7 things I learned about care (and resilience) with Haiyya
I was introduced to Aprajita about 4 years ago, mostly by sheer luck. When I met her, I was figuring out how to root my work, and still struggling to define it succinctly. Yet, something clicked between us, and she generously invited me to facilitate my first ever organisational retreat. “Why don’t you come try out some of the ideas with Haiyya”, she offered, “and we can explore together to see where that takes us!”.
I have since then facilitated 4.5 retreats with them(which have consistently been the events I have been most moved by and inspired in), collaborated with them on projects that are very close to my heart, learned so much about leadership by being a part of the most kickass advisory board, and continue to make sense of the world with them through all that.
One of the biggest things Haiyya has taught me has been about care. Deep, radical, joyful feminist care, which I have learned about by feeling it deep in my bones. I have experienced care in tiny things, like the fact that I have now celebrated 3 birthdays at the retreat (and they have all been some of my most memorable ones), to more significant things like the fact that I have always been cheered on to show up as my full wholehearted imperfect self (with all my questions and list of things-not-figured-out-as-yet), to the big things like thinking with them about what care looked like in activist organisations when it came to wage or menstrual leave or dealing with the pandemic.
So, it seems only right to commemorate Haiyya’s 7th year by cheesily summing up 7 of the biggest things I have learned about care from and with Haiyya.
I love facilitating care mapping workshops. I have done it more than a few times, and each time, it is a nourishing experience to go on this journey with new folks. It is a simple exercise where we literally make a “map” of care in our lives, plotting the care infrastructures of our lives. We use metaphors of cities to build this map: our energy fuel stations and community parks for spaciousness and neighbourhood cafes of creative togetherness, our sources of giving and receiving care, distinguishing our walls and our boundaries, giving shapes to our gardens of flourishing, and also the roads and potholes to get there from our “heart quarters”.
It lightens up the heavier part of these conversations, giving space to experience the shared vulnerability of our “imperfect cities” without needing to share (or hear) more details than we want to, and inspires the use of metaphors to talk about things we don’t always want to say out loud and unpack them with strangers across diverse contexts and experiences.
In one of these workshops, one of the metaphors that emerged is that of a railway station. “It feels like I am standing on a crowded train station, waiting for a delayed train, my hands tired from holding all this baggage, but no place to put it down (and afraid to do so) because there are just so many people here with so much baggage all around” one of the participants exclaimed. Seeing the resonant nods and smiles across all the faces in the group, I inquired what help they would like right now with this baggage. “For someone to hold it for just a moment, so that I can feel my arms again,” she replied, almost relieved; “I am getting good arm exercise, but honestly, I don’t think I have built the capacity for this much weight yet, and it feels hard to learn while I am holding the baggage.”. This conversation had turned to resilience.
And then a participant who had been quiet so far whispered slowly, “but it feels like everyone’s got their arms full too, and even though so many people want to help, no one is able to. And I am a therapist — usually I am the one holding it for people, but right now, I’ve got no space too”. “And it feels like some of the people have trolleys for their baggage, but I just cannot afford it”, another one chimed in, painting the bigger systemic picture.
More nods, and some misty eyes filling in the silence of thumping hearts that emerged from the groups. “What if we all joined hands, holding this collective burden together, so that we can take turns taking a break?”, one of the younger participants proposed, inciting solidarity of “heart responses” on the zoom screen. Until one of them voiced the unsaid fear, “Do we trust each other enough to really share and contribute this equitably?”.
The workshop wasn’t intended to be for solutions or even full answers, and we definitely didn’t find (m)any. But this metaphor of holding our burdens collectively has really stuck with me as an image of what care and resilience could look like in today’s times, especially in activist spaces, where we are all just carrying so much.
Some ideas and thoughts I have gathered so far by asking this again and again:
- We usually land up talking about care when we are struggling to survive. But so much of care is actually about thriving… and abundance.
1.5. A quick note here about time and abundance…
- Tune into your values from a place of care.
- Please, please, feel fully, so you can care properly.
- Make space for caring, because it is at the heart of social justice.
- Such a huge part of care is about being able to be our whole selves. And so much of being our whole selves fully is being able to grow into all that we can be. And that means being able to change and learn.
- Care and resilience are often systemic issues, and distinguishing which forms aid social justice movements and which ones it prevents it is essential.
- Imagination is a feminist act, and makes caring and resilience possible.
1. We usually land up talking about care when we are struggling to survive. But so much of care is actually about thriving… and abundance.
