Activism and Care: Thoughts on Contemporary Organizing
By Angela Lemus-Mogrovejo
In the months leading up to my graduation, I frequently wondered whether I would ever contribute anything worthwhile to social issues once I left college. As much as I wanted to escape from my college campus and figure out my future beyond its limits, I was worried. I had spent the past four years advocating around race, LGBTQ, and disability issues through workshops, involvement in marches supporting local Black Lives Matters chapters, and generally being active in the organizing community on campus. I didn’t want my contributions to these movements that mattered so much to me and my friends’ lives to suddenly become worthless and inconsistent.
However, as my time on campus was drawing to a close, I had to face some sobering truths about my capacity to organize in the future. With all the healthcare expenses I’d amassed, including an emergency room visit and therapy sessions that nearly drained all of my finances, I had no expendable income for securing transportation to future rallies. My physical body, still recovering from a summer of disordered eating brought on by abuse, did not have the energy to do more than go to class, let alone go to marches happening on campus. And with all the strain that writing my thesis, job searching, and suicidal ideation put on me throughout senior year, I could not imagine myself planning meetings or protests, let alone with the clarity most people expect.
So, if I wanted to imagine some semblance of living to even age twenty-five with my limited life stability, organizing had to go. I couldn’t be that active, go-getter, constantly fit and ready to go protester I had grown up fantasizing about. I couldn’t be part of the revolution or the movement in the streets. I had to settle for trying to be on the sidelines, being someone who supported movements but who couldn’t really be an organizer or protester, right?
And yet, nearly four years after I left my college campus, that isn’t what happened. I write, sometimes from bed while sick or recovering from depressive episodes, and I lend my support to many of the causes I fought for before. I share videos and articles through social media, send out tweets in response to major global events, and continue to uplift the many disabled, LGBTQ voices of color who initially inspired my work in disability justice. I spend more time these days playing support roles, focusing on how to better take care of myself and how to better take care of people involved in movement work. Regardless if my everyday life wavers back and forth between stability and uncertainty, I remain as committed as I ever did to organizing around social issues. The only difference between then and now is that I don’t feel as though I have to be near my wit’s end in order for my work to matter. My work and life perspectives are more informed by my disabilities now, more rooted in care for myself and others and that has been better for my life overall.
In spite of the confidence I have gained, I imagine my previous self and the organizing circles I used to run in dismissing the work I do now as being incredibly privileged, akin to the armchair activism many academics do without ever engaging directly in community issues. When evaluating the value of sharing protest information on social media or reflecting on shared injustices through creative expression, I could imagine myself downplaying their worth when compared to direct community aid. I believed activism demands everything from us, and resting in comfort while other people suffer reeks of indifference to the point of moral indecency. Worse yet, caring about ourselves when metaphorical fires are burning risks letting important issues fall by the wayside. I thought direct action should matter more and not be on par with simple, indirect support work or considerations for care towards ourselves and one another.
With all of this in mind, what does it truly mean to be an activist currently? What does it mean if literary or less direct forms of organizing work done by disabled folks can be written off as irrelevant? If doing care work doesn’t count as real activism, then what does that say about how little we value taking care of each other within the emotionally grueling work of organizing? What does this say about the baseline level of strain expected of activists for their work to matter?
To be clear, I do not believe focusing on short-term direct actions has to come at the expense of long-term planning or considering the day to day needs of maintaining support for movements and their members. Many people I have known who spend time plotting out details for a singular, public action have also been involved in creating spaces before and after to support the sustainability of such movements. Likewise, those who have often organized through different, less direct methods like creative expression, social media, or sharing protest information have also played direct roles in expanding the accessibility of direct actions to more audiences. I know full well what we are all capable of when we value a diversity of not only tactics but people as well.
My interest in asking these questions is more to ruminate on why disabled folks’ contributions matter less to organizing when compared to non-disabled people, particularly in relation to care work. Why are disability and care work singled out in particular when it comes to evaluating contributions to activism?
