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Healing justice: Why we must build communities of care into our movements for change

Picture credit: @sebbarros

By Sara Chitseko:

Campaigning and activism can be physically and emotionally exhausting.  Those of us at the forefront of this work use words such as 'fight,' 'resist' and 'struggle' to describe it. This context is important when understanding its impact on our lives.  Our work  to transform society can feel like running through water. For so many of us, our reasons for engaging in this change-making work are driven by our identity, experiences and collective trauma. Oppression is not just a concept - it is transcendentally felt on our bodies, our hearts, our minds and our spirits. We put our bodies on the line because we care so deeply about our work.

The immense pressure we put on ourselves is not only destined to lead to burnout, but it's also ableist. Skip a meal, keep working. Don’t sleep, keep working. Our communities are still suffering, so I must keep working. In the current context of COVID-19, our oppression is compounded. Many have experienced bereavement, grief and loss, as well as unemployment, homelessness and the inability to see our loved ones - who are nothing short of a lifeline in these trying times. Our social safety nets have been decimated and still we must fight for justice - we must keep working.

If we are to ever build a society that is truly liberated, peaceful, equitable and in which Black lives are valued; the work to build communities of care must be woven into the very foundations of our movement building work. It should be what underpins everything else and what keeps the movement alive - especially when people are fatigued and burnt out. Burn out doesn't just impact us on an individual basis; it risks the loss of campaigners and ultimately movement fragmentation. Building communities of care moves healing from the sole responsibility of the individual, to the collective; from the independent to the interdependent. This can only make us stronger.

Many discussions about maintaining wellbeing in movements for change focus on 'self-care' - it is an important daily practice. But self-care is also a concept that's been co-opted, commercialised and embedded within a capitalist agenda. To truly build sustainability in our movements, we must prioritise collective care. We must avoid creating activist cultures where we promote bubble baths, eating good food and going to the gym, without building the organisational frameworks to support each other when we are experiencing hardship, poor emotional wellbeing and mental-ill health and ultimately burn out. If we are going to be on the frontline fighting to dismantle the systems which oppress us, we must not perpetuate cultures of guilt, punishment and exclusion when people do seek healing. Without structures for community care, we risk isolating people in struggle and in healing.

In a letter written from Birmingham jail, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” This understanding of the interconnectedness of our struggle, trauma, grief; but also joy, solidarity and empowerment must guide our work. Trauma can be a powerful driving force in movements, but this is not sustainable without creating space for healing. Whilst our movement demands resources for community healing, we must lead by example, ensuring community care is enacted in how we relate to one another. 

Accountability, mutual-aid, and trusting relationships are central principles in movements which practice community care - they are the foundations of the ‘healing justice’ framework. The truth is, without building communities of care when working to create systemic change; we risk reproducing the oppressive systems that we are fighting so hard to dismantle. 

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