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Three Black Women Activists Get Real About Self-Care, Self-Preservation & Social Change

For colored girls who need self-care when fighting the power is a whole job.

Wellness

It is possible to be both woke and tired. The senseless killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor lit up the world, causing cities across the world to pour into the streets to demand justice like never before. Not everyone can be on the frontlines – everyone's role in the revolution is different. From supporting bail funds to creating art to contacting public officials, everyone is essential.

That's why wellness has to be a priority for all of us, especially in these unprecedented times. You can't pour from an empty cup, beloved. OG Audre Lorde once said, "Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare."

We had the pleasure of catching up with three women on the frontlines making our world better. Keep reading to learn more about what activism means to them, how they persevere, and how they do self-care.

Niki Franco @venusroots

Photo Courtesy of Niki Franco

Name: Niki Franco

Pronouns: she/her/hers

Occupation: Community Organizer, Writer, and Podcast Host

Age: 26

Location: Miami, FL

What does activism mean to you?

My work as a community organizer means that I constantly push the envelope on what we understand to be true, which are usually internalized ideas that reinforce a harmful status quo and it also means I build deep relationships with folks in my community.

This is the time to be bold, to demand everything that we are owed. A new world is possible and it is being built in front of our eyes.

How long have you been an activist and what was your first taste of the social justice movement?

I originally came into movement through work of health inequities and reproductive justice (abortion access and more), but in the past three years I have focused more on abolitionist work, the school-to-prison pipeline, and youth organizing. A very transformative moment for me was back in 2012 when I was in high school and the killing of Trayvon Martin happened, he was a year younger than I was at the time and just a few hours from Miami.

Why is self-care important now more than ever?

Boundaries! We don't have enough examples of what it means to have healthy boundaries in every aspect of our life and throughout all types of relationships --platonic, sexual, romantic, familial, or working, and it usually means we overextend ourselves and am in a constant state of depletion and toxic cycles.

Self-care and communal care is more important than ever because we are in unprecedented times of crisis and our resilience will have to evolve in more profound and expansive ways.

What is your self-care routine? How often do you practice it?

I go to therapy, I do somatics, I work out, I read a lot, I'm ritualistic about my skincare, I nurture my garden, I curate playlists to get me through different moods, I cook, and I try my best to rest and be gentle with myself. I tap into these practices constantly.

What's the hardest thing you've had to overcome in this pandemic within a pandemic?

It has been hard on my mental health. My emotions have gone through a lot of ebbs and flows in this time. I'm naturally an empath and have a deep sense of community. There has been a lot of uncertainty, pain, suffering, and compounding challenges - I have tried to stay rooted in my principles and be of support for myself and everyone I can.

What are some other things that help you navigate difficult times?

Bike rides! It makes me disconnect from the madness and [allows me to] just be caressed by the sun and the breeze. So simple, but such a gift.

What's your go-to mantra to pull you through difficult days?

"My ancestors prepared me for this. I am worthy. I am capable."

Melissa Denizard @themelissadenizard

Photo Courtesy of Melissa Denizard

Name: Melissa Denizard

Pronouns: she/her/hers

Occupation: Pro-Black Organizer, Activist, Political Education Educator, and Documentarian – Her politics are rooted in Black Feminism and the Black Radical Tradition, specifically through the lens of Haitian revolutionary politics.

Age: 21

Location: Spring Valley, NY

What does activism mean to you?

Activism, at least when it is in service to Black people and Indigenous people, is a very clear stance. That type of activism--the right type of activism--is saying that I believe in the sanctity of Black and Indigenous lives; that we are deserving of abundance, safety, love, and care. And though we live in a world characterized by scarcity, brutality, punitivity, and suffocation, my engagement in activism is saying that not only have we imagined a better world in which we are honored, we are actively fighting for and working towards that world every day. And we are willing to put everything on the line, including our lives, in order to reach that world.

Why is it important to you that you practice being an activist or activism in conjunction with the other roles in your life?

One time, I was giving a presentation on activism and afterwards, someone in the audience--a Black woman, to my surprise at the time--minimized activism and organizing to merely protesting on the streets. Although I was very young, I vividly remember being appalled by her attempt to compartmentalize activism and organizing into one-off protests. In actuality, activism is an integral aspect of the global narrative; along with people who flood the streets demanding recourse for harm caused to their communities, there will always be a student who raises her voice in the classroom, two dissenting people who engage in debate, a community member hoping to pass legislation, or a congregation with a desire for justice.

I found my entry into activism through my sheer frustration with my environment and my refusal to accept the status quo. I decided to make a lifelong commitment to pro-Black liberation because activism and organizing have given me the ability to synthesize my experiences and the experiences of others into vibrant narratives that can shift oppressive systems and our traditional ways of thinking. Activism is a way of life, rather than a single ideology that occurs in a silo.

