If you’ve spent any time on planet Earth in the past five years, chances are that someone has recommended that you “Take some time for self-care.” Maybe a friend has encouraged you to enjoy a “Treat yo’ self” kind of day. Maybe they’ve told you to make yourself a bubble bath or get a gel manicure or download a that can teach you how to breathe better.
At the heart of all this advice is the same operational principle: If you want to feel better, you need to do the labor yourself, for yourself.
That’s why some experts, like , a Toronto-based community organizer and researcher who specializes in building cross-cultural bridges, ask that people consider practicing another form of compassion: community care.
Valerio recently went viral for that included a quote of hers emphasizing the difference between self-care and community care. For Valerio, the difference between the two forms of empathy is night and day.
Shouting “self-care” at people who actually need “community care” is how we fail people. – Nakita Valerio
— Stephanie Tait (@StephTaitWrites) March 31, 2019
Unlike self-care, does not place the onus of compassion on a single individual. In a phone interview with Mashable, Valerio defined community care as “People committed to leveraging their privilege to be there for one another in various ways.”
Yet this form of care isn’t entirely selfless, at least not in the long run.
“They (the care providers) know that when they will also need care in the future, others will be there for them,” Valerio says.
Community care involves more than one person. It can include two, three, or possibly hundreds of people. You can practice community care in your personal offline life or even in digital spaces.
It’s so much bigger and so much more important than a manicure.
What’s community care, anyway?
The term community care is known in social movements and but has yet to move into mainstream culture. The concept shouldn’t be that hard to translate: Community care is basically any care provided by a single individual to benefit other people in their life. This can take the form of protests, for which community care is best known, but also simple, interpersonal acts of compassion.
We need to stop pretending that concepts such as call outs, cancellations, self-care, and energy protection aren’t often individualistic, self-serving, and capitalistic notions veiled in so-called ‘woke’ language.
— Ari C. (@lit_ari_ture) November 26, 2017
“Community care can look like a lot of different things,” Valerio says. “It can be as simple as reaching out to somebody over text when you just need someone to talk. It can be someone grabbing groceries for you or … somebody coming and doing your dishes and watching your kids while you’re grieving.”
Valerio compares community care to an extended family, where members are intimately connected to one other and routinely perform acts of compassion on behalf of one another.
“It’s more than going to someone’s art opening. It’s about being committed to being there for people,” Valerio says. “It’s about being there for people without them having to take the initial first step. It’s about adopting an ethos of compassion and very intentionally applying that.”
While sustained, interpersonal acts of kindness are a critical part of community care, there are also more structured versions. They can take a number of forms: neighborhood groups, communal homes, support groups, and community-based nonprofits.
My self care is organizing. It doesn’t give me rest, but it gives me purpose. It doesn’t give me peace, but it gives me a way to create justice. It doesn’t let me look away, but it gives me the chance to fight.
— Jess Morales Rocketto (@JessLivMo) May 15, 2019
Patricia Omidian, for example, is an anthropologist and founding director of , which provides community wellness services to communities all around the world. Omidian’s practice is grounded in community care principles. For Omidian, community care is an especially powerful form of care in marginalized communities that are more collectivist than individualist. In certain communities in Afghanistan, for example, Omidian found that she had to work with groups, not individuals, to reduce levels of domestic violence.
When dealing with violence against women committed by other women in Afghanistan, Omidian says she needed to “really work at the family level” to change levels of domestic violence.
Valerio has had similar experiences. She references a Muslim-Jewish community collective she’s built that, among other things, helps individuals escape from abusive homes. Many of the women who are in Valerio’s group have survived violence themselves.
“We have gotten women out of their houses and into safe housing,” Valerio explains. “We will literally go, like, a team of six women. Pack their stuff. Get them out. We all do things for each other, too … We’re a group that’s done a lot of great work just because we set the intention to come together regularly.”
Valerio discovered the power of community care when she was struggling with postpartum depression. She turned to not just one, but a community of doulas who specialized in postpartum issues, to help her deal with her trauma. In the midst of her crisis, Valerio recognized that self-care just wasn’t enough to do the real work of healing. Self-care was just a Band-Aid for a much bigger problem. She needed others to survive.
Community care can improve people’s individual well-being
Valerio’s feelings are highly understandable. Brian Wahl, PhD, is an assistant scientist with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who strongly believes in a community-based system of care and support systems like Valerio’s. For Wahl, minimizing social isolation and turning to a community for support is a critical ingredient in mental health.
“We would never ask anybody to deal with other health issues on their own,” Wahl told Mashable in a phone interview. “Let’s say you’ve got a terrible case of pneumonia. There are systems and structures set up to help with these things. Mental health should be no different.”
Wahl believes that to maximize wellness, people should receive community care from both their government and their friend networks. But not everyone is lucky enough to enjoy the strong circle of friends Wahl believes is essential to health.
“People have been surveyed every several years about how many close friends they have,” Wahl says. “Increasingly it’s gone down and down. Now, is less than one. Most people have zero very close friends. That’s terrifying. Could you imagine not having any close friends who you could feel like you could call up and talk to?”
Wahl is careful not to blame individuals themselves for their isolation. Shrinking social networks are a cultural problem. Building friendships takes emotional and sometimes financial resources, resources that many people simply can’t afford to spare.
Still, Wahl hopes that people make the effort to develop meaningful friendship networks, who can provide community care down the road. Wahl’s claim is backed by showing that having friends improves well-being and longevity.
“If you have the means and have the time, finding those communities is something you should prioritize,” Wahl says.
Unfortunately, Wahl argues, plenty of people don’t have the means and the time.
