On the Front Lines: 10 Spiritual Practices for First Responders, Organizers and Activists

Self Care Action Plan for Social Justice First Responders

Sustaining your Health and Well-being while Organizing! 

Published By Dayanara Marte and Sally Hyppolite © November 11th, 2012


Activists and organizers, young and adult womyn of color and the LGBTQ community on the front lines of social justice are exposed to trauma every day. Many of us come into the work because we have personally experienced abuse and neglect, experiencing first hand inequality while living in the very communities that we are fighting for and with.   

As such, we are at risk for developing short term and long term dis-eases of the mind, body and spirit. As first responders, we experience both personal and systemic trauma that shapes our identity and the way we relate to ourselves, each other and the world  often times creating and generating the same trauma in our lives. It is important through our rebuilding efforts to create practices to work through internalized oppression and create self-care actions plans and practices as part of our personal and collective sustainability strategizing moving forward. 

Disasters affect everyone. First responders also include, those that experience, witness  and respond to it (survivors, family members that live in other places other than the disaster, rescue workers, emergency medical and mental health care providers, volunteers, members of the media, everyone in the community, the entire country and the world that is seeing it on TV). All of which are experiencing intense emotions as part of the relief and recovery process which include:

  • Physical and emotional exhaustion
  • Feelings of grief, hopelessness, helplessness, sadness and self-doubt
  • Difficulty sleeping or developing eating disorders
  • Guilt over not being able to do more, or  not having the necessary resources 
  • Frustration and anger at the system
  • Consistent memories of the event, what you saw what you heard, what you have experienced
  • Physical symptoms such as headaches, nausea, chest pains, cold/flu 

This is a grassroots self-healing resource sheet offering tools of support during rebuilding & relief efforts for the mind body and spirit of first responders. 

1. Normalize your response. You are not crazy! 

Be compassionate with yourself.  One thing you can count on is that your body will protect itself when it does not feel safe, whether being unsafe is true or not.  It will do this in many ways and any and all ways are okay. You may feel: like crying, paralyzed, alone, arguing, emotional, a need to leave, run or hide, invisible, excited (going at twenty miles a minute), helpless, laughter, joy, or you may see opportunity in everything. You may not feel anything at all. Wherever you are at it is exactly where you need to be. Thank your body for stepping in at a time that you felt like you had no control. 

Practice Affirmations: Affirm: I am enough!  I am worth it!  I am loved!  I am safe!

2. Work true, trusting yourself and trusting others. You have community!  

Trauma shows up in various ways and sometimes, we are not prepared for it. We experience it first hand, we witness it, it runs through our veins in a way that we feel like something has happened to us in the past but we are not sure what it is. We live through it in our homes, our organizations, within movements, collectives and within ourselves. Healing from trauma only happens in community. Be in communication. You cannot do this alone. No matter how it shows up you will need to practice two things: 

Practice Trust:  Affirm: I have all the tools to take care of myself. I have everything I need. Itrust myself to meet my needs & I trust that my community will be there to support me. 

3. Rebuild safety. You are safe! 

Trauma impacts our ability to distinguish safety. It throws us off center. It disconnects us from our intuition and our wisdom. Not only do we not trust others but we don’t trust ourselves to make decisions. We start believing that we are not worth it and that we deserve what happens to us. We think that we are no longer able to know for ourselves what we need, want or how to set boundaries. A large part of rebuilding includes putting safety back into our lives and organizations. This can be challenging and it will require you bringing in someone to build the integrity of the work again and create safe space of healing from trauma.

Practice Choice: Affirm: I have a choice. I can do it this way or that way, and there is nothing wrong. I can choose powerfully. 

4. You are not what happened. It was not your fault! 

Something happens and then you decide something about yourself. We get assaulted in the street and we decide that I am stupid because I should have known better. There is a natural disaster and we decide I don’t deserve to live, I should have prepared better, or I could have prevented its impact by buying what I needed when they told me. What happened and what we make it mean are two different things. It was not your fault and you did not serve it. Nobody deserves to be manipulated into a forced outcome or made to feel powerless by someone else to get what they want. 

Practice Forgiveness: Affirm: Today, I forgive myself. It was not my fault and I did not do anything wrong. I did not deserve it.

4. Trauma is a collective and personal experience. You are not alone! 

We often think we go through things and experience them by ourselves. You are not alone. During this time it’s important to be in communication. It is important to share what happened, to be in community and let people take care of you. The impact of trauma goes deep into spaces that we are not even aware of. Silence feeds it and buries it even more.  When it finally shows up it sounds like “I got this, I can take care of myself, I feel ashamed, or I don’t want to share. Trauma steals our voice! 

Practice communication: Affirm: I express my needs fully & freely. I express myself with ease. My family and friends support and love me. Join or create a support group. Talk to your neighbors, friends, and family daily. Journal, draw, free-write, dance or sing. 

5. Healing is possible! You will not be this place or in this feeling forever! 

Healing is going to require looking within, feeling again, loving anyway, trusting anyway, dreaming anyway. It will require you to speak again, to create anyway, to show up and be visible. It’s going to require you to be unreasonable, uncomfortable, and unstoppable in your efforts the way you are in the fight for justice. This is a fight for our lives. Put something at stake, reclaim, clear, complete! It’s going require that we stop and feel, that we reconnect with ourselves and what we are most committed to. Its going to require for us to get out of our own way and let your spirit lead the way.

