With burnout spreading like wildfire throughout progressive advocacy circles even before the COVID-19 pandemic started nearly three years ago, Rebecca’s been feeling called to take the podcast in something of a different direction this year (you can read more about it here).
So, starting with this week’s 2023 opener, Off-Kilter will be spending the upcoming season going behind the scenes of the economic justice topics and debates the podcast has been uplifting for years and leaning into another dimension of the meaning of the term off-kilter, by digging into why, in the famous words of Audre Lorde, self-care is indeed political warfare—and what it looks like for social justice warriors of all stripes to care for ourselves as we fight for economic justice and liberation for all.
And to help us kick this season off right, Rebecca sat down with her good friend Aisha Nyandoro, CEO of Springboard to Opportunities and founder of the Magnolia Mother’s Trust, to talk about the role radical self-care plays in her life and how she shows up for herself in this work.
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REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off-Kilter, a podcast about the fight for economic liberation and what it will take to set us all free, powered by The Century Foundation. I’m Rebecca Vallas, and I’m a former legal aid lawyer turned policy advocate who works with public policy and law, as well as organizing, coalition building, and narrative as tools for building a more just society, one premised on collective consciousness of our common humanity and the inherent dignity and rights that come with being human. Every week I talk with visionary leaders working to reinvigorate our shared imagination and disrupt the off-kilter imbalance of power in the U.S. to build a society where everyone can thrive and experience the shared abundance we all deserve.
And Happy New Year. Before we get rolling with our 2023 season, I’m excited to share a little bit about what we’ve got lined up for the season ahead. With burnout spreading like wildfire throughout progressive advocacy circles even before the COVID-19 pandemic started nearly three years ago, I’m feeling deeply called to take the podcast in something of a different direction this season. 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 podcast and leaning into another dimension of the meaning of 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 host, and all the various hats I’ve worn over the years, I’ve spent pretty much my entire adult life being extremely, exceptionally, shall we say astronomically bad, at self-care. I believed for a long time that if you love your work, if your work is about making the world a better place, that boundary setting and self-care amounted to selfishness or putting oneself ahead of the communities that one is in service to. I spent decades believing that exhaustion was a badge of honor, that lacking the bandwidth 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 and boundaries and rarely even making time to eat during the workday, I’ve had a tattoo on my rib cage 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 I spent years preaching but until recently not practicing for myself, are ones that many of us are familiar with, whether we embody them or not. “Caring for yourself is not self-indulgence,” she wrote, “it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
So, fast forward several years, and as someone who spent years and 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 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. Zooming back out, to be really clear, this is far from a new conversation. 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 with renewed fervor in the era of COVID and Black Lives Matter, folks in the social justice movement have a long and storied 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 a sector, we’ve internalized the very social ills we’re trying to dismantle, including the oppressive, toxic, and lethal pillars underpinning white supremacy and capitalism run amuck. So, the badge of honor becomes killing ourselves with work, working while sick, overextension to the max, all while we fight for social and economic policies to protect our communities from precisely those types of oppression.
Now, as I invoke the names of visionary thinkers like Audre Lorde, it’s also critical to note that while radical self-care, as it’s come to be known, is a conversation that was originally pioneered by women of color navigating life in a society rife with sexism, racism, homophobia, and economic oppression, to name just a few, the concept of self-care has long since been commercialized and watered down. You can’t spend five minutes on a social media platform today without being marketed $150 face goop in the name of #SelfCareSunday. And while I’m not here to tell you that 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 from grind culture and getting into 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, connected whole.
Now, I’d be remiss if I didn’t center a critical but obvious caveat: Care is not something that is equitably distributed and 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’m 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 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 preexisting health conditions. And this came 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 like I did.
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 U.S. But here’s the thing. The toxicity of that particular programing doesn’t just flow upwards to 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 even in 2023. Its poison is toxic at the micro level, too.
So, with all that said, for this next season of Off-Kilter I am incredibly excited to be sitting down with an amazing series of leaders from 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 that radical self-care plays in their lives to sustain them in this work. As the series continues, since there isn’t one silver bullet, my guests and I will be co-weaving something of a living, breathing syllabus that brings together a broad range of perspectives and practices and views one episode at a time. There may be some conversations and guests that really, really resonate for you, and there might be some that aren’t your jam. That’s okay. Take what resonates with you and leave the rest.
Now, my inner recovering lawyer always wants to offer up caveats. So, one last quick caveat before we dive in. As one of the worst offenders on self-care until pretty recently, I am very much still learning when it comes to practicing what I preach. So, I’m really excited on a personal level to get 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. Okay. Dismount from soapbox. Opening rant over. Now you’re caught up on where we’re headed with this season.
