The conversation on care in US social movements has had me thinking about how we draw lines around what is and is not considered "movement," or "care," or "practice." My own perspective around this was expanded through interactions with Colombian activists who, in their struggles for fundamental rights land, gender justice, environmental and other rights clearly weave together strategies of resilience promotion with base-building, advocacy, direct action and other marcos estratégicos. The conditions on the ground are distinct; death threats, for instance, are routine for many organizers. Still I think it's worth reflecting on the integration of emotional, mental, spiritual and organizational wellness currently underway in suramérica.
Around four million people are currently displaced from their homes in Colombia, the vast majority indigenous people, campesinos (small farmers) and Afro-Colombians who make their living from the land – land valued for rich soils or resources that lie underneath. Resistance to forced displacement has been widespread, and communities looking to organize for justice and restitution must simultaneously recover from violent acts and defend themselves against new aggression as they demand land titles and work for daily subsistence in hostile regions.
Rural activists working for justice have long counted as allies a handful of attorneys in urban areas, and even unarmed bodyguards from (mostly) Western countries who serve as volunteer "accompaniers" to deter attacks from armed groups. Less visible have been the teams of Colombian psychologists, social workers and healing-centered laypeople who together bring a focus on mental and emotional well-being to solidarity work. (Important note: No doubt all Colombian ethnic groups have maintained wellness traditions that exist separate from those of the largely blanco mestizo urban activists who control most resources in Colombian movements. This article focuses solely on collectives based in Bogotá and trained in Western disciplines.)
Inspired in part by the work of Jesuit psychologist Ignacio Martín-Baró, who was murdered by Salvadoran death squads in the 1980s, several collectives currently provide what is variously described as liberation psychology or psychosocial attention to survivors of violence, torture, forced displacement and forced recruitment into armed groups in indigenous, Afro-Colombian and campesino communities. The people who provide this attention often see themselves as bringing but one of many necessary strategies to defend human rights and support autonomous peoples' movements. And running counter to almost all community psychology programs in the US, these collectives, who work almost exclusively with survivors of violence, use very little individual therapy. Their goal: Boost the resilience and existing strengths of whole communities to promote recovery and wellness, prevent future trauma, promote justice in the here-and-now and reduce dependency on outsiders.
Although focused on mental, emotional and spiritual health, and taking place in professional contexts the trauma recovery and resiliency promotion these groups practice takes place in the context of grassroots movement-building. All of the people interviewed for this article emphasized their participation in the national coalition Movement for Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE), which has chapters in every Colombian department. Local and national mobilizations have called attention to state complicity at all levels of violence and impunity, and coalition leaders have exposed ties between government officials, paramilitaries and resource-exploiting corporations. And local partners for the four national organizations profiled here (Justicia y Paz, AVRE, COPSICO and Cátedra) often participate in MOVICE chapters, in addition to other networks and coordinating bodies.
It's about making it possible for people to understand what happened to them, from what territories they're from, what their rights are. And more than anything to help them strengthen their organizations, knowing that only they can bring about resolution to their problems. We contribute to a process of comprehension of the people around what happened to them, connecting acts of violence with the natural resources in their territories, the armed groups that are present and the 'development' plans the government has in mind. In this way we facilitate comprehension processes based in concrete realities and not in supernatural or mystical beliefs that justify human rights violations, for instance when it is believed that what's happened is because the population is getting 'payback' for a misdeed. People and organizations can vehemently exercise their rights while strengthening their organizations at the same time as they fight for the common good.
- Hada Luz García Moreno formerly of Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz (Interecclesiastical Commission for Justice and Peace) and now of the COPSICO collective
The work of organizations like Justicia y Paz , COPSICO, Taller de Vida (Life Workshop), Corporación AVRE and Cátedra Libre Ignacio Martín Baró, , all based in Bogotá, varies widely – from human rights education and legal support, to trainings for resilience "promotion," supporting the development of income-generating projects and theatre projects, to week-long workshops on recovering collective memory and cultural traditions, to rituals drawing on expressive arts therapy.
