Blog cover, "the revolution starts with you"

Shamillah Wilson. Coach and Consultant to Social Justice Leaders reflects on the importance for activists and changemakers to do the inner work of personal development and self-care

Too often, there is a tendency among social justice peers to imagine that what needs fixing is in the world out there. As a result of the persistent demands for activist engagement in countering the staggering levels of violence present in our daily realities, the issue of personal development and self-care often gets relegated lower down on the priority list.

It becomes easy to believe that we do not need to promote the same principles in our personal lives that we do in our political lives. The perpetuating cycles of injustice, seems insurmountable. Yet, at some level it is also a result of generational failures to collectively heal, or sufficiently deal with the aftermaths of the violent patterns in our world. This violent pattern has its roots in our collective human shadow, whose heart is our collective emotional lives.

The disdain for self-care or inner work seems rooted in the notion that it is self- indulgent, narcissistic and that in fact the real work lies in fixing the world, our leaders, our systems and everything that goes with it. While indeed this is true, we do need to acknowledge the work that has to take place at the individual level as well as collective, the work of transforming our invisible norms or beliefs about how we relate to one another. As activists within the very societies that we are striving to transform, this means, even we have to do this level of work.

When I was a younger activist, I remember the amount of space given to understanding our context, refining our analyses and tooling ourselves to resist, challenge or subvert inequalities. Considerable space was given to reflect on walking the talk and moving beyond the rhetoric. We were clear what walking the talk meant for those in power – political, community or any leaders that occupied institutions that we interacted with. We even reflected on what it meant to walk the talk in our organisations. Yet, looking back, I realise, we did not give as much attention to what it would mean to espouse all these on a daily basis within ourselves. That perhaps, we did not think it was as political or hard hitting to build our capacities to— becoming the people with values and the inner emotional and intellectual resources capable of living differently, capable of giving ourselves to the greater good, which we demonstrate through our actions, our creativity, our wisdom, our presence in the world.

The result is that over the years, I have seen many working in the social justice sector burn out, I have seen them struggle with recurring illnesses and some even struggled with sustaining themselves financially. All this, because all their energies were directed at the revolution in the world, and very little attention to their own lives, their revolution within. It is time to turn that tide, and to model something different, because these patterns are unsustainable.

How do we do this revolutionary work within?

  • Start with radical honesty and humility

    As a starting point, we have to commit to a level of radical honesty and humility as we move in the world we live in. Whilst it is easy to point fingers at the lack of revolutionary leadership in our visible leadership (Trump, Zuma, Mugabe etc), we must not fall into the trap of believing that we are entirely unlike them. So, we must also get in touch with the parts of us that are like them, and work on ourselves.Our work as revolutionaries is not just about holding others accountable to be good thinkers (which is a practice), in touch with fairness and justice, keeping agreements, able to listen and to communicate compassionately, to respect one another’s boundaries, and to initiate change that makes a difference to the majority of people with the least amount of collateral damage.It is also our responsibility to do this work in our every interaction with members of our society, community, colleagues and family. Seems simple right? Truth is, that in many a progressive circle where people coalesce to do good or change the world, they also struggle the most to give life to the very values and principles they are fighting for.

  • Do the inner work

    The work that is probably the hardest and least talked about is the work in the invisible realm, the parts of ourselves that is much easier to hide from the world. In fact, we are often the only ones privy to this domain. What goes beyond the closed doors of our own hearts? Who are we really? We have to be brave enough to take a journey to cultivatethe inner qualities so that we do not become that which we despise. We need to be willing to develop the capacities to feel our feelings as they are at face value, to be honest with ourselves both intellectually and emotionally and to commit to growing in our practices of non-judgement, empathy and compassion. “Who are we really when no one is watching.” Whilst we know deep down the difference between right and wrong, we have to accept that our own bias and our pain can sometimes get in our way. We have to be honest enough to see ourselves as we truly are, and embracing the parts of us that are less than we want them to be, and less than we know they can be.Residual emotional baggage is often responsible for our emotional triggers. These triggers create biases that impact on our interaction with one another. Unprocessed emotional experiences can get in our way and if we are not careful, may find expression in the external world when we don’t expect it and often in unhelpful ways or it can find expression in our inner lives, often impacting on our health and well-being. In my own life, not processing childhood experiences of sexual violence, family trauma and many related issues are what gave birth to the social justice activist in me. However, not processing and working through my own stuff meant it trickled down into my work and my life, sometimes not very conveniently. What I initially thought was merely my politics that was rooted in my understanding of social injustice –often became blurred by own experiences of powerlessness and disempowerment. These experiences led to me defining my role as one of ‘rescueing’, that was not always conducive to sustainable empowerment or shifting of power. One of key lessons for me has been being brave enough to look in the mirror and see what was right in front of me. This level of work is neither easy nor trivial and the level of commitment to it cannot be overemphasized.

  • Take care of your own well-being

    One of the key issues that I have found most surprising working as an activist is the disconnect that many of my peers have to their own well-being. For me well-being is a term that encompasses total health and goes beyond the physical. Well-being includes physical health, but it also includes additional key aspects of our lives such as our emotional, psychological, and our well-being at a material level. This includes finances yes. For many activists, this conversation is a big taboo, particularly in a world where capitalism and neoliberalism has vilified considerations of money. Vilified the considerations that in order to be well in our activism, we also need to feed our children, send them to school, take care of all other aspects of our lives. Surprisingly, this too is an area that is an unspoken and yet only surfaces at crisis points when our  external lives fall apart. Real well-being is being able to balance our different needs: material, physical, emotional, spiritual and financial. These capacities are not necessarily inherent in us and will only be developed if we make it a priority.

Changing the world requires us to be able to move beyond our comfort zones and do the work at “home”. Although we may think that our investment in our chosen revolutions is our life project, the real work is the stuff we have a hard time seeing, acknowledging and owning. If we change our perspective to see that this work is as important as all the rallying organising, protesting, resisting etc, we will inadvertently play a big role in creating the kind of world that we would like to leave to forthcoming generations.

The revolution within begins now, and it begins with you and me.