And without further ado, to help me kick this season off right, I am so deeply honored to be joined by a dear, dear friend and soul sister in this work, Aisha Nyandoro, CEO of Springboard to Opportunities and founder and architect of the Magnolia Mother’s Trust. I’ve talked with her for the podcast several times over the years, talking about her work as a leader in the guaranteed minimum income movement. But I was so, so excited to finally get to sit down with her to talk about the role that radical self-care plays in her life and how she shows up for herself in this work, because she’s been a real inspiration to me personally and to many, many others in the movement on this front. I hope you enjoy this conversation half as much as I did. And let’s take a listen. [upbeat music break]
Aisha, thank you so much for taking the time to do this!!!
AISHA NYANDORO: Thank you, friend. It’s good to be with you again.
VALLAS: Oh, it’s so good. Always good to be with you. We gotta do this in person at some point soon.
NYANDORO: Which, oh! You know, we should. And we should video it, and we should let the masses see what it looks like for us to be in conversation.
VALLAS: Ooh! Well, I mean—
VALLAS: Who knows what’s gonna come from it, though. It’s gonna, something big is gonna come from it whenever we get together in person. But we have been talking about having this conversation for this podcast since last October, and that was the last time that I had you on the show. We were talking with our dear friend Dorian Warren, who we’ll bring back on at some point. But you were talking just eloquently about joyous noes and radical pacing as really important parts of your success and your longevity and sustainability in this work. And I said, “Aisha, that’s the conversation! We gotta have you back on.” So, I just wanna say thank you for, in a large way, inspiring this entire season of conversations. And so, there’s nobody that I would rather kick this entire season off with you.
NYANDORO: Oh, thank you, friend. I’m so honored, and I am really glad that we’re having a conversation about self-care and what that really does look like in the context of what we need for activism and not just in the context of what we need for capitalism. So, I am thrilled that we’re having this conversation.
VALLAS: Oh, and you’re already dropping the gems and the nuggets, so that’s exactly where we’re gonna go. So, before we get rolling and started in kind of a formal way, I actually really feel like the right place to start is by sharing a text exchange that you and I had while we were back-and-forthing and kind of confirming logistics for today’s conversation. And the reason I’m sharing it—I don’t usually bring in texts into this show, right? I’m not, I’m a little too old for that—but the reason I wanna bring it up is because it was deeply in keeping with the spirit of this episode and really this whole season of Off-Kilter that we’re kicking off this week. And so, context: I had planned to send you the outline for our conversation over the weekend to give you a chance to prep and think a little bit about what we were gonna be getting into. And then I wasn’t feeling great this weekend.
VALLAS: And so, what I did is I actually listened to my body, and I knew the right thing was for me to rest instead of making a deadline that I had set for myself. And I texted you, and I asked for your patience. And I said, “You’re gonna get this on Monday instead of today.” And your response was just perfection. You wrote back, “Take your time and give yourself grace.” And just like lots and lots of love from me to you for that response. But I wanna give you a chance to respond to that because it’s kind of the perfect place to start this conversation.
NYANDORO: Oh, thank you for that. And I think in so many instances we need to give ourself grace, and grace is just good will. We give it to others. We don’t even think about it. It’s so effortlessly. But we’re always really hard on ourselves with these deadlines and these ideas and these needs for perfection that we don’t actually think about what it would look like if we gave ourselves the same grace that we give to others. And so, it really was. It was like, give yourself grace. We’re friends. We’re having a conversation about care, not meeting a deadline for a run of show. It’s not a big deal in the overall scheme of life, and especially on a Sunday afternoon. So, just letting go of this ideal of perfectionism and really thinking about what does it look like to be in service of self and whole communities? And that’s really what grace is. So, just give yourself grace.
VALLAS: I knew that was gonna be the right place to start, and I’m literally getting chills just even hearing you say that. So, this is gonna be one of my favorite conversations we’ve ever had for this podcast. Buckle your seatbelts, folks.
So, first, to have this conversation appropriately, we’ve gotta do some definitional work up front. And self-care—and part of the reason I feel like we gotta do some definitional work—self-care has really become, and you alluded to this just a minute ago, it’s become in a lot of spaces an empty and commercialized buzzword in recent years. And in that shift, it’s drifted a long way from its origins with Audre Lorde and others whom I mentioned up top, women of color who started talking about the concept of radical self-care back in the ‘80s. And when Audre Lorde first wrote about self-care in her 1988 essay collection called A Burst of Light, if anyone is familiar with her quote but not with the work, go check it out. Go actually do a little deeper reading than what shows up in the Instagram, you know, little images. It’s called A Burst of Light. She was battling cancer while she was still engaged in social justice activism. And so, folks may be familiar with the quote that I mentioned in the opening monologue that is so widespread at this point that it’s actually become a cliché in some circles. I wanna share the full original quote, which is even more powerful in its full context. She wrote, “I had to examine”—and this while she’s got, she’s navigating cancer and continuing to do social justice work—“I had to examine in my dreams as well as in my immune function tests the devastating effects of overextension. Overextending myself,” she wrote, “is not stretching myself. I had to accept how difficult it is to monitor the difference, necessary for me, as cutting down on sugar, crucial physically, psychically.” And then the famous part everyone knows: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
So, with that as—and I’m getting chills again. I’m just gonna have chills this whole episode—so, with that as where this came from, the definitional work that I really wanna turn to you, Aisha, help me do is to ask, what is radical self-care? And how does it differ from the surface-level sort of capitalistic self-care that we get social media ads about trying to sell us $150 face goop or whatever for #SelfCareSundays? So, let’s start with what is radical self-care? And I’m gonna ask as you do that, we need to really situate the origins of this term as a concept originated by women of color navigating living in a society fraught by racism and sexism and homophobia and class oppression and, and, and, and, and.