Taller de Vida began in 1992 with two Afro-Colombian psychiatrists, sisters whose family was displaced from the state of Córdoba, accompanying 25 displaced families living behind the La Picota prison in Bogotá. As Stella put it, "we were all displaced from the violence of war to the violence of the city." Since then they have set down roots in two neighborhoods, and have broadened from human rights training and trauma healing to wellness exercises, arts programs and productive work projects with youth and adults. Like other groups, they rely largely on European foundations and development agencies for support, which has been sharply curtailed since 2009. The following video demonstrates aspects of Taller de Vida's work.
AVRE and Justicia y Paz were founded in the same era, responding to the humanitarian crisis created by early-1990s paramilitary violence. Although based in Bogotá they accompany communities and organizations across the country, in many of the areas with the highest concentrations of valuable natural resources, and the presence of Colombia's four armies – right-wing paramilitaries, narcotraffickers, Left guerrillas and the state military. AVRE's focus is on building capacity for communities and organizations to deal with psychological trauma. Justicia y Paz has many areas of peace-building work with partner communities; their psychosocial collective is responsible for bringing attention to psychological and emotional wellness.
"THE ONLY PLACE WE CAN BE DISPLACED FROM IS OUR OWN BODIES"
All of these psicosocial collectives work with communities where they are, be it a conflict zone or a camp far away from their original homes. Unlike many nonprofit employees in Bogotá, members of these collectives spend very little time behind a desk. AVRE workers are on the road every other week, and members of another capacity-building psicosocial collective, Cátedra Libre Ignacio Martín Baró, spend around 21 days a month in the field as a matter of policy.
These psychosocial practitioners reach a mass scale uncommon outside of disaster relief work. In a recent two-year period, AVRE alone – with a paid staff of around two dozen professionals – worked directly with over 11,000 people through their integrative accompaniment and training programs.
Taller de Vida and Justicia y Paz practice permanent accompaniment, in which communities at risk of displacement or violence have an ongoing presence, and AVRE, COPSICO and Cátedra place a high priority on building long-term relationships with communities they accompany. AVRE will assist communities they don't know in emergency situations, but not often. Taller de Vida has roots in two specific neighborhoods, and Justicia y Paz provide an ongoing physical presence in the communities at highest risk of violence.
As an example, for over six years now AVRE has accompanied the Campesino Association of the Cimitarra River Valley (ACVC in Spanish). The ACVC, which has thousands of members, many displaced several times over, has for over a decade been waging a struggle to have their river valley declared a natural reserve off-limits to industrial exploitation, and many of its leaders have been assassinated and imprisoned by state authorities. AVRE workers are assigned to coordinate with leaders in the different zones of the valley, and propose work plans for strengthening resiliency – or the community's ability to "bounce back" quickly from traumatic events – through intergenerational committees, periodic workshops and cultural rituals. Together they also develop training curricula for community leaders. "Whenever we write a new curriculum, community members serve as our editors. They have the last word," says AVRE psychologist Constanza Acero.
Taller de Vida, in a slight contrast, seeks to create transformative experiences for their members, like the "Mountain Climb Challenge" (borrowed from Paulo Coelho). Youth members are led to a nearby mountain, and are given eleven challenges – or questions – at stations along the path. "Most of our kids have never been asked, 'do you know where you want to go?'" explains Stella. They also exhibit youth artwork in a "Gallery of Resiliency," and study resilient community activists – from Afro-Colombian ancestors to Anne Frank and Rigoberta Menchú. All four groups deploy metaphors in their therapeutic processes. Taller de Vida compares the youth they work with to bamboo, which bends to endure stress, and has a root system expert at decontaminating water – resilient like children who eject stress from their bodies.
Psicosociales also offer support in developing revenue-earning projects to support self-sufficiency. Taller de Vida incorporates productive work as a key element, supporting youth and adult groups to produce crafts and cards, stained glass windows and even recording and selling CDs. Through their arts workshops they've nurtured several bands, including a rap group for middle schoolers. "We're not really training artists, we're training human beings who can change the country," said Carlos Cortés who, like virtually everyone on staff at Taller de Vida, arrived in Bogotá fleeing violence in his home state. These programs offer a potent alternative to joining armed groups; some of their youth members were forcibly recruited before finding Taller de Vida.
