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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 lives 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 are 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 afterward, 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 of 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 have 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 a 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 the 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

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Mental health awareness is at an all-time high with many of us seeking self-improvement and healing with the support of therapists. Tucked away in cozy offices, or in the comfort of our own homes, millions of women receive the tools needed to navigate our emotions, relate to those around us, or simply exist in a judgment-free space.

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You may not know her by Elisabeth Ovesen – writer and host of the love, sex and relationships advice podcast Asking for a Friend. But you definitely know her other alter ego, Karrine Steffans, the New York Times best-selling author who lit up the literary and entertainment world when she released what she called a “tell some” memoir, Confessions of a Video Vixen.

Her 2005 barn-burning book gave an inside look at the seemingly glamorous world of being a video vixen in the ‘90s and early 2000s, and exposed the industry’s culture of abuse, intimidation, and misogyny years before the Me Too Movement hit the mainstream. Her follow-up books, The Vixen Diaries (2007) and The Vixen Manual: How To Find, Seduce And Keep The Man You Want (2009) all topped the New York Times best-seller list. After a long social media break, she's back. xoNecole caught up with Ovesen about the impact of her groundbreaking book, what life is like for her now, and why she was never “before her time”– everyone else was just late to the revolution.

xoNecole: Tell me about your new podcast Asking for a Friend with Elisabeth Ovesen and how that came about.

Elisabeth Ovesen: I have a friend who is over [at Blavity] and he just asked me if I wanted to do something with him. And that's just kinda how it happened. It wasn't like some big master plan. Somebody over there was like, “Hey, we need content. We want to do this podcast. Can you do it?” And I was like, “Sure.” And that's that. That was around the holidays and so we started working on it.

xoNecole: Your life and work seem incredibly different from when you first broke out on the scene. Can you talk a bit about the change in your career and how your life is now?

EO: Not that different. I mean my life is very different, of course, but my work isn't really that different. My life is different, of course, because I'm 43. My career started when I was in my 20s, so we're looking at almost 20 years since the beginning of my career. So, naturally life has changed a lot since then.

I don’t think my career has changed a whole lot – not as far as my writing is concerned, and my stream of consciousness with my writing, and my concerns and the subject matter hasn’t changed much. I've always written about interpersonal relationships, sexual shame, male ego fragility, respectability politics – things like that. I always put myself in the center of that to make those points, which I think were greatly missed when I first started writing. I think that society has changed quite a bit. People are more aware. People tell me a lot that I have always been “before my time.” I was writing about things before other people were talking about that; I was concerned about things before my generation seemed to be concerned about things. I wasn't “before my time.” I think it just seems that way to people who are late to the revolution, you know what I mean?

I retired from publishing in 2015, which was always the plan to do 10 years and retire. I was retired from my pen name and just from the business in general in 2015, I could focus on my business, my education and other things, my family. I came back to writing in 2020 over at Medium. The same friend that got me into the podcast, actually as the vice president of content over at Medium and was like, “Hey, we need some content.” I guess I’m his go-to content creator.

xoNecole: Can you expound on why you went back to your birth name versus your stage name?

EO: No, it was nothing to expound upon. I mean, writers have pen names. That’s like asking Diddy, why did he go by Sean? I didn't go back. I've always used that. Nobody was paying attention. I've never not been myself. Karrine Steffans wrote a certain kind of book for a certain kind of audience. She was invented for the urban audience, particularly. She was never meant to live more than 10 years. I have other pen names as well. I write under several names. So, the other ones are just nobody's business right now. Different pen names write different things. And Elisabeth isn’t my real name either. So you'll never know who I really am and you’ll never know what my real name is, because part of being a writer is, for me at least, keeping some sort of anonymity. Anything I do in entertainment is going to amass quite a bit because who I am as a person in my private life isn't the same a lot of times as who I am publicly.

xoNecole: I want to go back to when you published Confessions of a Video Vixen. We are now in this time where people are reevaluating how the media mistreated women in the spotlight in the 2000s, namely women like Britney Spears. So I’d be interested to hear how you feel about that period of your life and how you were treated by the media?

