Anastasia Yarbrough – Contemplating radical self-care

Full video with closed captioning available here

Hi everyone. So, I’m here to have a conversation about contemplating radical self-care, and the title of the talk is “Contemplating Radical Self-Care: Animal Rights as if life matters”. I was inspired to give this talk, or at least rather just have this conversation, about what radical self-care means for us as activists – and as far as building community – based on my experience as an activist and particularly my internship at a sanctuary, and how there was… how I needed a lot of support, but I didn’t know how to ask for it in that space.

The culture of the sanctuary wasn’t about supporting activists to help each other so that we can help animals help themselves. It was more about your feelings don’t matter and whatever you’re feeling, you gotta suck it up and kind of do what you gotta do for the animals whose suffering is much greater than yours. And it is difficult to argue that, and difficult to communicate that when there is no space to have that kind of conversation.

So, that’s where I’m coming from. And as I met more activists who had similar experiences, not just at sanctuaries, but just in animal rights spaces, I began to feel like that was more of an issue that we needed to talk about. In animal rights, like what that means is to help ourselves so that we can help others. So, to get some background on what I mean by radical self-care: radical self-care and social justice, it has a lineage dating back to the abolitionist movement and the anti-slavery movement of the 1800’s. And there is a quote from a black woman, named Mrs. Whittington, that I think really captures the spirit of what radical self-care has meant in social justice. She says: “We want to live. Not merely exist from day to day, but to live as you or any human being desire to do.”

And as animal activists, we can extend that to just “living beings”. We want to live in dignity as living beings, and I think for us to be able to advocate that, that sense of dignity, that living beyond subsistence or the existence from the day to day, we have to be able to touch that, in some way, in our personal lives so that we can then extend that in our activist work in a more creative and informed way.

There’s also another quote by Helen Howard, it’s pretty famous, that I love. It’s around the issue of surviving and thriving: “We know and see the problems because we have to live so close to them. We know that we have a sense of responsibility, and we, some of us, have tried to instill some of the ambitions we could not realize into our children. Am I my brother’s keeper? I have to be.” And that statement’s really powerful for me because not only is radical self-care kind of a necessity for a higher quality of life and supports us as individuals, it’s also an act of empowerment. Which in animal rights – I know I had to learn on my own – that empowering myself, to have the courage to be a witness, and to be there when it matters, it comes from taking that time and that space to care for myself and to be in a community, in a culture, that encourages that.

So, another extension of radical self-care nowadays, often comes in the form of spiritual practice interconnecting with social justice. And there are a lot of friends, organizations, communities and social justice movements that gear toward that. A lot of different spiritual practices like meditation, contemplation, yoga, rituals based in African traditional religions and other traditions, have become tools of empowerment for individuals and for communities. And I would also say that radical self-care is a theme that is emerging in intersectionality, particularly with organizations like Food Empowerment Project, within the food justice movement. And within pattrice jones’ work.

And so with that, I am going to take into what radical self-care can mean for animal rights and for animal rights activists, more specifically. So, pattrice jones, she wrote a book. She published a book about four or five years ago called “Aftershock”. I am not going to really get into that book. This talk is a little different from that book. But, if you have not read it, I highly recommend reading it. It is a wonderful tool for activists, for animal rights activists specifically, in how we can help ourselves when faced with trauma, whether that’s from witnessing images of torture and rape and dismemberment, or from being there in the moment doing the rescue work. Doing hard work, basically. So it’s a good book for that.

But, there is one quote that I like to quote from that. pattrice jones says: “The sooner we learn to recognize and respond to signs of stress and depression in ourselves and each other, the stronger our movement will become. In other words, if you are going to be helpful to anybody you are going to have to pay attention to your body.” So, I see that as a beautiful statement of not just looking at our movement as a collective intention, but also the movement as a skill of our individual lives, such as the way we move and the way we navigate and respond in our world, and the way that we treat ourselves in our world and the spaces that we occupy. That being just as important a practice for the movement as the movement itself.

So, this is just a cursory conversation here and I don’t have any specific tools on “this is how you can take care of yourself and this is what radical self-care should look like”. This is more of a conversation that we don’t have often enough and I just wanted to start that in the community, to start thinking about it and maybe even come up with creative ways in which we can really honour our whole selves and build community.

