Activism burnout and self-care in Toronto’s Black Lives Matter movement

Yusra Ali (left),co-creator of Black Lives Matter TO, Kimalee Phillips (middle), Network for the Elimination of Police Violence, Alicia Garza (right), Co-creator of #BlackLivesMatter

Yusra Ali (left),co-creator of Black Lives Matter TO, Kimalee Phillips (middle), Network for the Elimination of Police Violence, Alicia Garza (right), Co-creator of #BlackLivesMatter (Yasmine Mathurin/ Ryersonian Staff)

On a cool Wednesday evening, in a small auditorium at the University of Toronto’s Multi-Faith Centre, a group of primarily 20-somethings quietly make their way inside.

While people begin to fill the auditorium with chatter, Alicia Garza, one of the co-creators of the Black Lives Matter movement, walks to the front of the room along with Yusra Ali, Black Lives Matter Toronto co-founder, and Kimalee Phillip, an organizer with the Network for the Elimination of Police Violence in Toronto.

At first glance, one could easily mistake the three black women for old friends. There is laughter and wide smiles. It is Garza’s first time in Canada speaking on the movement that she co-founded with the start of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter.

The three women are seated on a panel ready to spearhead the conversation surrounding their work and challenges as leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement against state-sanctioned violence and police brutality.

But the panelists don’t want to focus only on the events that caused the BLM movement to explode. The point of the discussion is to spotlight how activists practice self-care and maintain their well-being as they become overwhelmed with scenes of racism and violence. After all, being active in this movement comes at a price. Trauma is an obstacle to overcome, while balancing advocacy with everyday life and being able to laugh are goals to achieve.

“What that’s meant for our lives in particular has been that we don’t recognize our lives anymore. They are not the same,” says Garza.

The Toronto chapter of the Black Lives Matter movement started in September 2014 following the killing of Jermaine Carby, who was shot in a car by police in Brampton, Ont., during a routine traffic stop.

Then, as a response to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., the Toronto group rose in solidarity. Later in July, the BLMTO coalition also responded to the Toronto police killing of Andrew Loku, a black Sudanese man suffering from PTSD.

“Two years ago, Patrisse (Cullors), Opal (Tometi) and I had no idea that a network of beautiful, brilliant, passionate, courageous, bold black people were going to step up,” says Garza, referring to the other co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Yet, in a movement that’s become recognized worldwide, it’s still a little-known fact: activists burn out.

One by one, each panelist shares her struggle of balancing the demands of her work as a social activist and the threat of burnout that many activists face.

BlackLivesMatterTO protesters on Allen Road

Black Lives Matter protesters block off Allen Road highway (Jalani Morgan)

For BLMTO organizer Ali, the death of Loku was traumatizing. The 45-year-old man lived in an affordable housing complex leased by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) for people suffering from mental illness. He was holding a hammer when one of the two Toronto police officers who responded to the call shot and killed the father of five.

“When we heard about this, it was traumatizing,” says Ali. “I had to bury somebody and see that his children could not even bury their own father because they didn’t have enough money to come to Canada.”

The audience is attentive and silent.

“Some days I’m done and it doesn’t feel like it’s going to get better. I still struggle with how to heal and how to deal knowing that I live in the world that I do,” says Ali. “I think we do create the space to do the activism that we do, but then we don’t really have a space where we can go that we’re always going to be OK.”

Garza nods and explains that when she spent time in St. Louis with people who were in extreme crisis after the death of Michael Brown, organizers could not stop moving. When all the cameras left, that is when everyone broke down emotionally.

In response to the emotional toll of activism, Garza explains that the group is building a trauma team to work with people who had advocated on the front lines of the protests.

“That trauma team was able to help folks regenerate their relationships that they were, in many ways allowing to be strained because there wasn’t an infrastructure to support them,” she says.

Regeneration, according to Garza, is resilience. She tells the crowd that although trauma is ongoing, the ability to regenerate after trauma is powerful.

Black Lives Matter TO protesters lay down in solidarity for Michael Brown at Yonge & Dundas (Kevin Jones)

Black Lives Matter TO protesters lay down in solidarity for Michael Brown at Yonge & Dundas (Kevin Jones)

Self-care for Garza looks like laughing for no reason on the phone with co-founder Patrisse.

“You ever hear about people who laugh when they’re nervous?” she asks the crowd. “Our bodies do these really intelligent things. Part of resilience means letting our (body) do what it knows how to do.”

She mentions that it is also important to talk about generational trauma, especially as the BLMTO movement is largely led by youth.

“There’s a lot of stuff that our elders are holding onto and they are scared for us. So many have been through their own trauma at the hands of the state just for standing up and trying to do the right thing,” says Garza.

Amy Bombay, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Dalhousie University who studies mental health outcomes of indigenous people in Canada, has come to similar conclusions on the effects of trauma on different generations.

In an interview with CBC Radio, Bombay argues that there is a relation between the impact of trauma and its reverberations through generations.

The evidence of this transmission has been studied in the children of Holocaust survivors as well as indigenous groups.

“There’s also trauma in investing everything you have and not seeing your vision come to fruition,” says Garza, “and holding that for a really long time and now seeing an explosion.”

Earlier this year, Phillip attended the public memorial for Sumaya Dalmar, a transgender Somali woman who was killed by Toronto police in February. She looks to spirituality for self-care.

Phillip, formerly a devout Catholic, now turns to Yoruba Ifa, a religion historically from West Africa, to support her.

When the mediator of the discussion asks the three women whether they see a difference between BLM activism in the United States and in Canada, Ali responds, “I don’t see the difference.

BLM protester on Allen Road Highway (Jalani Morgan)

BLM protester on Allen Road Highway (Jalani Morgan)

“We’re challenging a similar system, which is the global phenomenon of anti-blackness.” She explains that the only thing that separates the situation of black lives from different regions is “how it manifests itself.”

In Canada, this manifestation takes the form of “carding,” a police practice of stopping any civilian to record and store their information in a police database.  This practice disproportionately affects people of colour, with black communities being the most affected. According to a 2012 investigation by The Toronto Star, black people in Toronto are three times more likely than white people to be carded.

In the U.S., the NAACP has been keeping track of how many black people have died in police custody since 1999, but in Canada, this kind of data collection doesn’t exist. According to a report from The Toronto Star, no figures exist to show how many black people have been shot and killed by Toronto police. Statistics Canada, the Toronto police, and the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services don’t have race-specific data available.

Activists such as BLM Toronto co-founder and former president of the RSU Rodney Diverlus, criticizes the lack of data for further perpetuating the “culture of silence” surrounding black lives in Canada.

“The reality is that a lot of our movements are structured by these historicized processes of erasure and violence,” says Phillip, at the panel.

The Ryersonian asks the panelists what they would advise to anyone who is looking to combat anti-black racism. All three activists make the plea for a better understanding that racism is about the fear of the power shift.

Garza asks that “folks who are not black … articulate why anti-blackness impacts them.” She explains that to say and to mean “black lives matter” is to look at “what is possible beyond lip service.”

The banter and jokes between the three women and the audience work to lighten the mood surrounding conversations of trauma. It’s only fitting that the crowd rewards the leaders in a standing ovation.

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