Abundance is one of the big words in social justice right now and it took me some time before I realised that I was misusing it; and to learn that abundance isn’t so much about “having a lot”, as much as it is about “having enough”, or at least moving through the world like we believe it can be.
I do not mean that we should be frivolous with things, but rather, what if we shifted our mindsets about what is enough? Because our neo-liberal society rests on the assumption of scarcity so that we keep buying our way into survival, and feel like that is all that is possible, and so are content with it.
But, what if we shared some of the things in our baggage, like toothpaste, so that we didn’t all have to carry everything? Or use the one that is available where we go? Or washed our clothes so that we didn’t have to carry as many?
What has that got to do with care and resilience? This: I regularly do work around care with individuals and groups and organisations, and one of the biggest hurdles we invariably face is the “but” of “not enoughs”. There isn’t enough money. Not enough set of hands. And barely enough time. All factually true, and often, hard to change.
But what if we looked at it differently?
What if we started with our resources and then strategised towards our goals from there? Which is not to suggest that we shrink our goals. But rather — What if we examined our goals to make sure that they are our collective visions and not simply what we are told and taught how the world should be (and thus what is possible)? And then found creative ways to get there? What if we shared knowledge, skills, and resources with each other so that we aren’t all trying to do everything, but building as a whole in a way that is greater than the sum of parts and where the resources could then be enough for the parts?
1.5. A quick note here about time and abundance…
… because that is the hardest barrier to crack. Mostly because it is absolutely true: we do only have 24 hours in a day and 7 days in a week, and 52 weeks in a year, and the annual reports do have to be filed every year, and because almost all the things we fight for are truly urgent.
But, I have constantly felt like my internal pace of processing things sometimes just doesn’t match the pace of the world, and that sometimes, in trying to force that pace, I tend to go back to the things I was taught and comfortable in, rather than really consider what is really right. I keep coming back to the words of Bayo Akomolafe when I find myself getting impatient for solutions: “Times are urgent. Let’s slow down”. I am still only beginning to figure this out.
To clarify though, “slowing down” does not mean slowing down the pace. So far, I have been learning that it is slowing down from a constant state of urgency and the resultant reactionary mindset, and instead paying attention. Feeling things fully, and allowing ourselves to feel it, and stay with it long enough to at least begin healing journeys. Replenishing (in more than hedonistic ways) and breathing when we are tired so that we are responding from a more fullness rather than a desperate emptiness. Empathising and finding ways to include not just other identities, but also other voices, feelings, and dreams — and building with it in a way that can contain more of it.
Essentially, taking the time to show up fully. As adrienne maree brown says, “We’re all so often showing up and giving each other the bare minimum of presence and then being surprised that we can’t feel each other, that we don’t actually feel the depth of connection that we’re longing for.”
And as an extension of that, I have been trying to remember that inclusion is not always efficient (and that efficiency is perhaps a part of that neoliberal hurriedness), and that sometimes, effectiveness is more important and that often, probably more efficient in the long run). At least thinking of it that way helps me be more patient in the work I do.
2. Tune into your values from a place of care.
In one of our Haiyya retreats, we were doing some values work, and kept stumbling against these unnamed walls — and needed to figure out a different way to reach deeper to find alignment. So, we played a game. I role-played an “alien” who had descended on earth, and won a huge lottery, but didn’t need the money because I am an alien, so had decided to give it away. One of my “earth consultants” had verified that this organisation actually does the work they say they do, and that they do it well. But because I didn’t know how the earth worked, I couldn’t decide what work was important, and wanted their help in understanding that.
Essentially, they had to explain their theory of change through their values, but not assume the meanings of the values to be a given. Every time they would mention an “assumption”, I would feign some “alien ignorance” and ask them what that means and why that is a good thing. By the end of it, (I think) we were able to really get to the core of what was important to us and why.
I have tried a version of this exercise almost every time I do values work with any organisation, and each time, it is fascinating how much this evokes. So much of our “values” is often defined based on assumptions we make about what they should be — assumptions that stem from the messages we inherit from the world — rather than what that means to us and what really matters. We do this as individuals, as organisations, and sometimes even as movements.
It is easy for me to see this as a facilitator and a coach. But when it comes to living my life, despite knowing this, it brings up a lot of dissonance. I am learning that a lot of the dissonance, especially when making touch choices, as well as the mismatch between our beliefs and behaviours stems from this invisible “immunity to change” — the secret fears of our subconscious that slyly guide our behaviours.
