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Rest is Revolutionary: The Necessity of Self-care for Black Women Advocates

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As police brutality dominates the news cycle, the burden of education and advocacy is falling on Black women. This is how they’re practicing self-care.

Story and photo by Courtney Runn

When Denisha Jenkins joined the protests against police brutality in downtown Austin, she was prepared not to come home. 

“By [Sunday], I had prepared myself in the event I did not come home due to some unforeseen situation, me being perceived as a threat…I had prepared myself that even in a place like Austin those things could happen to me,” Jenkins says. 

In her ’20s or even early ’30s, she says she wouldn’t have thought twice about going but after getting married, she’s acutely aware violence would not just affect her, but her husband. 

On Sunday, she joined other protesters marching from the Texas Capitol to city hall, praying as she walked. 

“For me, it was not just advocating for myself but it was important for me also to see how many people in Austin were willing to be there to demonstrate their comradery or their resistance to the injustice,” Jenkins says. 

DaLyah Jones, a reporter for The Texas Observer, covered the protests on social media, tweeting every few minutes with updates. Before joining the Observer, she considered leaving the field altogether after feeling underrepresented and uncared for at previous jobs. As a Black journalist, she felt valued only to the extent of the diversity she embodied for her employer. 

As the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd have sparked national outrage and reckoning, Jones finally feels affirmed in her critiques of her industry. While she’s appreciative of people checking in on her and listening, she wonders, Why now? Why not always? 

“There should not be any [newsroom] ethics that cause you to leave your identity at the door, to leave your humanness at the door,” Jones says. “To me, objectivity is a myth. There is no possible way you can’t be affected by something.” 

According to the most recent data released by Pew Research, 77 percent of journalists in newsrooms are white, and more than half are male. In 2012, the National Association for Black Journalists reported that people of color only accounted for 12 percent of management positions in national, mainstream media companies. When police brutality and racism dominate the news cycle, Black journalists not only must watch the news but report it, compounding trauma. Several national newspapers have reported on the effects of this burden this week, with a Washington Post detailing the “terror of wearing both a press badge and black skin.”

In holding her industry accountable via Twitter, Jones has found purpose amidst pain. She’s been quick to critique reporting of protests, from vague headlines to widely circulated stories of police and protesters joining hands. 

“Hugging a cop for two seconds could never undo the racism we’ve endured for over 400 years,” she says. 

While Jones has felt empowered by the conversations and protests taking place, she’s also exhausted. She compares attending the protests to exposure therapy, slowly allowing herself to face the trauma she’s avoided the past few weeks. 

She avoided the videos circulating social media of George Floyd’s murder but as she brushed her teeth and listened to NPR last week, she was forced to hear his dying breaths without warning. She broke down crying. 

“Have been bawling for an hour after hearing @NPR air the audio of George Floyd gasping for air this morning,” Jones tweeted on May 27. “I have many feelings right now. One is sadness and another is rage, but another is confusion.”

In the past week, she’s found herself suddenly crying on and off throughout the day. Even her go-to hobbies like watching horror movies feel like emotional minefields. She’s turned to watching cartoons, drawing, writing poetry, listening to women hip hop artists and “twerking in the mirror.” Her therapist (“I always talk about my Black therapist on Twitter. [Because] I think I understand how rare she is for a lot of people like myself.”) suggested a tech-free day, but Jones has found solace in Black Twitter. She’s learning to take breaks though, to stop the scroll. 

“I have to take space for myself and being anti-racist, pro-black is also taking the time to rest,” she says. “Rest is revolutionary.”

We don’t need to pour out our entire selves to serve people.

DENISHA JENKINS

Jenkins has found the same to be true in her work. As the founder of Kardia Advisory Group, she works with companies to identify bias and develop anti-racist leadership. During COVID-19, and especially in the past week, she has had to set reminders on her phone to make sure she’s taking care of herself: Go to the bathroom. Drink water. Meditate. Exercise.

While seemingly simple tasks, if she doesn’t block her schedule for self-care, it might not happen. In her advocacy work, she’s noticed the very real effects of compassion fatigue. 

“I remember at one point I wanted to be a physician, to go to med school,” she says.“And I used to be so confused…How wise is it to have people working on other people with extreme fatigue and exhaustion? I was always curious about that. How is that serving people in a field around wellness and the body? … We don’t need to pour out our entire selves to serve people. I think that’s a false narrative.” 

One restorative practice has been talking to her grandparents, who experienced segregation and the Civil Rights movements in the 1960s. She says it’s been bittersweet to share memories of marches separated by time but united in purpose. Their wisdom and persevering hope is helping Jenkins stay grounded in hope, too. 

“[Black women] have been creative for a long time in surviving,” she says. “But now I think we’re really looking at, how do we thrive and I think rest is very essential to that.”

For Meagan Harding, co-founder of the creative advocacy nonprofit Rosa Rebellion, snuggles from her 5-month-old baby have been comforting. Like Jones, Hardin has avoided parts of the news.  

“There’s such a real racialized trauma with consistently seeing the Black body brutalized and ravaged and that trauma sits in our bodies and shows up in physical ways,” she says. “I am trying to protect myself by not digesting that information.”

In partnership with Austin Justice Coalition and Minds Over Melanin, Rosa Rebellion is hosting Mind Check, a webinar series to discuss mental health in the Black community. On Monday night, for the series’ second installment, they discussed productivity and resources for protecting your health at work. 

Black women, Harding says, often carry the burden of educating others and bearing community pain, making the need for intentional rest all the more crucial right now. 

“Black women have carried a lot,” she says. “In a lot of ways Black women in particular have shown up for Black men, for non-Black people of color, for white people and we rarely have people show up for us. … We often are the ones saving ourselves.”

She’s encouraging Black women—and herself—to not feel the pressure to release statements, publish deep Instagram captions, offer lists of resources. “It’s ok if I don’t have anything profound to say,” she says. Instead, she’s turning to the women in her community and on her social-media newsfeeds, to take comfort in shared experience. Rachel Ricketts, a national speaker and author, has been a guiding voice for Harding for years and Harding’s advice for non-Black women is to listen and follow Black leadership. 

But even more than rest, Harding says the most revolutionary act she can participate in right now is joy. 

“Joy is an act of resistance,” Harding says. “Black people’s ability to maintain joy in the midst of deep, deep oppression and dark circumstances is one of our superpowers and it’s quite remarkable.” 

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