So, for me I think of radical self-care for the individual as being incredibly rooted in the community. Meaning that we have the space, and our communities are hopefully sustainable enough to allow us to hold radical self-care as a principal. Rather than as a shameful obligation or something to neglect. Radical self-care being that, caring enough about our own lives, that life matters. Living as though all life matters. And how important the community is in shaping our lives and nurturing that value. Even though that’s essential, and that’s aspiration for radical self-care, we don’t really do that. It is hard for us as individual activists doing hard work to try to live by principles when we don’t have the community to support that and we don’t have others to turn to or have the space to just be in that.

Radical self-care empowers us as individuals to help ourselves so that we can help animals help themselves. It is really difficult to be there to be there for someone else if we are so fatigued that we cannot even work cooperatively with fellow activists on campaigns. We cannot reach out to someone, we can’t do vegan outreach, if we are constantly bitter and worn down by all of the images and all of the negative feedback that we see of the plight of animals across institutions. So, taking that and having that space and time for radical self-care as a community, empowers us bit by bit as individuals so that we can have the strength and the courage and the dignity to be there and be present and say, “No, I am going to stand up for this today and I have the energy to do it and it is okay. I know that in communities we can support each other and I trust that.”

Building our community and being present for each other is a vital part of the anti-oppression movement. It is just as stressful and demoralizing as an activist to surround yourself among humans who don’t seem to care about your well being as a fellow animal. It is difficult to sustain any kind of work or transform lives if we are constantly being demoralized by fellow activists who don’t care or who give the attitude that it is not okay to care or to support you as a fellow animal because that is not what this animal rights culture is about. We are about helping the animals – and it’s rigid. It crushes the spirit, to be immersed in a dysfunctional, oppressive space like that.

Instead, I like to imagine an ever-dynamic, deeply connected, expanding animal liberation movement that supports activists in all spaces of their activism, wherever they are coming from. Meeting people where they are and allowing them to be present, be real and be whole while they are doing this really hard work. And not being so down on ourselves while berating others in this hard work. Because this is really, really hard work. Just to be there, just to be present and to respond genuinely to what we are perceiving in the moment, responding genuinely to that pain and witnessing the horrible things that happen to animals, that takes courage to own up to those feelings. It crushes the spirit when we feel that and it’s not enough. Or rather the culture that we are in feels that it’s not enough and you’re powerless to do anything and your feelings don’t matter.

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So, also with that, I imagine that this personal work of radical self-care is respected and valued rather than discouraged or belittled as not enough or as not real activism, especially where animals are concerned. I envision with radical self-care, activists can then have the energy and the power to stand up for animals when it really matters because our communities, our animal rights communities, are nourishing and life-affirming, where we are able to thrive in culturally and ecologically sustainable communities that show by example that this is how we can live when all of life matters.

So, I send that aspiration for radical self-care out there and hope that this can spark conversation and that we can learn from each other and come up with ideas of how we can better affirm life in animal rights. Our own lives, and the lives of others. In my abstract I concluded with the question: “how do we navigate the storm of oppression and manage to emerge sane?” Also I would like for people to question what that means to navigate the storm of oppression, what does that means to emerge sane. What is sanity? And I can share how I perceive it and I would like for us to continue that conversation about it. When I say sane, I mean healthy and whole beings. You bring your whole being to the table and you are good. You’re good. You have no qualms, you are in it and you are healthy. By healthy, I mean flourishing condition. I love that phrase “flourishing condition”, and you can interpret that as you will. But for me I think flourishing condition is a beautiful way to describe one’s life and how one experiences life. Like, “Oh, I am in flourishing condition.” That is what I mean. So imagine that, when one is in flourishing condition, we relate with ourselves, with fellow humans, with other animals, with the environment and place, and with whole community.

Radical self-care then becomes a constant negotiation, a way for us to check in and check out and pace ourselves in our relationship with ourselves, in the moment. In our relationship with fellow humans, having the courage and the dignity and the strength to communicate openly as a real person, just coming as your real self, and not feeling like you have to hide behind some persona or censor yourself. And just fierce compassion, being open and being real. Imagine then as your real self how you are relating with other animals. What you are receiving from them in the moment, whether it is in the flesh or through stories, through the news or whatever witnessing, what are you receiving from them, that’s coming from them and then what is coming from your ideas of them, and being able to notice the difference. And being able to have patience with yourself to become more connected and get to know where all of these diverse beings are coming from. And just being patient and kind to yourself as you do that as part of your work. Your relationships with environments and place, like how we relate to place and how we keep our environment – whether that is our vegan boutiques or our houses, and how we keep our houses and relate with our neighbors, and how we are in relation or how we are in ecological relation with place.