EO: What I said earlier. I think that much of society has evolved quite a bit. When you look back at that time, it was actually shocking how old-fashioned the thinking still was. How women were still treated and how they're still treated now. I mean, it hasn't changed completely. I think that especially for the audience, I think it was shocking for them to see a woman – a woman of color – not be sexually ashamed.

I hate being like other people. I don't want to do what anyone else is doing. I can't conform. I will not conform. I think in 2005 when Confessions was published, that attitude, especially about sex, was very upsetting. Number one, it was upsetting to the men, especially within urban and hip-hop culture, which is built on misogyny and thrives off of it to this day. And the women who protect these men, I think, you know, addressing a demographic that is rooted in trauma that is rooted in sexual shame, trauma, slavery of all kinds, including slavery of the mind – I think it triggered a lot of people to see a Black woman be free in this way.

I think it said a lot about the people who were upset by it. And then there were some in “crossover media,” a lot of white folks were upset too, not gonna lie. But to see it from Black women – Tyra Banks was really upset [when she interviewed me about Confessions in 2005]. Oprah wasn't mad [when she interviewed me]. As long as Oprah wasn’t mad, I was good. I didn't care what anybody else had to say. Oprah was amazing. So, watching Black women defend men, and Black women who had a platform, defend the sexual blackmailing of men: “If you don't do this with me, you won't get this job”; “If you don't do this in my trailer, you're going to have to leave the set”– these are things that I dealt with.

I just happened to be the kind of woman who, because I was a single mother raising my child all by myself and never got any help at all – which I still don't. Like, I'm 24 in college – not a cheap college either – one of the best colleges in the country, and I'm still taking care of him all by myself as a 21-year-old, 20-year-old, young, single mother with no family and no support – I wasn’t about to say no to something that could help me feed my son for a month or two or three.

xoNecole: We are in this post-Me Too climate where women in Hollywood have come forward to talk about the powerful men who have abused them. In the music industry in particular, it seems nearly impossible for any substantive change or movement to take place within music. It's only now after three decades of allegations that R. Kelly has finally been convicted and other men like Russell Simmons continue to roam free despite the multiple allegations against him. Why do you think it's hard for the music industry to face its reckoning?

EO: That's not the music industry, that's urban music. That’s just Black folks who make music and nobody cares about that. That's the thing; nobody cares...Nobody cares. It's not the music industry. It's just an "urban" thing. And when I say "urban," I say that in quotations. Literally, it’s a Black thing, where nobody gives a shit what Black people do to Black people. And Russell didn't go on unchecked, he just had enough money to keep it quiet. But you know, anytime you're dealing with Black women being disrespected, especially by Black men, nobody gives a shit.

And Black people don't police themselves so it doesn't matter. Why should anybody care? And Black women don't care. They'll buy an R. Kelly album right now. They’ll stream that shit right now. They don’t care. So, nobody cares. Nobody cares. And if you're not going to police yourself, then nobody's ever going to care.

xoNecole: Do you have any regrets about anything you wrote or perhaps something you may have omitted?

EO: Absolutely not. No. There's nothing that I wish I would've gone back and said to myself, no. I don’t think at 20-something years old, I'm supposed to understand every little thing. I don't think the 20-something-year-old woman is supposed to understand the world and know exactly what she's doing. I think that one of my biggest regrets, which isn't my regret, but a regret, is that I didn't have better parents. Because a 20-something only knows what she knows based on what she’s seen and what she’s been taught and what she’s told. I had shitty parents and a horrible family. Just terrible. These people had no business having children. None of them. And a lot of our families are like that. And we may pass down those familial curses.

*This interview has been edited and condensed

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Feature image courtesy of Elisabeth Ovesen

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