I reached out to a few people working within disability organizing circles to take stock of their perspectives and wisdom on these matters. Alice Wong, Founder and Director of the Disability Visibility Project, provided the insight that when it comes to normative organizing culture, many organizers are still working on the assumptions put in place by “a capitalist system founded on white supremacy, heteronormativity, and ableism.” They choose to dismiss disabled people’s work because it doesn’t fit what the expected bodymind can produce, ignoring that the often “gendered, racialized forms” of “emotional, invisible labor” disabled folk do offer helps sustain movements. Movements, according to Alice, do a disservice to themselves by ignoring disabled people’s wisdom, which often brings “flexibility and understanding critical to movement work.”
As I reflect on the countless meetings, workshops, and protests that defined much of my organizing life on campus, I realize now there was another form of labor at work that enabled that event planning to happen. As simple as it may sound, I can’t express how life-saving it was for me to have someone affirm that it was okay to take a break from organizing, especially when it came from other disabled folks. Many of my fellow disabled organizers felt the constant pressure to plan events all the time and, whenever we weren’t planning, the creeping fear that we were not doing enough. And yet, I never recall feeling more like we were crafting better futures for ourselves than in the moments we would sit, chat, and make sure our bodyminds were being fueled. Checking in on each other, making sure what we needed to fully present for meetings, and even just holding space for one another’s pains-both psychic and physical-made it that much more possible to care, and to engage in our organizing work. Care work held us together, even when our campus circumstances were tearing us apart. Even on days when walking across the campus felt physically impossible, knowing that my fellow organizers supported me through those situations with love and tenderness made the work of organizing that much more possible.
Speaking along similar lines, Professor Shayda Kafai of California State Polytechnic University, Pomona discussed with me the current limitations of organizing communities who forget the place of care and love in movements. In her eyes, much of what forgetting about care work (and by extension disabled people’s work in care) translates to is “artificially separating activism from love” when they should be intertwined. When we stop paying attention to the emotional needs of our movements and ignore basic needs like food in order to keep pushing on, we create a context where we forget about the “steps that allow activist work to happen.” We end up expecting certain forms of labor like femme labor, food work, support work in general “to just happen” and we make it so our movements don’t care about care. Our movements, which should be focused on better worlds for all of us, ultimately make no room for sustainability, just continued production without any pause.
I’ll be frank: outside of disability focused or disability justice spaces, I have almost never been in an organizing space that did more than pay lip service to issues like activist burnout or healthy, long-term engagement in movement culture. I’ve had countless conversations with current and past student organizers where they have expressed disappointment regarding the support they were receiving from their organizing communities. Regardless if they have worked on issues of racial injustice, sexual assault, or disability, students have consistently reported feeling drained and without room to rest in a pattern common to activist traditions. Many of these student organizers, especially the disabled and LGBTQ women of color, confess feeling close to the edge and trying to hold on, with little care for their stability beyond that given by friends in similar situations. In talking with many of them, I can’t help but be reminded of the despair I grappled with before leaving campus: longing for support from my fellow organizers while fearing I would be lambasted for not doing enough.
And in the years since leaving campus, I can’t say my own experiences tell a much different story. In the person of color spaces I have been able to find, I’ve witnessed folks publicly shame other people’s contributions to movement work while disregarding entirely their capacity to engage. Accusations of laziness frequently arise in both online and in-person interactions, with people claiming others are only doing what is easy. No thought is ever given as to whether or not people are simply working from within their means. Furthermore, when folks I know have tried to suggest alternative spaces for processing trauma or making considerations to organizers’ varying access needs, such concerns are not taken seriously. Regardless of where I have lived in the past few years, I have found the same attitude in non-disabled organizing spaces: able-bodied people so committed to their politically exclusive cliques that they treat anyone who can’t keep up with their views as disposable. Movements, which I once fought for to the point of nearly breaking myself, continue to not care about their participants because to do so is not real movement work. Real movement work requires commitment, even if the means to keep organizing (people and care work) are lost in the process.
