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October 1, 2015

There is No Perfect Attendance Award in the Anti-violence Movement

For my entire adult life, including spaces in which I’ve blurred the lines between my professional and personal lives, I’ve dedicated my work to social justice and the anti-violence movement. I’m in this work because I believe a better world is possible and that each of us can takes steps to get there immediately. All of us deserve a world that is just and it is urgent that we fight for that world everyday. Indeed, this work is rewarding, inspiring, humbling, occasionally hilarious and I’m in it for the long run.

Also, this work is incredibly exhausting.

For the folks that thank me for the important work I do, and see the great pride and value I find in it, I have a confession to make. This work is difficult and draining, and while you may assume that I sleep soundly every night, dreaming of a full day of doing good  - the truth is, sometimes, I don’t. Sometimes I don’t sleep well at all.

Don’t get me wrong, my restless sleep is not because of the anxious urgency of wanting a better, safer, more just world - RIGHT NOW. I sleep restlessly because of worrying about a court appearance the next day for a young person seeking an order of protection, about whether a survivor is going to get her bills paid, what she may have to do to pay those bills and feed her children, or whether another client would be believed by the officials at his school. It may be the result of worrying about whether I’ll be able to complete reports on time and keep updated on the incredible work of my colleagues. When I look internally, I lose sleep wondering if I’ll pay all of my student loans, or if my rent will rise to make the neighborhood in which I live unaffordable, or if I’ll be able to support my family in a deeper way.

A few weeks ago, I had also been ignoring some health issues that had flared-up sleeping a cycle of tossing and turning, which wasn’t doing me or my partner any good. In other words, I was simultaneously too anxious and too exhausted to sleep. And yet, I wanted to show up the next day, caffeinated, alert, and ready to participate in one event after another, including organizing opportunities and strategy sessions. In a movement to fundamentally change how we treat each other and how we confront violence, there is a lot of good work to do, important conversations to have and I don’t want to miss out on anything.

And yet, I also knew that for me, something had to change.

“It is not enough to just survive”

I read that line last month, when my organization participated in a 1.5 day self-care workshop through the Move to End Violence, and it struck me in a way that I haven’t felt before. It was included as a value and principle in a workbook we used to discuss sustainability and impact. Other values include “You cannot care for others if you have not cared for yourself”, and “There is a difference between self and selfish”. Although I had participated in self-care workshops and retreats throughout my career, including a life-altering self-care retreat I had participated in Convening 1, this resonated differently.

When I read that value, it was as though I was introduced to that concept of self-care for the first time. I questioned myself:

  • Am I only just surviving?
  • Am I thriving in this work?
  • Is it fair to even for a moment believe that that I am only surviving when the individuals with whom I work are literally surviving by the skin of their teeth, often with a fraction of the resources I have?
  • Who do I think I am?

But this time was different.  Perhaps it was because I had just come from a vacation and I was feeling energized, or maybe it was because I had come to the self-care workshop with the assistance of cane due to an injury earlier that month or because I hadn’t been to the doctor in almost two years. I realized that injury, self-care, and recovery could be connected. It was an opening through which I was ready to take action on my own self-care.

For me, dedication to the work over personal need and my instinct towards work over self-care, are rooted in a time before I turned to activism. I’m certain that habit stems from my childhood, my own sense of discipline, where I grew up, and where I came from.

Growing up in the Staten Island, the child to immigrant parents and attending a local Catholic school, Perfect Attendance was “a thing” in my family. By “a thing”, I mean, that Perfect Attendance was a goal to strive for, a demonstration of work ethic, an appreciation of the value of education, an honor to the struggle of my parents and a commitment to my own future. Indeed, in a world where my parents had to work twice as hard as some of their peers to make it to the United States, and where their filipino-accented English could result in them not being taken seriously or given the message that they didn’t belong, attendance was one more marker to demonstrate that we belonged here, that we earned our spot, and if we excelled, you have to respect us. And while I’ll leave the critique of that for another blog, I’ll say Perfect Attendance was something to be proud of. For me, attending a mostly white school, a short, brown, non-athletic young person who did not yet have the language or security to talk about my budding sense of sexual orientation, let alone a queer identity - showing up, everyday, and attending as much as I could was a vehicle for me to be present and to demonstrate my value.

Through my participation in the Move to End Violence, this self-care workshop and through self-reflection, I’ve come to understand that Perfect Attendance is a useless concept in the anti-violence movement. It is no longer an award that I want to earn. Perfect Attendance is an ableist concept, that values self-sacrifice and martyrdom over movement-building and sustainability. Perfect Attendance privileges the able-bodied, shames the vulnerable and ignores experiences of trauma in the anti-violence movement.

It is not enough for me to merely survive in this work. I want to thrive in the anti-violence movement, because the anti-violence movement thrives when I’m nourished and energized. For my clients who struggle, I best serve them when I’ve had lunch, when I’ve drunk water throughout the day, taken care of my body and spirit, taken a sick-day when I’m run down. I advocate more vigorously when I’ve had a full night’s sleep. I’ve learned that anti-violence includes taking steps to care for myself.

For longevity in this movement, and in order to best advocate for others, sometimes I have to advocate for myself. Sometimes, anti-violence is advocating for myself. I want to support healthy relationships boundaries for myself, my colleagues, and my community. Ultimately, it essential to my sustained participation in this work and in this movement.

I’m the supervising attorney at Day One, an organization which partners with youth to end dating violence through direct services, community education and leadership development. At Day One, we recognize that the need for zealous advocacy must be balanced with a strong emphasis on self-care. Indeed, as an organization that advocates for young people who are survivors of trauma, many of whom have had personal boundaries ignored or violated, Day One values the modeling of mutual respect, collaboration and communication among our staff as well as with our clients and community partners. With this in mind, I know that self-care is paramount.

I’ve learned that while I may occasionally have a sleepless night, I’d like to balance that with mornings, days, evenings and many other nights with genuine self care. If that means I don’t win any awards for perfect attendance, I’m ok with that, because I’m working towards my dream of making a robust anti-violence movement a reality.

Art by lizar_tistry