Losing my mother, my best friend, to cancer suddenly in May 2017 has been the greatest personal trauma of my life. At 39-years-old, I am at the point in life where I have access to resources for healing, for staring my grief and my trauma in the face and letting them know that they are welcome here. And yet, because I have those resources—because I have been fortunate enough to see the many sides of grief and trauma and not merely be a recipient of them—I am fully aware that to leave grief and trauma unaddressed, unwelcomed, and unhealed can quite literally kill you.
Most of us have experienced trauma of some type. And right now, as of this writing, we are in the middle of an acute national trauma: a global pandemic, an economy careening toward depression, and a crisis in our democracy as voting becomes increasingly inaccessible. There is pain all around us, a widening gyre of trauma.
Everyone moves through life in need of connection and intimacy, but trauma and grief undoubtedly threaten your ability to connect with others. They are dragons lying in wait beneath the bridges of our lives—just when you find yourself halfway across, they emerge and burn the foundation beneath your feet. And they are never alone—trauma and grief are a posse, accompanied by self-doubt, rage, and addiction.
Through many years of work, I’ve come to understand that I have lived a good life and I am eager to live more of it, in spite of the hurt and pain I’ve encountered along the way. I was sexually assaulted, as a teenager by someone I knew and trusted. I’ve been in multiple abusive relationships, from family members to lovers. And every day, I experience the trauma of systems like racism, patriarchy, capitalism, homophobia, and more that invite me to close down the possibility of connection. And every single day, I am given the choice, the opportunity, to stay open to connection, because I know that I need it and that I deserve it. We all do.
I imagine—no, I know—that there are those among us who never get a break from trauma or grief. Knowing now the pain of losing my mother, I think often of those in my life for whom both parents are dead or in jail, or who never knew their parents at all. No one can avoid trauma, but some of us experience more of it than others, as a result of inequities in our society. For some, grief and trauma are the air we breathe, not a single incident that shapes our lives.
I can see the impact of trauma and grief in our work. The heartbreak of working with a family who you know will be evicted and you can’t stop it. The wail of a mother who has just lost her only child to violence at the hands of her community or the police or by suicide. Often, we can link our trauma to the trauma of others, finding common cause in our misery and working together to make sure we can build a world as free as possible of the pain that we endure. Trauma and grief, and the endurance of them, can be what connect us.
Yet it is never enough to organize because you are angry, because you are grieving. Trauma bonding is corrosive to the practice of building power. The question facing us is this: What can we do to remain resilient in the face of crisis and chaos? How do we keep coming back to that which moves us, that which grounds us, when seemingly everything is falling apart around us, among us, and inside us?
Audre Lorde is often quoted as saying, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Indeed, “self-care” has become a popular refrain for organizers and activists alike, and yet sometimes I wonder whether the concept itself might be self-defeating, at least in the ways that we have interpreted Lorde’s words and put them into practice.
When I was being trained as an organizer, self-care was seen as indulgent, something that was reserved only for those who had the financial or social means to take care of themselves while the world was going to hell around them. When someone I worked with would say that they needed to take care of themselves, I would imagine Marie Antoinette proclaiming from her decadent palace, “Let them eat cake!” It seemed selfish to take a break while the rest of us were burning the candle at both ends. Burnout was not uncommon among the people I built political community with; in fact, if you hadn’t burned out, perhaps you just weren’t working hard enough or doing enough for “the people.”
In 2003, I was doing an organizing internship at a local community-based organization. It was summertime in Oakland, and temperatures would rise above 80 degrees. I would arrive at the office around 11 a.m., role-play for a few hours, and then grab my clipboard and pen and go door knocking in the surrounding communities. On my way out the door, I often had to step over my then-boss, who would be lying on the ground unable to move because her back went out. I remember being puzzled by this: Why not just stop working? But as time went on, I saw endless commitments, meetings, events, hearings, and rallies left no time for catching a cold or tending to a sore back. Working through illness and catastrophes became the norm. If I was forced to stay at home because of the severity of an illness, or to avoid infecting others, I would feel anxious. What haven’t I completed for today? Who else was I forcing to do my work for me?