Here’s why I think that matters: Values are so deeply tied to both care and resilience, and having real clarity on what our values are really does help with both. Our values, as signifiers of what is important to us, are thus at the root of what we really need and want, and being aligned with that in belief and in action provides a north-star for decision-making and the strength and courage to stand by it no matter what. As activists, when we are challenging so much of the status quo — a process that is highly inconvenient, especially for those of us who enjoy privileges from that status quo — a deep conviction in our values is really the strongest driving force we can have; not in a righteous holier-than-thou kind of way, but in a more tender humbling kind of way, because it makes our work about something bigger and deeper than ourselves.
3. Please, please, feel fully, so you can care properly.
One of the big jokes about our Haiyya retreats is that people cry. Not in a trauma-bonding kind of way, but more because the stuff that emerges here is so real and raw, and thus moves us, often touching the parts of our hearts that we haven’t fully healed yet, and there is space for those parts to be held by the collective space. Personally, I think that is at the root of what Haiyya is.
Not that folks here cry (although I must add that that is indeed a good way to complete the stress cycle close the emotional loops and thus prevent burnout), but that folks here care: they care about the values they stand for, they care for the world they are building, and they give each other care generously and nourishingly. I believe that that allows them to show up time and time again as their whole selves, with their wounded parts being collectively tended to, so that they can honour their experiences, and still have the energy and resilience to continue fighting for a world that is better. It’s a part of their values.
Quick reminder here: Our emotions are mostly just data, that comes from the heart processing what the brain receives through the senses. In so many ways, this is like a really kickass processing software. What you pay attention to is collected by our senses, and then encrypted by our brains based on the processing program it is coded with. And then our heart, which is like the operating system, takes this encrypted data and categorises it into feelings in order to make them functional.
This is all happening, whether we like it or not; whether we pay attention to it or not. We are constantly reacting to the world through emotions, even when we don’t label them, and even when we pretend like it is not happening. Some of our strongest feelings are actually really important data about things that matter to us — they alert us when we perceive a threat to our identity, worthiness, and belonging. And since identity, worthiness, and belonging are in many ways the softer cornerstone of the kind of social justice that asks for equitable opportunities for everyone to thrive and flourish, bringing our feelings into our spaces is essential.
Why? Because that allows us to care. It allows us to be affected. And that care and affect (and affection) is what fuels our movements and brings them alive. Especially because we aren’t used to this “aliveness”, to having our emotions brought into our spaces, particularly our “professional” spaces. And of course, that is by design. (More on this in the next section)
4. Make space for caring, because it is at the heart of social justice.
Maybe, one of the ways that our current status quo maintains its vision is by reducing our abilities to feel authentically. Instead, it dictates a certain machinistic indifference and apathy by glorifying it as “objective”. In an interview I conducted for a Haiyya project, I was recently introduced to the absolutely delightful book, Joyful Militancy, which has moved me deeply and nourished me fiercely. Reproducing some of the words from the book that have stayed with me (p51–55):
“In order to rule, those in positions of power need to constantly crush and subdue the forces of transformation. They do not merely need obedience; they need their subjects to be separated from their own capacities… Empire’s [Empire = the “organized destruction we live in”] hold is increasingly *affective*: it suffuses our emotions, relationships, and desires, propagating feelings of shame, impotence, fear, and dependence. It makes capitalist relations feel inevitable and (to some) even desirable.
Empire reacts to resistance by entrenching and accumulating what Spinoza called *sadness*: the reduction of our capacity to affect and be affected.
Empire propagates and transmits sad affects [sad affects = all those which reduce our power to act]. Sadness sticks to us; we are made to desire its rhythms. Terrible situations are made to feel inevitable… But this entrenchment might not feel agonizing or even unpleasant: it might feel like comfort, boredom, or safety.”
Lack of feeling is deeply tied to lack of caring. Our care-less worlds, uncaring communities and kinship, and carewashed neoliberalism all benefit from switching off our ability to care as a social act (and in doing so restricting care to a solely individual-driven thing that can be attained by paying for more luxury as a form of self-care). Social act of caring is inherently the recognition of interdependence, which requires us to acknowledge our inherent relational felt vulnerability. This can go against the principles of neoliberal capitalist patriarchy/ white supremacy/ casteism, all of which hinges on competitive individualistic dominance and hoarding over interdependent relational cooperation.
