Communities of Care: What They Are and How to Build Them

During my time in college, I’ve been involved in the student activism scene. As someone who came from a relatively small high school, I was excited to get involved on my college campus. The opportunities were endless and I wanted to be a part of all of them. After a year or two of involvement, I found myself burning out and running out of the ambition and drive I had when I first joined the community in my freshman year.

Why did this happen?

I believe that my own burnout and some of my peer’s burnout can be attributed to a lack of care in our community. Not to say that my community was not one comprising of caring and helpful people, but the role that a community plays in the longevity of movements is more than we may think.

Burnout Culture

Burnout is not just feeling overworked and tired. Burnout is emotional, physical, and mental stress and exhaustion that accumulates over time. In my case, though I was initially excited and taking on tasks on my own, this eventually left me feeling overwhelmed, tired, and emotionally drained. This eventually caused me to lose interest and passion for what I was initially excited for.

In the study conducted by Chen & Gorski (2015), they found that of the activists involved in their study 72.7% of them suffered serious emotional or psychological health problems as a result of their activism. This prompted them to leave the activist spaces to heal and adopt self care strategies.

The burnout symptoms identified include exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy in one’s work. An interesting point that was brought up in their interviews was that a culture of selflessness could be what’s contributing to this burnout. We want the best results for the causes and movements we care for, and this encourages us to devote time to these movements instead of devoting time to ourselves and self care.

The progression that Chen & Gorski described can be represented in the chart I created above. Individuals are involved with activism, burn out, leave the spaces, and then adopt self care strategies before re-engaging with the activism. This promotes a vicious cycle where once individuals re-engage with activism, they burnout again and leave the space again. This, of course, is not the case for all activists and organizers, but it surely is a familiar story and cycle to some.

However, I believe there is a way to challenge and change this narrative. Why is it that self care strategies are adopted only after we burnout and not before?

I propose that in communities of care, we need to encourage each other to engage in self care and to adopt the self care strategies during the involvement in activism or whatever action we are doing. Normalize taking self care days and normalize being honest with each other when we are struggling. When it comes to wanting societal change and working on social movements and activism, our community is super important. If each member of our community is leaving the space due to burn out one by one, what becomes of our community?

Ground Rules for Communities of Care

In communities of care, I encourage everyone to follow the ground rules above. There are other guidelines that you can come up with as a community with your community members, but these are general guidelines that may sound familiar. Other helpful things we can do as community members are:

1. Being self aware of what we bring into spaces

We each have our own stories and contributions we can make to a space. Along with our stories, we may also be bringing in our own trauma into these spaces. It’s important to be self aware and to recognize our own trauma and how it affects ourselves and others. This would also help in identifying when we need time for healing, recovery, and time away from the community.

2. Communicating our needs

Once we are aware of our own needs, we should be comfortable expressing these needs within our spaces and communities. Do you need time away? Do you need a break? Is this deadline too near? How much work are you able to dedicate yourself to? What are your comfort levels with certain topics and activities? Don’t be afraid to express your comfort levels and boundaries with your community members.

There are also no stupid questions! Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification to make sure you understood your community member properly.

3. Community Check-ins

My favorite way of creating a supportive network is through community check-ins. Checking in with each other and making this a normal occurrence makes it easy for people to express how they feel. Though we may be striving towards the same goals, what is going on in our personal lives and in our heads are completely different. Knowing what might be bothering someone or that someone is struggling allows us to empathize with and support each other.

Some of my favorite check-in methods are a ‘weather report’ where you state how you’re feeling in the form of a weather report. I could feel cloudy, sunny with a chance of thunderstorms, or windy. The meaning is up to the individual’s interpretation and no further information is needed. It helps us reflect on ourselves and also get rough idea of how others are feeling. Other check-in methods include “Rose, Bud, Thorn” where you share three events from your life that have been good, a working development, or bad.

4. Normalizing Mental Health/Self Care Days

I also encourage you all to normalize mental health days and self care days. We are familiar with sick days when an individual is feeling ill and cannot come to work, but what about if someone is not mentally well to come to work? This is still heavily stigmatized against but a supportive community would allow community members to feel comfortable expressing that they need a day off to heal their mind.

We are all community members in one way, shape, or form. Regardless of our levels of involvement in activism and organizing, we are still members of communities comprised of our families and friends. I encourage you all to reflect on how you engage with your community members and to try adopting some of these strategies to make your community a community of care!

Have other ideas? Leave a comment below!

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