Every morning I wake up to a quote by trans activist and poet Alok Vaid-Menon, pinned on the wall facing my bed: “Feel and Love, Militantly.”
Although I strive to live my life according to their practice, I have this growing feeling that the “militantly” has taken over the “feel and love.” I want to be cared for, and I want to care for others; I want to be loved, and I want to love others. But this campus won’t let me. Recently, I have been struggling with how much activism interferes with my relationships: friendships, romance, sex, you name it. Between organizing against white supremacists on campus, Betsy Devos’ rollbacks on Title IX provisions, Columbia’s refusal to accept collective bargain agreements, and so much more, campus activists have been feeling overwhelmed and overworked.
I think often about how systems of power—white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy, ableism—thrive on myths of individuality and invincibility. Yet, for those of us fighting to dismantle these systems, feeding into these myths—by valuing spectacular activism over care, by dismissing the people we love, by refusing to care for others in the most simple ways, by ghosting friends and lovers—is unsustainable. We are hurting ourselves and each other. As activists, we cannot claim to be leading the fight against the structures that oppress us while emulating them in our own interactions with one another.
I’ve seen a tendency on this campus to reject intimacy in all its forms—emotional, physical, spiritual—in the name of more important and pressing causes. Many of us have neglected care for sensational moments of resistance like protests and rallies. And when it comes to making time for those who live with me—my classmates, the stranger in the elevator, the girl I loved—my activism always seems to get in the way.
So what does it mean, that the more we get involved in activism against these systems, the less time we dedicate to the people who surround us? Why do we get so caught up in spectacular activism that we forget to be present for those we care about and love?
The structures and institutions of power that we fight against are premised on demanding productivity from us while deeming everything else irrelevant or useless. If our goal is to dismantle these systems of power, then why are we allowing the crucial organizing work that we do to become inaccessible, ableist, and uncaring too? I, like many others, often feel disposable on this campus, possibly because this school has normalized the idea that we are designed to be used and then discarded. From what I remember, Columbia’s “time management calculator” included very little or no time at all for taking care of others (and thereby yourself).
While I do not wish to discredit the necessity and accomplishments of collective moments of activism, I do believe that for us to progress we must start caring for each other, being present for the people we love, and creating everyday romance. Our movements and our successes are contingent on strong support systems. These systems of care may look different for everyone, but for me they definitely look like making fried rice together, making sure you made it home safely, kissing my friends’ faces more, holding the people I love, or making a cup of tea for my friend who’s sick.
What is crucial for activists on this campus to remember is that while protests and rallies can create change, it is the modes of solidarity and care, mainly organized by black and brown folks as well as queer and trans femmes, that have allowed for these movements to even begin to exist.
If we want to create long-term and sustainable changes, we also need to start paying attention to the ways intimacy, on this campus and beyond, has a history of being unequally distributed. For my friend Valerie Jaharis, there is a tension between the political and the personal on this campus, because those who are the most likely to engage in the emotional and physical labor of taking care of others are oftentimes also more inclined to experience restricted access to intimacy; they believe that to restrict intimacy is a form of systemic violence. Even “in a non-sexual form, intimacy is limited,” they say. “I just have no access to that here and it takes a toll.” At the end of the day, the truth is that those who are doing all the labor of loving—in all the possible ways it manifests itself—are tired of never being loved and taken care of in return.”
So what would it mean to recenter our activism around care? More importantly, to understand that care is activism? The stability of systems of power depends on our internationalization and iteration of individualism: “Stand on your own, never ask for help, be stronger, be cold, be the winner.” This is why there is something profoundly radical in quotidian moments of care. In the name of activism, it is essential that we recenter ourselves around them. We can create as much, if not more, change by making time for healing, for caring, and for being in the simplest ways, both within and outside activist spaces. Bring your roommate a Snapple when they can’t push through their work anymore; hold your friend through their unending flow of tears; create a time for cooking with your suitemates; text back your date; share a space with the people you love; make art and read poetry; and if you love me, won’t you say something, because in a world that survives on disposability, this too is revolutionary.
The author is a junior in Columbia College studying gender studies and human rights. Follow her on Twitter @RosayJacky for more content on falling in love and caring.