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Columns

What’s Stopping Us?

On uprising and collective care

By Madison E. Johnson

At a recent event with Black Lives Matter co-founder and all-around badass Alicia Garza, the organizer and powerhouse spoke tenderly to a room of activists about the idea of self-care.

I have done many a silly thing in the name of self-care. Freshman year, I probably ate dinner at the Panera across the street from my room in Wigglesworth as often as I ate in Annenberg. I was tired, it was cold, the Berg was far away. “Self-care,” I’d say, shuffling through the snow to shove cheese and bread into my sad, sad face.

This summer was tough. (Think: rough break-up, away from home, racism, overwhelmingly white internship.) In the name of self-care I took in a stray cat, did a lot of online shopping, took long walks during the workday, purchased expensive and mediocre coffee.

There’s probably something to be said here about balance. Self-care is easily abused. In reality, a lot of my indulgences in the name of self-care were financially and healthfully irresponsible, but made from very valid places. I have a chronic pain and fatigue condition, albeit a low-key one, so eating is hard and massively important, and it is in fact difficult to walk through the snow. Break-ups suck, cats do tend to make you feel less lonely. Racism is flattening and taking walks can help.

If I’m not making the need up, why does the fulfillment of that need often make me feel guilty, petty, and indulgent?

Part of the answer, as usual, is culture. Often, and especially here, we aren’t supposed to let ourselves feel. I did not schedule time in my G-Cal to cry today, and so today I will not cry. That person, who is one year older than me, practically a child, is in a position of power that I am vying for. So I will not ask them if they are okay. “I’m good, how are you?”

Perhaps that gets to Alicia Garza’s greater point. It shouldn’t be, she suggested, a question of taking care of one’s self, but instead a question of collective care—taking care of each other.

When it comes to oppression and activism, this reframing was revolutionary for me. Yes, you can go to the rallies, and share the articles, and do the work on the ground. Yes, you can be there for your friend’s actions, you can march together and canvas together and shout together. And you can take an extra nap today in the name of self-care. But who is making sure you are sleeping regularly? Eating? Getting home safe?

Systems can be crushing. But what’s under their overwhelming weight are not ideas, but individual people. In a video installment of the “What’s Underneath” series exploring fashion and identity, Alok Vaid-Menon, one-half of the poetry duo Darkmatter, spoke of the dangers of transphobia against trans-feminine folks. “When we go to the club, everyone’s going to be like 'Oh my god I love your outfit!' But no one’s going to ask us, 'How are you getting home?' They don’t care because they think trans-feminine people only matter when we’re fabulous...I would much rather know that y’all would, if someone was yelling at me on a train, say, 'Hey stop that,' versus, like, knowing my pronouns.” They share not only a lesson in allyship, but also a lesson in compassion, in care.

At Yale right now, students are coming together to march. At Mizzou, students are tearing a system down. Weeks ago, in Johannesburg, South Africa, and around the country, students fought for an end to unjust fee raising and, more deeply, the transformation and decolonization of education systems. People keep saying that it’s 2015, but that it looks like 1960. Maybe it does. But it also looks like 2015. And I’m worried about myself, my friends, and my people, whom I love.

I had an outburst, studying in a circle with my friends the other night. Piercing the silent fervor, I sighed loudly, dropping the crumpled words, “I’m stressed out,” into the middle of the circle.

“About your plan of study?”

“About reading?”

“About your column?”

“No. Well, yes, but no.”

I’m stressed out about care. I wonder what it’ll take for Harvard students to surround an administrator for hours. I wonder what it’ll take for Harvard to earn a resignation. If we get there, when we get there, I wonder how we’ll care for each other, when, by and large, we seem to be a campus turned inward on ourselves. Garza was clear. Moments do not make movements. Organizing makes movements, and collective care is what must sustain that organizing.

I can practically hear the crusty old commenters rolling their eyes, cracking their fingers to parody and decry my SJW softness. I will admit it: I am soft. Soft enough to write this as a promise: There are some days when I am overwhelmed by how much I cannot do. But I will do better. I am soft enough to ask for help when I need it, soft enough to care for others how they want to be cared for, and soft enough to rejoice in and lift up this tenderness. I am soft enough to tear shit down.


Madison E. Johnson ’18 lives in Pforzheimer House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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