And, ultimately, the consequences for treating activism as a grueling, grinding line of production with no room for sustainability, care, or the people lost in the process are becoming clearer as time passes. Within the past few years, activists such as Erica Garner have passed away from health concerns that could have been addressed earlier had healing and disabled organizing perspectives been considered in the scope of contemporary activist concerns. Several young activists of movements like those in Ferguson have often been left without support through uneasy life states and as a result been left disillusioned, alienated, and eventually suicidal. Without any alternatives to offer them, these activists represent the end point of activism in its current state.
And, in many ways, this current, slow death of organizers represents the direct consequences of organizing without care. When activism becomes a matter of proving oneself in doing “real,” consistent work, people live their lives without concern for their limits. Burnout becomes the baseline for doing “good” work and anyone who can’t keep up becomes someone to be looked down on. Activism no longer facilitates the union of love and care that Professor Kafai touches upon but instead facilitates the martyrdom of organizers. In short, activism, in its current, normative state, reiterates a dangerous set of expectations: to contribute, cut off from others, and burnout with no sense of asking if any alternatives should exist and disabled folk be damned. As Alice Wong best puts it, it becomes a “Darwinian test of who can last the longest, shout the loudest, take up the most space, and fight the hardest,” which it shouldn’t be...and yet it is.
So, if existing activist attitudes to disabled people’s contributions, and by extension concerns for sustainability and care, are currently toxic, what are the alternatives?
As has been the case with several issues in my life, turning to the critical interventions offered by disabled organizers may be the best way to move forward from here. In the past few years, while I have not been able to contribute a physical presence to movement work, my contributions have not been any less worthwhile. Helping direct the flow of discourse through writing to deter elitist, ableist attitudes from flourishing allows more people to feel welcome in organizing spaces, all of whom bring valuable contributions of their own. Comforting current, stressed organizers through difficult personal issues related to institutional oppression provides them the means to keep engaging in much the same way disabled organizers once comforted me. All of these supportive, care based forms of work have worth in movements in need of interdependent organizing perspectives and are rooted in labor done by disabled organizers working away from the frontlines.
And, in truth, I believe this more expansive approach to organizing offered by disabled activists has the potential to impact our larger movements. Rather than simply addressing narrow, on the ground concerns facing communities dealing with institutional violence, disabled organizers bring more compassionate organizing principles, hitting upon all the areas of life that communities need to thrive. Whether that be through literary dream makers who help us imagine beautiful, disabled Brown and Black LGBTQ futures or through performance collectives that affirm bodies long disregarded by society and organizing culture, disabled organizers are reaching for something different. They recognize what we have now is not working. People breaking themselves for better futures in movements that comfortably ignore whether they even have a future isn’t sustainable.
Instead of slow death, I and others can ask for something I believe Shayda Kafai put in a remarkably brilliant, simple way: “Can you change and impact lives and shouldn’t that be enough?” Shouldn’t it be enough to transform one another’s lives for the better, and work with love and care to make better futures together?
I think answering these questions is ultimately why I do care work in the way I do now. Our bodies shouldn’t be thrown on the fire just to warm everyone else up. We can fight for one another without asking for more than what they can give. What we do, be it big or small, can have an impact in fighting injustice without self-destruction. Because we are enough and we can make this world and the futures we fight for enough for us all. Together, and with love.
Angela Lemus-Mogrovejo (she/her) is a twenty-five year disabled, transgender femme of color working to make a stable life for herself in the LA area. Having graduated some time ago with degrees in Psychology and Philosophy, Angela now dedicates her professional life to creating writing uplifting the concerns and struggles of marginalized communities. As a writer for Art for Ourselves, she writes in the hopes of supporting QTPOC creatives in imagining/creating a better world for us all. A better world is possible and she hopes to play her part in making it be realized.