Editor's note: The authors of this article have collaborated in supporting youth organizing groups with Californians for Justice. Geordee Mae Corpuz currently works at Californians for Justice.
What comes to mind when you think about what youth movements look, sound and feel like? You might envision BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) youth walking out of classes en masse, bringing life to streets and stuffy board meetings with colorful signs. You might hear their voices amplified through megaphones, calling boldly to uplift the humanity of all Black lives, implement relevant curriculum that centers their communities, prioritize care overcriminalization and much more. You might feel electrifying energy, rage and glimmers of hope.
There are also aspects of youth organizing that look, sound and feel quite different: youth gathering in a circle to express genuine, unfiltered heartbreak and palpable fear in light of the relentless assaults on their communities. Or youth and adults, in synchronization, practicing slow and controlled movements of tai chi in between strategic planning to create more loving schools.
Youth organizing contains multitudes, all of the above and much more. The previous few examples are just a small glimpse into youth organizing groups’ healing-centered approaches to social change (which BIPOC movement leaders and scholars have conceptualized as “healing justice,” “transformative organizing” and “radical healing.”) Such frameworks seek to undo the many pervasive harms of white supremacy that intersect with other systems of oppression. Transformative organizing, for example, seeks to fully transform all levels of society, including the inner and outer lives of youth: for example, morphing internalized racism into pride in one’s identity, to radically changing cultures of schools.
These frameworks didn’t appear out of nowhere, but rather draw upon long legacies of traditional cultural practices and healing praxis by Black, Indigenous, Latina, Asian, Middle Eastern and other women of color, as well as disabled and queer, trans and gender-nonconforming folks. Youth organizations often quote Black lesbian writer and activist Audre Lorde, who proclaimed in 1988 upon learning of her cancer diagnosis that "caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare."
This piece uplifts specific quotes and examples from Californians for Justice, a statewide youth-powered organization working to improve the lives of communities of color, immigrant, low-income, LGBTQ and other marginalized communities, contextualized with research from other youth organizing groups. However, there are many groups that center healing justice. Some other BIPOC youth organizing groups in California that have led the way in healing practices include MILPA Collective, Urban Peace Movement, Khmer Girls in Action and Resilience OC.
So why do youth groups engage in these transformative healing and self-care practices, and how do they differ from the dimensions of youth organizing that have received more public attention?
Groups like CFJ recognize that white supremacist society can be thoroughly dehumanizing — violently cutting off opportunities to thrive, inflicting wounds upon BIPOC communities’ psyches and quite literally getting under the skin by harming physical health. As part of CFJ’s Relationship Centered Schools campaign, students have penned letters and created social media posts addressed to “Dear Racism in Schools.” Their letters illuminate the deep cuts left by racism, but also their determination to resist and enact educational equity. As Raquel, an Oakland leader, wrote: "You [racism] make us feel irrelevant. You make us feel guilty. You make me feel out of place, broken, hopeless and worthless. You make us feel not human.” And as Hector, a San Jose leader, pointed out:
“Since the election, many immigrant students are living in fear — wondering if today is the day that my parents — or the people that I love will be taken away. This constant fear impacts them on a social, emotional and academic level. These fears have rippled throughout our communities for decades."
The pandemic has only further shone a light on why and how healing on multiple levels is especially critical, as youth’s families and communities bear the brunt of these crises. As Julisa, a San Jose student, shared:
"My mom has been getting less work than usual because of the virus. My older sister has been put on an unpaid break because the restaurant she works at cannot afford to keep her and some other workers. She has a 3-year-old child, and she is worried that she won’t be able to pay her rent for the next month.”
Julisa’s story has been echoed by many other youth leaders. Many youths have stepped up to provide childcare, help their parents working in their fields, or have, in some cases, become primary economic providers for their families based on their stipends from youth organizations or by shouldering extra work hours. Youth are struggling to stay on top of schoolwork, given these responsibilities, spotty to non-existing internet connections (stemming from racialized and classed digital divides) and limited resources of their already long-disinvested schools. For queer, trans and gender-nonconforming youth, being quarantined at home can be incredibly challenging when they can't express their full identities. On top of all this, Black students have constantly been bombarded with violent images of attacks on Black folks across the U.S.