That’s part of the reason so many people rely on self-care — and part of the problem.
Self-care alone can’t solve systemic issues. For that, you need community care.
Self-care is primarily an act of compassion directed towards oneself. And while that sounds nice on paper, Valerio struggles with the actual practice of it. Valerio is a Muslim woman. In her experience, self-care can’t fully heal or protect her community and herself.
“Self-care does not address the systemic issue that people who face compounded discrimination have to deal with,” Valerio says. “I might be getting a pedicure but it’s not going to stop someone from coming up to me and asking me why I’m wearing a hijab. I’m Muslim. We [Muslim women] can’t just leave our identity at home when we go and get our pedicures.”
Valerio is careful to note that community care also isn’t enough to solve structural oppression on its own and that not all forms of self-care are vacuous. Self-care can’t do much to lessen systemic inequality (“Somebody’s bills aren’t going to be paid because they swept the floor,” Valerio says) but it can help improve mood. Community care isn’t exactly going to create a socialist utopia overnight either.
While he’s a strong proponent of community care like Valerio, Wahl also doesn’t want to totally devalue self-care. There are some forms of self-care, like taking a , that are proven to help improve one’s mood.
“ is one of these underlying causes of depression,” Wahl says. “So a lot this depends on what kind of self-care you’re talking about. The kind of self-care people have advocated for me has not been inspiring.”
Omidian, while similarly concerned about self-care, also believes that community care isn’t possible without it.
“It’s hard for me to say that community care is separate from self-care,” Omidian says. “I work really hard internationally with aid organizations to help get self-care to workers so they can do the humanitarian work [of community care].”
Still, Valerio believes community care is a better base than self-care for building a more equitable society and healthier people.
“Community care is a better stepping stone [to justice] than self-care,” Valerio says. “It addresses the fact that we’re naturally cooperative. We require validation from one another to psychologically persevere and be resilient. That’s where community care offers something different. We’re doing it together and trying to survive in a system that’s built against us.”
It’s a powerful system of care. And while most of the examples of community care seem to happen in offline places — on the front lines of a protest, at a shelter — there are plenty of examples of community care in the digital sphere as well.
Quality community care happens in digital spaces, too
It can be hard to imagine community care happening in digital spaces like Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, or even on messaging apps. For some folks, have become synonymous with trolling, harassment, and toxicity. Social media is with antisocial behaviors, fear, and loneliness –- quite the opposite of everything community care is supposed to be about.
Yet Valerio insists that community care happens in the digital sphere, and on a very deep level. Valerio personally experiences community care in WhatsApp, a messaging app that’s particularly adept at serving small communities. As an encrypted app, affords users the privacy needed to conduct community care while feeling safe. Valerio says she knows she can turn to her old WhatsApp group chats to find kindness and empathy in hard times.
“I have three or four different community groups on WhatsApp according to the facets of my identity and my needs,” Valerio says. “I have a Muslim mothers group. I have a political activism group. I have a super-safe psychological episode group … WhatsApp is one of the oldest things out there and yet it has some real benefits. In Facebook Messenger, voice notes are limited to one minute. The voice notes [in WhatsApp] are longer. You can send longer media and it’s encrypted … and everybody already has it,” she says. “Also, WhatsApp permits you to make long distance calls for free! Some of my community care people live in the United Kingdom or Egypt.”
While WhatsApp may not identify as a community care app, it certainly serves that function. There are many other digital apps and platforms that have the same purpose – and also lack the community care designation. There’s , an app that connects people to volunteer opportunities throughout the nonprofit world. is similar, but allows users to post photos of their volunteer experiences and connect with other volunteers. provides the same function while allowing users to invite their own friends out to volunteer. connects people who are blind or low-vision with volunteers and company employees who want to help guide them. Volunteers can connect with .
Meanwhile, I users to crowdfund community projects for their neighborhood. is a platform designed to help neighbors share goods with one another and keep materials out of landfills.
There are even fitness apps that provide community care functions. , for example, allows users to share their fitness results with their network of friends, or as GoTribe calls them, their “tribes.” Trainers on the app encourage users to in order to improve their health.
Even with apps that serve these functions, though, Valerio isn’t confident that community care as a movement or as an app genre will take off in the same way that self-care has.
Community care is harder to monetize. That doesn’t mean it can’t grow.
For one thing, companies can’t make money from community care the way they do in the self-care industrial complex represented by lifestyle brands like Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP. GOOP in the self-care and wellness market, selling trendy products like $190 aromatherapy . The is now worth an estimated $250 million.
But how do you monetize a friend who comes over to do your laundry for you when you’re too sick to get up? How do you capitalize on a volunteer experience? For Valerio, monetizing community care is antithetical to the practice’s core values.
“Community care is anti-capitalist,” Valerio says. “What you’re doing can’t be monetized and it’s often working outside the system … We still have these cultural myths about how we should be able to make it on our own, which is why self-care is popular. But in community care, the solution isn’t marketable.”
Even though community care can’t be monetized in the same way as self-care, that doesn’t mean it can’t become more popular. The more people learn about community care, the more likely it is to show up in everyday life, apps, and other places in the digital sphere.
Wahl believes that governments can play a real role in popularizing and institutionalizing community care, even in societies as individualistic as ours.
“A lot of health systems do not approach mental health in the same way they do infectious diseases,” Wahl says. “In the broadest sense, I believe the government can use [community care] for some of these health issues.”
Change is possible. It’s true that community care may not ever take up as much of the market as self-care, but that doesn’t make it any less important.
If you want to talk to someone or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. For international resources, this list is a good place to start.
Read more: https://mashable.com/article/community-care-versus-self-care/