The Civil Rights Advocate Who Doesn’t Have the Time or Patience for Self Care Right Now

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Photo: Courtesy of David Johns / W+G Creative

In these diaries, we’ll look at how those working in this current climate and protesting for the rights of Black Lives are getting by—what self-care rituals they do, what they don’t, and how they take time for their mental health.

Here we have David J. Johns, 38, the executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC), a civil rights organization focused on the empowerment of the Black LGBTQ+ community. He is also pursuing a PhD in sociology and education policy at Columbia University on top of his full-time job managing communications and operations at the NBJC. His job has long put him on the front lines of activism work, but the recent nation-wide protests for racial justice have put the urgency of his work into overdrive, as shown by his recounting of a recent day in June. 

HOW DO YOU DEFINE SELF-CARE?: I loathe the term self care, almost as much as I do the word “balance." These terms often result in an additional pressure being added to the shoulders of people who already have too much to carry. They feel like terms people who have access to privilege, including the time and space to attend wellness retreats in the middle of the day. In my opinion, these terms make those of us who do not have the privilege feel bad for struggling to survive.

I don’t like answering questions about self-care because I, l like so many other Black and Black queer, trans, and non-binary people sacrifice myself—my holistic health and wellness—to change the systems that have been designed to oppress so many. I think often about the message that flight attendants share before a flight, that “in the event of an emergency oxygen masks will fall from the ceiling.” We’re told to secure our masks first, before attempting to help others. Yet the nature of white supremacy, anti-Blackness, and other forms of bias and stigma have resulted in so many of us not knowing how to do that. I’ve watched people sacrifice themselves and die in the process.

I am weary in all of the ways that Solange Knowles sings about. But I am excited about the shift that is happening in this moment.

6:05 A.M.: I wake up and offer gratitude before getting up and dressed to work out. I have an especially hard time sleeping (I haven’t slept for more than four hours in the last four weeks) and while I am able to function, I wake up knowing that I haven’t given my body the opportunity to rest and recharge. I lay awake processing these thoughts before reminding myself of the things I can do to be kind to myself throughout the day.

6:30 A.M.: Cycling and cardio workout. Exercise helps me process my thoughts and feel good physically. I am thankful that my studio, Harlem Cycle, has pivoted and found a way to keep us connected virtually during the pandemic.

7:30 A.M.: Morning hygiene routine, followed by journaling, reviewing my to-do list, and answering urgent emails. In my journal, I write a lot about appreciating the significance of this moment and acknowledging that this is a part of a much larger movement. There are so many race warriors who have been contributing to the movement for racial justice for centuries, and I feel so privileged to have learned lessons they’ve left and to feel connected to them through this work in palpable and deeply profound ways.

It feels like there is a shift taking place—there are more people, non-Black people, non-Black queer, trans, and non-binary people who are also putting their bodies on the line and otherwise demanding meaningful shifts in policy and practice. Today in particular I am so excited about the work of the National Black Justice Coalition because of everything happening in and around the world.

9 A.M.: Call with a potential sponsor and a member of my staff. I’ve had a tough time allotting time to vet new requests for time on my calendar and to engage in free labor for people who are just learning about racial justice and have recently learned about NBJC. It’s lost on many well-meaning people how often they demand unpaid labor in the form of requesting advice and “consultations” from people, especially during times of crisis. Partnership is required to support the work of radically-inclusive social justice.

9:30 AM.: Interview with reporter interested in the relationship between #AllBlackLivesMatter and #BlackLivesMatter. I focus most of my comments on helping the reporter understand “intersectionality” and the unique and often ignored experiences of Black queer, trans, and non-binary people, families, and communities. I am frustrated that I have to explain some of these issues, but also glad that these issues are getting media attention.

10 A.M.: I package and ship about 20 protest care packages from the NBJC, including bottles of hand sanitizer, masks, gloves, and gift cards to community leaders on the front lines in various cities across the U.S. I have to field more phone calls while in transit to the post office.

11 A.M.: I listen to the news while finishing up some NBJC-related work—reviewing documents, responding to questions, and finalizing some partnership emails. I eat a banana and have some yogurt.

12 A.M.: NBJC has a ton of Pride Month programming planned, so I host a talk on Instagram Live called “What’s your sexual appetite?” with Howard University. The focus of the discussion was about safe sex and sexual pleasure, particularly for Black students at historic Black colleges and universities.

1 P.M.: Hours of back-to-back meetings, including a meeting with my team, the full staff, and the communications team meeting. With Pride Month combined with the current wave of protests, it's a massive understatement to say that I'm busier than usual.

3:45 P.M.: I travel to Staten Island from my home to celebrate the passage of a bill by the NY State Assembly banning the choke hold that took the life of Eric Garner. During the trip, I eat a granola bar since I forgot to eat lunch and am running on adrenaline. I also take a few calls, including one with a representative from an employee resource group at a Fortune 500 company who wanted to know how the NBJC could support their diversity and inclusion efforts. (Read: More unpaid labor.) It felt to me like they were making the same request of every single Black LGBTQ group they could find. Thankfully, the call ends with the person recognizing they need to do more work to identify a clear ask and to ensure that the company was ready for the type of change they imagined wanting to support. I invite them to continue considering NBJC a resource.

5 P.M.: Memorial for Eric Garner and his daughter, Erica Snipes-Garner. I haven't had the time at this point or given myself the space to process how I feel about mourning their lives while simultaneously honoring the passage of the bill. As part of my job, I write statements about the death of people who look like me and come from the communities that continue to conspire for my success’s exhausting.

6 P.M.: Those of us who gathered to celebrate the passage of the bill—about a dozen of us— took a socially distanced walk to reflect, breathe, and strategize.

7 P.M.: I return home from Staten Island. During the trip, I take the time to process the trauma associated with seeing police cars and officers parked near and driving by the very spot where one of them took Eric Garner's life in Staten Island.

I then field a few phone calls and watch a Facebook live stream from the Advancement Project about Breonna Taylor. It frustrates me that fewer people are saying Breonna's name and are working to ensure that her family receives what the law provides for Black people after police officers kill them with impunity simply because she's Black and she's a woman. That's how oppression works in this country. It's also why fewer people are saying the names of Black trans people, especially Black trans women, who are being murdered and beaten while it's recorded on camera.

8 P.M.: Once I’m home, I host another Instagram Live talk about Eric Garner and the chokeholds ban bill.

8:30 P.M.: I switch on the news while eating dinner, checking e-mail, and watching a video of the CEO of Success Academy—a network of charter schools in NYC— at a town hall defending her silence around the Black lives of the students she serves and the faculty she employs. [Editor’s note: Eva Moskowitz, the CEO of Success Academy, was widely criticized by parents, educators, and former students of Success Academy for her inadequate remarks on racial justice and the school system’s existing racism issues in the days after George Floyd’s killing by police.]

9 P.M.: I take my last call of the day: a communications call connected to movement work and strategy.

10 P.M.: I prepare for an upcoming virtual discussion with Essence Magazine on the Mental Health of Black Men.

11 P.M.: Before bed, I answer questions from my team that came up during the day, and answer some urgent and time-sensitive emails. I also review a draft of an upcoming policy report I’ve been working on, called COVID While Black and Queer. Then I close out my day by praying and having a conversation with the ancestors who cover me.

It was a long day. I am weary in all of the ways that Solange Knowles sings about. But I am excited about the shift that is happening in this moment as a result of the movement for equality (which requires us to understand the importance of equity).

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