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Rosa Rebellion Creates Space for Rest in Exhausting Fight for Racial Justice

The “Rebel + Rest” initiative focuses on mental and emotional wellbeing for women of color

Virginia Cumberbatch and Meagan Harding are the co-founders of Rosa Rebellion, a platform for creative activism by and for women of color. For our Wellness and Community issue, they explore the need for community wellness to include racial justice, addressing the oftentimes invisible labor of people of color, who bear the taxing burden of dismantling the very systems that have worked to oppress them. They call all of Austin into the work of racial justice through intentional and sacrificial labor.As Black women committed to racial and social justice, it has become increasingly evident that such reconciliation requires not just the disruption of systems and shifting of policies, but accountability and action by our full community. This includes self-proclaimed liberal white America, especially those who allow their privilege and denial to shield them from the history and current reality of racial injustice. The flashing of headlines across our screens is not 24-hour-news-cycle fodder; instead, it captures the pain and trauma our community has endured since the founding of our country and our city. From voting disenfranchisement and the caging of immigrants to the gentrification of East Austin neighborhoods and the policing of Black and Brown bodies in white spaces, these marks of inequity bear real consequences on the minds and bodies of people of color and the collective psyche of our beloved Austin. The resulting racial trauma isn’t just an indictment on failed political processes or systemic inequities, but our failure to care for our full community well-being.

Cumberbatch and Harding have both received numerous awards and recognition for their work in dismantling systemic racism, including the 2018 Austin 40 Under 40 Award for Civics, Government and Public Affairs (Cumberbatch) and the 2018 Outstanding New Director of the Year for the Texas Young Lawyers Association (Harding).

In 2018, we launched Rosa Rebellion, envisioning a space to amplify the voices of women of color and elevate their work of disruption. We hoped to support women of color disrupting unjust systems and designing equitable futures, but we’ve also had to endure the realities of doing this work and the stress and anxieties that can come with it. So we decided to imagine “REBEL + REST” as our first project, born from our individual lived experiences of navigating the cultural exhaustion of Austin. Working within systems that were not built for us and, as evidenced by the past several centuries, did not easily bend for us, we continually confront the dual task of enduring both the trauma of inequities and the charge of dismantling and disrupting those same policies, practices and organizational paradigms—oftentimes at the expense of our mental wellness.

Every day we suffer small and large indignities through microaggressions, overt racist acts, discriminatory practices at work and constant attacks on our humanity. Worse, we are often expected to suffer these slights not just stoically but joyously; told to mask our frustration, we are restricted from sharing the full range of human emotions.

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These infuriating shared experiences are not only frustrating but exhausting: an exhaustion that manifests from headaches to insomnia and takes a visceral toll on our bodies. We often cite the premature death of Erica Garner, who after years of advocating for police reform following the murder of her father at the hands of police died of a heart attack at age 27. Her death is an example of the impact of racial oppression on the body, but the truth is there are many Erica Garners in Central Texas. They are in your place of work and your neighborhood, enduring both everyday microaggressions and the weight of seeing bodies that look like theirs brutalized and viralized on the news, while simultaneously navigating the agony of community apathy and inaction.

Black people and people of color are the bearers of systemic oppression and too often the disruptors of it also. Our REBEL + REST retreats are a place to talk about the particularized impact of racialized trauma. According to Danielle Locklear and Davia Roberts, two amazing counselors who have led our sessions, racialized trauma sends our bodies into fight-or-flight mode; they increase fatigue, cause us to feel utterly depleted and can even show up in our genes.

Before the pandemic, Cumberbatch and Harding led a Rosa Rebellion workshop in partnership with lululemon. Inviting attendees to resist, recharge and restore, the collaborative event recognized that the work of resistance, justice and equity is “worth the extra sweat.”

As friends and co-founders, we are committed to holding each other accountable for rest, weaving that value into the fabric of Rosa Rebellion. In the busyness of life and constant fight for equity, rest can get lost in the noise and is often devalued. In the aftermath of 2020, which illuminated a racial reckoning, we once again struggled at Rosa Rebellion to understand how to maintain our work of resistance and liberation while also protecting our own peace and caring for the minds and spirits of the melanated women we’ve invited into community.

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Through our virtual retreats, we committed to living out our callings from a place of wholeness, not deficit. We refuse to believe that our fight for equity must cost us our health and our joy. Indeed, one of the most remarkable attributes of people of color in this beloved community—and in this country—is our ability to create and sustain joy even in the midst of daunting and evolving obstacles. We also know, however, that deep soul rejuvenation requires intentional cultivation.

*The 1928 Austin City Council resolution is the oldest on the city’s website discussing a comprehensive plan. The resolution most infamously institutionalized racial segregation, recommending a strategy to move “the negro population” east of East Avenue, where I-35 is today. Its consequences are still felt today, disproportionately impacting education, health access, housing and resources east of I-35, largely populated by Black and Latinx people.

Beyond the need for individual rest, the work of racial justice can’t be done in isolation: America’s true racial reckoning demands the visible investment and collective work of those who have benefited from such social inequity, moving beyond passive allyship into active co-agitation. In Austin, this includes a commitment to unburden and co-labor with people of color, acknowledging and repairing the damage of the *1928 plan. The passive practice of displaying yard signs denoting the pains of racism cannot replace an active posture of exposing and disrupting racial inequity in our neighborhoods, boardrooms and Capitol. This work demands a willingness to endure discomfort and relational casualties and use your privilege to bring equity.

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As we reflect on 2020, let us remember that as we battled a pandemic (killing Black and Brown people at a much higher rate than white people), amid an economic crisis and educational uncertainty, the pain and trauma of being unsafe in a Black and Brown body remained. Our collective wellness rests on our shared commitment to disrupt this reality.

During one of our prep calls for Rosa Rebellion’s new podcast, GenActivist (launching this month), Dr. Sylvia Rousseau (whom we affectionately call G-mom and who serves as our co-host) posed this question: Where do you see yourself on the map of human geography?

A bold, perhaps overwhelming question, but one befitting the moment in which we find ourselves here in Austin and across the country. Our individual rest, collective wellness and communal healing relies on each of you answering this question and doing the work. And so we ask Austin today: How will we proceed to not just live up to our intentions of a liberal city, but embody an ethos of intentional impact and agitation? If the consequence of complacency is the exhaustion and depletion of the people of color who give so much to this city, what would it look like if we all pursued daily practices that transform the future of being Black and Brown in Austin? How will you unburden others in the labor of racial justice? How will we create rest in the midst of our ongoing resistance, and what will your investment in the wholeness, well-being and resilience of our community look like this year?

How will you protect our peace?

Read More From the Community + Wellness Issue | February 2021