NYANDORO: Yeah, thank you for that. And thank you for making sure that we’re grounded in definition and centered in the quote, because I do think it’s a beautiful place to start. And so, it’s so interesting. Whenever I think about what the self-care complex has become, knowing the origin story, I’m always… I’m always pissed, quite frankly. Because how it started and where we are, it’s drastically different than its intent. And so, the self-care complex has become something that many individuals who actually need it aren’t allowed to actually participate, are not actually allowed to see how they can participate, because the definition and framing is entirely too limited. And so, when I think about radical self-care and what radical self-care looks like for me, it’s in service to myself, but it’s in service to myself for the greater good. It’s in service of myself for community. It’s making sure that I am nourished and sustained and richly served so that I can go out and continue to be a force that my community needs. It’s not about overindulging just for the sake of overindulging. It’s not about this $100 face goop or any of those things.
It really is about how do I make sure that I am radically taking care of myself so that I can continue to radically take care of others? And that has nothing to do with a face goop or massage or spa day or any of those things. That could be some a simple text where you’re giving somebody grace or a simple meme or sharing my peloton workout with my friends. It’s so many things. There’s so many different ways in which I partake in self-care that have nothing to do with the definition that has become entirely too limited and entirely problematic for how, from where it started and for what we actually are needing as a community to make sure that we are sustained
VALLAS: And I love that right away, as you’re helping me do this definitional work, you’re bringing in that we’ve got the micro in service of the macro, right? ‘Cause it’s like all the different levels. It’s not just you as an individual saying Aisha deserves self-care just because she’s Aisha. Yes. And it’s because you are a force in your community, and you’re a vehicle for social justice, right? You’re not just one person. And so, I really appreciate that you’ve already started to bring that into this definitional work. We’re gonna bring that in as really a theme throughout and really throughout this entire season because it isn’t just about the navel gazing, the individual, it’s the individual as part of the community. And for anyone who’s not familiar with fractal theory, go study some adrienne maree brown and get yourself caught up, right? Because individual choices that we make shape whole communities and bring change in large-scale ways.
So, with that as a little bit of kind of some of the definitional work, and sometimes I hear it talked about as putting the oxygen mask on yourself first so you can put it on the child, right? Or you gotta fill your cup up first so that you have something in your cup to pour for others. There’s a lot of different metaphors that folks will probably think about or have heard, right? But this is multilayered work that we’re talking about here, and that’s a big part of why this is an important set of conversations to have for this podcast and for our listeners.
So, Aisha, to keep this kind of moving to the next level, I’m gonna ask you the question, why is radical self-care so critically important to activists and to folks who are engaged in the fight for social and economic justice? And you started to answer that just a little bit, but I wanna push you to pull on that thread a little more. And I’ll bring the conversation back again to the words of Audre Lorde that are, as I mentioned up top, tattooed on my rib cage, right? It’s not self-indulgence, it’s self-preservation. That’s such a big part of her message. What do you say to the folks who are listening and going, “Okay, sounds nice, but I don’t have the time for this. The work I’m engaged in is too important. Self-care is not for me, that’s for other people.”
NYANDORO: And I think there’s a lie we tell ourselves. And I also think that in some instances…. [sighs] I’m trying to see how to say this without being harsh. Well, it’s two points, two thoughts I have. First, as to why radical self-care is important in activism. We don’t wanna be wounded warriors. And activism isn’t, it’s not a short game. It’s a long game. And in order to make sure that we are here, healthy in mind, body, and spirit, we have to play the long game. We can’t get burned out. Research shows that in the social justice movement, people are burned out after about five years, but yet it takes seven to ten years to get to proficiency in a job. So, if we are changing our leaders every five years, what does that look like for our movements that we’re building? But not only that, if we are building movements where the younger generation is coming in and looking at everyone that’s broken and unhealthy and unhappy and can’t move their body and not taking care of themselves, young folks won’t look at that and say, “I wanna sign up for that. Yes, let me be a social justice advocate.” They’re gonna be like, “You know what? I’m good. Let me go over here and find some other way in order to make a living.” So, I think that’s important when we really think about the long arc of what our movements need.
