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Yesterday, I gave a talk at the Neither Man Nor Beast online conference organized by Animal Liberation Ontario. Really great speakers presented and amazing, thought-provoking, sensitive stores were shared. Animal Liberation Ontario recorded the conference, so I recommend, if you can, requesting the audio and video recordings from them.

My talk was titled “Contemplating Radical Self-Care: Animal Rights as if Life Matters.” I’m motivated to share this in text because I want to go deeper and actually start a conversation about this. Since we are communicating primarily via text and since we are often confined to cyberspace when we exchange thoughts, it’s really easy to interpret differently what the author means. I have not blogged for nearly a year because I’ve been finding this medium for communication more and more difficult. As a facilitator, I rely on communication in the flesh–communication in which we are able to clarify and negotiate exactly what we mean in the moment. Much of my work (paid and unpaid) in the last two years has been in this context.

For this blog post, I don’t want to critique. Our animal rights culture is structured in such a way that critique, deconstruction, and exclusion are highly valued, reinforced principles, with little creativity or solution-oriented practices to balance them.  Therefore, it is my challenge for this post and for future posts to attempt communication about animal rights, about animals’ lives, and about the animal rights community that does not rely on deconstruction and exclusion as the major premise of conversation. I want to converse about possibilities, about practices in creating and supporting a life-affirming, diverse animal rights culture. This will definitely be over a series of posts, ranging in scope, issue, and topic, but for this one, I set the preliminary stage.

I am a huge fan of Octavia Butler. In her novel Parable of the Sower, her main character introduces a new paradigm called Earthseed which is based on the premise that “God is Change.” This tao-inspired text captures the essence very well:

All that you touch,

You Change.

All that you Change,

Changes you.

The only lasting truth

Is Change.

God

Is Change.

Now imagine instead of “God” you have “system.” The system is change. Or rather, systems continue to change. The “animal rights community” (or movement) is a system, just as the groups within it are nested systems and the individuals of those groups nested systems within nested systems. Because change happens regardless of what we do, the system always prevails. This doesn’t mean that the systems we know–whether it’s the global market economy, the prison industrial complex, wild animal trafficking, the ag industry, you name it–are doomed to remain fixed and vicious despite our efforts. Rather, if we look behind the system or look at what makes the system go round, we realize that those systems are merely behaving as how they are structured to behave. Take the global market economy, for instance. Every single one of us are part of this system, no matter how hard we may try to counter it or opt out of it. We are all vulnerable to it, impacted by it, influenced by it, all across the Earth. We can’t separate ourselves from it. Therefore, the global market economy prevails. It happens regardless of what we do. However, what happens in the economy–including how it’s described as a “market” economy and how it functions in relation with other systems–can change as we relate to economy differently. Capitalism is a paradigm that influences the global market economy. As more people move by necessity toward new paradigms that do not value and encourage accumulation, the system shifts. But the system known as the global market economy still prevails. Our lives are systems embedded in systems that can influence change–or as Octavia Butler would say “shape change.”  When activists begin to recognize that the system prevails, what follows can be either empowerment or distraught. We can shape change with clarity, courage, dignity, and intention.  Or we can shape change not knowing for a second what we’re doing, getting worn down by the process, and feeling defeated.  This is where radical self-care comes in.

What do I mean by radical self-care? Let’s start with the words themselves. We know radical is associated with the root of the thing. When activists have described “root” to me, they often turn to the plant metaphor, where the root is the foundation of the plant’s life, the seat of plant communication, and the center of plant community activity. After all, plants are wonderful teachers and incredible sources of insight and wisdom. So we can continue with this metaphor. In addition to being a child of the Earth and avid forager, I am also a musician. In music, the root is the basis of a chord; it is the note by which we identify the chord. Even if we know nothing about music theory, when we’re listening to a popular song, the root is familiar to us. We’re more likely to recognize and sing that from a song than we are any other aspects of the chord. So with this analogy, not only is the root the foundation and the seat of communication, it is also familiar and inherently simple. Thus, I like to think of radical self-care as “the inherently simple foundation in which we care enough about our own lives to where we live as though life matters.”

Radical self-care is inherently simple because we don’t have to think long and hard about what we need to act from a place of care. We have the answers, we know what we need. We just have to be present with ourselves, be still long enough to receive the feedback from our bodies, and be honest and clear in our interpretation of that feedback. Radical self-care is our foundation because we can always return to it in our activist practice. Radical self-care is an expression of living as though life matters because by honoring our lives as human animals, we are able to extend that honor to other living beings and thus we come to embody what life-affirming activism can look like.

In the talk, I briefly mentioned the importance of structuring animal rights community to support radical self-care. I will go into that more in depth in the upcoming post along this topic. For now, I want to meditate on “living as though life matters,” for that is the essence of radical self-care. Most animal rights activists I know don’t have a problem seeing how animals’ lives matter–provided that those animals are not human. I have experienced among animal rights activists humans who are capable of extending their worlds to consider and care for so many diverse beings we call animals. That’s an amazing power. However, it often comes with much pain. And I have not experienced an “animal rights community” that is structured in a way to support activists through that pain. For a few years, I was part of a local animal rights network of activists who came together on local and regional animal issues but dissolved out of their unwillingness to work with each other. In Asheville, many women activists left a local animal rights group because of the group leader’s reluctance to work with others democratically and his disavowal of group members’ needs and feelings. Unfortunately, they did not have the energy, the communication skills, the resources, or the community support to address that within the group or to start a new collective beyond the group. Imagine the power of our movements, then, if we actually structured animal rights community as though we value life. Imagine what we could sustain at the grassroots level. When we value life, we are apt to meet others where they are and come to a situation as our full selves without shame, intimidation, or regret. We are able to honor ourselves as we are in that moment, in that context, and we can respond to the situation with a genuine heart. So when we’re able to be real with ourselves, we are relaxed enough to be real with others and be more open to receive living beings as they are in that moment and context. Radical self-care (and the values associated with it) help us as individuals and collectives to do this very hard work and thrive from our fierce compassion and intelligence. If we’re finding that the only ways we can communicate with other humans (who are not our deepest, closest friends) are through antagonizing complaints, or on the flip side of that cynical, passive aggression, then this is a sign that we are not attending to our own self-care and we are drowning in environments that do not support our need for radical self-care.

Over the course of several weeks, I am exploring what radical self-care and community-building looks like for animal rights and some practices I’ve been experimenting with to create and sustain life-affirming, diverse animal rights community. As I go along, I will hyperlink posts:

  • What are the qualities of an empowered activist?
  • Building animal rights community
    • What we value
    • What information and wisdom guide us
    • Who and How we include
    • How we communicate
    • Where and How we are placed
    • How we maintain and sustain
    • When we have the capacity to act
  • How to nourish diversity as an animal rights community
  • Radical self-care practices to help with receiving information from change and shaping change at the personal and interpersonal scales
  • Insights from my life on navigating oppression and emerging sane
  • …and whatever updates come up around the topic of radical self-care

And, please, if radical self-care and community-building speak to your heart and you have something to add to this conversation, comment below and to posts tagged under “Healing & Empowerment.”

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·         What are the qualities of an empowered activist?

·         Building animal rights community

o   What we value

o   What information and wisdom guide us

o   Who and How we include

o   How we communicate

o   Where and How we are placed

o   How we maintain and sustain

o   When we have the capacity to act

·         How to nourish diversity as an animal rights community

·         Insights from my life on navigating oppression and emerging sane

·         …and whatever updates come up around the topic of radical self-care

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