The Myth of Good Work and Mental Health: A Reflection on Radical Love

By March 27, 2019 AmeriCorps*VISTA

by Heidi Affi, Northside Fresh Food Partnership Coordinator at Appetite for Change

For years my dad has advised me to keep my mental health unaffected by ‘politics.’ Despite his request, I often called him in a frenzy to talk about the most recent breaking news, an article I’d read, or most commonly, to vent general heartbreak about the world.

Something in my gut knew that my strong reactions went far deeper than the general term of ‘politics.’ Deep in the midst of supposedly trustworthy institutions, organizations, and people, I regularly felt alienated. I sensed harsh contradictions or tensions that left me in a profound angst for years, often inextricable with my overall mental (un)health. 

I worked at various organizations during and after college in an attempt to quell my restless pull towards fixing the world. Graduating school excited me with the opportunity to get to really dive into the abundance of Minnesota’s non-profit sector and do ‘good work.’ To my naive dismay, I witnessed and endured inter and intraracial violence, gender oppression, and sexual misconduct, including at organizations led by communities of color. My heart broke at the disappointment. It again became impossible to check my mental health at the door.

Less than a year after constructing a vision of my future as a fortified woman of color making radical change, my non-profit idealizations came crashing down. Angst settled back in with a vengeance and left me nearly paralyzed by how contrived any job seemed. Neverending existential questions dominated my life: how does one find truly beneficial and transformative work? Can even ‘good’ workplaces be immune to society’s ills? How can I take care of myself doing work that holds people’s livelihood and happiness at stake? How can I avoid the cycle of burnout but understand and fight the very real systemic mechanisms that cause it?

Though I’ve since landed the VISTA position of my dreams at Appetite for Change, softer versions of these questions are far from resolved. I don’t know if I’m closer to understanding the depth of transformative change that needs to be done at local, state, national, and global levels. But I am realizing the depth of radical reflection and love needed to change our work, the ways we work, and the effects they have on us. In the Audre Lorde- and Octavia Butler- inspired words of Adrienne Marie Brown, “We need to learn how to practice love such that care—for ourselves and others—is understood as political resistance and cultivating resilience.” Without supporting and creating our liberated selves and communities along the way, essentializing the ways we work as both the means and the end, our efforts will remain at devastatingly unrealized depth and effect.

Radical love isn’t loving ‘blindly’ so to speak. It calls us to be radically honest and radically healing, to learn how we change and create communities of care. To hold hands in support as we journey through our personal and collective traumas, as we pursue our most liberated imagination, and as we fortify our existence as resistance. 

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