But I also think it’s important that we begin to reframe and, not reframe, reclaim because Audre Lorde did a beautiful job framing it. We just need to reclaim the definition as we reclaim truly what the intent was of self-care. I think it’s important that we stop buying into this notion that we don’t have time. When we say we don’t have time, we are giving in to the mainstream narrative of what self-care is. And that is not what Audre Lorde was talking about. It was making sure that you are caring for self in whatever way care for self looks like. However it means to graciously love on you is what she was calling for. And that could be turning your— The other day I was in my car listening to L.L. Cool J I’m Gonna Knock You Out. That is what, you know?! “Mama said knock you out.” That is what I needed in that moment! I needed some really loud ‘90s rap! And it was a type of self-care. And then I went and picked up my kids. But my cup had been runneth over because I had gotten my jam on with L.L. Cool J. And so, this idea that we don’t have time is feeding the mainstream narrative and giving in to that definition in a way that does not honor the legacy of the definition.
And not only that, it’s harmful. Because we are then saying that we are not allowed this thing that was actually created for us. And it’s also harmful because we are saying that, “I am not worth caring for myself.” And it’s also harmful because you are centering your ego so much in the work that you are saying that, “If I am not here to do the work, the work won’t continue.” And we have many examples of that not being the case. You will be dead, and the work will go on. And that’s just the sad reality of what it is.
And so, when I think about why this is so ultimately important for me, I think about my family, and I think about the lessons that I didn’t receive from all of the ancestors and advocates that came before me. So, in my work, folks always ask me—and not always, but in a lot of instances in my work—folks ask me about my maternal grandmother, Dr. L.C. Dorsey, and folks always ask me, you know, she was a civil rights advocate. She was a activist. She was a force of nature. Everything that I know and believe about how you build community and how you center community in activism, I learned directly at her dining room table, quite frankly, over food, delicious food. And as COVID hit, and I began to think about what lessons I would need not only in that moment and beyond, I began to think about what lessons I did learn from her. And I didn’t learn to rest. I didn’t learn to take care of self. I was constantly being taught that you have to go, go, go, because there’s so much work to be done. And I think that’s the narrative that so many of those of us that are advocates and activists now learn directly from… directly from our elders that we really lovingly have to push against and begin to disrupt, because that cycle can continue to be perpetuated because it’s not one that’s healthy, and it’s not one that’s sustaining.
VALLAS: Yeah, Aisha, you literally just started to get into the next thread I was gonna pull on. And so, I’m gonna give you a chance to talk just a little bit more about kind of how you did some of this learning. I’m curious to give you a chance to talk a little more, like, how did you learn about self-care and radical self-care as part of how you show up in your activism work? And I ask that question. I look at you as really someone who you actually do practice what you preach, and so you’ve been a model to me. And there are not a lot of models in this work. There’s a lot of folks who talk a really good talk, like I did for a long time, and who don’t actually do it themselves. And you can tell the difference between when someone talks the good talk and doesn’t actually talk the walk or walk the talk. Did it come easily to you? Was there a particular learning moment where you went like, “Oh crud. How I’m showing up in the work is not gonna work for me long term?” Or was this something you learned slowly over time?
NYANDORO: No, I did not learn it slowly over time, and no, it was not easy. It has been a painful, painful journey. But it happened really suddenly. And I remember it was March 15th, 2020, when my family started sheltering in place. And I realized in that moment that I needed some radically different practices to not only get through whatever this thing was but what was on the other side. And I remember having a conversation with my staff and saying, “Okay, we have got to pace ourselves. We’ve got to go slow. We’ve got to breathe. Because when we get over whatever this thing is, it is going to be those of us working in community that are desperately needed to rebuild community.” And so, I really sat down, and I said, “Okay, what do I need in this moment to be okay?” And I found a quote by an anonymous source that says, “Joy is untouched by circumstance.” And I was like, all right. This is the mantra in which I am going to center myself moving forward. And I said, “Okay, I am going to radically be connected to joy and ensuring that every day, I am manifesting joy for my boys and that radical joy will be a part of our revolution, and it will be a part of what sustains us and it will be a part of my care practice.”
And it was harder than I ever imagined! [laughs] But I really had to shed the weight of everything that I thought gave me joy. I had to shed the weight of having the travel schedule that I really, prior to 2020, I loved the idea, I loved, loved, loved the fact that I was on a plane every other week. It was a part of my armor that I figured was a part of my credentialing that signaled that I had quote-unquote “made it.” Ooh, I’m so glad I let that mess go. Troy, I almost cussed, but I caught myself. I am so glad I let that mess go. But I had to shed all of that and recognize that none of those pleasures actually were what sustained me or gave me joy or were a part of my care. They were all performances. And so, I began to let that go and really reintroduce myself to what I wanted to be the new version of myself. And it was one that was deeply rooted in joy and community and caring for self in a loving way that may shift that from day to day or week to week. But really being in tune with myself in the moment and saying, “Okay, what is it that you need today?” And giving myself permission to give myself whatever that thing is.
