This past summer, I came back to Penn a week before NSO to go through PennCORP student leader training. A pre-orientation program for freshmen, PennCORP focuses on getting incoming students involved with civic engagement and social justice work in Philadelphia. Daily workshops and site visits are designed to provide participants with different approaches to service, with the hope that at the end of the program freshmen will stay involved with the communities they encounter.
During student leader training, we threw around concepts and slogans that would be labeled key ideas throughout the program, and one resonated with me above the rest: “Self care is community care is whole care.” The domino effect-nature of the saying was particularly striking to me: by taking care of ourselves, we help our immediate partners, which helps everyone around us. The concept seems simple: a machine can’t function with broken parts.
But interestingly, people engaged in social justice and human rights (SJHR) activism often don’t operate with similar mantras. In fact, many describe a ‘culture of martyrdom’ in their work that results from a perceived need for constant selflessness. When confronted with social inequality and exploitation on a day to day basis, SJHR workers frequently feel a heightened sensitivity to injustice and experience incredible self-pressure to right the wrongs they see. Many SJHR workers believe that since the people they advocate for are often not given luxuries or even breaks from their hardships, any form of self-care is indulgent and selfish. This sense of guilt towards not being ‘on’ at any given moment contributes to high vocational burnout rates in SJHR work.
It is important to realize that burning out means more than just ‘taking a break’ and feeling defeated. For many SJHR advocates, burning out is a chronic condition. One study grouped the symptoms researchers observed in participants into three main categories: (1) The deterioration of physical health, which included migraine headaches, pneumonia, and chronic insomnia stemming from exhaustion; (2) the deterioration of psychological and emotional health, seen in debilitating stress, depression, and anxiety that interferes with normal functioning; and (3) hopelessness, in which activists became increasingly cynical about their work. After experiencing one or more of these symptoms for an extended period of time, many SJHR advocates burn out and abandon their careers.
These burnout rates wind up doing double damage, since individuals leaving SJHR work wind up stalling their organization’s progress. These places must continually adapt to losing old members and gaining new ones, almost always working from a place of internal fragmentation. This deprives movements of knowledgeable and experienced team members and eliminates the possibility of mentorship for younger workers, which only hastens their own burnout process. In this way, investing in self-care proves beneficial both for individual SJHR workers and for the organizations that employ them: taking care of yourself does not have to indicate selfishness.
Initiating self-care practices in the workplace is not a difficult task. Many SJHR advocates note that tensions within the workplace play a large role in causing burnout; creating designated time to talk and debrief with co-workers would give people the space to listen to each other and air out issues. This critical dialogue could prove especially useful for SJHR workers of color, many of whom point to micro-aggressions by their coworkers as a major source of their stress, something white co-workers rarely notice is an issue. These conversations wouldn’t only aid workers or color; by openly acknowledging the harmful nature of the “culture of martyrdom,” organizations can begin to shift their employee’s attitudes towards their own mental health when they are carrying out social justice work. Even introducing the idea of self-care in social justice advising could help. By teaching younger workers the importance of self-care, older mentors can begin to change the culture surrounding social justice work in a way that proves beneficial to the long-term health of employees and to the organization’s functioning.
After a particularly upsetting service project during PennCORP my freshman year, one of my team leaders sat us down for a mandatory debrief. Rather than walking back to Civic House feeling defeated, we talked about what was so disheartening about the project we had just completed and managed to use it as a way to think about the different types of service we encounter. Although just a small example of attending to one’s emotions, this experience taught me the importance of frank communication during service work, and framed how I view self-care as falling in line with social justice. It can be easy to neglect thinking about yourself when you feel your work should be entirely selfless, but championing a cause doesn’t mean you can’t champion yourself.