To Keep Making Noise: Self-Care Is Critical to Dismantling Racism and White Supremacy in the Legal Profession

By Alison Ashe-Card, Molly Stafford, and Nicole Netkin-Collins

NALP Bulletin+
April 2022

As activist Angela Davis said, “Anyone looking to make a change in the world has to care for themselves. Engaging in self-care means that we can incorporate into our work, as activists, ways of acknowledging and hopefully, moving beyond trauma.”

In a December 2021 NALP Bulletin+ article, “Are We Still Making Noise? The Backlash to Black Lives Matter and Its Effects on the Legal Profession,” we asked ourselves and our NALP colleagues if we’re still making noise — are we working to dismantle racism and white supremacy in the legal profession in the face of the predictable backlash to the Black Lives Matter movement and to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts?




In this fifth installment of our Making Noise series — which started in September 2020 with the importance of “doing the work” of antiracism on individual and institutional levels and the importance of finding one’s lane — we are highlighting the necessity of self-care not only for ourselves, but especially for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) law students and attorneys. In order to keep doing our part, whichever lane we choose and especially in the wake of the backlash, we must care for ourselves. We also need to push our institutions to ensure that BIPOC law students and lawyers are given the tools they need to care for themselves.   

 

What Is Self-Care and Why Is It Important?

Some people think self-care means taking a day off, going shopping, getting a mani-pedi, eating chocolate, or watching Netflix while drinking wine. These are self-care techniques, to be sure, but they are not long lasting because true self-care must include nourishing our body, mind, and emotions while getting rid of negative habits. Self-care has been defined as a multidimensional, multifaceted process of purposeful engagement in strategies that promote healthy functioning and enhance well-being. It is the conscious act(s) a person takes to promote their own physical, mental, and emotional health. As Lizzo says, “Self-care has to be rooted in self-preservation, not just mimosas and spa days.”

Self-care is a lifelong practice and a critical aspect of our everyday life. It encourages us to maintain a healthy relationship with ourselves and others. When we are replenished and happy, we can be compassionate with ourselves and others. Engaging in a self-care routine has been clinically proven to reduce anxiety, depression, stress, and improve concentration, minimize frustration and anger, increase happiness, improve energy, and more. It is vital for building resilience toward those stressors in life that cannot be eliminated. Even small acts of self-care on a regular basis can have a big impact.

 

Why Self-Care Is Particularly Important for BIPOC Legal Professionals

Historically, survival (accessing food, shelter, and protection) was often the priority for people of color, leaving little room for conventional self-care. The COVID-19 pandemic brought social and racial injustice and inequity to the forefront of public health. It highlighted that health equity is still not a reality as COVID-19 disproportionately impacts communities of color. Racism, either structural or interpersonal, negatively affects the mental and physical health of millions of people, preventing them from attaining their highest level of health, and consequently, affecting the health of the nation. A growing body of research shows that centuries of racism in the United States has had a profound and negative impact on communities of color.

“There are thousands of thought-provoking pieces on the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter Movement, unemployment, civil unrest, police brutality, and the economy. Meanwhile, we are still here. Some of us barely holding on and feeling so much grief. I am a Black woman in deep pain. I’m watching the ongoing violence against my community and knowing that we are also dying at higher rates from this virus. What can we do about promoting our own healing? Holding space for all this discourse and our own mental health may feel unbearable,” says Kelechi Ubozoh, a mental health consultant, advocate, writer, and published author.

Ubozoh goes on to say, “What is happening right now is collective trauma underscored by generational trauma. Every time I see photos, videos, and images of Black folks being murdered that is a micro-trauma. I have to utilize healing-centered practices and coping skills to survive. We all process and cope in different ways. For me, when I say I’m actively engaging in self-care, that doesn’t mean a bubble bath. I’m a Black woman living in America trying to navigate ‘the system’ with my own historical trauma and survivorship (suicide, sexual violence). Self-care for me is a full-time job.

Law students and associates of color often face additional stress that can pile on top of their coursework and other law school activities or on top of their billable hour requirements and other professional obligations. Not only are they dealing with world news and the political landscape — reading the news can be traumatizing or re-traumatizing on a day-to-day basis — they are also most likely experiencing macroaggressions and microaggressions throughout their days. 