And it has been a beautiful practice that has sustained me since 2020, continues to sustain me. And I know that it’s sustaining me because I really do look at this in three prongs of being sustained and self-care and joy in all of this. You know, I am sustained by my ancestors. I know they got me. So, I know that I am the daughter of, and I have a cadre of, Black women that continue to hold me up. I am sustained by what holds me, and I have two delicious little Black boys that I am raising that give me so much joy, and they are part of my radical self-care practice. And about my work, I get to liberate financial capital for the benefit of Black women. And all of those pieces are… all of those pieces are pieces that I had to claw my way towards finding and claw my way to saying that I deserve all of this period. Because society is not set up to see a Black woman from the South say, “I am okay. Period.”
VALLAS: Mm. All right. Chills again. It’s just gonna be this entire episode, I’ve decided. So, Aisha, I love so much that you started off with joy, right? Like, that is just such an important place to start here. And especially we’re marking three years of this pandemic in just a few weeks now, right? And it has felt in a lot of spaces, particularly in advocacy and activism spaces, as though there’s shame around celebrating wins or finding joy. It’s like, no, no, we’re all supposed to be really unhappy all the time because everything is really hard, and we’re up against all these challenges. And so, I actually really appreciate you situating this conversation by starting with radical joy. And I love that quote, “Joy is untouched by circumstance.” I just wrote that at the top of my calendar for this month. So, thank you for sharing those beautiful words.
So, I’m gonna take us into some of the other practices that I happen to know that you really lead by example around because you have shared a few of them with me. And in fact, the last time that I had you on this podcast with our dear friend Dorian, you spoke about two particular elements of your own radical self-care practice, and I wanna give you a chance to talk about each of them in turn. And they have been in my ears since we talked in October. So, I am genuinely, really, really, really excited to hear you talk more about these concepts that I’ve had as thumbnail sketches that you have shared with me prior to now. And the first was what you call “joyous noes”. So, what are joyous noes, and how did you come to bring this into your work and your life as a practice?
NYANDORO: Yeah, a joyous no is an unapologetic no. So many times, we say no with all of these caveats, like, “Oh, I wish I could, but. If my schedule wasn’t so full, but.” No! No! I don’t wanna do that. No. This is a joyful no. It’s a unapologetic no. It is a no that I say with glee, knowing my time, knowing my work, knowing my capacity, knowing that we can have this meeting via Zoom rather than in person. It is just no with glee. And I love the joyful no so much because it really has been a practice in getting here. Prior to 2020, I would never say no. It is this idea that if you are asked to do a thing, you pretzel yourself, you pretzel your calendar, you pretzel your family, you pretzel your community, you move mountains to make the thing happen. And that’s not sustainable. And not only is it not sustainable, it’s disrespectful. And not only is it disrespectful and not sustainable, it goes with the scarcity mindset that if I say no to this opportunity or to this thing, another opportunity or another thing will not manifest itself. And that is disrespectful to the God I serve, to truly just believe that only one thing or one opportunity will manifest. So, I just started saying, “No,” period. No explanation. No “let me see if I could move my schedule.” No “let me see if I can go from this conference to that conference.” It’s just a gleeful no. “Thank you so much for thinking about me, but no.”
VALLAS: I love that so much. And just to say, right, that saying no and… maybe there are some people who’ve always been good at this. I don’t think I’ve met them. I certainly haven’t met any women who are just naturally really good at saying no.
VALLAS: There’s the pressure. No, it’s….
NYANDORO: You’re not told.
VALLAS: No. And it’s like it comes from this place inside of like, “Oh, my God. But what if I say no? What are they gonna think? I’m gonna be disappointing them. I’m not gonna be seen as, I’m not gonna seem invaluable.” It’s like there’s so much wrapped up in what it takes to say no. And actually, I’ll bring in before we move on to your second practice, the theme that we were focused on the last time that I had you on the podcast with Dorian, was the toxicity of the collective limiting belief that a human being’s worth comes from their work. And this being the tacit premise underpinning the notion of deserving and undeserving that shows up in so many of our economic debates and which you speak so eloquently about. And of course, we’re kind of, if you roll back the history books, you get all the way to Calvinist pre-determinism and then later, the Protestant work ethic, and folks can kind of draw the line through history before it was cemented as part of American culture in a kind of an invisible but really pervasive way. And so, we were talking last time about the notion that your worth comes from your work in the context of economic policy, like how our work-based safety net is set up in the United States.
But it also feels really, really deeply, at its core, connected to this conversation about radical self-care and about saying no, right, specifically as you were just describing, in ways that stretch all the way up the income ladder, right? We’re not just talking about folks who are being shut out of the safety net because they don’t have what the definition is of deserving work in a way that has caused them to be eligible. How do you think about this connection, before we move on to the second practice that I know we’re gonna talk about?
NYANDORO: The connection of no to self-care and thinking about worth and the economy. Making sure—
VALLAS: Well, and the underpinning of your worth coming from your work, right?
NYANDORO: Ah, yeah.
VALLAS: And what that has to do with why we feel like we can’t say no.
