The case for self-care during MLK week…and always


Across America, people are preparing to march on Washington or in their communities next week in an effort to promote human rights issues and denounce the agenda of the Electoral College’s pick for U.S. president. For social justice warriors – those who have dedicated their personal and professional lives to ensuring equity for the marginalized – the prevailing thought is likely to join the nearest protest or volunteer effort associated with the now ubiquitous idea that the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day holiday should be a day on not a day off.

Since November 9th, I’ve spent countless hours trying to figure out the right way for me to engage in a world that would allow the Electoral College to make the decision they did on November 8th, and then confirmed on December 20th. I’m still not quite sure what to do, though I’ve really taken the sage advice of a friend who suggested I, “just focus on the next right thing” to heart. I’ve seen what others are doing and have moved from disagreeing with some strategies to embracing the idea that everyone needs to do what’s right for them and needs the autonomy to choose their next right thing. So, though wearing safety pins and marching in the Women’s March aren’t my thing because both felt exclusionary to Black women like myself at their inception, if that’s your thing I’m proud of you for doing something.

I still haven’t figured out the right big thing that I feel compelled to do. But there’s one thing I know for sure: this won’t be a single act effort for me. That’s part of the reason figuring out the next right thing for me is so difficult. I went into education back in 2001 because I saw doing so as a social justice imperative. I naively thought many of my colleagues were on the same page with me but continue to be disappointed that isn’t every person’s raison d’etre. Still, every time I get ready to stop working in education entirely because of the elitism of the reform movement, the social justice imperative is what keeps me here. So, maybe my next right thing is actually just more of the same.

Here’s what’s different though. I’ve finally learned the big secret no one told me and nobody encouraged during the first part of my career in education for social justice. It’s impossible to sustain this work without putting yourself first. This work can suck every ounce of sanity, perspective, and energy out of you without self-care. Yet what serves as self-care for me – what rejuvenates me and keeps me going – might not be what constitutes self-care for you. For example, when I first started my self-care journey, I thought I needed to be doing something – journaling, going to a spa, exercising – to get my self-care fix. Now, I know that self-care can be anything from saying no to a project that doesn’t feel aligned with my values, taking a nap in the middle of the day before I plan for a late work night, taking something off my to-do list because I’ve just had enough for that day or week, or just gathering with some like-minded friends to commiserate about doing this work for black and brown kids while the movement is still dictated by white dominant culture ideals. Essentially, it’s about what is your right thing at the right time.

I know social justice warriors who are bringing busloads of people to the nation’s capital next week for the Women’s March and others who are going on retreat to South America. Who am I to judge their choices? Whatever you choose to do, I hope you see this as a long game and commit to the right self-care for you that will keep you strong. So if that means the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday is a day off for you and you’re sitting out the Women’s March, so be it. What’s more important is that you engage in the long game of social justice, and commit to ways to take care of you in the process.