It's time to start looking at activism and organizing beyond obligatory protesting. Yes, protests are a vital component building, but it is equally crucial that we take a deep dive into how oppression seeps into every facet of our lives. As daunting as that sounds, I am certain that we can all be empowered to utilize activism that is rooted in pro-Blackness and Indigenity as a tool to dismantle systems of oppression to rebuild equitable political systems.

What does this time in history mean to you as an activist fighting for justice and equality?

Witnessing this time signifies to me that our rage is boiling over. We find ourselves in this moment because the United States has never experienced a reckoning for the history of racial capitalism, enslavement, and the displacement of Indigenous people on this land. Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color have never received justice for what was done to us.

Haitian culture and history has taught me that when someone does not receive justice for what has happened to them, a sensation of rage begins to ferment within them. In Haitian culture, we do not shy away from our rage. Instead, we tap into that rage. We are taught to cultivate and nurture our rage, thereby holding that rage very dearly to us until justice is served.

Until we forge a path forward so that we can realize a better world for Black people and Indigenous people, our rage will continue to ferment and boil over.

How long have you been an activist and what was your first taste of the social justice movement?

I've been organizing since I was 14. My entry into activism was actually through the manifestation of the Combahee River Collective's notion of identity politics. Identity politics attributes our identities, which dictate our socio-political and socio-economic positions, as our first introductions to politicization. My initial entryway into advocacy work was through #BringBackOurGirls--a cause specifically dedicated to the plight of Black girls in Nigeria. Before I knew Black Feminist theory, I simply saw myself in those Nigerian girls and organized on their behalf because I knew that their struggle was intertwined with mine. Since then, my organizing work has always been rooted in issues that I have personal stake in.

Why is self-care important now more than ever?

I saw a tweet the other day that said if we want more Angela Davises, we must be willing to fund them and pour into them. Being on unemployment throughout this pandemic has helped me to realize what the government is depriving us of.⁣

I recently graduated from college (and no, I won't say the name because those were the worst three years of my life), and as I've been applying to post-undergraduate professional opportunities, I have been reflecting upon healing, particularly how little time young adults are afforded to heal before being pushed to transition to the next stages in our lives. ⁣It should not be a common, American practice that we expect young people to undergo 16 years of schooling and then immediately plunge themselves into a capitalistic death trap. ⁣⁣

Our swift departure to quarantine was, for me, a blessing in disguise. Having the chance to be home presented me with the opportunity to tie up some loose ends and quite frankly, make my final great escape from what has been my personal hell on earth. Most importantly, I finally had the chance to really reflect on all the trauma I've collected these past three years. ⁣

The job search has been tough for me — not because I haven't been finding listings, but because it's hard to find the motivation to entrap myself in what will eventually become a lifelong cycle of working to stay alive. For the rest of my life, I would much rather work to service my community rather than to engage in labor to preserve my sustenance and survival. We shouldn't have to sacrifice our leisure or comfort for labor.

I've been working since I was 16. In high school, I worked 40 hours a week to help support myself and my family financially. In college, I worked three or four jobs a semester just so that I could buy groceries and meet my basic needs. My experience with labor is rooted in scarcity — never having enough time or money; never having enough time to enjoy the money I'm making or never having enough money to engage in leisurely activities. Now that I have enough time AND money, I can't help but feel weird and out of place. ⁣⁣⁣

What this pandemic has offered me, is a glimpse into what's possible when the government supplements our basic needs so that we don't have to kill ourselves in order to live. I don't think we congratulate our graduates enough for surviving college, nor do we honor the marginalized people in our lives--particularly Black and Indigenous women and Queer folks--who are still standing despite having their livelihoods threatened almost every single day. So, I want to honor all of us who survived.

To those of us who are, although emerging fragmented rather than whole, I implore you to consider how you will heal from it all. You deserve it.⁣

What is your self-care routine? How often do you practice it?

I don't yet have a well-established self-care routine. Currently, I am interrogating why I believe I am not deserving of rest. So I've been going to therapy; I am so happy to be working with a Black woman who holds my trauma and anxiety with love and care.

What's the hardest thing you've had to overcome in this pandemic within a pandemic?

Dissociating from work has been difficult. Now, I can't distinguish if I'm going online for productivity or leisure. It feels like there's never an adequate time to rest.

What are some other things that help you navigate difficult times?

I've recently developed a practice of talking to my ancestors. A friend of mine advised me to pray in the shower. Praying to my ancestors in the shower allows them to cleanse me of any bad spirits, anxieties, or feelings of inadequacy. I often ask my ancestors to guide and protect me, and I thank them for the love and care they extend to me. Cultivating a relationship with my ancestors has been incredibly grounding for me, especially as I continue to deepen my commitment to movement building.