To cite portions from another eye-opening book, The Care Manifesto: The Politics of Interdependence], (p8–18)
“… the inherently careless practice of ‘growing the economy’ has taken priority over ensuring the well-being of citizens… It is hardly surprising, then, that more right-wing governments have been voted into office in recent years, stoking the prevalent carelessness by building walls and tightening borders… Such a profound lack of care on a global scale has created a world that itself in crisis.
Neoliberal capitalism… normalises endemic care deficits and abject failures to care at every level by positing them as necessary collateral damage on the road to market-oriented reforms and policies.
This notion that care is up to the individual derives from the refusal to recognise our shared vulnerabilities and interconnectedness, creating a callous and uncaring climate for everyone, but particularly for those dependent on welfare, routinely accused of preferring ‘worklessness and dependency’.
Such a care-less world creates fertile conditions for the growth of notoriously *uncaring* communities that base their sense of shared identity on exclusion and hatred… [with] focus on investing in policing and surveillance rather than in social provisions to promote human flourishing.
… a paranoid form of ‘care for one’s own’ that has become one of the launch pads for the recent rise of hard-right populism across the globe… ‘Really not caring’ is presented by the right as a form of ‘realism’; strong evidence of what we term as banality of carelessness.”
5. Such a huge part of care is about being able to be our whole selves. And so much of being our whole selves fully is being able to grow into all that we can be. And that means being able to change and learn.
The world is a complex place with lots of uncertainty and no clear answers, and is getting increasingly more complex. (No $hit, J, stop stating the obvious!) What that also means though, is that none of us have it all figured out, and all of us are journeying through interconnected lives without maps. Which means that we all need to sometimes turn around when we reach dead-ends.
In the recent years, I have realised that I am frequently terrified of voicing my opinion, and in the process, I end up losing out on processing it with caring folks who could point out other perspectives, and also on creating the space for others to process their opinions too. In increasingly documented lives where we have more space to think out loud, and also those thoughts are all etched in the interwebs of the world, turning around and changing routes is hard because we have left crumbs along our paths. Often, not only is this turning around considered failing, but also failing is shame-inducing. It is only natural then that so much of our fears come from not wanting to take the wrong turn, and so much exhaustion from trying to continue driving through roads that we no longer want to be on or the ones we are supposed to be because we are scared of turning.
But what if we allowed each other the space to be vulnerable enough to process our mapless routes together, sharing information about the dead-ends we have encountered, and helping each other turn around when we find ourselves there?
I vividly remember a board meeting where we were making some decisions, and I felt strongly against something that everyone else agreed on unanimously. I shared my opinion more strongly than I would like, as a way to hide the defensiveness I was feeling. However, not only was I listened to when I voiced my opinion, but also given the space to think through what I felt in that moment. And then later in a more intimate conversation, I was given a chance to process it, and asked kindly about the source of our discomfort. It allowed me to become “less subject” to my opinion, and thus begin to consider other ways of looking at it. I have since changed my mind about it, even if I haven’t arrived at the exact place that everyone else was at (and I cringe at the opinion I used to so strongly have).
Being held accountable to consider it fully, but not being shamed or have my uninformed opinion held against me, allowed me to change it. That caring approach allowed me to stay with the questions longer, and consider them more deeply without feeling like I had to defend my opinion to have it be considered worthy. I think that made space for me to continue learning and also adapt all the interlinked beliefs that also needed changing, especially when I would cringe and my activated defence mechanisms would prompt me to justify my old opinion with evidence rather than reconsider.
I like to imagine what it would mean to be able to build that into our movements, especially with our allies, and hold them lovingly and caringly accountable to being committed to learning and considering other perspectives seriously, without defining the learning as full agreement. As Maurice Moe Mitchell said, to “have a low bar for entry and high standards of conduct within”. And doing that as an act of care, not just for the people going through the journeys, but the people they are learning about as well.
6. Care and resilience are often systemic issues, and distinguishing which versions aid social justice movements and which prevents it is essential.
Remember how I said that care is systematically brushed off in our culture? Here is the other side to it: That brushing off is not the same for everyone, and is a part of the oppression. Surprise surprise! Our culture on one hand glorifies resilience for the receivers of oppression, while enhancing the privilege of those of us who anyway benefit from the status quo by commodifying care and excusing them through their “carewashing”.