Likewise, the group's analysis extends beyond the state's responsibility toward ensuring the respect of human rights. Jenny, who's spent almost half her life with Taller de Vida, notes that "the kids love Vicente Fernández," a popular Mexican singer, "but many don't understand that he's a principal shareholder of CEMEX, which owns mines that are destroying their neighborhoods on the hillsides." This deepening analysis is evident in the lyrics of a Taller teenaged rap group, whose young emcees rhyme about the lucrative exploits of armed gangs in the neighborhood, and the multiple forms of violence targeting young women.
Sometimes the work in community bends toward restorative justice, as Constanza with AVRE shares: "In San Carlos, Santander, we noticed the group of displaced families divided in two. One turned out to be the victim's family, the other that of the persecutor, and the church pastor thought the best way to get to reconciliation would be to bring them together. So we helped them create a space for each family to express what they needed." In the state of Cauca AVRE worked with a group working to stop the CIMA Corporation from privatizing water resources. It was right after a massacre, "and so a few of us worked with the large group talking about what produces fear in us, what do we do when we're afraid and how those responses help us, and a few others worked in individual therapy with a man who was tortured, a woman who's son was killed, and others still reeling from the violence."
With AVRE and other groups, as the relationship with partner organizations and communities evolves, permanent committees of women, youth, elders and others are often formed. "In some communities, for instance, there's a rupture between the older generation and youth, and we often try to include youth in our trainings as health promoters. In one community the youth came up with their own work plan after a training and we helped them find resources they needed to implement it," according to Constanza.
All psicosociales stress the different approaches taken depending on the community. Facilitated reflection is given a high priority, as needs may evolve over time and threats, tensions and even successes must be reflected upon by the community as a whole.
Continued in Part 2, including prompts for reflection.
We are glad to be posting Eric Mann's piece as part of the ongoing conversation on Self and Community Care on Organizing Upgrade. Mann's book Playbook for Progressives: 16 Qualities of the Successful Organizer has 2 chapters on taking care of self and taking care of others. In this piece he highlights how many people do community care so well and sometimes at the expense of caring for themselves and what that means for the movement. —Ed.
The discussion in Organizing Upgrade on the relationship of self-care to movement-building, initiated by B. Loewe, has been very exciting. Props to B for putting out a clear point of view and encouraging this level of engagement.
Let me explain how I see the integration of "self-care" and "collective care." In the quote B uses, Yashna Maya Padamsee says, "Talking only about self-care when talking about healing justice is like only talking about recycling and composting when speaking of environment justice." But no one I know is only or even mainly talking about "self-care" isolated from the collective struggle—and in fact, way too often it is "self-care" that is urgently needed to keep comrades in the movement.
An End to Self Care written by B. Loewe has had well over 10,000 views and it sparked a number of response articles and social media flurries. There is alignment, there is disagreement, there is push back and push forward. There is a range of responses, and two weeks later, a common thread has emerged: a feeling of relief and enthusiasm that this conversation is opening at this scale, on this platform and with this energy. As I mentioned in the launch of the Community Care Channel, this is not a new topic on Self Care and Community Care within Social Movements but this is a particular insurgence of new fire around this conversation online.
There is an opening and a flow right now in the conversation on care. People are talking about this everywhere I go. It's as if a dam has broken; the conversation is rushing in like waves. Everyone has an energized opinion, a poignant perspective, a digging question, a heart-felt experience to share, to push up against, to rally around. Community care, self care, our movements, our bodies - there's so much at stake. No wonder things are getting heated. This is a really important conversation about our capacity to survive and thrive, individually and collectively.
Yesterday, an old colleague from the immigrant rights movement, B. Loewe wrote a thought provoking piece on self-care titled, "An End to Self Care." After I read the piece, I told him how hard it was to not have an immediate and viscerally negative reaction to it. After we spoke, I realized that some of my reaction was based more on what I thought he was saying than what he was actually saying. But other parts of my reaction felt valid enough for me to respond to the piece.
Most of B.'s (I really should have asked him how to put an apostrophe by his name) primary point, as I understood it, is compelling enough:
"..self-care... inherently rejects collective responsibility for each other's well-being..."
