

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