 While the diversity of law school faculty has been increasing over the past four decades, it still lags behind the racial/ethnic diversity among students. As a result, students of color often are left to fend for themselves, and fight for their own rights. This labor is usually invisible — it doesn’t get reflected in class grades or on resumes — and can take a huge emotional toll on students. A vivid example of this is the letter written by Georgetown University’s Black Law Students Association to the administration calling for a professor to be terminated based on a recording of the professor’s comments which showed not only her “true beliefs about Black students,” the association wrote, but also illustrated “…the conscious and unconscious bias systematically present in law school grading at Georgetown Law and in law school classrooms nationwide.” 

The work — actual and emotional — to write the letter took time and energy away from these students’ regular coursework. “When we fight for justice, we find ourselves in spaces that negate our realities, and we frequently face hostility from others as we challenge the status quo,” wrote authors of The Psychology of Radical Healing Collective, Grace A. Chen, Helen A. Neville, Jioni A. Lewis, Hector Y. Adames, Nayeli Y. Chavez-Dueñas, Della V. Mosley, & Bryana H. French. This work can result in what can be identified as “race-related stress,” referring to the psychological distress associated with experiences of racism. 

 Self-care is not a luxury, it’s a necessity, especially for BIPOC individuals. Self-care is an individual responsibility; however, systems (i.e., law schools and law firms) must put mechanisms in place and provide necessary resources to allow this to happen.


How Do We Support BIPOC Students and Associates? 

First, we can offer resources and toolkits for students and associates such as 44 Mental Health Resources for Black People Trying to Survive in This Country, which includes recommendations for therapists, as well as suggestions for people, brands, collectives, and organizations to follow on social media. We can also make students and associates aware of resources that are located on campus and/or through the workplace, as well as resources available through Lawyer Assistance Programs.

Second, we can give guidance on how students and associates can find supportive and nurturing work environments. Career Development Offices can include in their materials advice on strategic interview questions that get to the heart of a law firm’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.  For example, an interview guidance handout can offer questions such as, “What efforts — including mentoring — has the firm taken to support and promote diverse lawyers?” and, “What steps does the firm take to ensure that case teams are diverse?”

Third, it is important to role model self-care. When we take steps to care for our mind, body, and emotions, we are better equipped to support our students and colleagues, and role model how to thrive in this profession. “Practicing self-care and self-compassion can help grow our mental resilience, which can have a big impact on our quality of life, relationships with others, and how much energy we have to give to the world,” according to We R Native, a comprehensive health resource for Native Youth, by Native Youth, that strives to promote holistic health and positive growth in their local communities and nation at large. Unfortunately, many of us view self-care as a luxury, rather than a priority. Consequently, we may be left feeling overwhelmed, tired, and ill-equipped to handle life’s inevitable challenges. “I always try to remember that I’ll be the best me I can be if I prioritize myself,” says Michelle Obama. 

 

What Can Self-Care Look Like?

Because we all have different preferences, self-care looks different for each of us. Here are a few ideas to help you get started with self-care:

  • Feel. Remember that your feelings are valid and it’s important to take time to acknowledge them. Anger, sadness, fear…
  • Stay connected. It is important to seek support and comfort from others that we can trust. Connect with the people, or even the activities, that bring you joy or energy. Listen to music that feeds the soul, watch shows, and/or read books that energize rather than drain you.
  • Get regular exercise. Aim for about 30 minutes of physical activity most days of the week. You can break it up into short chunks of time during the day. For example, taking the steps instead of using the elevator if able to do so, parking farther away from a destination, or taking short activity breaks during the day are easy ways to add movement into your days. Not only will it reduce your stress level and boost your mood, but it will improve your health.
  • Make sleep a priority. Stick to a schedule and get enough sleep. Blue light from devices and screens can make it harder to fall asleep, so reduce blue light exposure from phones or computers before bedtime.
  • Set goals and priorities. Decide what must get done now and what can wait. Learn to say “no” to new tasks if there’s too much already happening. Delegate and be willing to ask for help. Try to be mindful of what’s been accomplished at the end of the day, not what didn’t get done. Gretchen Rubin, co-host of the podcast Happier with Gretchen Rubin and author of several books on happiness and habit formation, notes the benefits of a “ta-da” list — many people get very fired up by making a ta-da list. By reminding themselves of everything they’ve already accomplished, they find the drive to continue.”

 

How to Systematize Self-Care

Self-care is a concept that is often referenced by leaders of law firms and law schools — but it can ring hollow unless it is woven into the systems of the workplace in a proactive and thoughtful manner. It is vital for leaders to incorporate wellness into their daily systems, especially now, as the world continues to navigate a global pandemic, the United States continues to grapple with its painful past of slavery and genocide, and as the backlash to the Black Lives Matter movement and critical identity theory grows.