But as I kept reading, I got a sense of where my reaction was coming from:
this piece was first posted on Adrienne Maree's blog, The Luscious Satyagraha
my friend b loewe wrote this blog an end to self-care, and i was moved to respond.
my friend b loewe wrote this blog an end to self-care, and i was moved to respond.
hi lovely b :)
thank you so much for putting this out there, i feel the energy of it. and as a community-supported self-care queen on day 8 of a juice cleanse, i have to engage.
my negative feelings on self-care kept me in a state of not caring for myself for years, delaying me in getting what i needed, keeping me in unhealthy movement spaces, feeling powerless and tired.
my community had to intervene. they generated the resources to send me off to take care of myself. if they hadn't done that, i don't know if i would be here at all.
B Loewe recently wrote this article: An End to Self Care. Many folks on my Facebook friends list posted it and wrote about it in glowing terms. Many disabled, chronically ill, brokeass, femme and parent friends of mine reacted to this article with a huge amount of anger, grief and trigger. While it might not have been loewe's intention, for a lot of folks, reading the article brought up a lot of feelings about how the abelism and unsustainabiltiy of movements have pushed us out of them. So, on another chronically ill femme of color organizer day in bed, I read it. I had a lot of feelings. And, fueled by PMS, working-class femme of color crip rage and grief, and some coffee, I pounded out the following article.
I’m going to say it. I want to see an end to “self-care.” Can we put a nail in self-care’s coffin and instead birth a newer discussion of community care?
As I most often hear it, self-care stands as an importation of middle-class values of leisure that’s blind to the dynamics of working class (or even family) life, inherently rejects collective responsibility for each other’s well-being, misses power dynamics in our lives, and attempts to serve as a replacement for a politics and practice of desire that could actually ignite our hearts with a fuel to work endlessly.
An internationally renowned collective, Philly Stands Up is engaging in some of the most innovative work around sexual and gender-based assault, intimate partner violence, and sexual consent in North America. Utilizing a transformative justice framework, the group supports survivors through working primarily with those who have perpetrated assault or abuse. Transformative justice recognizes the interrelatedness of systems of oppression at the root of harm, how harm affects all individuals involved - including the larger community - and that these understandings must inform processes aiming to bring about just responses to acts of harm. Cognizant of the potential for the perpetuation of harm caused by turning to the criminal justice system or pushing people out of town, Philly Stands Up works directly with the person who has caused harm through community-based systems of accountability. In addition to coordinating local accountability processes, the group has published several pamphlets, conducted workshops across North America, and is actively involved in a growing network of groups utilizing transformative justice frameworks in their communities. Responding to the growing interest in accountability processes among radical and sister communities, this interview draws out the collective’s history, core principles, and lessons learned through its organizing work. More information about Philly Stands Up can be found at: www.phillystandsup.com
Yashna is a first generation south asian immigrant queer femme healer-warrior yoga teacher who was raised in part by the US South. She works with love and care for the National Domestic Workers Alliance as an Administrative Coordinator.
Stop talking about Self-Care
In the last 3 years as I talk about the Healing Justice (HJ) work I am involved in I am met with dueling responses of either deep yearning and curiosity about sustainability or a look that says “how sweet” and “call me when you’re ready to do some real work.”
Each response often leads to the introduction conversations that get stuck on the idea that HJ is only about the practice of “self-care.” Self-care is important and essential but lets not get stuck here.
I love the idea of exploring ways to care for ourselves and our sustainability such as- honoring what unions won for us by working an 8 hour day (instead of working 10-14 hour days all the time), or other common self-care options like taking a bubble bath, or eating comfort food.
This interview with the Rock Dove Collective was conducted in Brooklyn, New York on August 15, 2010 by Ben Holtzman with Kevin Van Meter.
Can you briefly discuss when, how, and the reasoning behind forming the collective? Can you mention any precursors or previous organizing that influenced the formation of this endeavor?
Rock Dove has a really clear birthday and birthplace. We met at the first New York Metro Alliance of Anarchists meeting. In the meeting, people broke out by groups about what might evolve into working groups and one of those was called “Alternative Therapies.” We met by the food table. We always joke that it makes a lot of sense that Rock Dove met by the food at the beginning because we – unlike most groups we work with and we know – are really committed to having our health and our well-being and our sustenance at the center of how we do our work. We had a second meeting with a subset of the people who had taken part in that breakout group within a few weeks and really from there set the main structure of the collective.