why care is a political act


There are many ways to understand what care means. Here, we define it as looking after the physical, emotional, spiritual and mental wellbeing, safety and dignity of ourselves and others. Too often, the focus is on a narrow form of self-care, forgetting the essential, and deeply political collective care approach, which includes our families, friends, colleagues and community.

Care is not about individualized, privatized luxury and pampering. Massages, spas, and vacations can be enjoyable, but care is very much more than this. There is an underlying assumption that our work creates stress, and self-care is how we recover to be able to continue. We need to move beyond an idea of coping that shores ourselves up to be stressed once more.

The risks of not caring for ourselves and others are all around us. The socio-political and economic situations that we live and work in – and the toxic dynamics that we replicate in our own organizations – can lead to feelings of fatigue, overwhelm and even hopelessness, in the face of suffering and injustice.

Rather, the ethic of care we offer here involves a more expansive view that seeks to ensure the wellbeing and resiliency of those who depend on each other to advance the changes we want to see in the world.

Why is care important in the struggle for social justice?

When we are cared for, we are likely to feel safer, calmer and more balanced – even in the face of adversity. Care enhances our resilience – the ability to respond and adapt to changes and shocks in the face of difficulty. It can provide a healthy and sustainable fuel to our activism, and greater connection to ourselves, our colleagues and the communities we are fighting for.

Care is personal, political, and collective

Feminists have fought to increase awareness, value and redistribution of care as a political strategy that enables both individual and collective action – whether in organizations, movements, or wider society. In this view, care is both a right, and a fundamental component of social justice requiring a holistic approach. Not one that compartmentalizes our wellbeing and from our activism.  Through committing to collective care, we embody the changes we demand, and this strengthens our work for rights and justice.

A political lens on care recognizes that some of us have the privilege of being cared for, while some of us primarily care for others. Gender, race and class impacts all our experiences of care. The care we give or receive depends, in part, on our place in various hierarchies and the influence of dominant ideologies. Inequalities of power are built into organizational systems, processes and expectations, which means that well-being privilege becomes invisible.

In this light, the project of self and collective care takes on critical proportions. Organizations must model systems of collective care that benefit us all – employees, partners, including the constituencies we are fighting for – instead of succumbing to bureaucracy, opportunism and abuse.

How do we practice care?

Key principles for individuals and organizations include:

  • recognizing that coping, burn out and stress are not inevitable
  • being clear on boundaries, and ensuring that overworking is not rewarded
  • believing that our own lives and relationships matter, and cannot be relegated to the margins.

While there is no single toolbox for self and collective care that will work for all, there are lots of resources and tips available. We particularly like these practical ideas compiled by FRIDA, WomanKind and the GBV Prevention Network. A new resource for organizational strengthening that highlights practical ways to facilitate self and collective care will be available soon, developed by Gender at Work and published by IWDA.

It is worth spending time to identify care practices that nurture resilience. We can make a practice of anything that enhances our wellbeing. The key to effective practice is intention and repetition. Care practices are many, and can include journaling, meditating, dancing, exercising, cooking, connecting with friends or being in nature – as a start!

You can do these individually or collectively as a group. For example, taking a pause together at the beginning of every meeting, breathing in the middle of tense moments before diving back into a debate, and holding walking meetings. Those with the least organizational power should be properly represented when decisions are being made, and never overlooked.

Care happens more easily when it is wholeheartedly supported by leaders – when at all levels, we recognize that self and collective care are the foundation of nurture, creativity and expansion. When our work cultures, relationships and environments are aligned with our values, this creates both resilience and more lasting cultures of reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity.

And isn’t that what we are fighting for?

This article was originally published on May 9, 2019 on oxfam.org. Photo credit: Dustin Barter/Oxfam


Shawna Wakefield is an independent consultant and facilitator, associate with Gender at Work, and trauma-informed yoga instructor. She has worked for over 20 years with UN, INGO and philanthropic organizations on gender and economic justice, feminist leadership, organizational change, collective care and resilience – including as Oxfam International’s Senior Gender Justice Lead between 2007–2015. Shawna is co-creating Women Human Rights Advancers – a transnational, intergenerational lab for learning, exchanging and co-creating embodied feminist leadership practices for individual and collective transformation.

Heather Cole is a PhD student, and independent consultant and facilitator. She has worked for over 20 years with INGOs, CSOs and philanthropic organisations on violence against women and girls, as a feminist practitioner, researcher and activist. She is particularly interested in the (in)congruence between service provision and organisational practice, and in the ways that organisations replicate and reproduce the inequalities they are committed to challenging. Heather is also a Trustee at Rape Crisis, and gives specific attention to the need for collective care, collective well-being, and solidarity for the staff and volunteers doing this work.

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