Victor Narro, project director for the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Downtown Labor Center, gave a talk Thursday titled “Spirituality, Self-Care, and Social Justice Activism.” The event in Lower Herrick was the first of a three-part mindfulness series at Occidental, hosted by Politics Professor Thalia Gonzalez.
In his talk, Narro aimed to provide attendees with a set of tools for coping with the wide array of stresses often present in a career in activism. A short meditation followed the presentation, during which audience members counted their breaths and steps as they walked around Lucille Gilman Memorial Fountain.
Narro said the collaborative nature of activism leads many workers to put the movement first and their own self-preservation second. He advocated mindful thought, spirituality and self-care as the best tools for combatting burnout.
“Activists work too hard. Some take pride in working 80-hour weeks, but then burn out,” Narro said. “I want to start changing the culture of activism and help people take better care of themselves.”
Narro attributes this feeling of exhaustion to the difficulties in helping marginalized peoples seek asylum from poverty, racism, inequality and other injustices. According to Narro, activists often become overwhelmed with anxiety and frustration when they feel they are not doing enough.
“Continual stress, exhaustion, anxiety, isolation. These things have forced many activists to leave the work, or even cease to function physically,” Narro said. “I tell people like this, develop personal practice and come back to your body. Take care of yourself so you can continue to help others.”
Narro and Gonzalez both spoke about the importance of activists learning how to properly interact with their peers in the movement and the people it aims to empower.
“How can you really be engaged with the community you are working with, in a way that is authentic? So that you’re not letting power and privilege counter that?” Gonzalez said. “It’s got to be collaborative, not ‘Okay, this is what I’m telling you to do.'”
Narro looks to his spirituality to center himself when he has doubts or concerns about the way his movement is headed. A Roman Catholic, he contemplates the teachings of St. Francis the activist, Thich Nhat Hanh the Zen Buddhist monk and Mahatma Ghandi on a daily basis.
He also suggested a number of coping techniques that might be helpful for activists, as they face a line of work that oscillates between being meaningful and crushingly disappointing.
Narro is a proponent of using Native American talking stick ceremonies, in which a member of a movement steps back from reality momentarily to hear and internalize the feelings of their peers, to foster greater collaboration and understanding.
“It is important, when you are angry, not to be angry with the person, but with the actions,” Narro said.
Many of the attendees were students in Gonzalez’s Rebellious Lawyering in Community Law Internship. The eight-credit class was designed to allow students to practice social activism in the field on a professional level.
Narro’s advice paralleled the values that Gonzalez teaches her students in class.
“Contemplativeness and mindfulness are built into the curriculum,” Gonzalez said.
Kerry Sakimoto (senior) attended the event and interns under Narro at the UCLA Downtown Labor Center, working toward the goal of raising the minimum wage in California. Sakimoto’s work contributed to some victories for the movement, such as increasing the minimum wage of hotel workers in L.A. to $15.25. But Sakimoto said that these gains only make a small dent in the overall progress of the movement.
“A professor once told me that social justice work is like pushing a boulder up a hill. The progress is very slow, painful sometimes,” Sakimoto said. “We face a lot of push-back from many forces, but I personally keep striving for equity because it’s very close to my heart.”
Sakimoto admitted it is difficult to conduct himself with the level of mindfulness exhibited by Narro. However, Narro asked not for the audience’s adherence to his own techniques, but for each to contemplate the things that motivate and inspire them, so they might implement their own plan for more present living.
The next installment in the series will be a community project, in which attendees will build a Buddhist mandala. The third and final presentation will be a talk followed by an interactive yoga demonstration.