By Yaromil Fong-Olivares
I left the Dominican Republic and moved to New York City at the age of 10. Ever since I can remember my impulse has always been to defend others; perhaps it was those impulses that led me to political activism in college.
While in High School and college I got involved in many social justice struggles but did not have a political analysis per se. My main drive was always ensuring fairness and fighting against my intuitive urge to eliminate injustice in my immediate surroundings; school, my community, and my family.
My true moment of transformation was my trip to Chiapas. A group of students and I went to Mexico during the Zapatista uprising in 1994, putting our bodies in the way of the military who would have harassed, arrested and even killed the protesters if it were not for the international supporters who were physically present. The experience made me realize both my privilege – and my power! The courage of all of us standing up to oppression did make a difference. When I got back to the U.S., I was ready to work as a community organizer for indigenous and immigrant rights, and against racism and sexism.
Since the age of 10 I had taken care of children as more than a big sister – almost a mother – it was natural to seek a mentoring role. I wanted to organize young people. In various non-profits, which were mostly about providing services, I followed that path. Fortunately, I had mentors myself as well; older women who helped me develop my skills and my analyses. Because I was a good writer, I got tapped as a fundraiser, and worked with many wealthy white individuals.
When I was 24, I decided to try to reconcile with my family. But when I saw my father, he went into a rage, attacked me and tried to kill me. My mother, in spite of all the abuse, still defended him and was also angry with me. All of this led to my going into a deep depression. Therapy helped me get to one level of healing, but I needed deeper work; therapy turned out to be a bridge to other kinds of healing methodologies.
I began yoga/spiritual practice, which took me to a level I had not imaged possible. For the first time in my life, I felt GREAT! I was happy, and incidents that had triggered intense emotional responses in me before no longer bothered me. Feeling so well myself made me want to help others get to the same place, and I decided to become a coach.
But to start my own business, I need to learn how to operate one, so I took at job as a trainer at a gym, which has been my first for-profit job. Yes, it’s a very corporate environment, but for the moment, it’s what I need to do. Physical movement arts and physical strength lead to mental strength and then to psychological and emotional strength, so being a trainer is aligned with my philosophy.
My preference is to work with women so they can stand in their power; in the work I do outside of the gym, I include nutrition, lifestyle, physical training, yoga, and spiritual practice. There is a way in which all women suffer in the same ways: we are brought down by poor body image and low self-esteem. Women of color have added issues and due to the continued presence of racial discrimination, we are at a career disadvantage compared to white women. But most of all, we are more likely to put ourselves last and to ignore self-care.
White women are more likely to feel entitled to self-care, such as going to the gym or to a spa. Women of color are less likely to spend time – and especially money – on ourselves. The cultures we come from see that as selfish. But times are changing, and more women of color are being brought to the understanding that we must take care of ourselves as well as of others.
How can we break ourselves out of the habit of putting ourselves last?
One practice is to make an appointment with yourself. It might be as little time as a once a week commitment to start with, and as small an activity as taking your time while eating a good healthy meal, doing a session of yoga, going for a swim, or meditating.
If you break your commitment, ask yourself what’s holding you back and be honest in your answer. It is that you feel you don’t deserve it? That you don’t have the support? That it’s out of your comfort zone?
Standing someone else up is not something we would do, and we must treat ourselves as just as important as others we make such commitments to. Once you begin to see some changes in your life, you realize it’s worth it, and a virtuous cycle has begun.
Going to the Standing in Our Power gathering last year and experiencing communal healing was wonderful, since I am still on a healing journey. It was special to get not just individual support, but support from a whole community of women who are my equals. As someone who “mothered” my younger sisters and other younger women, I am used to having to be the “rock,” and not to show my own vulnerability. Among my peers, I could let go of being in control, and to trust putting myself in other women’s hands. Even though I was asked to play a coaching role, I felt that I got as much as I gave.
Women are doing amazing work, and I want us to FEEL amazing too! We deserve to feel great in body and spirit. I feel that the community we began can explode into something enormous. As we help each other resolve the traumas we carry within us, there’s nothing we can’t accomplish. I’m so excited that women of color will lead by example for the next generation!