NOTE: It has been quite a month already! I went on my first national gathering since the beginning of COVID. Then I was out with COVID (with pretty mild conditions). This week I turn 46 (!!). I’ve been sitting on this blog for sometime and glad I finally made time and space to finish. The photo I shared is of the Encampment for Citizenship, a summer youth leadership program, in 1992 that transformed my outlook in life. I was 16 years old. It was part of my long arc and journey into the movement.

Practicing self care and community care (not selfish care): A Long Arc

Group photo of our (in-person) event on Reflections on Asian American Activism & the work of Amado Khaya Canham Rodriguez at the San Francisco Public Library. We had a panel discussion with Bay Area Asian American grassroots organizers and scholar-activists, Angelica Cabande, Pam Tau Lee, Robyn Rodriguez and Anjo. The event was also dedicated to the memory of Amado Khaya Canham Rodriguez, a Bay Area bi-racial Asian American activist who would have celebrated his 24th birthday on May 9, 2022.

I was on a few panels with other organizers last month for Asian American and Pacific Islander Month for a chapter I wrote in this new anthology called “Contemporary Asian American: Building Movements for Liberation.” There were great questions that ranged from how to do organizing and movement building to what solidarity and internationalism look like in these times. 

My reflections on practicing self and community care (not selfish care) became a big topic. It is no surprise that this is top of mind. Times are intense and folks are going through it! Capitalism, racism, economic instability, COVID, to name a few, have caused major isolation and fragmentation in our movements and more broadly in society. AND the scale of these crises are waaaaay larger than any of our single collectives or organizations can effectively address. 

These intergenerational exchanges affirmed what is at stake for me. From Collin (who turns 8 this year) and the young people entering the movement to workers who are rising up and the OGs, I want collective liberation for all of us. HOW we sustain ourselves and each other in this long arc has been a key question for me. This is what I wrote:

“While we advance our struggles for justice, we work with a sober assessment that it will take decades to undo the harm and decimation to our democracy and communities.  Even with Trump out office, the ongoing impacts of Trumpism continue in ways that are demoralizing and disheartening.  And yet, I truly believe self and social transformation is not only possible but necessary in the 21st century. We need a “movement of movements” to win the hearts and minds of millions.  Across the country and around the world, young people, especially working class, women, disabled, queer and trans people of color are already leading the way in bold and inspiring ways. The key is supporting and sustaining this towards a vision of collective liberation. In this, deepening our movement praxis is critical…

…Practice self and community care. “Self-care” has been misunderstood and mischaracterized within the movement. For a full transformation of self and society, we need to balance the individual and collective needs of the movement. However, this requires us to be aware of our needs and have stronger systems of community support. The tendency in these times is to isolate and wait until burnout hits to call for support. Unintentionally, without fully considering the needs of the people around us, self-care can lead to “selfish care.” Under capitalism this will not change anytime soon, but how do we counter isolation until it is eventually not necessary?

But this topic also tends to trigger some extreme responses. There are some that are ALL about self care. Many of these folks have had or heard about bad experiences in movement spaces or organizations. Then, there are some people who say movement work is hard and it is all part of the grind. They believe it is a generational thing and think having stronger organizations will provide more community and collective support. I can see where folks are coming from but to me it is more complicated. 

First, there seems to be confusion around “SELF CARE”. The “self” in “self care” is no doubt the subject but doing it all by yourself is NOT the practice. Under capitalism, too often self care by itself turns into isolation, individualism and yes selfishness. Second, community care is also not always enough. It can subsume the individual and flatten everyone’s needs. Community care on its own can also lead to isolation and selflessness.

there seems to be confusion around “SELF CARE”. The “self” in “self care” is no doubt the subject but doing it all by yourself is NOT the practice. Under capitalism, too often self care by itself turns into isolation, individualism and yes selfishness. 

Real self care is practicing self awareness of needs and capacity, asking for support and taking care of our individual needs with community and collective support. In the end, we need to practice both self care AND community care. They are inseparable. As I’ve mentioned before, self and community care are not new concepts, it has deep roots from Black feminism and the disability justice community

So what is “selfish care” exactly?

This could be called many things. I’ve been calling it selfish care. For me, selfish care is a symptom of how the capitalism (and ableism) conditions us to be individualistic, competitive, and to disconnect from others. It tells us that this is the way to take care of ourselves. This can be very destructive to the self and the people around us. 

