Healer Oliver Sanders discusses the ups and downs of being a Healer and carrying out social justice work in his community while dealing with mental issues. Learn about his journey, as well as what the Healers are doing to combat burnout in youth organizing.
A new year can mean new beginnings for some. For others, it can also mean another year survived and conquered.
The Healers as a whole went above and beyond what I thought possible in just a years’ time. It honestly feels like we’ve been around longer than just a year. We put on a few visioning workshops, where we asked for suggestions from local communities of what can we do better in the future so that our youth don't have to suffer. We hosted our own conference and even made appearances at a few others.
This post is about my first year as a Healer and what that experience has been like for me because I have grown a lot in the past year and experienced a lot of new things, and sometimes it’s hard to remember accomplishments while surviving.
It does feel weird to talk about only my experience but the more I sit and think about it, the more I realize how important it is that I share my experience as a Healer because I went through a lot in 2018 that ultimately helped shape me and push me towards being a better community organizer and advocate and an overall human being.
January 10th, 2018 marked the beginning of the Youth Healers Stand Up!, and it was around February that I was recruited to the organization. I had only a vague idea of what this organization was going to look like being that I am a slow learner (which is not a bad thing!!) and also for the fact that it was really just starting. Other members could probably agree that while we understood that our main goal is to end youth homelessness in Philadelphia, there wasn't a clear idea of what else we were going to do or how we would get there, because we still had to learn and figure out how to achieve our goals.
Homelessness is an issue that isn't solved overnight. We, the young people of the Healers, had full control over what we were going to do as an organization, but it was a matter of where to begin.
If I remember correctly, my first time participating in a Healers event was the Youth Visioning session at the Icebox Project Space in a rapidly gentrifying section of North Philly. This was a workshop put on by the Healers in partnership with Rasheedah Phillips of Community Futures Lab to try to talk to young people who have experienced homelessness or housing insecurity and envision what a world without youth homelessness looks like. We all worked together to try and come up with ideas of how to get there and what sort of systems would be in place to prevent young people from experiencing homelessness.
I definitely remember how anxious I was. I learn differently than most folks, and I learn best by watching and doing. Unless I get the opportunity to actually do the thing myself while or after watching it be done, I'll have very little idea of what is expected of me.
That being said, I went into the visioning session very scared. My anxiety has been known to grab a hold of me and keep me from going to things that I would really love to go to. It was a huge accomplishment for me to even show up.
And I did a lot that day! I helped with set up and take down, and I made sure that all participants (over 100 youth from the community!) got a slice of pizza when it was time for that. I also helped present our values to a group of over 100 youth and helped manage them as well. We didn’t expect that many young people to show up, so while it was overwhelming, it was also really rewarding.
I feel like I did a good job with what I actually did do! It was a really overwhelming experience for myself, especially being that was the first time I had done anything like that, but I still made it through to the end and for that I have to give myself a pat on the back.
The visioning session was a success and we got a lot of our main goals for our 2018 platform from that particular session. There were a lot of bright, young minds at that session and I can't thank them enough for being there and being willing to share their ideas with us. I hope they were able to realize that their words have power and with that power, they can do great, incredible things.
Something I realized from the first Visioning Session for myself, is that I prefer to do this community organizing work from a behind-the-scenes style. I am much more comfortable writing up blog posts about current issues or handling some parts of the social media/photography aspect of the work that we do, though I haven't done as much of that as I wanted.
That brings me to the next thing I want to discuss.
I don't remember much else I did after the visioning session because I was slowly but surely falling into a dark depression. As someone who has struggled with depression and mental health issues from a very young age, this wasn't anything new to me, but it was still painful and draining to say the least.
In just a few short weeks, my personal life was flipped upside down with my best friend/roommate moving out with giving me only a week’s notice, leaving me at risk for being homeless again. In addition to that, I lost my job due to medical reasons and them not being able to reasonably accommodate me, which made my fear of losing my housing even worse. And to top it all off, I had decided to end my relationship with my first serious partner after almost 2 1/2 years, so it really seemed like the weight of the world was at my shoulders.
I am very fortunate to have not lost my housing, and also it helps that my friend has moved back in since then, but because of the darkness that had consumed me, I found myself struggling to find the balance between self-care and community organizing.
I thought that if I got involved with the Healers and did more events with them, it would somehow "heal" me, and I wouldn't be depressed anymore. The reality is far from that. When I forced myself to try to go to events, I would feel bad.
If I committed to something and wasn't able to show up, I would still feel bad. I kept committing to things knowing that I wasn't in the right mental space to be doing this type of work.
Community organizing is draining and takes a toll on folks mentally, and sometimes it can bring up old traumas that we aren’t equipped to handle yet.
It's easier for me to say now because my mental health has gotten a lot better since then, but I definitely recognize and understand the importance of being able to step back and say "I've had enough for now. I need to take a break for my own mental health."
I was raised in thinking that mental health issues aren't valid because "they're in your head." Well... yes. That's why they're called mental health issues!! These illnesses occur in our brains, which is an organ very capable of getting sick like the rest of our organs.
If taking care of a broken bone involves lots of rest and self-care, why is it seen as shameful that mental health issues require similar care?
I'm definitely not saying that depression is cured by a nap and an ice pack or something of the sorts but taking care of one’s mental health should be seen as normal just like tending to a broken bone would be. I shamed myself for wanting to stay home and not do anything, when in reality, that's part of what I needed.
I got to a really low point last year. Lower than I have been in a while.
But I still survived. And I've grown from it. I've learned that it's okay to take space for yourself if your mental health is asking you to do so. I've learned that forcing myself to do things that I think might make me happy, can actually do more harm than good if I'm not in the right mindset. I can't focus on what young people are saying to me, telling me what we can do better in the future, if all I'm focused on is how awful I feel and all those intrusive thoughts telling me I'm not good enough.
I can't heal the world if I don't take the time to heal myself.
I started getting better towards the last few weeks of last year and have slowly began connecting with the Healers again. I'm almost constantly wondering what can we do for our cause? What's the next step we can take?
While I type this out, I'm working on another post for the Healers blog talking about what shelters can do better to protect trans and LGB folks, so stay tuned for that.
Doing this stuff is definitely a lot easier for me now that my mental health is at a much more manageable state. I'm glad I was able to take a step back and take care of myself, and I feel very lucky to have been able to access therapy that works well for me.
If folks are reading this and wanting to go into this type of work and advocacy, please remember to take care of yourself and just know that it's okay to take a break if you need to.
Organizing and advocacy work is mentally draining and so we are working on a model for a support group that we can utilize to better support each other in these processes, and then eventually present to our organizing community so that more people can use our model and help take care of each other.
I would like to end this by inviting fellow youth organizers to follow our work in developing a peer support group for young organizers called the SOUP, Supporting Our Unified Power. Stay connected so that we can share this resource with you this coming summer!
Follow the Healers and their work in promoting peer-to-peer support both in youth organizing and youth services by signing up for our newsletter. Email youthhealersstandup at gmail dot org to stay connected!