Identity

'Exhaustion Is Not An Option': BLM's Patrisse Cullors On Grief and Activism

Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors describes leading a national movement, losing her father, and finding balance in the process.

by Patrisse Cullors
Feb 1 2019, 6:37pm

Patrisse Cullors. Photo by VALERIE MACON / AFP via Getty. 

Artist, organizer, educator, and popular public speaker, Patrisse Cullors is a Los Angeles native and co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Global Network and founder of grassroots Los Angeles based organization Dignity and Power Now. In 2013, Patrisse co-founded the global movement with the viral Twitter hashtag #BlackLivesMatter which has since grown to an international organization with dozens of chapters around the world fighting anti-Black racism.

For Getting Out of Bed, Broadly's series on all things related to rest and resilience, Patrisse shares a personal story about burn out, grief, and motivation.

I couldn't get out of bed, but at the same time, I couldn’t sleep.

It was the summer of 2010, and my father had just died. At the time, I was organizing full time on top of being a full-time student. Every part of me—physical, mental, emotional—was exhausted by the combination of work and grief. So much so that I felt a distance from myself, as if I was outside of my own body. In fact, I could barely feel myself at all.

When organizing, I can’t help but throw my whole self into the work.

In my experience, most people who are organizers are attracted to this work because of personal experiences—particularly, personal tragedies. And most times, they continue living in those same circumstances. When I first started organizing, I was living in a community riddled with police violence, and I still do. I was, and still am, impacted by the constant criminalization of folks in my community, including my brother and other family members. So, this work isn’t separate from my personal, daily life. That distinction doesn’t really exist. For someone like that, when tragedy hits, it hits your whole self. And when burn out weighs you down, it’s like an anchor on your whole being.

Not long after my father passed, it became clear that I needed to take time away from work and school. I requested a six month leave from both. But the decision to do so was painful. It hurt, in part, because it felt like walking away from my responsibilities to my community, but also because taking time for yourself was not part of how I learned to function in the world. I grew up watching my mother, who worked herself to the bone doing three jobs at once. Then, I was trained by older organizers who have been in this work for many, many decades and who, without realizing it, would guilt and shame me into believing that constant, unending labor was the only way that we were ever going to meet the goals and demands of the cause. I was trained that this is what we do: We work.

As organizers, we should make sure that the care and diligence that we have toward each other mirrors the kind of world we want to live in.

But taking time felt necessary, in part because I found that there wasn’t infrastructure in our movement to support people who were burnt out by multiple tragedies—the familial and the systemic all at once. While I grieved, I felt abandoned by those I had been working alongside. It was as if the solidarity we once shared fell out from under me. I was a young organizer, and I needed care, but they didn’t have the capacity to give it.

Now that I’m older and I understand what it takes to run an organization and how little resources organizations have, I better understand why I couldn’t be offered the support I needed at that time. Organizers aren’t trained to be therapists, and organizations aren’t designed with a therapeutic model in mind. Still, as organizers, we should make sure that the care and diligence that we have toward each other mirrors the kind of world we want to live in. That’s not to say that we should all be trained therapists, but rather that we should acknowledge that when working within a movement, your whole self may burn out, and that in order to prevent that, we must support each other taking the healing space that we each need.

As organizers, we are trained that there’s so much work to do and that we’re the only ones able to do it.

After the initial loneliness wore off, my time away from work and school felt rejuvenating, as if I was reconnecting with parts of myself that I hadn’t spent time with in a long time. I joined a dance class. I spent time with friends and family. I ventured out into nature on my own. I cried. I went to therapy. I started doing things that weren’t for anyone else but me. And eventually, the exhaustion that I had been feeling all the way to the core of my bones began to lift.

I also began to feel guilty. I felt a drive to contribute to the world again, so I went back to work. It felt good at first. I felt ready. And then work picked up like it always does, and I just started to pile it on, then kept working that way. I don't think I’ve ever learned a way to do the work without leading to burn out.

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That’s in part because the myth of the tireless activist is so pervasive and so effective. As organizers, we are trained that there’s so much work to do and that we’re the only ones able to do it. We are told that we have to do it, no matter what. We must put our physical bodies on the line and risk our mental health and emotional health—all for the greater cause. Exhaustion is not an option.

Eventually, that becomes a really tired and problematic and painful way to live. So, I am consistently trying to unlearn that. But it's hard to unlearn a thing when you're still in it. It’s hard to convince yourself that it’s OK to walk away from the work sometimes, in order to self-preserve. It’s hard, but it is necessary.