Self-Care Ain’t Free

Over the summer I had a powerful learning experience while listening to a group of nonprofit leaders. They were discussing the challenges of organizing for reproductive justice in the current political moment. But when asked about their most pressing need, they expressed intense concern about exhaustion, re-traumatization and burnout among activists. For that reason, their primary funding request was for self-care. Specifically:

funds for healing, sustainability, and integrating healing justice in our work to take care of ourselves and each other so we can be here for the long haul.”

I didn’t just hear that request, I felt it in my bones.

Since that conversation, I’ve been thinking, reading, learning, and asking activists directly: How are you feeling? How do you think about self-care? and What exactly are you doing for your own self-care? In response, I kept hearing the same thing over and over again:

“I know self-care is important, but I’m too busy.”

I wasn’t surprised to hear activists say that self-care is important, while also acknowledging that they’re not actually doing it. But it made me wonder what would be necessary to bridge the gap? In other words, what is one thing that would allow activists in my community to get the transformative self-care they need and deserve?

Here’s how people explained why they aren’t engaging in self-care even though they know that it is essential to self-preservation and sustainability:

  • Self-care takes time.
  • It often costs money.
  • If you’re a parent and/or caregiver, self-care requires coordinating with others to cover your responsibilities, and
  • for many people, self-care requires doing the emotional work to address limiting beliefs about selfishness, deserving, worthiness, and self-love.

The bottom line of my conversations was:

Self care ain’t free and I can’t afford it.

With all of these costs — combined with the daily avalanche of negative news and rapid response — we shouldn’t be surprised that self-care falls by the wayside, no matter how important people think it is.

An Experiment: The Self-Care Project

While the vast majority of my giving is directed toward structural change, I care deeply about the health and well-being of activists in my community.

I have observed that:

  1. Activists need radical self care (particularly in the current political moment)
  2. Many activists are not engaging in self-care (even though they consider it important),
  3. The various costs (financial, energetic, emotional, etc..) related to self-care keep activists from doing it,

So I launched a pop-up experiment called the Self Care Project

The promise was simple: I will award 50 Detroit-based activists $500 each for self-care with no strings attached. To execute the project, I gave local activists 5 days to apply for funds by sending an email describing how they would invest $500 in their self-care.

And I was open to learn from the responses:

  • If the costs of self-care are not the primary barrier, then few people will apply for the funds.
  • If costs are the primary barrier to self-care, lots of people will jump at the opportunity to access self-care funds.
  • The open-ended nature of the application will demonstrate the types of self-care that activists most desire.

What Happened?

During the 5 day applications period, I received 347 applications from Detroit-based activists. That was too many for one person to process so several people stepped in to manage the project: Nicole YoungMonica White, and Kristina Curtiss. They provided the support needed to organize the applications and select finalists.

As promised, we awarded 50 local activists $500 each to invest in their self-care.

And we were so inspired by the applications, we surprised 5 additional activists with a gift of $5,000 each for their self-care.

Our selection committee decided to keep the awardees names confidential due to the private and personal nature of the self-care requests. But we are sharing the organizations our award-winners work with so anyone following the project can get a sense of the types of work the funded activists are engaged in.

What Did We Learn?

We concluded a few things from this quick experiment.

Lesson #1: Activists Want & Need Self-Care

The sheer volume of applications demonstrated a pressing desire for self-care funding among local activists. Certainly, one could argue that the prospect of no-strings-attached money would result in applications on any topic. But reading the actual content of the applications spoke to the intensity of need for self-care. And in addition to the applications themselves, we received many notes of gratitude simply for making the funds available.

Lesson #2: There Are Many Types of Self-Care

We compiled a list of the top 100 Self-Care Ideas submitted. We did this because (in addition to large number of responses we received) we also heard from many activists who wanted to apply, knew they needed self-care, but weren’t sure what to propose.

According to Naomi Ortiz, there are 7 types of self-care for activists:

1. Body: exercise, massage, baths, high-value food, pampering
2. Spirit: religious practices, meditation, being in nature
3. Nourishing: creative expression, gathering inspiration
4. Mind: learning, feeling valued, skill-building
5. Transformative Experiences: spiritual deepening, building intuition, doing deep emotional work
6. Emotional: self-expression, feeling feelings, accessing relationships
7. Being Aware of Our Reality: changing perspective”

At the Self Care Project, we received requests in all of these categories with the most common being transformative experiences

And in addition to direct self-care activities, many applicants requested funding for support services (such as childcare, eldercare, and transportation) that create the time and space they need to engage in self-care.

Lesson #3: Self-Care Ain’t Free

Reviewing Ortiz’s typology of self-care and the applicant’s actual requests makes one thing clear: self-care costs time, energy, and resources.

Every time I talk about self-care, some people insist on shifting the conversation towards a discussion of “free self-care”. For example, when I posted the Top 100 Self Care Ideas, someone commented:

I noticed that this list is full of things that wouldn’t be affordable without the scholarship. It would be great if you could pull out all the free/low cost things into a separate list since most people can’t afford to hire a doula or do flotation therapy.”

Point taken and there are many lists of free self-care ideas.

But what happens if we start to take seriously the idea that the cost of self-care isn’t always financial? And how does the conversation change if we acknowledge that often there’s a real cost of time, energy, childcare, etc… that keeps people from engaging in self-care?

It’s true that one way to interpret the cost conversation is that if self-care ain’t free then only people with ample resources, time and support can engage in self-care. But another way to interpret it is to explore new possibilties by asking:

  • How could it be possible that any activist who needs a doula or flotation therapy (or any form of self-care) can get those services?
  • Why isn’t self-care a legitimate category of philanthropic and foundation funding?  
  • What do local organizations who support self-care need to provide additional services?
  • What would it take to create readily available pools of self-care funds for activists?

Personally, I think it’s worth allowing ourselves to envision new possibilities, experiment with alternatives, and ask bigger questions that acknowledge the real costs of self-care.

Moving Forward

Like any pop-up project, I learned a lot from the Self-Care Project. It was messy, disorganized, and there were plenty of things we could improve upon. But the goal wasn’t perfection or to solve the problem. Experiments — by design — allow us to try out possible solutions and spark a broader conversation.

I just wish we would have been able to fund ALL the requests!

That said, I’m grateful for all of the support that the Self-Care Project received and I am actively thinking about how to move forward in the future. In the spirit of collaboration, I would love to hear your ideas and questions! Feel free to post in the comment section below.

And if you want to start a Self-Care Project in your city, let us know! We would be happy to support you in this process.

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