Both can be problematic, as they contribute to maintaining the status quo by making care and resilience an individual thing that is linked to individual capacity, actions, and affordability, thus sneakily letting off the system. Stories about the glorification of resilience shown by people who have faced marginalisation can sometimes indicate that those who “made it” did because they “were resilient and tried hard”, and thus implying that those who haven’t “made it” haven’t done so because of their individual lack, and not a system issue (and by extension, that those of us with easy access to the opportunities to make it thus somehow deserved our successes more than the others who didn’t make it the same way because they didn’t have the same access).
I think maybe there’s a difference between continuing to fight because you care about the issues and thus want to fight for them, and continuing to fight because your survival depends on it, and you have no choice. To be clear, I am not saying that it is not admirable. It absolutely 110% is, and there is a tremendous lot to learn and be inspired from. But no one should have to fight for their survival, and probably the caring way for those of us who don’t have to fight for survival to show support and admiration of the work of those who do, is to support them, to take some of the burden from them — as an act of solidarity, not charity. Because at the end of the day, the current status quo harms all of us, and maybe it is time for those of us receive the harm more subtly along with the privileges afforded by the system should probably take some of the burden off from the folks who suffer the worse violences of this system.
I want to add another possible layer that I am still learning about. Another major difference between those who have to fight for their survival and those of us who have the privilege to do it because we believe in it is the relationship to power. A lot of us with privilege have been raised to believe that we are entitled to power because we deserve it. But come to think of it, the metrics of deservedness are also fixed by the very status quo that we get our power through, but made to seem like it is somehow a given and the only way that the world works and we need to fit within these standards to be worthy. Change in these standards then, which is so essential to real inclusion for thriving, can then feel like a threat because it may mean that we lose the power we get within the current standards (especially because there is a certain security to the certainty of established codes that one knows/ can learn how to navigate as opposed to the uncertainty of a new code that may emerge)
“Losing power” in this fight thus can sometimes feel like a threat to our sense of self because true social justice requires changing of the very criteria of worthiness so that it does not exclude populations systematically, and that can make those of us who have spent time “becoming worthy” in that system feel insecure. I say that from experience. For me, resilience here has meant to continue to stand by my commitment to be in that fight through my values, even when that feels like a loss, without glorifying it or thinking that it makes me more deserving of that power.
Moreover, because all of this is so deeply tied to our sense of identity, worthiness, and belonging, I have found that sometimes, those who have to fight for their survival can be systematically conditioned to believe that they don’t deserve to thrive, and they should thus be content with even survival. Combine this with the fact that they may sometimes not even have the same access to the processes of care that those of us with privilege do. I am grateful to the friends and mentors and organisations like Haiyya who have let me learn alongside them as they unlearned these beliefs, and taught me about how collective care can sometimes be about reassuring our people that they are worthy when social conditioning doesn’t validate that, and continuing to committedly change the structures of worthiness in our everyday lives so that no one ever has to feel that they aren’t worthy (and in doing that, grow the humility to remember that worthiness and thriving is not a scarce resource, and more people being able to thrive is good for all of us collectively).
This is particularly important in India where so much of our casteism is intricately tied to elements of deservedness, to shift that hierarchy is essential to liberation. Sometimes — as a Savarna able cis-woman, trained through my educational and network privilege to “lean in” into these hierarchies to “make it to the top and be successful so that I can be taken seriously” — I sometimes forget this. And so much of care has been in the form of friends who can point out when I do and hold me accountable to take the responsibility and effort to re-learn, especially when it is uncomfortable.
7. Imagination is a feminist act, and makes caring and resilience possible.
This one is my personal favourite. Feminist work is inherently a work of imagination, because it requires what Lola Olufemi calls imagining a world that hasn’t been built yet, and to do so from a place of unwavering hope, i.e. belief in plausibility of the possible, as opposed to the necessity of the probable. It requires believing that social justice and a new way of living within a world that embodies that is possible, and to fight relentlessly to bring that into being. For those of us who stand close to the centre of this charmed circle, to turn towards the margins, where there is a clearer view, and to from there, shift the structure so that power is not concentrated in a centre. That world is a new world that we can only feel in the memories of the future, but feel we must because that is where the resilient conviction can be rooted in. And that is why, collective imagination is probably one of the most powerful acts of care and resilience we can do as activists.
Personally, I feel that this is where Haiyya’s work going forward is most valuable: in creating space caring spaces for youth activists to imagine a different world, and building resilient movements towards that with them. As Haiyya turns 7, I want to quickly send my deep love, gratitude, and solidarity to them as they deepen and fasten their journeys towards co-building this world.
On that note, here’s hoping for abundant and sufficient care for all of you, and wishing you all the most beautiful of imaginations to guide you.