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Health, Science & Environment

For Black And Brown Activists, The Burden Of Leadership Adds To The Physical Toll Of Racism

2020 Protests Gason IM.jpg
Ivana Martinez / KUER
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KUER
Deja Gaston, a member of the Party of Socialism and Liberation, leads protesters down Salt Lake City streets to demand justice for Black lives on June, 9, 2020.

Last summer, thousands of people took to the streets in Utah to protest racial injustice. It was part of a national movement calling for police reform following the killings of George Floyd in Minnesota and Breonna Taylor in Louisville.

When the protests started in Salt Lake City at the end of May, 22-year-old activist Deja Gaston grabbed her megaphone and started organizing rallies and marches with the Utah chapter of the Party of Socialism and Liberation.

Prior to the summer, the University of Utah student was focused on helping people in her community with COVID-19 relief and protesting Salt Lake City’s clean up of homeless camps. Gaston said before she knew it, she was already doing the work.

2020 Protests Street IM.jpg
Ivana Martinez / KUER
Thousands of Utahns protested police violence and racial injustice across the state last summer. University of Utah prefessor of ethnic studies William Smith said activists of color experience double the trauma because they are not only living through racism, they are actively trying to confront it.

It kind of just clicks one day where you just start doing things and suddenly you're like, ‘OK, here we are. now I'm here.’ May happened and then it just took off from there,” Gaston said.

She protested week after week until one day when she said everything she was juggling — the COVID-19 pandemic, racial injustice and her own mental health struggles — became too much. She shut down.

“It had made me a lot more depressed than I’d realized ... than I probably should have been, because I wasn't necessarily taking the time to slow down,” Gaston said. “So I didn't have any of the self care [practices] in place.”

Rev. France Davis is a former pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in Salt Lake City and a civil rights leader. He shared a similar experience to Gaston. During the 1970s, Davis was at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement in Utah.

He faced several death threats and even needed police escorts, but he said the work was too important to stop.

“I just got up and went about doing what I knew needed to be done regardless of the cost of my person or the costs to others,” Davis said.

‘Racial Battle Fatigue’

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Kelsie Moore for KUER
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Deja Gaston led and went to protests for weeks last summer. She says all that work on top of the racial injustices she and others face had a negative impact on her health. Academics call it 'Racial Battle Fatigue.'

University of Utah ethnic studies professor William Smith calls that cost “racial battle fatigue.” He coined the term in 2003 when he started studying how racism affects the body.

Smith said activists of color experience double the trauma because they are not only living through racism, they are actively trying to confront it.

“When that trauma is repetitive throughout your life you don't get an opportunity to move away from the traumatic environment so you can get healthy,” Smith said.

He said people dealing with “racial battle fatigue” experience physical and mental health problems such as high blood pressure, anxiety, and depression.

Smith said the fatigue from facing and fighting injustice is a continuous stress injury, so healing must be treated as an ongoing process.

To address it, he said people must acknowledge the systems in place that reinforce racial trauma. He said people of color can use racial informed care to help and recognize how race affects ourselves and our community. Another suggestion is to have a strong support system.

When facing resistance, Davis advises young activists to remember the conviction they had when they started, and to keep the end goal in sight.

“The starting place for anything that you want to do is a conviction and a belief about who you are yourself and where you are as a person [are] trying to get,” Davis said.

Gaston took a two-week break before she returned to organizing. But even then, Gaston said she felt she shouldn’t take a break, not when so much was happening around her.

“It’s almost not something that you think you're deserving of or you're supposed to have, is this time for mental healing in the midst of continuously seeing trauma every single day,” she said.

She said just because the summer protests have ended doesn’t mean the work has. She now works with Salt Lake City teachers to raise awareness about racial injustice in the classroom.

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