Rest and revolution: Organizing and caring for your (and others’) mental health
Omari Ho-Sang speaks during the protest for Black Lives, May 31, 2020, in Shreveport, La. | Henrietta Wildsmith / The Shreveport Times via AP

Sammie Lewis is an activist from Detroit. Since the murder of George Floyd triggered the mass national rebellion against police violence, their time has been almost totally consumed with organizing and activist work. In this article, Lewis encourages political activists to stop recreating the self-destructive grind culture of capitalism and its productivity obsession. Activists often overwork themselves, or our organizations endlessly burden the same few leaders with every new task that comes up. The message here: if you want to win a revolution, you have to remember to rest along the way.

This year has probably been one of my most bittersweet. It’s been difficult to navigate after the loss of my mom last November. I still feel so fresh in my grief, while the world around me refuses to slow down and at times continues without me. On top of this, I’m still experiencing on-and-off pain from my back injury that I received in the brutal eviction of Taura Brown.

Hopefully, that gives some insight as to the bitter part of my bittersweet year, but as I navigate through the grief, pain, and daily exhaustion of existing in and combatting a system that wasn’t made for me, the sweet part is that I am learning how to rest. The world may not stop for me and my mental health crises, but I can.

Losing my mom brought some of the worst pain I’ve ever felt, but it’s also caused me to check in with myself more often and to be more intentional about gauging my capacity, boundaries, wants, needs, and time. It’s okay to want to stay in bed, to want to cry, and to want more than what you have. It’s okay to need space, time, and a break. It’s okay to say no and for that to be a whole answer.

While this year has been tough, I’m learning I don’t have to be tough in order to get through it. I can be vulnerable and honest with myself and my chosen community. I can lean on those around me while I struggle to keep myself afloat. That mindset is exactly what is helping me grow through all my troubles while offering the grace and understanding to myself that comes from knowing that growth and healing aren’t necessarily linear. After all, I’m only human.

Something that I find highly important in my organizing spaces is the cultivation of a community of care. This type of care takes many different forms—from forging interpersonal relationships and connections to taking time to ask about capacities and personal wins and losses, to supporting my comrades going through grief and mental health issues, and so on.

We are organizing to rebuild the world. We are organizing because we believe a new world with new ways of thinking, doing, and relating is possible. So, of course, it makes sense that we start doing whatever we can to put that into practice right now—begin trying to build the world that we want to see today.

In most organizing spaces, we as activists end up replicating and reproducing the same grind culture that we see in the capitalist workplace. Instead of treating each other as human beings going through the hardships of life, we often treat each other as robots who are just there to keep working. In practice, this means that we often pile more and more work on the same activists and organizers who might already be weighed down.

This way of life will not make our movements stronger; instead, it has the potential to tear us apart and weaken our fightback. To sustain ourselves and build a mass movement, we have to be able to slow down and understand that, although there is a lot to fight for, not everything has the same level of urgency.

A valuable part of organizing is keeping collectivity central and sharing the work. When we share the work, instead of relying on the same few people to carry us, we are naturally building stronger connections and protecting each other more from burnout.

But beyond that, when we share the work, we also share the learning experiences. Organizers feel more excited about the struggle when they are actively participating in it. Collaboration leads to better productivity when everyone takes on a task. With everyone taking on responsibilities, we all become more knowledgeable and we gain the opportunity to challenge our assumptions.

Again, we need to move away from grind culture. All the tasks and responsibilities of organizing our movement can be put on just one person or a few people. Everyone can do something. Shared work is a form of care, as the greater number of people who are cooperating to carry the load, the lighter it’ll be.

While it’s crucial that everyone does their part, there must also be opportunities for rest and joy for all of us. The past few years have been relentless for most of us. The ways our lives have changed since 2020 have really taken a toll on us all, and I don’t think we talk about that enough. Before the pandemic, I would spend entire summers outdoors, road-tripping around the Great Lakes and State Parks, swimming in a warm, oceanic-like vast body of water. I’d hike dunes that would exfoliate the soles of my feet and trails that smelled of sweet florals. I used to look forward to the summer because that would be the time of year that I’d feel most rooted in myself and most free.

When COVID broke out, everything changed. It still hasn’t gone back to normal, at least not for me. That’s probably true for you, too. Beyond the pandemic, the George Floyd uprisings marked me as a community organizer, making it even harder to take a break, as I found myself committed to the struggle.

This summer, I’ve reached my breaking point. I no longer want to be forced to choose between my needs and the needs of everything else. I am allowed to take time to experience joy. I am allowed to choose my mental health, and I don’t need permission from anyone but me. I can see the ways our lives have been stolen from us, and I think we all have had enough.

It is time to return to the little bit of joy we used to experience. I don’t think anything will return to normal, but I think we have to define our own version of the “new normal,” and not accept the one propagated by the media and corporations hoping to squeeze us even more. We deserve to experience life in a way that actually makes us feel like we’re doing more than just fighting and surviving. We deserve to actually feel alive.

BIPOC communities experience higher rates of exhaustion because we experience injustices in a much different way as marginalized people. We aren’t only struggling as working-class people, but as people who live in a constant state of hypervigilance due to police brutality, climate change, gun violence, as well as microaggressions and racism. This is important for leftists to understand as they join the working-class struggle.

Class consciousness must also include cultural consciousness.  Black and brown people know that our bodies have been a tool for capitalism since the existence of slavery. We not only carry our own burdens; those of our ancestors are also still felt, like anchors dragging the sea floor. While we may have ended chattel slavery, as Black and brown people, we still know that this isn’t what freedom looks like.

There is no “American Dream” that doesn’t include selling your soul and body to wage slavery. The system has sunk its teeth into us, infecting us with a virus that brainwashes us into believing our worth is defined by our productivity. As we have radicalized, we learned to build resistance. Ironically, one thing I find organizers to be resistant to is rest. When we become organizers, we fall again into this productivity trap, overworking ourselves planning meetings, demonstrations, writing pamphlets, on and on…until their bodies decide for us that it’s time for a rest.

Consequently, sometimes this results in burned-out organizers who never return to the struggle. We must create a more sustainable movement life that isn’t just a replica of the very system we’re fighting to overturn. It is also not just about taking personal responsibility; this is a collective task. If we want to imagine a true alternative to the capitalist system, we have to recognize the shared struggle right here in caring for one another’s mental health needs and creating opportunities for joy.

As we carry on our work, we must not forego our basic needs as humans. We must nourish our bodies as well as our minds. We have to rebalance our energy to include rest and joy. Our self-worth is not defined solely by how much we can contribute to the movement, as we have identities and lives outside the activist work we do.

We must find a way, collectively, to be more intentional, patient, and realistic about our time and capacities. We have to fit in moments for the things that we want and need; we have to stop treating rest and joy like they’re a luxury instead of a right.

To sustain ourselves and our movements, we must find ways to deliberately slow down to prevent and remedy the effects of burnout. We deserve more than society has offered us, which is why we strive to create something different, something better. Rest and joy are radical and revolutionary forms of resistance, so let’s put them into practice and foster a culture that includes these much-needed and often missing elements. Let’s build something more sustainable.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the opinions of its author.

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Sammie Lewis
Sammie Lewis

Activist Sammie Lewis is a member of the Detroit CPUSA. She organizes and speaks on local struggles over housing and racist policing, as well as against U.S. imperialism and U.S. military intervention abroad.