NYANDORO: Yeah. I think there is so many reasons, as you were talking and going through that. I think there’s so many reasons that we have been taught that we can’t say no as it relates to our work or what’s modeled and the expectations that we have to constantly be going, going, going. But then also, for those of us who are caregivers, what that relates, what that means for us as caregivers as well, and feeling like we may not be the best caregiver if we say no. “No” is just not a term that we revere within our society, and we should, because it is setting up healthy limits and saying that this thing does not serve me well. And if it’s not serving me well, it doesn’t serve my community well. When you were talking, I started thinking about my oldest son. And the last time he asked me for something, I said no and started laughing. And he was like, “Why are you saying no?” And I was like, “It gives me great joy to tell you no!” [laughs]
VALLAS: I love you, yep.
NYANDORO: He didn’t appreciate it. But I was thinking about how the joyful no goes [laughing] into my parenting! But yeah, but this ideal of our worth being connected to our work and how because of that, we can’t say no because we should be grateful for the work. It goes also back to that scarcity piece that I mentioned earlier, that we are beholden to these employers or jobs or careers because we feel it’s that that is what is sustaining us. In some instances, it’s sustaining us. It’s providing the financial capital to do other pieces. But if you truly are rooted in community and self, community and self sustains us.
VALLAS: I love that. And I’ll just put in a plug. Folks should go back and listen to Aisha and Dorian talking about your work not being your worth. And we actually had a part two of that episode with Rebecca Cokley and Keith Jones. Both episodes are just really, really powerful and worth listening to at sort of a macro level of, as part of our series last fall, talking about collective limiting beliefs.
So, I’m gonna move us to the second of your practices, really the third ‘cause let’s count joy. So, we’ve got joy, we’ve got joyous noes, and now we’re gonna go to a third of your practices. And this is something that you call “radical pacing.” Talk a little bit to me about radical pacing, what this looks like for you. And I wanna spend a little bit of time on this one, because this one, this is probably one folks are gonna hear and be like, “Oh, no, no, I don’t get to do that. That’s not for me. That’s for other people.” So, talk a little bit about radical pacing.
NYANDORO: Ooh! You know, it’s so interesting. So, I don’t believe in work-life balance, and I actually hate that terminology. I feel like that is some industrial complex-something. I don’t know if Hallmark came up with it. I don’t know if white women— I don’t know who came up with it to make themselves feel a little less guilty. I don’t know. I don’t believe in it. But what I do believe is in harmony. And what it means to me, radical pacing is about harmony. So, when I think about this—and Rebecca, this is gonna sound, so, just go with me on this—when I think about what harmony means for me, I’m like, “Okay, I cannot….” Y’all, don’t text me about this. I know this terminology is problematic, and I’m having this conversation how I have it in my head. So, when I think about it, it’s okay. I cannot be raggedy in the same way simultaneously. So, some weeks I’m really a raggedy boss. I’m just not showing up the way that I like to show up because of whatever reasons. But I don’t wanna be a raggedy boss two weeks in a row. Some weeks I get along with my team, with my family, in our broader community in order to ensure all of these pieces are working together. And so, that may mean a couple of joyful noes to my kids or a couple of joyful noes to my team or other partners in order to ensure that I have that radical pacing necessary to keep the harmony that gives me joy.
VALLAS: So, make that real for folks. Like, I don’t know if you have a particular story you wanna tell or a week that might be an example. What does it look like to engage with radical pacing, not just as a value, as a guideline, but as something that informs the decisions you’re making about what you spend your time on?
NYANDORO: Yeah, I can definitely give an example of that. So, like I say, prior to 2020, I was on a plane three, four times a week. I don’t fly more than once a month now. That to me is radical pacing. I really know that for me to show up the way that I wanna show up in all the other elements of my life, I cannot be fighting Delta through ATL more than once a month. And so, that means saying no, a joyful no, to other opportunities but knowing that I am really creating the harmonies that’s necessary.
VALLAS: Yeah, I love that as an example. And I’m gonna…. So, I sort of hopped in what I called the confessional booth for the [laughing] opening monologue to this season. And I’m gonna hop back in it and do one other sharing that I feel like is so linked to this theme of radical pacing. So, you were describing some of the shifts that the pandemic brought for you, and a lot of folks also got deeper into certain hobbies or different things during the pandemic. My partner started trying to learn violin. That’s a story for another day. It didn’t go well. It didn’t end well. I had to be in the house the whole time for it. Anyway, he put it down. But I will out myself as someone who somewhat accidentally became a practicing astrologer during the pandemic! It was something I had played around with and been interested in for a long time, as I’m sure is true for probably a lot of our listeners. I had never before actually spent the time to actually study it enough to practice it in my own life, let alone to sit with clients to do readings as I do now when I’m not doing public policy work. So, little fun fact about Vallas here.
