Reflections on Care as a Political Act

Many of us are aware of the Audre Lorde quote:

‘Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.’

What does this mean, in principle and practice? This question, expressed in multiple ways, was being explored at this year’s online Healing Solidarity Conference, hosted by Mary Ann Clements, the main theme of which was Embodying Change.

This is interesting to me for a number of reasons. Firstly, terms such as ‘self-care’, ‘wellbeing’ and ‘resilience’ have become increasingly popular in both the corporate and non-profit sector; in the case of the latter this has been in response to reports of burnout and mental health problems affecting staff. Whilst the wide use of these terms may at face value seem a good thing, I feel some discomfort with how they have been exploited to emphasise the individual’s responsibility for their distress, and for their healing; thereby letting employers (and broader structures, such as the State) off the hook.

Secondly, and related to the previous point, we live in a society – particularly, but certainly not exclusively, in high income countries – that rewards doing, achieving and quick-fix solutions. There is very little space for uncertainty, for vulnerability, for not having the answers, for being with difficult emotions. Yet these are part of being human, and we need to create and respect these spaces if we are to truly learn from ourselves and each other.

I was inspired by some of the speakers at Healing Solidarity who spoke directly to these issues. Lori Michau and Natsnet Ghebrebrhan from Raising Voices – a Uganda-based organisation which works to prevent violence against women and girls – spoke about the importance of putting staff first as human beings, rather than just focusing on what they can produce (which is the tendency, even in supposedly caring professions such as aid work). They also highlighted that part of us living our values, as feminists and as change-makers, is to make self- and collective care a core component of everything we do, inside or outside the workplace. This was echoed by Mary Jane from Urgent Action Fund – an organisation which supports gender activists and human rights defenders through grants, advocacy and alliance-building. Urgent Action Fund is currently asking itself, as part of its internal learning: What would it take to practise a feminist culture of giving and sharing in an organisation? Part of this learning, they say, is to also track this process – reimagining monitoring and evaluation to include this question.    

Collective care sees wellbeing as relational; it is not just about what is happening with our own mind, body and emotions, but also how others are around us. It calls on us to be more intentional about building relationships, and in doing so building trust, in order for us to support each other better.

If we are to build healthier relationships, we must also build our empathic muscle. This links to what Hitendra Solanki  – a mindfulness and wellbeing advisor in the aid sector – was saying about mindfulness; the value of pausing to bring awareness to our thoughts and emotions, in order that we may respond to others with greater empathy and compassion. This surely is essential not only for how we interact with our colleagues, but also how we interact with the communities and affected populations we serve in aid and development work. In this sense, we are also talking about our power relations – as discussed by Shawna Wakefield, who works on gender justice and feminist leadership, as well as teaching yoga and body work for transformative healing. Both mindfulness and more somatic (body-focused) techniques help us become more aware of how power is felt in the body, as well as in our organisations, and encourages a self-inquiry into why we are here, and how we can be of benefit to others.

These rich ideas and insights have meaning to me on a personal level also. If I truly wish to embody feminist values of self- and collective care, I have to ask myself gently: do I practise what I preach? This is a pertinent question at a moment in my professional journey where I spend so much time on the computer, on my own, pushing myself on a regular basis to keep doing better, to keep working towards my goals. Yet at times I need to soften – to ease off the ‘doing’ treadmill and listen to my body and when it is actually calling on me to slow down. And human connection is also key – not the online version that can take over at times when we’re in the midst of networking and sharing our ideas – but the moments where we are face to face, listening deeply, giving and receiving gestures of care and understanding. We all need this in our lives as we try to make sense of this frenetic, at times hostile and alienating, world we inhabit.

My feminist values also call on me to continuously question the power dynamics in any relationship; how this may manifest negatively, and my role and responsibility in cultivating a space where all feel welcome. And so my desire to build relationships also entails a willingness for discomfort, as I not only dare to express my vulnerabilities but also navigate my own privilege and how this affects others. This is where the rubber meets the road, and where self- and collective care become a political act; if we can confront who we are in relation to others, with kindness and a gentle curiosity, then we stand a better chance of truly understanding our role in this world and how to take action from a place of compassion.  

This blog by Gemma Houdley was originally published as ‘Care as a political act’ at on 2nd December 2019.