Practice Spirituality: Affirm: I am connected to all my relations. Build an altar from your religion or your spirituality. Create a space of power and rejuvenation. Create a place for and remember your ancestors. Create a place in where your voice speaks, your self-love shines, your dreams live no matter what happens to you.  Create a scared space where you can put your problems to rest and let your spirit do the work for you. 

6. Personal Trauma is Organizational Trauma. My life has meaning and purpose! 

We take ourselves wherever we go. In the next couple of months we will be working within organizations, with staff, participants and community residents that have been affected by the hurricane. They and we will show up in survival mode: Responding to every situation triggered, annoyed, in judgment, in denial, in fear, angry, hopeless, exhausted, and tired, being absent or showing up physically but emotionally and spiritually depleted. We will avoid each other or different issues. Some of us will wear our emotions on our sleeves others will hide them. In powerless situations, we lose our sense of purpose, our courage or vision for ourselves and the world. Rebuilding will require that we create from nothing, because nothing will be as it was. It will require us to let go and dream another dream. 

Practice Humanity: Affirm: All is well in my world. I am powerful. Each moment offers me limited-less possibility. I release all things that are stuck, stagnant, and do not serve me or the world. Make requests: Ask for what you need. Allow others to love you and contribute to you.Be generous, ask, “What do you need? How can I support you? How are you doing today?” 

7. There is nothing wrong. I ACKNOWLEDGE myself and others! 

Acknowledgment is about creating a space where the future arises. And that is the opportunity that is in front of us. Opportunity to create a future out of the love and abundant generosity that has been present through this disaster. We have power, the power to create what our tomorrow will look like through our ability to take the moment to acknowledge ourselves and each other for showing up. Our best looked different at all times of the day and that is okay. No matter how you showed up, you showed up right time. 

Practice Acknowledgment: Affirm: I see myself as a big person with a big life. I am in gratitude. I am open to receive. Say, “Thank you.” See people as greatness and as their most power selves.  

8. Be patient. You have everything you need within you! BREATHE! 

Allow yourself to be exactly where you are. There is nothing you could have, would should have done. Let go of but & if only. Everything you did was exactly what you needed to do. In facing our fears: we were courageous, generous, and brave. Now it’s time to face ourselves and let go. To feel whatever you are feeling without judgment or guilt. In the wake of the aftermath, you probably took on some coping habits, like over-eating, drinking, isolating, being out of communication, or not sleeping. Be patient, this too shall pass. If you have nightmares or recurring memories, can’t function, avoid people, or feel disconnection- call on your faith, your ancestors, your friends, and family.  

Practice Acceptance: Affirm: I did my best. I am peace and ease. Breathe. Inhale through your nose on the count of three-1, 2, and 3 filling up your stomach like a balloon and hold for 1, 2, and 3. Exhale 1, 2, 3. Take three deep breathes whenever you feel a need to feel grounded and connected to your body. 

9. You know. You are an expert of your life! 

While, we are organizers of movements and our lives, we cannot foretell the traumas and devastations that happen to us. Trauma comes unexpectedly and even if it occurs over time, it occurs as if it just happened. In the wake of sandy what kept you alive is that you are an expert of your life and therefore your community. As humans, we are social beings, during times of devastation we naturally give and seek connection, love, and generosity within community to belong to and be related. That is who you were in this situation. You knew exactly what to do and not to do. What you did, who you were  was what was needed at that time and moment. Survival in the moment of disasters will look like what it needs to and then we evaluate and do it differently next time through practice.  

Practice positive thinking: Affirm: Everything I need comes to me easily and effortlessly. I know. The universe provides for all of my needs. Find a quiet space, be it your bathroom or a closet, and meditate daily for 15 minutes. Quiet your mind be still and concentrate on your breathing. Allow everything else to melt away.

10. Be with your feelings. Grieve, Release, Let go. And be present in your life.

Trauma from disasters can create a sense of powerlessness, hopelessness, disempowerment and even, feelings of loss. This sense of loss arose because we felt afraid or inadequate, paralyzed and may not have known what to do. This loss was then doubled when we looked around to see that in addition to losing our loved ones, friends, coworkers, pets, we may have lost our homes, possessions, job and life as we knew it was gone in an instant. Even if we didn’t personally lose anything, we still felt the collective sense of loss as we are all connected. It is okay to grieve, to mourn, and to cry. Sometimes, in situations like this what we lose the most is our sense of self. Loss is real. Be in it, and then feel your way out. Give yourself space and time to release trauma from your body. This is not a time to get over it or move on. Take time to honor your relationships, ritualize letting go of things that were of value.  Then look around at what is left and  acknowledge it, yourself and highlight what is important to you.

Practice Being: Your POWER resides in your ability to feel your way out of this to get to the other side of yourself. To create safe spaces for healing and practice within your organization to acknowledge what you have seen, witnessed and experienced. Let go of things and parts that no longer serve you, and ways of being that no longer work. Acknowledge it. Thank them for keeping you safe thus far and let it go. Create new ways of being, dreams and possibilities that affirm you and serve all that is good in you and in the world. Be in action. Support, organize, rebuild, create, and be in the conversation of transformation, love, and celebration. Connect to your inner-being, to your community, to all your relations, to the planet.

Divine Designs & In Bold Rebirth/Creating Healing Spaces Globally ©2012


4 thoughts on “On the Front Lines: 10 Spiritual Practices for First Responders, Organizers and Activists

  1. Pingback: Self Injury Awareness Network, Inc.

  2. Pingback: After Sandy, my people are moving. « juliacsmith

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s