Work shouldn’t drain us. This notion that we should only allow ourselves to rest and recharge on our days off is steeped in puritanical, white supremist, and capitalist ways of commodifying our time and work capacities. Over time, this approach to work is unsustainable, particularly for people of color who often experience daily microaggressions and macroaggressions that contribute to burnout and mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion.

Audre Lorde, self-described Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, and poet, wrote about the necessity of self-care in her 1988 essay collection, A Burst of Light: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” The concept of self-care has morphed into something that is individual-focused and only available to people who can afford it. But we desperately need to inculcate the concept of self-care into our workspaces as an act of upholding our entire community’s health and well-being.

What does it look like to create a space that supports inclusive self-care? It looks like actively encouraging humanness, playfulness, and rest throughout the workday. 

Here are some ideas: 

  • Hybrid Schedules. Creating an environment where it is expected that individuals will flex their time, and where hybrid work-from-home schedules are not only tolerated but encouraged, can go a long way toward creating a humane and respectful workplace, one that allows us all to remain human and have balance throughout the day. Hybrid schedules treat workers as adults and professionals, demonstrating that employers respect employees’ judgment as well as time.

  • Department Events. Have different departments host events throughout the year: potlucks, (trauma-informed) meditation sessions, pop-up makerspaces. Avoid allowing the administrative burden for such events to fall disproportionately on people who fit into stereotypical “caregiver” roles, such as women or “lower-level” staff members.

  • Self-determined Wellness Initiatives. Create accessible wellness initiatives that cut across equity barriers. Wellness initiatives can often reflect the same inequities that exist in the rest of our profession, so it is important to be mindful in creating them. Traditional wellness initiatives that focus on physical well-being, for example, can often overlook the basic inequities that are in our abilities to access quality healthcare, healthy food, clean water, time free of caregiving, and can also exclude individuals with different physical abilities. A wellness initiative that encourages individuals to set their own health goals, and that incorporates other aspects of well-being such as stress reduction, will go a long way in making such programs inclusive.

  • Boundaries! We can all work against normalizing the too-often unspoken expectation that we are all available to answer our work email 24/7. If you are working in the evening, schedule your emails to arrive in your colleague’s inbox the next morning. Delay delivery is magic!
  • Unplug Time. Recently, two law firms instituted “Unplug” programs that provide bonus-eligible billable credit hours to recharge. Let’s hope this is the beginning of a trend around prioritizing mental health and wellness in our profession.

 

Self-care is a crucial component of our anti-racism work. Taking care of ourselves — physically, mentally, and emotionally — is how we can keep making noise and working to dismantle white supremacy and racism in the legal profession. No matter the lane we choose, it’s not easy work. Caring for ourselves, each other, and ensuring that BIPOC law students and attorneys have the tools they need to care for themselves, is necessary to ensure the longevity of this fight.

 

Resources

National Institute of Mental Health, “Caring for Your Mental Health.”

CDC, “Health Equity Considerations and Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups,” Nov. 30, 2021.

Kelechi Ubozoh, “Reimagining Self-Care for Black Folks,” June 4, 2020.

Harvard University, “Anti-Racism Resources.”

America & Moore, “21-Day Challenge: #MooreSelfCare,” 2020.

Kathleen Newman-Bremang, “Reclaiming Audre Lorde’s Radical Self Care,” Unbothered, May 28, 2021.

Grace A. Chen, Helen A. Neville, Jioni A. Lewis, Hector Y. Adames, Nayeli Y. Chavez-Dueñas, Della V. Mosley, & Bryana H. French, “The Psychology of Radical Healing Collective,” Psychology Today, Nov. 15, 2019.

Robert Kuehn, “Shifting Law School Faculty Demographics,” Jan. 5, 2022.

National Museum of African American History & Culture, “Self-Care: When we listen to our bodies, hearts, and minds, and consider input from trusted friends, we can find resiliency and renew our lives and work.

 

This article series was submitted on behalf of the NALP Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Section.

 

Alison Ashe-Card is the Associate Director, Diversity & Inclusion in the Office of Career and Professional Development at Wake Forest University School of Law.

Molly Stafford is the Assistant Dean of Career Development & External Relations at the University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law.

Nicole Netkin-Collins is the Director for Law Firms at the University of Colorado Law School.


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