by Christa, Philly       Sorry the post is so link heavy!

I recently read this fabulous piece by Yashna Maya Padamsee entitled “Communities of Care, Organizations for Liberation”. I found that I had too much to say about it to just post it on facebook so I decided to dust off the ole blog.  I have been thinking, studying, writing, and workshopping about community care for the past 3 years. Unfortunately, I still feel a bit lost on how to tackle these issues, especially if it means simultaneously waging a campaign, planning actions, and going to events. Thankfully, I feel more supported and valued in my current organizing than I did when I was an undergrad doing student organizing.

One of the major obstacles to community care that I have observed (both in myself & in others) is the fear to ask for help. People are afraid to be burdensome or don’t believe they deserve assistance/support. This is because other people don’t ask for help so it is not a community norm [1]. This is not only true in activist communities but in society as a whole[3]. If you ask for help, especially if it is deemed excessive, you face social sanctions (in the form of shame, ridicule, criticism, disapproval and social exclusion).

Community members and organizations don’t make it known that support is available. Many groups would at least try to step up if someone expressed their needs, but people keep quiet. It’s a chicken-and-egg problem and I think we all need to work on breaking the cycle.

A few months ago my White anti-racist group was focusing on the concept of solidarity. As an intro we did a (silent) Theatre of the Oppressed [4] activity where a pair posed as ‘hierarchy’ and ‘struggle’. One by one we were asked to either tap someone out of the human sculpture or join to represent ‘solidarity’.  People took different approaches to represent solidarity. Some dismantled ‘hierarchy’ through force/action, some used their privilege to agitate, and others gave support to ‘struggle’.  No one tapped out either ‘struggle’ or hierarchy’.

At the end we discussed the activity and what we noticed. Participants explained their poses. One woman had been on her hands and knees (forming a human bench) behind ‘struggle’ who was crouching. The woman said that she had had done it to support the person that was ‘struggling’- both metaphorically and physically.  She thought that ‘struggle’ was probably getting tired and might want to sit.  The woman posing as ‘struggle’ admitted that she had been tired and uncomfortable. She wasn’t sure if she was permitted to sit and didn’t want to be presumptuous. Neither woman could have vocally offered/asked since it was a silent activity. However, would they have spoken up if they were allowed? Probably not.

Two obstacles stood in the way of truly creating support in this instance.  One, the woman offering support didn’t (couldn’t) verbally express her offer of support. She may have thought it was obvious or understood. Two, the woman acting as ‘struggle’ wasn’t sure how much support she was actually being offered. She felt self-conscious about asking to sit. She didn’t want to be too forward and she didn’t want to be a burden. So she just crouched uncomfortably until the activity was over.

I think the feeling of being presumptuous or becoming a burden is very real for many of us (especially if you don’t carry the entitlement that privilege carries). I often refrain from asking for help because I know that people only have so much to give. I don’t want to use my “help me” tickets until I desperately need them.  In the past year I have seen a few different cases of folks needing more than their close friends are able to give.  I think one important thing to keep in mind is that community care includes caring for those that are caring for others.  Because there is a current lack of community care, people only feel comfortable asking the few people they are close to. This causes the care-giver to become frustrated and burned out.  The care-giver ends up distancing themselves from the people they were helping, confirming the fear that asking for help is burdensome and will result in social isolation.

To be honest, so often people in my community are worn down by kyriarchy and they need help and support as much as the person asking for assistance.  It brings me back to a few years ago when four of my female organizers and I were sitting in the cafeteria feeling downtrodden. We had just realized that we were all seeing a therapist at the counseling center and at least three of us were suicidal. We were pissed off about the emerging male dominance in our organization but had no energy to do anything about it. We gradually dropped out one by one as we became overwhelmed by the men in our chapter, our depression and the lack of community care.

Community care comes in many forms.

Physical assistancemoving help, cooking, fixing or building, hair cutting, car lending, etc.

Emotional/mental support – This can often be less concrete and is usually harder to ask for.  Friends have explicitly asked how they can support me when I am depressed. However, if I am already depressed my first impulse is to tell them to just leave me alone and let me stay in bed all day [5].

Economic support– Folks have a lot of problems both asking for and offering economic support/help.  Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha made an extremely brave decision to become a Community Supported Organizer for the Allied Media Conference. I think is a fabulous idea that more folks should try out.

Other ways to provide economic support: Helping with things one would usually have to pay for  such as childcare , moving, repairs, etc.  If you know your friend doesn’t have enough money to eat this month, invite them over to your house for a meal. Offer to take them out for a meal. Offer to help them fill out an application for Food Stamps and wait with them at the benefits office. Sometimes just getting help navigating the bureaucracy can be a huge help.  Small things are very appreciated. I also want to challenge folks to consider income redistribution and be honest with themselves about their class status.

I would love to get some concrete ideas on how to make communities, organizations, and friend groups more focused on community care.  In the meantime, I will work on asking for help when I need it.

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1 A norm is a sociology term that means something that is acceptable social behavior in a group or society. We learn when and where it is appropriate to say certain things, discuss certain topics or wear certain clothes.

3 I grew up in a rural Minnesota community where community care is valued. Asking for help can still be hard, but I know that if I ask for help people will more often than not come through- even if I barely know them. My experience living in a large city and in the suburbs has been drastically different.

4 THEATRE OF THE OPPRESSED (TO) is used by groups of people as a tool for liberation all over the world. Unlike most theatre that divides spectator from actor, TO breaks down that wall to create an interactive theatre experience. Organizers doing TO use the tools of theatre and popular education to dismantle oppression.

5 This is pretty common with mental health situations. I would suggest creating a “mad map”, especially if you have a history of mental health problems.  A mad map is a plan of action for mental health crisis for yourself and your community. It comes from The Icarus Project but I was unable to find any concrete info about it on the web. It is my understanding that it is essentially an advance health care directive. An advance health care directive is a set of instructions stating what actions should be taken for a person’s health in the event that they are no longer able to make decisions due to illness or incapacity.  Create the mad map when you are “healthy” and have a clear head.  It includes things like: “signs that I am getting depressed”, “ways to support me”, “things not to do”. It may also include your wishes concerning medication or institutionalization.

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