Beyond the Breakthrough: Radical Self-Care in the Fight to End Sexual Violence

The theme of the 2019 National Sexual Assault Conference—Beyond the Breakthrough—sought to inspire the collective movement to end sexual violence and build on the momentum of the #MeToo movement. Ms. was the media sponsor for the conference—and expanded the discussions happening on-site with this dedicated series. Click here to read more posts. You can also watch interviews and conference sessions from #NSAC2019 on the Ms. Facebook!

Often times, when we think of self-care, we’re thinking about wellness—everything from aromatherapy to Zumba to chakra stones. Although a $10 billion industry of self-care has been created over the past few years, these activities in and of themselves are not radical self-care. 

And in order for us to really sustain ourselves, we have to be radical about it.

Radical self-care is a holistic and habitual practice, especially for those of us who work in predominantly white spaces. We must take into account how the lack of power and systems of oppression have affected and continues to affect us. We have to be aware of what our triggers are and when they show up so that we can prioritize care to prevent burnout. We also have to be okay with saying “no” and acknowledging that we alone are not responsible for dismantling oppression.

University of the Fraser Valley / Creative Commons)

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation,” Audre Lorde once said, “and that is an act of political warfare.”

It can certainly feel that way for those of us who identify as sexual assault advocates of color. Self-care is hard enough when we’re working day-to-day with survivors, but it can be even harder when we face systemic oppression.

Several years ago, I had the privilege of serving as the Executive Director of a sexual assault program. I remember going to coalition meetings and being the only woman of color in the room. It was uncomfortable. I felt the pressure of having to constantly talk about the need to include diverse voices, to make sure that our English materials were translated and to advocate for boards to be representative of the communities they’re serving. I also discussed shared leadership models, and the importance of dismantling systems of oppression and for service providers to adopt cultural humility practices.

Often times, my peers would nod and say that they agree, but they didn’t fully understand. On a few occasions, they would look at me as though I had sprouted three heads.

These struggles are just one of a few issues that we face as advocates of color. In order to sustain ourselves as we do this work, we have to engage in radical healing and self-care. Otherwise, we run the risk of experiencing vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue, and/or burnout because power and oppression affects us both personally and professionally.

By engaging in regular self-care and healing, we can begin to reclaim some of our power back—and radically sustain ourselves as we move through anti-oppression work. 


Jessica Ayden Li is a social justice activist with over 10 years of experience working to end sexual violence in marginalized communities. She has been the Executive Director of San Francisco SafeHouse and the Asian/Pacific Islander Domestic Violence Resource Project, working with survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and sex trafficking.