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Identifying Your Role and Practicing Self-Care as a Young Black Activist
How to start your work, sustain your work, and protect your peace.
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The Black community has been caught in the crossfire of two pandemics - COVID-19 and a 400-year battle with racism. As a Black community activist and organizer, I have seen the adverse impact of both pandemics. Sadly, the sanctioned violence against Black people has been a focal point for Black activists for decades. We have worked to develop both short term social actions and strategic community development plans to heal the wounds of systemic oppression.

While we may never know all of the names of the Black people who have experienced brutality across the US; we can honor the memories of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Ahmaud Arbery by advocating for justice in their names. This guide is for Black activists looking to begin their journey as community organizers, leaders, and advocates. In a frightening era of anti-Blackness, it is important to understand how to maintain self-care while creating social change (you can view this coping with discrimination guide or text DS to 741-741 to be connected directly to a Crisis Counselor). This guide will provide tangible resources to help you combat trauma, build community and become a catalyst for change.

Self-care and healing work is extremely important for Black activists who are more susceptible to experiencing racial trauma connected to racial injustice.

1) Identify your role. Here is a list of roles that you can take on as an activist in your community. Whether you’re going to be a front line protester, working hard to get petitions signed, or organizing behind the scenes, we all have a role to play! Don’t feel like you have to do everything. You can center on your way of taking action, getting involved.

2) Identify your story. While we are all fighting for a more just world, we show up and speak out for different reasons. It is important to identify your “why statement” and reason for engaging in social change work. In much the same way everyone can show up in their own way (see #1 above), everyone’s trauma and lived experience are nuanced and individual to them. This guide won’t apply the same to everybody -- it’s important for you to identify your own needs and how self-care and activism apply to you.

3) Grounding yourself. Over time our bodies develop a physiological response to racism and oppression. Before engaging in social change work it is important to focus on grounding, the practice of being aware of ourselves, our bodies and how we show up. Below are are some examples of grounding exercises from the Black Lives Matter “Healing in Action” Guide to help keep you centered:

  • Grounding Exercises Breathwork – Breathing is obviously fundamental to life, but our breath can also be used consciously to control our nervous system. If we are short of breath, as an example, whether from asthmatic crisis or chronic anxiety, the resulting feeling we have is often panic. Deepening our breathing, even for a moment, can help us soothe our anxiety, calm our panic, and restore a grounded nervous system.
  • Box breath – Inhale for 4 counts, hold for 4 counts, release for 4 counts, and hold at the bottom for 4 counts. Repeat several times. Notice if your shoulders are able to drop, notice how thoughts and moods shift.
  • Check-ins – Most folks make time for check-ins at the start of meetings. The magic of check-ins can only work in relation to our vulnerability. Can we make room to ask each other how we are showing up and what we need to feel more present or grounded? What will you need during an action to stay grounded?

3) Find your community. As protests continue to escalate across the globe, it is important to remember your safety is a priority before engaging in any form of activism. Identify local leaders to understand the historical context of a protest or demonstration before joining. Make sure you have contact information for the organizers and your emergency contact information written down. Always travel with a buddy and check in often. If you are at a demonstration or protest where cell service is restricted, identify a safety plan in the event there is a need to quickly exit the space. Being a part of a community of activists will also allow you to process the protests in a safe space and work towards a long term strategy.

4) Disrupt white supremacy by centering Blackness. There is more to the Black experience than fighting racism! While it is important to understand white supremacy and the systemic barriers that have continued to oppress Black people, it is equally important to understand our rich history of resilience, innovation, and triumph. White supremacy and anti-Blackness thrive off of dehumanizing the Black experience. You can center Blackness by sharing resources from Black-led organizations, sharing stories from Black artists, and correcting narratives that have become whitewashed in the media.

5) Share the emotional labor. Creating social change is hard work, and it cannot be done alone. As you build your advocacy community, identify allies who can help you take on the emotional labor of having difficult conversations. As a Black activist, you are not solely responsible for educating others on racism, police brutality, and white supremacy. We have developed specific resources for white and non-Black POC allies who can help provide support in their respective communities.

6) See where other identities are coming from. While it’s not your responsibility to educate white and non-Black POC members, it’s important to understand their perspective, the work they’re doing, and how they’re engaging in this fight. Check out the guides in #6 to see how allies are starting anti-racism conversations with folks from their background.

7) Learn more. Check out our list of 10 Racial Justice Activists You Should Know to learn from other incredible Black (and non-Black POC) activists doing amazing work. Here are some other valuable terms for you to know:

  • “Racial trauma”: Racial trauma can result from major experiences of racism such as workplace discrimination or hate crimes, or it can be the result of an accumulation of many small occurrences, such as everyday discrimination and microaggressions. It is important to understand racial trauma in order to identify the moments when you may need to take a break to recharge.
  • “Survivor's guilt”: It is difficult to watch the continuous inhumane treatment of people who look like you. This can sometimes lead to survivor’s guilt or the belief that you have done something wrong simply by surviving. It is important to understand that the way we can honor the sacrifice of the victims of racial violence and police brutality is to turn pain into power and advocate for justice.
  • “White privilege”: White privilege is an institutional (rather than personal) set of benefits granted to those of us who, by race, resemble the people who dominate the powerful positions in our institutions. One of the primary privileges is that of having greater access to power and resources than people of color do; in other words, purely on the basis of skin color doors are open to white people that are not open to other people.
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