Even that, at that scale. Relating to that as a whole being can be profound, and connected with oneself and fellow humans and other animals who are living in that place. Like getting to know your non-human neighbours. One individual at a time. And in relationships with the whole community. And by whole community, I mean interspecies community and ecological community, the ground you walk on, the community that you share meals with regularly. Just practicing, how we take all of these pieces, all of the aspects, of our lives, of our individual lives, and navigate one step at a time through this monstrosity. Monstrosity – I don’t know if that is how I want to describe that. But how we navigate oppression and how we are able to still check in with ourselves, check in in with our relations and still manage to be whole and be grounded and be real and full of love.

It sounds romantic perhaps, when I express it that way, but I think for me and what I am learning day by day, with how I am navigating in the world and how I am in empowering myself as an activist, I think that treating the radical self-care, like getting to the root of who you are and what we need to survive and thrive and be in mutual, respectful, just, loving relations with other living beings, I think that it has to be a practice. It has to go by the day to day. It helps to treat it as a practice, to treat it in the moment and how I am relating with myself today. How I am communicating with other people today? Am I just really getting frustrated? Am I being angry? Am I being accusatory? Am I getting frustrated with these people who just don’t seem to get it? How am I relating with other animals? Who have I been interacting with in my life today? Do I even know what is going on with the animals with whom I live in community? Am I in check with home base, and what is my relationship with the environment and place right now? How am I relating to where I live and how am I keeping that place and how am I walking in that place? What’s my relationship with the whole community? Do I feel anything? am I connected? Do I feel the sun on my face? Am I in tune with all of my relations?

Those kinds of questions, they help me check in, to remember that all of this is life and life matters and I cannot be a strong, empowered, helpful activist if I am not in tune with life. So, I would like to — one final thing before I say goodbye – I strongly encourage that we have this conversation more so around practice, around the importance of radical self-care at the individual and community level as a practice. A practice cultivating these life affirming values. It’s not enough to recognize patterns of oppression but then have no tools or grounding in life to make sense of it. So, the practice I think will help us to respond to whatever we’re facing in our world at that moment, in a more life affirming way.

I intentionally made my talk a little shorter because I didn’t want to talk at everybody about this and I think that this is a topic that’s important for community conversation. If that’s alright with you, mike, could we open this up for talk?

mike: Yeah, for sure. That was really terrific. Thank you.

Anastasia: (Reading question) “Would you say that now that you have discovered radical self-care, your work as an activist has become emotionally easier? Was there a point when it was the hardest?” The second question is “Do you think being active and informed in the first place is an act of radical self-care?”

So, I would say to the first question, if it has made my work emotionally easier, I would actually say yes, to an extent it has. Only in the sense that I have developed more resilience with time, to know what exactly my hard work is in the moment, and have the courage to communicate that. It has not necessarily – much of what I introduced in the talk were more aspirations than what is actually happening especially at the community level. Unfortunately, I have not been able to experience the power of radical self-care in an activist groups. That has not gotten any easier. The activist group has still been kind of, it is still kind of a space of struggle. Struggle and conflict, without anyone meeting on real terms. That has still been very tiring and challenging.

For your second question, do I think being active and informed in the first place is a form of active radical self-care? Maybe. Informed in the sense that I am able to have the courage to be a witness to that violence, that kind of informed, as an active radical self-care, I would say that it is certainly an act of fierce compassion, which then informs radical self-care. But I would not necessarily say that it is an act, a full act of radical self-care. Because radical self-care is more process oriented and requires feedback of, “I am receiving this information from the world and now radical self-care is the process of how I respond to that”. Do I take a step back? Do I have the strength to even ask at this point? And if I don’t, then what is my hard work, or what is the work that I need to do now in order to feel more comfortable or to feel more empowered to do something about these feelings?

I think that by feelings, I mean if I wanted to take action, let’s say against wildlife trafficking but it is so big and gigantic and the images I see are always just nightmarish and awful and terrible and I never get any good news about it, it is so overwhelming. And if I don’t feel like I’m in a place to respond to that from where I am right now, then perhaps that is not where my hard work is at this point. So the act of radical self-care is then knowing, constantly evaluating, re-evaluating and knowing where my hard work is.

Full video with closed captioning available here

Anastasia Yarbrough has been active in animal rights, social justice, and environmental issues for over ten years. She is a former board member of the Institute for Critical Animal Studies, a current advisory board member for Food Empowerment Project, and a Center for Whole Communities fellow.   She currently works locally in the Asheville, NC area around issues of community empowerment.  She will be a featured author in the upcoming book Critical Animal Geographies.

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