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Our ancestors did not dream about us burning out | Rebecca Amoah

Thursday, December 16, 2021 @ 8:25 AM | By Rebecca Amoah

Rebecca Amoah %>
Rebecca Amoah

I am a descendent of the Underground Railroad. My ancestors were captured by enslavers and made to labour on American plantations. Our collective existence was sustained by their unknown courage. Many died chasing and reclaiming their freedom.

My father immigrated to Canada from Ghana, West Africa. He and my mother are entrepreneurs with little formal education. Growing up, I did not know poverty but I knew that our family's financial survival depended on what my parents earned selling the products they handcrafted at markets and trade shows. I worked to support my family business from the time I was 9.

Hard work and collectivism are inseparable from my Black African identity.

Although my parents did not demand high achievement and success, I wanted to improve my family’s and my community’s circumstances. When I started law school, I intended to practise human rights or immigration and refugee law. As my interests developed, I became a litigator.

Three months prior to beginning my articling term, the world watched George Floyd’s lynching by police while isolated at home as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to devastate Black communities. I mourned Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks and Regis Korchinski-Paquet as though I had known them.

My pain evolved into an overwhelming sense of responsibility towards my people. I was overcome with the need to be present. I began marching at actions and contacting MPs and MPPs between video calls, volunteering with multiple Black community and racial justice organizations on my lunch hour and mentoring more Black students than I had capacity to mentor as my inbox brimmed over with e-mails. I proposed workplace anti-Black racism initiatives while awaiting comments on drafts and had conversations with friends, family and colleagues about police brutality and prison abolition at social events. I was inundated with an inability to be anywhere doing anything other than working or advancing Black liberation.

I was convinced that I had no right to be healthy, have wealth, or have life when my people were being systematically terrorized, brutalized and killed by state actors. I had no excuse not to be present when movement leaders and elders had given their time, and not uncommonly, their lives, to this fight. The exhaustion, uncertainty and anxiety that I managed as a student articling during a pandemic seemed practically meaningless by comparison. 

I sacrificed sleep, my physical and mental health, quality time with loved ones and enjoyment to dedicate whatever time I physically could to my people. I resolved that no one understood why I felt like I had no choice. No one could understand why I felt like no one, and particularly those who did not share my lived experience, could share this burden. I did not talk about my declining productivity, performance or overall wellness at work. I did not request or accept help. I continued to take on both professional and community work, without exception. 

I soldiered on. This was a fight, after all. And anti-Black racism was winning.

Until one day, I became physically ill due to the combined toll that articling and community work had taken on my body. In my recovery, I was without choice. Rest was my only option. I was made to consider what rest would mean for my community. What my absence from an action or inability to contribute to a campaign would mean for my people’s freedom. I began to realize that my contribution was but one contribution. This was a collective struggle that would nonetheless continue. What I had to give at any given moment was enough.

I say this because you, like me, may deal with guilt or shame associated with practising outside the public interest space. You may try to compensate for your time spent working as a lawyer by doing more community work than you can. These feelings are real. But give yourself permission to choose the career path that makes you feel most whole. One where you can exist authentically, honour your politics, challenge the status quo, and do meaningful community work when your capacity allows. This will lead to improved productivity, performance and wellness.

The Harvard Business Review notes that the emotional labour some Black employees assume as educators and change agents within the workplace compounds “racial battle fatigue” caused by ongoing racial violence. Black employees tend to be tasked with solving the racial inequities and disparities that contribute to our marginalization. You do not need to shoulder these burdens over and above your workload. Say no when you need and want to, seek and accept help from within and outside your community, draw boundaries and take rest.

I understand why you, like me, may feel like you have a singular responsibility to use your legal training to advance your community’s liberation at all nonworking hours. You may struggle with viewing hard work and rest as compatible. I understand. Racial injustice, generally, and anti-Black racism, specifically, must be eradicated. I share the urgency and desperation. But you do not have to and cannot be everywhere doing everything at all times. You will burn out. And we cannot get to freedom together without you. 

A longtime friend and comrade of mine once told me that our ancestors did not dream about us burning out. They wanted us to be aflame with purpose, joy, choice and life. Protect your fire.

Rebecca Amoah is a litigation associate at Torys LLP in Toronto. Her approach to resolving disputes is rooted in equity and inclusion, and she incorporates marginalized perspectives into developing effective strategies for clients.

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