It took me a while to realize that my colds were becoming more common because I never let myself take the time I needed to fully recover. With all the work I was doing, I was neglecting the work I needed to do on myself. Luckily there were people in my community who worried about me. I participated in programs designed to help organizers and activists learn to better balance the demands of our work. Time management is part of it, but the other part of it was looking at how trauma and grief shape how we show up in our interactions with others. These programs were important and made an impact on me. But it was when I took a six-month sabbatical that I truly began to understand the benefits of self-care.
The first few days away from work were grueling. I was tired and ready to rest, but also felt like a fish out of water, tucked away in a beautiful house with two other people I’d never met before in the mountains of Washington State. I had packed a suitcase full of books, convinced that I would read the time away. But what I learned is, self-care wasn’t about filling my time with recreation. Nor was it about completing tasks. For me, it was having time to dream. I stayed relatively sober. I completed 10-mile hikes after never hiking in my entire life. I took long drives with no purpose or destination. And it was during this time that I was inspired to leave my job after 10 years of work at a small grassroots community organization in San Francisco and move toward my vision. That was in April 2013; just a few months later, Black Lives Matter was born.
Across the country, new activists ask me how I balance everything, and my answer is: I don’t. I have plenty of days where my to-do list doesn’t get done, and if it does, it isn’t always in the way I would have wanted the tasks to be completed. The secret is that getting things done isn’t about your ability alone to do it. We live in a society where inequities are so deeply engrained in systems such that some people will never have the money, access, or social capital to afford what they need to take care of themselves.
When my mother was sick, we received access to exquisite hospice care because a kind social worker knew who I was and admired the work of Black Lives Matter. Without assistance, that level of hospice care would have cost more than $11,000 per week. My mother and my family needed that care—it was essential during a time of incredible crisis and pain—and yet I often thought about the fact that there were many people who needed exactly that kind of care who would never be able to access it because the cost was prohibitive and they didn’t happen to know someone willing to help. What is self-care without the care of the community?
This is why it breaks my heart to see activists and organizers lashing out at one another, angry about money or power or credit, acting out our traumas over and over again against those who were not involved in their creation. Self-awareness and tools for dealing with trauma and grief and loss are part of the battle; the other is healing the systems that create inequity and feed on trauma like a parasite.
My hope for us is that we begin to intimately understand that living in a society where everything can be bought or sold but not everyone can buy or sell is harmful to our health, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. That the best way to care for ourselves is in the manner that Audre Lorde described: To connect with each other in ways that propel all of us toward care—for ourselves and one another.
But with that hope, I also see reality. I believe with all my heart that change is possible and inevitable, but my honest estimation is that we are far from that change. And that means, for me, that we need to treat our work as if it is in hospice care for that which is dying and prenatal care for that which is being born. In hospice, care is the most important thing, the principle around which everything is organized. Every action was geared toward improving my mother’s quality of life, vital care for a woman who was dying of cancer that had spread throughout her brain. Our society is no different—the cancer has spread across our communities in unique ways, and we need to think seriously about how we care for those communities and how we address the ongoing assaults of racism, sexism, homophobia, and poverty. That is our hospice work.
But we also need to do prenatal work—the work of dreaming and acting to create the world we deserve—and that is what a lot of this book, and my life, is about. It requires opening our imaginations to create and enact solutions to our problems. Hope is not the absence of despair—it is the ability to come back to our purpose again and again. My purpose is to build political power for my community so that we can be powerful in every aspect of our lives. My work is to transform grief and despair and rage into the love that we need to push us forward. I am not, and we are not, defined by what we lack—we are defined by how we come together when we fall apart.
Adapted from the book The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart. Copyright © 2020 by Alicia Garza. Published on October 20, 2020 by One World, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House. Reprinted with permission.
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