Community members navigate tricky balance between activism and self-care

CHANGE MAKER: Philip Cooper, left, was honored with a CoThinkk award in 2019. Photo courtesy of Aisha Adams

As they work to create change, activists often struggle to find time and resources to devote to caring for themselves. Laboring between the lines to prevent harm and promote survival for society’s most vulnerable members can be intoxicating and motivating — as well as traumatic and taxing. And when the activists are themselves people of color, transgender or members of other marginalized groups, those challenges are often heaped atop other forms of discrimination and systemic exclusion. 

Adding to the load many activists bear are the requirements associated with grant-funded work, which include complex organizational policies and extensive reporting requirements. Put it all together, and you have the ingredients for burnout.

The late poet and activist Audre Lorde said it this way in 1988: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

New normal

According to New Tactics in Human Rights, a Minnesota-based nonprofit dedicated to inspiring and equipping activists, burnout is defined as being both emotionally and physically exhausted. It can manifest itself as stress, depression and even post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Activists often feel called to organize, teach, speak and share; movements seeking social change don’t run on business hours and generally come with little to no pay or benefits. A toxic misconception that self-care is selfish complicates the problem. In truth, the most effective activists experience daily traumas in their work and require ongoing healing. This healing cannot be sustained without adequate self-care practices.  

Area organizations CoThinkk and the Amy Mandel and Katina Rodis Fund, which awards the Tzedek Social Justice Fellowships, are leading a radical shift in funding culture to promote and support self-care for activists. 

In 2018, CoThinkk, a philanthropic group drawn from and serving local communities of color, announced it would add $500 to its grant awards specifically to support wellness, self-care and professional development. The new funding honors of one of CoThinkk’s founding members, Kelly Goins, who died of cancer in 2018 at the age of 36.

And in 2019, the Asheville-based Amy Mandel and Katina Rodis Fund announced the recipients of its inaugural Brilliance Awards, unrestricted $200,000 grants given to honor the social justice contributions and “genius” of local activists. Recipients Sheneika Smith and Nicole Townsend both noted that the awards would bolster their ability to engage in some much-needed self-care.

But beyond those two groundbreaking programs, resources for funding self-care are scarce. Some activist groups are looking at low-cost way to encourage wellness, including providing optional self-care hours monthly, ensuring that group meals are healthy and practicing mindfulness at the start of meetings. 

These local men of color offered their takes on self-care for activists. 

Establish a daily routine

Robert Thomas Jr., community liaison for Asheville’s Racial Justice Coalition, recommends: “It’s all about finding balance. It’s all about being filled so that I’m able to pour into others. I practice self-care through Kemetic yoga rooted in the very origins of our DNA. I can then quiet my work life by pausing and giving priority to those whom I walk through life with.” 

Acknowledge your triggers 

Joseph Fox, owner of Fox Management Consulting Enterprises, says: “Many individuals find the practice of self-care difficult to achieve, particularly men of color because of societal pressures to ‘man up.’ Community and personal trauma compound the issue when coupled with stress created from work and social injustices. One must be able to acknowledge triggers from their past, deal with those issues and realize that most things are outside of their control. In other words, do not worry about insignificant things in one’s life. Individuals must find self-care practices that work for them, such as physical activities that alleviate stress, making time and space for themselves and finding what really makes them happy in life. The true key is to find a realistic work/life balance.” 

Rely on your community

Stephen Smith, owner of M.S. Lean Landscaping, says he makes a point of spending more time with his community. “It is important to laugh, celebrate and eat meals together. These are the things that promote good health and nourishment. I have found it is very helpful and meaningful to spend time with my black family. There is medicine in just enjoying each other’s presence. Our success depends heavily on our ability to be healthy in mind, body and spirit,” he explains.

Find your spiritual center 

Philip Cooper,UpSkill WNC coordinator and a 2020 winner of the service award presented by the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Association of Asheville and Buncombe County, reminds us that we can’t give to others if our own resources are depleted. “I pray that God fills me up until I overflow. Empty cups don’t overflow,” Cooper says.

Understand the nature of your assignment

Bruce Waller, Asheville Middle School coordinator for the United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County, states: “This is not a race for the swift but for those who are willing to endure. In order for me to make it as a public servant to so many young adults, I have to be right with myself. Self-care for me is so much deeper; it has become soul-care. My thoughts and emotions need to be replenished consistently due to the nature of my job. Working with students and families in need pulls on every essence of my being. People need more than physical resources; they need presence, energy and my time as well.” 

Have fun

Kirby Winner, host of “Asheville View,” says: “Self-care doesn’t have to look like meditation or spa days. It’s about doing what makes you happy and recharged in that moment, no matter what it may be that day. Sometimes it’s eating a tub of ice cream by yourself, sometimes it’s going out for drinks with friends, sometimes it’s taking a mental health day from work and dancing around your apartment. Whatever resets you so you can keep moving forward is self-care.”

Pamper Yourself 

J Hackett, pastor of New Mount Olive Baptist Church, suggests: “We should take our lessons from those who came before us. They have always kept themselves and us together. Whether it is  getting your hair or nails done or going to the gym or playing a game: Do what needs to be done in order to face the dangers of this high-speed, highly competitive, cutthroat world.”


Editor’s note: Writer Aisha Adams is founder of the Aisha Adams Media Group and creator of the local online talk show Asheville View. She is also a community activist who’s currently working on Equity Over Everything, a project to close gaps in social equity, entrepreneurship and land ownership within low-wealth communities.



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About Aisha Adams
Aisha Adams is the blogger behind Her written work has appeared in publications like The Asheville Citizen Times, The Asheville Grit, and The Final Call. Aisha has a BA in English with a concentration in creative writing from the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). She also holds a Masters in Post-Secondary and Adult Education. Aisha is also a 2016 My Home, My Voice Fellow. Aisha is the author of Vegan Curious and the mastermind behind Aisha Adams Media.

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