What's your go-to mantra to pull you through difficult days?

"Mwen led, mwen la: I'm ugly but I'm here." Among Haitian women, this phrase, although aesthetically displeasing, is a sign of survival.

It explains why, for all my life, I've always described my mother's face—creased with wrinkles and hardship—as never beautiful, but hard. The bags under her eyes weren't designer nor were her raggedy mumus and tired work attire. According to American beauty standards, she wasn't beautiful. But her struggle was weaved with prophetic dreams of glory; that one day, the work she did would propel her immigrant children into financial stability.

So, I carry this with me because it is a reminder that I will be propelled forward by my ancestors.

Ryann Richardson​ @theryannrichardson

Photo Courtesy of Ryann Richardson

Name: Ryann Richardson

Pronouns: she/her/hers

Occupation: Tech Founder, Keynote Speaker, and Miss Black America

Age: 30

Location: Brooklyn, NY

What does activism mean to you?

I think activism might actually be the meaning of life. While the specific avenues and tactics that we use to exercise it are different for every individual, I do think of activism at its core as a personal responsibility that all of us bear, but only some of us actually step up to accept. You're given one life and I think the measure of success in it might be what you do to improve the world that life exists in.

Why is it important to you that you practice being an activist or activism in conjunction with the other roles in your life?

My role as Miss Black America is first and foremost about service to Black American communities, so my activism is the foundation of my job; everything else is ornamental. On the flip-side, my business career has demonstrated to me how industry is the single-most powerful influence over American culture and the sectors that drive economic growth (like mine: tech) dictate how our society functions. So, business leaders have to exercise an activist mindset in their operations if we're going to see solutions to systemic injustice follow.

What does this time in history mean to you as an activist fighting for justice and equality?

This moment is unique and really promising. This isn't the first time the country has been faced with public outcry for racial justice. But now, for the first time, that outcry is being compounded by three other huge factors: a population that's more diverse (and more socially progressive) than ever before, a global pandemic that has turned Americans into a, literally, captive news audience, and financial insecurity for consumer businesses as a result of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. No one can ignore the calls for justice and with more people than ever identifying with the experience of BIPOC in America, the country's private business sector can't afford the financial penalty of not supporting progress. It just seems like the perfect storm for systemic change.

How long have you been an activist and what was your first taste of the social justice movement?

When I was a teenager, every year my Catholic school would take a school-wide field trip to the largest anti-choice rally and march in the U.S. I protested the trip being presented as an official school activity and linked to class credit and refused to attend. It was the first time I remember explicitly challenging an expectation set by institutional authority because it didn't align with my values.

Why is self-care important now more than ever?

We're on the cusp of a revolution. And while there's more working in favor of justice than ever before, winning the fight to fundamentally change our country is still going to be the greatest challenge of our lifetime. Black women are the leading forces in this movement, in our communities, and in our families. We'll have to be the ones who carry this movement on our back and across the finish line.

But we can't do it if our tanks are already running on E. We have to invest in nourishing ourselves (and require that those around us support that nourishment) for us to be the effective leaders we'll need to be at the most important moment in our history.

What is your self-care routine? How often do you practice it?

I have to be sensitive to my own mental and emotional health.

Even in "normal" times, our society is already chock full of all kinds of obstacles and pits that Black women uniquely face on our paths to wellness. During this moment, the mental and emotional trap doors are everywhere and it's even harder to navigate. For me, self-care has meant taking periodic breaks from being present in the fight.

I regularly reset emotionally by completely unplugging from the news and social media for a day or two; I actually went dark for a full week recently. I know I'll miss some things, and frankly, that's exactly what I need. I also center myself mentally by temporarily shifting my productivity efforts from serious advocacy work to something more recreational. The total absence of work generally doesn't serve my self-care needs, but if once a week I can replace writing, speaking, organizing voters, etc. with building a new table or reorganizing my closet (or spending the day learning how to do knotless box braids), that allows me to reinvest in the important stuff refreshed.

What's the hardest thing you've had to overcome in this pandemic within a pandemic?

Being largely stuck at home and away from friends and family has meant not being able to turn to in-person social interaction as a palette cleanser when work (or life) gets too heavy. Like most of us, I've relied on video happy hours and FaceTime as a substitute but, admittedly, it's not quite the same.

What are some other things that help you navigate difficult times?

Phone calls with my parents, going on long walks with my dog, sparkling rosé, and remembering that nothing lasts forever.

What's your go-to mantra to pull you through difficult days?

"This too shall pass."

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Featured image courtesy of Ryann Richardson

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.

Reparations

We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
Sign up

Featured image by Shutterstock

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