Yup. Non-profit culture and performative activism perpetuate ableism and anti-Blackness
I thought no one would believe my pain. They’d think I wasn’t used to roughing it. That I wasn’t committed.
In May, I quit my paid job as a counselor/ organizer in Oakland, CA. I was burned out, depressed, and incredibly frustrated with the conditions that Black folks are exposed to and expected to accept while working within social justice organizations. I had health insurance, but my co-pay was $60 and it didn’t cover mental health visits. There was a way to work around this and use some of my HSA (a medical savings account for folks with high-deductibles) in support of me seeing a therapist, but why was it so difficult to have those resources in the first place?
Most of my clients were Black and brown elders, with multiple disabilities and health crises. They were also navigating mild to severe hazardous housing conditions, loss of loved ones, anti-Blackness, displacement, eviction and houselessness. And so I pushed myself harder to do “the work”, to think of and actualize alternatives to clients who had no physical and/or financial ability to travel to our offices for support.
I stayed around because Oakland is home, but it can’t be home if everyone who made it that way was gone. I stayed because I was hopeful, and it wasn’t my clients who were exhausting me, it was the non-profit industrial complex.
I stopped counting how many days I was sick last year when it reached 200. When I quit, I made sure to show up to all the marches. I answered clients’ hysterical calls about how paid anti-displacement organizations weren’t helping to address their concerns. I wrote letters to document the harassment of their landlords and checked up on them to ensure that something was being done. I called to get folks’ rent paid, to get their lights turned on, for them to have electricity.
My rent was paid. My lights were on. Food was in my refrigerator.
Everyone was telling me to slow down. They told me I was burnt out years before I actually admitted it to myself. I thought, these folks’ lives don’t stop. How can I?
The intersections of capitalism and the non-profit industrial complex had me feeling guilty for resting, for saying no, for listening to my body when it couldn’t move. And still, I’d attend actions through brain splitting migraines, dizziness and nausea. I’d take pain pills to get through because folks need support. They need to know that people are there.
Activists, specifically in non-profit organizations, are ableist as hell and rarely provide accessibility information for their events. There’s this hierarchy and expectation that the folks most impacted by the conditions be on the front lines, both as symbols and as resistors. But there’s another, more insidious, subtle connection in history: the folks on the front lines are the most exposed and most expendable. They have no cover and are less protected, but will be seen on a flyer or photo on any given day.
They (especially Black and brown lower income folks) function at times as fodder, and aren’t engaged as full human beings. They’re often the first ones called and the first to say yes to engaging in political actions, city hall visits, phone banks and door-to-door electoral campaigns. They know the city most and are yet given the least, and then called upon to share the conditions in which they live as a means to change them.
And because in the community organizations I’ve been a part of, I saw these folks pushing through, I pushed as well. I gritted my teeth, ignored when my body said no and offered up more than I had the capacity to give because underneath it all, I thought no one would believe my pain. They’d think I wasn’t used to roughing it. That I wasn’t committed. That if all these other folks were out moving with various mobility, physical and mental health needs, why wouldn’t I? Why did I deserve to rest when they’ve been at it a lot longer than me?
Ableism and anti-Blackness are situated in the double discrimination that Black disabled folks face every day. The physical, emotional and financial costs of it are too much to bear. And the demand that the most “vulnerable” amongst us perform at a level that exceeds their capacity is downright cruel, and further exacerbates the structures we claim to be fighting against.
Black folks with disabilities especially need to be paid to lead the conversations, actions and planning of organizing more accessible spaces and practices. They have the unique (and terrorizing) experience of being exposed to racism and ableism simultaneously. And while workplace ableism encourages folks not to speak up about their needs and shapes practices that discourage making accommodation requests, workplace anti-Blackness engages in respectability politics, tone policing and shame.
Black disability is simultaneously attacked, invisibilized, underscored and mocked. Requiring that Black folks perform activism by putting their bodies, minds and lives on the line for a world that rarely considers them is hypocritical at best, and criminal at worst.
Folks, even those running organizations meant to support more accessibility, often hide behind their ableism. When called out, they resort to defensiveness and projection instead of accountability and change. And in online activist spaces, folks use ableist terms like “Armchair activist” and “armchair revolutionary” as a means to punish, guilt and interrogate folks who may have different needs. They use it as a callout and dig that assumes people are not doing “the work” in other ways. But some of the most important work is the work that’s invisible, that centers care and tenderness. Work that doesn’t rely on disposability.
I’m working on being okay with the fact that y’all might not see me at the march next week. That the performative and often classist, ableist, anti-Black metrics for who does it better and who’s really about that life will never truly serve us. People do what they can.
Accessibility must always be at the forefront of freedom movements. And there will be no revolution without us.