But I’ll be honest, I was unprepared for the realization that astrology can actually be a tool for radical self-care in a whole bunch of ways. And one example that I’ll share is that the moon is actually a brilliant teacher when it comes to radical pacing. She spends just as much time on her inhale as she does on her exhale, right? She goes waxing from new to full, and then she wanes from full to new about every 28 and a half days. And we can see that in a sky, right? But for folks who don’t spend their time practicing or deeply engaging with astrology, this might be something people haven’t given a lot of thought to. There’s a deep connection in astrology between the moon and our bodies, with the moon as the closest planet to earth. And so, I bring this in because the lesson from the moon is about honoring the exhale as much as and equally to how much we honor the inhale. And we have this bias at this point in human history, in Western culture, around produce, produce, produce, be out in the world, you know, all that yang energy, all the, like the divine masculine, whatever frame you wanna give to it. And we really deprioritize, and we don’t value the exhale, the stillness, the rest, the not being in productive mode.
And so, something I have actually started doing—and this might sound radical, but we’re having a radical conversation—is I’ve started living by the moon. And it turns out that that’s actually really not just possible, but it syncs up with what we’re talking about, about joyous noes. It syncs up with radical pacing because just by saying, “You know what? Waxing moon means I’m out in the world more. I know I’m gonna have more energy. And then waning is, nope, I’m gonna be in more. I’m gonna honor my need for more me time. I’m gonna honor the time to be quieter and stiller and to get more rest.” Even just that simple kind of a shift, which involves me saying, “No, I’m not available then,” or “no, I don’t wanna put that meeting on that date” and so forth has actually been radical in its transformative potential in my own life. For folks who are potentially interested in going deeper on that, hit me up. I’m always happy to talk about astrology with folks. But I bring that up here just to see how that lands with you in terms of that inhale and that exhale.
NYANDORO: I am so intrigued, and I’m now, I’m sitting here. I am not an astrologist, and I know this is one of your hobbies. And I’ve already told you, “Okay, sign me up. I’m interested.” And I’ve never thought about living by the moon and what that means as it relates to inhaling and exhaling. But I love it. And for so many of, and it actually makes so much sense now because I have so many friends that are activists that are also astrologists. So, I’m like, this actually all aligns and makes a lot more sense than I had been giving them credit for. So, I am intrigued.
VALLAS: Well, we’ll talk more off air about it. And again, for folks who are interested in learning more about this, this is one of the things I love talking about most. So, I’m happy to convert more folks to living this way ‘cause it turns out, it allows you to actually get more done with less effort and less shame because—
NYANDORO: Rebecca, you just need to do a show on self-care and astrology! Or even .
VALLAS: All right! You’re pitching me, and I’m here for it. All right. I’ll cross the streams. I’ll cross the streams. I guess I’ve outed myself already, so I may as well. The other thing that I really love about working with the moon that also just goes hand in hand with this radical pacing is, for folks who are astrologers, they might be familiar with this, or not folks who are astrologers, for folks who are like astrology nerds. And a lot of people listen to podcasts and whatever. They might be familiar with this too, but I’ll plant the seed. New moons are the time for planting intentions, and you’re planting them in six-month increments because what you’re gonna end up doing is harvesting what you’ve sowed six months later at the full moon in that same sign. So, we just had the new moon in Aquarius. And so, I was doing a bunch of—and I said this to you, Aisha, and you were like, “What are you talking about?”—planting seeds in a particular area of my life that I knew I would be harvesting six months from now when we have a full moon in Aquarius. And so, I’ve started living that way through my work in my life as well, in terms of knowing when it’s time to be doing intention setting and knowing when it’s time to be looking at and reflecting on progress. And so, the moon has a lot of lessons she can teach us, and it actually doesn’t require becoming an astrologer. So, all right, I’ll do that episode. You’ve got me. You’ve got me.
But before we run out of time, Aisha, a point that we need to speak to and which I think we would be remiss if we didn’t address it head on, given that this is a show that historically has been focused more on the macro than it has been on individuals. And it can be really easy to talk about self-care in a solely individualized way. That is often how the kind of capitalist, surface level conversation happens, is how do we show up as advocates for ourselves and for social and economic justice for the larger collective? And you started to go there as we started this conversation. But I wanna throw it back to you just to sort of name, right? It’s obvious on its face to anyone listening, self-care, radical or otherwise, is something that can seem like something that a huge swath of the country, and in particular marginalized communities, don’t have access to when you’re thinking about it as bubble baths and time at the spa and all of that. But you said it before, and I wanna really kind of close out with you a chance to bring us home on this point. What does it look like to engage in micro and macro work along these lines in tandem? How can we be sure? And how can folks who’ve been listening to this who are now gonna go talk with their friends and say, “I’ve been thinking about self-care,” how can we have this conversation in a way that contemplates and reclaims that tension?
