by Tessara Dudley
When most of us imagine activists and organizers, we visualize the impassioned orator holding a bullhorn, the stony-faced person holding the protest sign at the front of the picket line, or the radical poet being interviewed on the news. These are the courageous individuals who inspire us to raise our fists, to put down our lattes and start boycotting, to remember just how valuable our lives are. These powerful people are so fundamental to our movements.
But, there are a whole legion of people who dedicate a relentless—yet, often invisible—amount of energy, time, and other resources to supporting this liberation work as well.
I am one of those people.
When state violence exploded in Ferguson, MO, I did everything I could to aide the burgeoning resistance—despite being so many states away. I spent hours witnessing oppressive state responses, using twitter to help boost protestors’ voices, combing Facebook for fundraisers, and sharing direct-to-protestor support links. Already planning a solo trip when the #BlackLivesMatter Ride was announced, I gladly joined Oregon and Washington’s regional BLM organizers instead. In just six days, we raised thousands of dollars to transport almost two-dozen folks, gathered pounds of food and toiletries and hit the revolutionary road.
When we got back, I resumed my activism with a deeper focus, new connections, and an understanding of all the ways my work was valuable.
People like me—behind the scenes caretakers—do the emotional labor that’s rarely recognized but keeps everyone going: from feeding hundreds of people and locating beds for them all to finding bathrooms and creating bail funds, from listening and advising to holding space for tears and exhaustion. Caretakers’ work keeps bodies and souls together.
We are resourceful, connected, giving. We create safety plans, provide medical care, and acquire background information. We hug, soothe, support. We ask the meticulous questions and create timelines to make sure everything’s covered. Our job is the least glamorous—we aren’t marching in the streets, we aren’t giving grand speeches, we aren’t in the photo with the President who just signed the Civil Rights Act—and this leaves us oddly vulnerable.
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On the BLM Ride, I used donated funds to cover our travel costs, hotels, and food. And after getting back, I joined long-term planning efforts and created a Facebook page to focus the energy we’d generated. I shared upcoming solidarity actions, news, historical analysis, movement-building toolkits, livestreams, tactics—whatever I could find.
But, soon, I found myself being attacked and harassed online: Why aren’t you marching, or You’re being collusive, or Your “talk” is valuable but we need people who “do the work” (as though I haven’t).
After weeks of panic attacks, fear, exhaustion, organizing, and educating…I was being invalidated. My fibromyalgia flared up and left me needing a cane to walk and barely making it through each day—and, still, my contributions were questioned in the most minimizing, misogynistic, racist ways possible. And I wasn’t the only one.
This work’s not just undervalued; it’s historically devalued.
It’s no accident emotional labor is traditionally gendered “female.” Despite our necessity in every struggle, we’re taken for granted, disrespected, and coded as feminine (i.e. politically valueless).
By 1970, the Black Panther Party was 70% female and some chapters had been women led for years. In 1974, Huey P. Newton chose Elaine Brown to lead the party in his absence, and yet still, many women found themselves frustrated by patriarchal expectations, rape culture, and misogynistic violence (please read Brown’s A Taste of Power). Despite joining the party to liberate their communities, women were often limited to cooking for the breakfast programs and doing administrative duty. The most famous photos from that time are of the male vanguards.
When Bayard Rustin taught Martin Luther King, Jr, non-violent tactics, he did so as a completely out gay man. But, because he knew his sexuality would be used against the movement, he took a behind the scenes planning role. In that position, he turned out 300,000 people for the March on Washington, 200,000 more than he promised. Yet, despite his skill, attention to detail, and huge success (which still shapes how many of us organize today), he was harassed, vilified, and eventually found himself expelled from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference—the organization he helped MLK create.
While emotional labor is not done by one gender or sexuality, its legacy of gendering limits our possibilities. Rather than furthering liberatory struggle, it borrows from the patriarchal structures we oppose. Further, it’s completely unsustainable. Behind-the-scenes caretakers of all genders and sexualities provide for the needs of the entire movement. Without bathrooms, sleep, or food, our bodies would give out. Without emotional support, we’d fall to mental exhaustion.
This next part is critical.
While emotional laborers bear responsibility for supporting hundreds of others, we, consistently, only get support from other caretakers. In a system that openly devalues our work, we’re unable to release the trauma and stress we take from others and quickly burn out. Our work is viewed as an afterthought, perpetuating violent hierarchies that judge participation by the visibility of the work we do, rather than centering community and letting us each help in the way we feel most called.
Making space for everyone to contribute what we can creates access and equity. Those of us willing and able to march the streets are not more or less valuable than those who don’t want to—or can’t. Our current structure demeans members of our own communities, but the long-term health of our movements depends on celebrating triumphs large and small, on acknowledging all contributions.
We must change the way we struggle. We must support ourselves and our communities. We must self-care and other-care. We must see the emotional work of planning, feeding, housing, listening, and supporting as equally important to marching, speaking, lobbying, and recruiting. We need all of us to succeed: not one of us can change the world alone. If we’re invested in a world where we all matter, where we all have the right to live and thrive, we must show it in our movements.
Our organizations must reflect this in mission statements and in our daily interactions. Our vision must be practiced here and now. If we don’t show respect, appreciation and love for each other, how can we build a world where that’s the norm?
Caretakers nourish bodies and souls in service to that someday world we reach towards. Isn’t it past time our movements did the same for us?
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Tessara is a poet and educator dedicated to community support and using the sharing of stories to change minds and change the world. Tessara coordinates their university’s LGBTQ Speakers Bureau and brings an intersectional lens to all of their work. Tessara currently lives in Portland, OR.