Healing, then, entails BIPOC youth leaders reclaiming themselves and their communities. On the one hand, this manifests in cultivating youth power and directing energy outwards to dramatically change systems, institutions, policies and practices to those that instead center on youth’s needs and full possibilities.
But it also means that youth organizing spaces seek to work on the internal, to nurture a space where youth can show up as their full selves and be recognized and loved for who they really are. Groups do so by centering loving and supportive relationships- for example, through consistent one-on-one check-ins between staff and youth leaders and ongoing relationship and community building among youth and staff. This approach highlights how justice for all is not just about winning campaigns or policies- but requires deep care for each other and support for youth to thrive in all areas of their lives.
They also fight to implement similar models that attend to youth’s holistic well-being on a large scale in their schools, cities and other institutions. For example, youth leaders from Inner City Struggle in East LA have won community schools that provide holistic services addressing not only academic but also health and emotional needs of students. Youth leaders from Khmer Girls in Action and other organizations in the Invest in Youth campaign have won initial funding (and are fighting for more permanent resources) for a Long Beach Children and Youth fund to support positive, healthy youth development.
And groups engage in a wide variety of practices, some examples of which we highlight here, that generally attend to the well-being of the body and soul — which have not always received full attention in organizing efforts in the past. While discussions of self-care have become more common in public discourse, youth organizing groups show their actual commitment by taking time (a scarce and precious resource) for rest and self-care. Youth and staff are often racing against time to put out fires while also fighting for immediate and long-term change on timelines and schedules dictated by those in power.
As a result, as Long Beach youth leader Janice put it, youth have “to grow up so fast.”
Even before the pandemic, many youths were juggling multiple responsibilities created by social and economic systems that seek to foreclose possibility: many care for elders or younger siblings as their parents work long, odd hours to try to make ends meet. As one youth leader Stephanie put it, the pressure to “lift my family out of poverty” meant that I’m supporting [my mom], but I’m also supporting myself, I’m also supporting my friends, I’m supporting others. And there’s only so many hours in a day. There’s only so many things I can do in one day.”
Taking time for rest and self-care, then, is a radical form of resistance, as artist, activist and healer Tricia Hersey’s “The Nap Ministry” points out. For example, organizers in CFJ’s Long Beach office organized a self-care session during an especially busy time the fall of 2017, as the air was buzzing both with breathless excitement and anxiety over the many high-stakes responsibilities being juggled. Juniors were visibly anxious about their PSATs the next day, and the season had been busy with pre-registering youth voters, recruiting new members and otherwise moving forward with their Relationship Centered Schools campaign.
Instead of putting their heads down and working endlessly to get everything done, organizers took the youths to the beach and facilitated breathing and healing rituals. As Melisa, an organizer at the time put it, this was important because: "Y'all are going non-stop and trying to balance being a student, with your family life, and holding the work that you have at CFJ. So we really wanted to take a minute to connect and push pause. A lot of times, we glorify working non-stop, but that's actually what we want to make sure that we don't do." Tajah, a youth leader, pointed out that she learned from these activities and others that "It's okay to step back and think about yourself, and not have to always [do] all this for everybody else." While this may seem simple, this recalls Audre Lorde's point that practicing self-care for youth is a political act of resistance when they are often caring for everyone else, while being neglected care by many social institutions.
In addition to modeling practices, youth also learn practices that comprise a toolkit of self-care and wellness that they can use to address stress, anxiety and other health issues often stemming from structural injustices in their everyday lives. Many of these draw from cultural and spiritual wellness practices that signal long legacies of resilience and wisdom not always valued within western medicine. CFJ youth organizers have led workshops on mental health for BIPOC, identifying stressors and strategies for addressing stress. For example, workshops might focus on different herbal teas, essential oils, plants and crystals. Youth often make their own teas or oil mixes to take home. After one such workshop, youth shared that they felt calmer already and that they enjoyed learning about these forms of medicine because they were more accessible and didn’t lead to all the side effects that western medicines can engender.
These practices also purposely engage the body — recognizing that oftentimes organizing has focused on the mind, even as white supremacy takes serious bodily tolls. Staff and youth practice yoga as well as tai chi/ forward stance. A yoga workshop in the morning may be part of the agenda at CFJ’s annual statewide retreat. Sometimes youth will lead others in deep breathing together or follow a meditation video together and debrief afterward.