But, to be clear, selfish care runs deep in all of us. It is agnostic to race, class, gender, sexual orientation, generation, to name a few. It plays out differently for each of us but we are all susceptible to it. Here are a few examples I could think of:

  • Powering through: This one is a popular one. Many of us joined the movement because we were inspired, agitated or directly impacted by an issue. Many have healed through the work but sometimes we power through on our own without little or no self awareness to our human limitations. In the end, many of us burn out or just become resentful of the people around us or “the movement” writ large. I know I have.
  • “Fixing” ourselves: Some of us may have a health condition, disability or just going through some things. We feel shame that we are not dedicated or committed enough like others. There tends to be a lot of self doubt and guilt. Some hide their challenges and power through or some of us just peace out and leave the movement to “fix themselves” and “fully heal”. Sometimes we all need time and space but our expectation to be 100% is often unrealistic. 
  • Fear of burnout: Some have trauma from past burnout or fear any possibility of ever burning out so they try to protect themselves at all cost. Some create very rigid boundaries that prevent them from any actual interaction and practice with other people. Almost trying on anything new or stretching into the slightly unknown could be the gateway to burnout. This also leads to a deep level of hopelessness. 

There are many others but I hope you get the point. I’ve personally experienced all of the above and many other versions the last 20+ years. AND still I struggle with selfish care. To this day, I’m still learning the craft of asking for help! These are all symptoms of this vicious system and the context we are all living in. This is exactly how the system wants us to behave. It wants us to be fragmented, alienated and disconnected from each other. 

Through my generative somatic practice, I’m reminded that these responses are taking care of something. It is our way of survival, self management and sense making. Some people have gotten really far without “self and community care.”

But the deeper question for all of us is what do we lose when we don’t have a deeper connection and what would it feel like to have a greater connection with each other?

How do we stay grounded and keep our eyes on the prize of building a world based on interdependence, mutuality, and love?

What is the path forward? 

Too often these conversations lead to a spiral of cynicism. Self and community care can be hard and sometimes painful. We know it is needed but we are all going through things and there is a lot of toxicity everywhere. Not all people and/or spaces are ready to care for each other. There are plenty of power dynamics, folks with different privileges, poor organizational structures and leadership.

We also need to remember that pessimism, perfectionism and purism breeds from the system to prevent connection and collective action, as much as possible. It makes it easier to critique and destroy instead of building up and loving up on each other. But this system is actually very weak, highly volatile and unsustainable.

We don’t have time or the luxury to be perfect about this – but it is necessary for us to be precise, practiced, and purposeful.  We can choose to embrace our beautifully imperfect individual and collective practice OR we can continue to stay in isolation. In the end our self and community care, will get us through the long arc.

Some thoughts on what to do

Make time for self reflection and awareness: Take time to self reflect and assess where you are at. Like Bruce Lee said, listen to your mistakes. Every time I have gotten really sick or burnout, I ask myself what is my body telling me? Did I learn about my personal limits? Where am I strong, where do I need support? Did I ask for help? Who did I call on? What do I need to watch out for next time?

Find or build your squad: In a more ideal world we would have a vibrant and active movement culture and political spaces to easily connect with people. This is not necessarily the case but there are good people everywhere looking for each other. It can be a doing a small study group and discussion, going to an event or rally together or volunteering for an organization. It may take a few rounds to find your squad but they are there. 

In your squad, practice communicating with each other, lean on each other and ask for help. Practice forgiveness and collective support and accountability when things fall through. Share and assess your personal and political goals together. Also, to be clear, the people in your squad are not necessarily your healers. We should all get professional support for some of the harder things in life. 

Keep your eyes on the prize: What is your north star and what is at stake for you? For me, in 38 years, Collin will be my age and I’m committed to leaving behind a much better, safer and more connected society. With white nationalism and authoritarianism on the horizon, we’ve got a lot of work to do and I’m gonna need all the self and community care to make it through! 

Finally (and always) practice loving yourself and having compassion for yourself and others. The system has quite literally decimated structures to make it harder for us to survive, live, thrive and WIN the liberation we all need. Just like organizing, the practice of self and community care is a powerful and transformative lifelong craft. Be good to yourself and the good people around you.

Image of me and Collin at his elementary school.