How to Do Right By Yourself While Busy Saving the World

People dedicated to racial justice are often so focused on strengthening our communities, we fail to remain healthy ourselves. Monica Novoa speaks with organizers who are helping the movement mind its own mental health.

By Mu00f3nica Novoa May 30, 2012

*Editor’s note: This is the second insallment of a two-part series on people of color and mental health. Read the first part: "[Young, Depressed, and Of Color: Why Schools and Doctors Get It Wrong.]("* Everyday, organizers and advocates across the United States do vital work to help transform people, communities and society. In the midst of working to achieve these transformations, we face formidable challenges, not least of which is taking care of our own selves and encouraging our peers to do the same, so that we have what it takes for the long haul. Many people and organizations around us are already providing great examples of how to make sure this gets done. I began thinking about this when talking to Maya Mendez a couple of weeks ago. Mendez is coordinator for a youth development and pregnancy prevention program at the Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies in New Orleans (IWESNOLA) []. Because she works to help equip young people with important life skills and since many of the kids in her program have dealt with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the aftermath of Hurricaine Katrina, I wondered how she balanced work and self-care. Mental health is top of mind for Mendez. At IWESNOLA, the point of view is that mental health is "not just the absence of mental illness, but also a state of harmonious well-being." In addition to a component that screens participants for PTSD and other more serious issues, part of the 10-week course in her program involves a focus on emotional resiliency and cognitive reframing that helps kids shift from negative to positive thoughts. The idea is to help them create more positive actions and habits and clear communication. Mendez’s organization doesn’t have anything formal in place for self-care, but she describes a culture and space that allows people to connect. Staff is encouraged to practice yoga and to meditate. They often have meetings unrelated to work. Someone will bring in an activity for arts and crafts time or they spend time sharing about different interests. As part of her own wellbeing regimen, Mendez tries not to take her work home. If anything happens that’s particularly stressful, she talks about it with the people in her program. She creates balance by making time to hang out with friends, going away for the weekend, taking care of her dog Coquito and talking to her brother, who is a vital member of her support network. I was happy and surprised to find that there are many more organizations supporting well-being as part of organizational culture. Dushaw Hockett is the executive director of [SPACES, Safe Places for the Advancement of Community and Equity]( The work at SPACES is about creating opportunities for organizers and activists to come together on a monthly basis for two to three hours at a time and learn and practice what it is to be in community with one another. Hockett talked to me about three key elements that help create magical moments in these spaces. Here’s Hockett in his own words: **The power of laughter and letting go.** We’re very intentional in these spaces about creating opportunities for people to laugh and to be in joy in ways that they normally may not. According to Gretchen Ruben’s book "[The Happiness Project](," she says that young children laugh or giggle an average of 400 times a day. Adults laugh or giggle an average of 17 times a day. And what’s interesting about that from a place of wellness is, all that we know about the healing effects of laughter and humor. And so we know that laughter reduces the stress hormone cortisol. We know that laughter releases endorphins which not only have a healing effect, but also a feel-good effect. We know that laughter is far more contagious and that it lubricates mental capacities. At a very simple level, one of our simple questions often times tends to be: Share something that made you laugh hard or smile wide recently. **Slowing down how we engage each other.** We gather for a few hours a month and we’re intentional about not cramming the agenda with so much stuff that we have to move fast and everyone just gets two minutes to talk. We slow down the pace of how we interact with each other to give people a chance to go around the circle and really share with one another and to have other people to really listen. One of the questions we use for that exercise is the simple question, How are you doing? In our personal lives and in our work lives we make the "how are you doing" question so transactional. In these spaces we are asking the question and giving people the chance to not just say "fine" or "ok," but what’s the back story behind why you’re feeling fine or ok. Or if you’re not feeling fine or ok, what’s the back story behind that? And really taking the time to listen. For the first time in human history we’re getting to the point where people feel like they have more things that they have to do or want to do in a given day than there is time to actually do it. This work around slowing down the pace is about making people more conscious of how fast we move, but also making us more conscious of what our commitments are and what our priorities are. **Vulnerability and authenticity.** Over time, we’re creating a space where people feel comfortable enough to drop the mask that we all wear in our work in terms of projecting to other people what we want them to see versus who we really are. That’s about not only giving each other the chance to engage our authentic selves, but it’s also about dealing with all the stress associated with not being our authentic selves–with not being able to come into the work as we are, but instead being preoccupied with what we want people to see and what we want people to think about us. There’s a great book that informed my thinking on this, it’s called "[Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America](" It talks about the emotional and psychological toll as women shift their public personalities in order to be able to engage different circles. Imagine having a safe space where over time people feel like they can come as they are and they don’t have to shift. The argument around the space work is that we don’t have to do retreats once a year, we can create the retreat experience at least once a month. And so this idea of being vulnerable, being our authentic selves, it can become a way of life. It can become a habit. It’s not just something we do at retreats. **Why it’s crucial for effective racial justice work.** This is necessary inner work to allow us to be open to engaging people who don’t look alike, don’t think alike, don’t talk alike, haven’t lived alike. There’s so much real and perceived difference in our work, particularly just in people. Not just race and ethnic difference, but even how we think differently about the work. It’s important that we create these opportunities where people are learning how to open themselves up to receive people who they see as different. That allows us to do this work in deeper and broader ways. These tools are about helping us to see beyond what’s immediately in front of us. It’s easy to get caught up in the immediate fights we’re dealing with, but it’s also important that we step back and attempt to see where we’ll be three to five years down the line.