Self-Care Can Help Advocates Care for Others
On any given morning, JDI’s Los Angeles headquarters is a hive of activity. Our program staff constantly shuttle between offices, stacks of paper in hand, to prepare for training sessions with rape crisis counselors or on-site work inside prisons. The communications team can be found huddled around a computer designing our latest publication or dialing up reporters to pitch a story. The management team, myself included, have no shortage of tasks requiring urgent attention, from finishing funding proposals to developing the organization’s five-year strategic plan. Little wonder that the line for coffee is usually several people deep.
So, I was caught off guard when, on a recent morning, I found myself at my desk surrounded by silence. The area around my office, which usually is teeming with people, was empty. The printer sat idle, and the path to the coffee pot was totally clear. Curious, I walked to the other side of the office, to JDI’s meeting room, where I saw a group of JDI staff seated around the large conference table. But this wasn’t an ordinary JDI meeting. Everyone was sitting perfectly still; some of my colleagues had their eyes closed.
I had stumbled upon a session on mindfulness — a type of meditation that has proven to help people cope with stress. It was being led by Elaine Barrington, a licensed social worker whom JDI hired last year to provide emotional support for staff. Twice a month, Elaine runs group and one-on-one sessions for JDI staff, including those in DC, who can reach her by phone or Skype.
JDI brought Elaine on board because we recognized that the job of fighting prisoner rape can take a toll. Every day, our office is flooded with letters from people who have endured horrific violence while in the government’s custody. Each survivor letter is read with painstaking care, so that our team can craft an appropriate and personalized response. Staff who aren’t reviewing letters from inmates often are inside the facilities themselves, working to improve conditions so that sexual assault no longer happens. Prisons are difficult places to spend any amount of time — even though, as advocates, we know we can go home at the end of the day. In fact, one of the hardest parts of a site visit is leaving, after having seen the dire conditions that prisoners — the people we are there to help — have to face.
Elaine provides a space for staff to talk about the aspects of our work that can be upsetting. The theme of her sessions is self-care — figuring out together what we need to feel healthy and grounded at work. As Elaine has pointed out, our colleagues know better than anyone what it feels like to do our job. We can learn tips from one another about how to decompress after a long day of reading prisoners’ account of torture, or how to cope during a meeting with a hostile corrections official. We are our own best resource.
To some, the idea of advocates practicing self-care might seem, at best, to be an exercise in navel-gazing and, at worst, completely counterproductive to our goal of helping prisoners, whose problems are far more urgent. But that framing misses the point entirely. We can’t do the work of ending prisoner rape if we aren’t healthy ourselves. Taking a bit of time to recharge doesn’t detract from our fight — it helps us fight harder.
So far, Elaine’s work is making a difference. Staff are learning important lessons about how to be gentle with ourselves and one another and what steps to take when the work feels like it is too much. We know that it’s okay to turn off our phones after hours when the headlines are triggering — as they have been for many of us during this current period of reckoning with powerful abusers in politics and entertainment. And sometimes, we know we can unplug at work, too, and say hello to a colleague or just close our eyes, take a few breaths, and count slowly to ten.