NYANDORO: Yeah, by recognizing that they’re connected first and foremost. And when recognizing when you are taking care of yourself, you are taking care of community. And that radical self-care should be defined by you and whatever that looks like that gives you joy. It should not be defined by mainstream media or mainstream corporations or mainstream society, which it has been for so long, that you don’t even get to see how self-care is something that you are deserving of, which is sad because we all are deserving of being able to center ourself and make sure that our needs are met in a way that gives us joy. In the work that I do, when we started talking to our moms about self-care and the importance of it, so many of our moms said that they never thought that they had the time or that they actually were allowed to think about themselves because as the primary caregiver, they felt as if they always have to center the needs of their kids first. And how in using that frame, they feel like they were always at a deficit, which they were, because they were never having an opportunity to make sure that they were full or they were fulfilled or that they were getting joy. And so, for me, it works in tandem. You take care of you, and in taking care of you, you are taking care of community, you are taking care of your kids, you are taking care of your elders, or whatever needs to be taken care of as a community.
But the piece that so many of us want to skip over is the caring of self in a way that is loving and authentic to you and doing the work necessary to figure out what that looks like. Because going to the spa may not be what it looks like to care for yourself. Well then, stop doing it! I remember when I first started—[delighted chuckle] I’m gonna go out on a tangent here—I remember when I first started doing self-care, I had bought into this idea, like this is maybe 2015. I was like, “Okay, I am going to do self-care. Every month I am going to go to get a massage. This is self-care.” And I remember having a conversation with my executive coach at the time, and I was like, “I don’t wanna go get a massage!” And she was like, “Well, why are you doing it?” I’m like, “Because I am doing self-care!” And she was like, “Will you please stop doing that? That doesn’t sound like self-care if you don’t wanna do it!” I was like, “Oh, my God! You are right. That is not self-care if I don’t want to do it.” And that’s when I really started thinking about, okay, what does care look like for me? Regardless of where we are economically, regardless of where we are geographically, regardless of what society tells us our worth is, you’ve got to look at yourself and understand that you are worth self-care. You’re worth it. And so is your community. So, yeah.
VALLAS: Aisha, you’re just, I wish we had…. Do you just wanna come back every episode this season?
NYANDORO: We say the same thing every time, if we just could talk to each other all the time.
VALLAS: I know. I know!
NYANDORO: So, I just think we need to figure out a way to talk to each other all the time. [laughs]
VALLAS: Well, I said now’s the moment for intention setting, so I’m here for it. I’ll join you in setting that intention ‘cause I have so much love for you and so much respect for your—
NYANDORO: We could do a podcast on astrology and faith. Or astrology and— I know!!! I know! Girl, I had a whole conversation in my head about it. [laughs]
VALLAS: Oh, oh. We don’t have video for this, so not being audio shown right now is my face going like, “Whooo! Yes! I’m so here for this!” Let’s talk about that because that feels like a thing I would have a lot of fun doing and that would sustain me and be something that would fill my cup while we’re potentially also having conversations. So, who knows. Might be interesting to other people, too. Aisha, you’re amazing. I love you so much.
NYANDORO: I love you.
VALLAS: Is there anything you wanna plug in terms of like if folks are looking for resources or other people to learn from?
NYANDORO: I don’t have anything to plug. I am simply going to say that being in community with you is one of my greatest gifts of 2021, 2022. I don’t know. One of those years. As I was thinking about our origin story, and I will say this is, being in community with folks that I deeply love, that I did not meet at a conference is the only gift from COVID that I’m accepting. So, I will say that I have so many dope people that I met via Zoom rooms during COVID that we really got to meet because of intentional conversations not built on all of the cocktail conversations that you have to have at conferences. It really was just intentional conversations where we were able to really get to the heart of the heart of who people are. And so, I just have tremendous love for you, and I am so grateful that we get to be in intentional community with each other. And you are one of my self-care practices because you give me joy.
VALLAS: Oh! Right back to you. And I can’t think of a better way to have started off this season. So, folks should follow Aisha on Twitter if you’re not. Check out Springboard and the Magnolia Mother’s Trust. And we’ve got all that good stuff in show notes. So, if you don’t already know what Aisha’s up to, go check her out. And yeah, we’ve got some great guests this season. We’ve got Sarah Jaffe coming up talking about Work Won’t Love You Back and lots of other good stuff. So, get excited for a little bit of a different season of Off-Kilter. But you know what? This is the medicine we all need right now, so we’re just gonna do it. [theme music returns] Aisha, so much love for you and this was so much fun!
NYANDORO: Thank you.
VALLAS: And that does it for this week’s show. Off-Kilter is Powered by The Century Foundation and produced by We Act Radio, with a special shoutout to executive producer Troy Miller and his merry band of farm animals, and the indefatigable Abby Grimshaw. Transcripts, which help us make the show accessible, are courtesy of Cheryl Green and her fabulous feline coworker. Find us every week on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your pods. And for the superfans, you can find a full archive of all past episodes and show transcripts over at TCF.org/off-kilter. Got an idea for a topic you’d like to hear us unpack or a guest you’ve been wanting to hear on the show? Send us a note at [email protected]. Or if social media is more your bag, give us a holler on Twitter @OffKilterShow. And if you like what we do here at Off-Kilter Enterprises, send us some love by hitting that subscribe button and rating and reviewing the show on Apple Podcasts to help other folks find the pod. It really does help. Thanks again for listening and see you next week.