Storytelling and artistic self-expression is also a staple of healing. Youth might write a love letter to themselves, or facilitate or participate in art, poetry, DJing and cultural dance workshops.
CFJ, like other youth and community organizing groups, has engaged in narrative change campaigns and storytelling as healing. For example, in 2015, CFJ embarked on a “Flip the Frame” campaign to “transform policies, practices, and perceptions” and challenge the damaging assumptions imposed on Black and Brown youth. During the campaign, youth and adult allies posted pictures of themselves on social media holding signs that proclaimed that they were not a certain stereotype, and instead boldly asserting what they are (for example, “I am a strong Black woman”; “I am a leader”). As Mary, a Fresno leader, wrote in 2015, “tellin[ing] my story as a young Black woman” is healing because it “gave us teenagers the chance and power to effectively fight against stereotypes and let everyone know we are not who they think we are just because we are young and people of color.”
As Mary reminds us, telling one’s story can be healing as a way to reclaim one’s voice and truth amidst the silencing and gaslighting that youth of color experience in other spaces. Centering and genuinely listening to youth’s voices as they express their nuanced complexity but also their hopes and visions can be rehumanizing.
Another form of sharing stories and emotions takes place through healing or talking circles, which come from a range of Black and Indigenous practices throughout the world. Groups often organize healing circles as a proactive way to build community or to address traumatic events — such as the Pulse and Parkland shootings, 2016 elections, mass deportations, and state-sanctioned killings of Black folks — all of which hit far too close to home for many youth and staff.
During healing or talking circles, only one person — the person holding a talking piece — speaks at a time in response to the prompt offered by the facilitator. Talking circles allow young people to speak from the heart without censoring themselves while actively listening to each other and holding space. Students often reflected on how healing circles positively impacted their well-being because they could share their honest, complex feelings. Most young people usually don’t have space to share in schools, at home or other spaces. Taking substantial time to share unfiltered thoughts helped young people unearth their real concerns — an act of love in the form of bearing witness to pain.
For example, youth leader Hannah reflected on how she felt buoyed by a healing circle right after the 2016 elections:
It was really enlightening and honestly, I've never felt such love... I feel like I'm in a family...It was just an emotional blow for everyone there, so I feel like that healing circle...healed my heart a little bit because I was anxious about how he was going to be our president...During the healing circle they were like, “It's okay, we'll move past this, and we'll do more to actively combat his dictatorship.”
Beyond healing circles, youth organizations generally create an environment where young people feel comfortable talking about challenges with each other and organizers — things they couldn't always voice at home or at school. As Kelly, a Long Beach leader, pointed out:
Sometimes it's hard at home. Sometimes things happen and just coming to [CFJ]... that's made me happy… sometimes it's just like you don't feel good and you're just sitting there [at the meeting] and then something pretty good happens like something funny or something that you hear makes you feel good, and I feel like that can heal too.
While there are countless more examples to share, an important throughline is that even as healing grapples directly with the traumas inflicted by white supremacy, it's also about ensuring that youth are not defined solely by their trauma. Youth organizing is not just about reacting but about actively creating the world that young people deserve. And so healing is often about joy, play, and being with each other in a loving community. As such, youth often organize self-care activities that include movie nights, game nights or nature walks. CFJ, like many other organizations, takes youths to weekend retreats in the mountains. There, much time is dedicated to enjoying the outdoors and relationship building, not just work.
As youth show, healing is a crucial part of the answer to the pain that BIPOC communities have long been feeling from systemic racism, poverty, patriarchy, colonialism and other entangled oppressions. By itself, self-care is not enough — all the face masks in the world won't topple structural racism. But campaigns and structural change that do not rejuvenate the soul, given the pain wrought by these oppressions, are also not sustainable. Healing reminds us to take a deep breath and engage in transformation in ways grounded in our humanity. It is in these transformative and holistic practices, both small and large, both individual and collective, that youth are creating abundant and loving possibilities that provide us with a reason for hope.
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Top Image: Californians for Justice youths at the beach and playing in the water. It is a rare experience for many to just be able to relax since many are juggling multiple responsibilities created by social and economic systems. | Californians for Justice