Happy new year! And welcome to Off-Kilter’s spring 2023 season. I’m Rebecca Vallas and I’m a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and host of the Off-Kilter podcast.
As we get a new season of the podcast underway, I’m excited to share a little bit about what we’ve got lined up for this spring.
With burnout spreading like wildfire throughout progressive advocacy circles even before the COVID-19 pandemic started nearly three years ago, I’ve been feeling called to take the podcast in something of a different direction this year.
So starting with this week’s conversation with my good friend Aisha Nyandoro of the Magnolia Mother’s Trust, Off-Kilter will be going behind the scenes of the economic justice topics and debates we’ve been uplifting for years on the pod and leaning into another dimension of the meaning of the term off-kilter—by digging into what it looks like for social justice warriors of all stripes to bring balance into our own off-kilter lives, and to care for ourselves as we fight for economic justice and liberation for all.
This other dimension of off-kilter resonates deeply with me on a personal level as someone who’s only recently begun moving past years of functional burnout, after leading a deeply off-kilter life that until fairly recently was nearly entirely consumed and defined by my work.
Bear with me for a quick digression as I get a little personal.
As a law student, legal aid lawyer, think tank researcher, public policy advocate, lobbyist, radio/podcast host, and other various hats I’ve worn over the years, I’ve spent pretty much my entire adult life being extremely, exceptionally, astronomically bad at self-care. I believed for a long time that if your work was about making the world a better place, then boundary-setting and self-care amounted to selfishness, or putting oneself ahead of the communities one was in service to. I spent decades believing that exhaustion was a badge of honor; that lacking the bandwidth or energy to show up for anything outside of work was a mark of my commitment to the cause.
Mind you, as I continued to work myself half to death—eschewing rest, boundaries, and normalizing rarely making time to eat during the workday—I’ve had a tattoo on my ribcage for nearly a decade with a snippet of the famous Audre Lorde quote: “self-care is an act of political warfare.” (Context note: I’d gotten that tattoo after finally leaving an abusive, toxic relationship that I’d lost myself in, in my 20s and early 30s.) In its fuller context, Audre Lorde’s words, which come from her 1988 essay collection “A Burst of Light”—and which I spent years preaching but, until recently, not practicing for myself despite the tattoo—are ones many of us are familiar with, whether we embody them or not: “caring for yourself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation—and that is an act of political warfare.”
Fast forward several years, and as someone who spent years living with chronic illness even before I started working myself to the bone, eventually my body gave out about a year before the pandemic hit. I had no choice but to hit pause and start the process of getting in the right relationship to the work that I love but which I’d lost myself in service to. It was time to finally make some major shifts.
My story is sadly commonplace. As writers and activists like Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldua, and more recently Sonya Renee Taylor and Nap Ministry founder Tricia Hersey have been uplifting for quite some time—and with renewed fervor in the era of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter—folks in the social justice movement have a long history of doing a pretty terrible job when it comes to caring for themselves while fighting for economic and social justice for the collective.
That’s because, as people doing social justice work, we are all too familiar with and in fact may have internalized the very social ills we’re trying to dismantle—including the oppressive, toxic, and lethal pillars underpinning white supremacy and capitalism run amok. So the badge of honor becomes killing ourselves with work, working while sick, and overextension to the max—all while we fight for social and economic policies to protect our communities from precisely those types of oppression.
As I invoke the names of visionary thinkers like Audre Lorde, it’s critical to note that while the concept of radical self-care (as it’s come to be known) is the result of a conversation that was originally pioneered by women of color navigating life in a society rife with sexism, racism, homophobia, and economic oppression, the idea of self-care in general has long since been commercialized and watered down. Case in point: most of us can’t spend five minutes on a social media platform today without being marketed $150 face goop in the name of #SelfCareSunday, no matter what day of the week it happens to be.
And while I’m not here to tell you there’s only one right way to care for yourself, of this much, I feel pretty certain: committing to radical self-care in the way Audre Lorde and others called for isn’t about $150 face goop. It’s about taking back our power and lives from grind culture and getting into the right relationship to our work—by recognizing we must take care of ourselves in order to be able to show up for our communities. It’s about valuing ourselves as much as we value the community or organization or cause or movement we’re fighting for—because without the peaceful warriors who make up the movement, there is no movement. It’s about recognizing we’re all part of a larger, interconnected whole.
As a public policy advocate who’s spent years fighting for disability rights and justice, I’d be remiss if I didn’t center a critical, if obvious, caveat: self-care is not something that is equitably accessible in our society in all its various forms. Again, I’ll hold myself up as an example: as I’ve moved through my own process of reclaiming my life as a sovereign being whose worth does not come from my work, I am an example of someone with access to immense relative privilege—including a job that allows me to work from home and which gives me a significant level of control over my hours.
When I finally got COVID-19 last November, I felt that privilege at heightened levels, as I took paid sick time for the first time in my life, instead of working through serious illness, so that I could get the rest I knew I needed in order to recover as someone with pre-existing health conditions—just weeks after my team at The Century Foundation had published a piece highlighting the research showing that rest is the best treatment for COVID, but that America’s broken disability policies fall desperately short of ensuring that all people in this country have access to rest.
Off-Kilter started to scratch the surface of this conversation when we ran a two-part series last fall interrogating the toxicity of the notion that a human being’s worth comes from their work—and delving into why releasing that collective limiting belief is a prerequisite to achieving economic liberation in the United States. But here’s the thing: the toxicity of that particular programming doesn’t just create inhumane macro-public-policy consequences, like America’s work-based safety net or an ableist economy that still isn’t built for disabled people; its poison is toxic at the micro level too.
So with all that said, for this next season of Off-Kilter, I’m incredibly excited to be sitting down with an amazing series of leaders across the economic justice movement to dig into why, in the famous words of Audre Lorde, self-care is indeed political warfare—and the role radical self-care plays in their lives to sustain them in this work.
As this season continues, since there isn’t one silver bullet, my guests and I will be assembling something of a living, breathing syllabus that brings together a broad range of perspectives and practices and views, one episode at a time. (Fair warning: as someone who accidentally became a practicing astrologer early in the pandemic, I’m gonna be bringing astrology into some of these conversations because—as I’ve learned on my own journey—it turns out astrology is a powerful tool for radical self-care.)
Now, my inner recovering lawyer always wants to offer up caveats, so one last caveat before we dive in. As one of the worst offenders on self-care until relatively recently, I am still in learning mode when it comes to practicing what I preach! So at a personal level, I’m excited to bring some of the conversations I’ve been having off-air with friends and colleagues across the economic justice space into this podcast, while I continue my own learning journey of taking Audre Lorde’s words from ink on my rib cage into my day-to-day life.
Dismount from soap box; rant over; now you’re caught up on where we’re headed with this season of the pod.
So, without further ado, welcome to your self-care syllabus for the spring.
Listen to the first episode of Off-Kilter’s spring season here.
Note: We’ve got a great lineup coming together for this season, but feel free to nominate the folks you most want to hear from this year by emailing us at [email protected].