It usually starts with a lack of sleep. Then I notice I'm only eating carbohydrates, and mostly things which require less than 10 minutes to prepare. I find myself waking in the middle of the night to check my Blackberry, or worse, getting up to read and respond to emails at 3AM. Somehow my email will have strangely tripled in volume, seemingly without my noticing. I'll become nervous, kinda mean in meetings, prone to daydreaming, and tingly when I think about the object of my affection and obsession. Usually about 5 weeks in I wake up, joyful but tired, and realize I've done it all over again: in love with a campaign, I'm inevitably sliding into burnout.
Burnout is a risk in any field but it's especially prevalent in the social justice movement. There are lots of theories for this. Some think it's because we give more than we're ever given back. Others argue it's the working conditions–long hours, a lack of institutional support for self-care, or the tendency for nonprofits to take on more than they can accomplish. I think it's deeper than all that. As activists and organizers our role is to study where our society has failed and then generate creative solutions to fix it. We are students of violence, oppression, and harm. What most people spend their time tuning out we actively work to tune in. This can get depressing, especially when our gains might feel too minimal, or our efforts too small. Often we don't have a space to process our feelings about this, or we feel guilty for having them. Soon physical ailments appear and the stress gets the best of us. We no longer feel inspired and our work becomes stale, unoriginal, and brittle. It's a common story.
Sometimes it becomes a little too common. In my work at Occupy Wall Street I've noticed many people experiencing burnout, and felt myself compromise my own well-being in ways which are unsustainable and unjust. Like many I experience what E.B. White described so well: "I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day." Balancing these two needs is the chief tension in my existence.
It has been said we should be actively modeling the behaviors and structures of the world we want to achieve. Do we want to live in chaos? We have that now. Do we want people to overwork themselves? No. People died for the 8 hour workday for a reason. While campaigns are often our medium for change, they are actually somewhat corporate in their implementation: product development, branding, marketing. Yes, they are useful for recruitment and achieving some goals, but ultimately they trap us in a certain way of thinking: we have to do it all right now (!) because the campaign requires it. The campaign must have its pound of flesh!
Alright, well, let's just take a minute here. The revolution isn't going to be next Monday. That campaign you're feverishly working on is a great idea. It can help make some important changes. But burning yourself out on a single campaign isn't going to help anyone. We are in this for life. We will see change in our lifetimes but we won't see every aspect of that vision of a safe world we hold in our hearts. We have to commit to the long haul, folks, a lifetime of working on these concerns in one form or another.
What does that mean for you? It means you need to find a way to make it sustainable. It means the boundaries you've broken down to allow yourself to truly feel, and thus react, to atrocity must be reexamined. It means you have to find balance. Vacations are good, and necessary, but this is a daily practice. It is not enough to throw yourself into the abyss with the idea "well i have this spring break coming…" You have to find ways to play, to relax, and to engage with the world every day. If you don't you're not going to make it in this movement, and dear overcommitted, we need you too much for that.
So, what to do? There are some important practices you can implement within your organizations and for yourself that can help prevent burnout:
1. Self-assessment is crucial. There are many tools for this, but one of my favorites comes from the ACLU.
2. Play. Stuart Brown, who has devoted his life to the science of play, has found that “the process of play allows us to deal with the craziness and allows generation of solutions to problems…in the absence of play we meet life’s paradoxes with bitterness and rigidity that prevents us from really engaging.” Basically, play helps us to maintain empowered strategic thinking. Without it we lose our edge.
3. Create space for reflection. Emotional and physical check-ins at the beginning or end of each meeting, periodic burnout assessments, and planned reviews of goals and progress will help your group become more effective and healthier. Reviews of goals and progress should also include time to amend strategies and adjust practices to meet the needs of group members and campaigns.
4. Create a clear decision-making structure and write it down! Use it to clarify decisions and share it with new recruits so they don’t feel left out. Stick to this process even when everyone seems to agree to something informally. This will create a culture of transparency and participation that will benefit everyone.
5. Avoid informal power structures by developing clear roles with specific tasks. Make it a point to train new people in those roles on an ongoing basis, that way you have folks who can support each other and a way to bring new people into your work.
5. Recognize each other’s work. Offer feedback when people do things, including acknowledging those who do the grunt work. Thank people. Take time to also ask people if they feel supported and give them a chance to make asks of the group. This will help prevent any one person from getting overwhelmed or getting stuck doing backend tasks (like filling out forms) that are essential but often unnoticed.
6. Reconnect with your vision as an individual and as a group. Most people are activists for highly personal reasons and when you connect the group’s work to individual passions it helps foster awareness, empathy, and creativity. You can ask people to talk about their motivations or set aside time for people to get to know each other’s activist histories. This is especially useful as a way to engage new members.
7. Learn to facilitate conflict. You can help the group reach a decision and ease stress simply through developing strong facilitation skills. There are many books on this but the best way to learn is to practice. Give group members turns practicing. Afterall, you’re going to be meeting anyway so it might as well be a learning opportunity.
8. Be intentional and deliberate about your work by setting SMART goals. (SMART=Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Relevant, Timebound) SMART goals give the group a shared standard by which to measure progress and review strengths and weaknesses. This is especially useful and necessary when group members need to talk about workload.
9. Utilize solidarity economy practices to reduce stress, meet needs, and create community. Often we're stressed due to our economic insecurity. By working cooperatively and democratically with others we can save money, live our values, and be healthier activists. Join a CSA and learn to cook with others. Join a housing co-op for cheaper rent and shared housework. Shareable has a ton of blog posts on ways you can live a more self-actualized existence through collaboration, and there are many examples of successful long-term activist communities who built themselves through these practices.
These steps can be difficult to take, which is why it may be helpful to work alongside others. In my collective, SolidarityNYC, we've recently begun meeting twice a month for brunch to discuss the challenges we're experiencing in practicing our values. By meeting to discuss this struggle we hope to make our efforts both sustainable and create accountablity for ourselves when the work is more difficult. Creating an affinity group is one way we can learn together and reinforce each other's well-being.
In addition to this I've learned that leadership development and delegation are important group practices that support our individual well-being. I've also learned what works for me to get what I call head space: long walks, hula hooping (sometimes even on conference calls while on mute so no one knows), singing, dancing, biking, a moratorium on unnecessary media, writing, and nurturing relationships. This has been a long and slow process, so don't beat yourself up if it takes awhile, but know that growing sensitive to your own needs and to those of other leaders is an essential skill to your work. Setting boundaries that allow you to meet those needs is similarly vital. The integration of caring for self and those around you is what will ultimately allow us to sustain our leadership for the greatest possible impact. That's the goal, right?
I love all of you, you know, and I just want you to be happy, healthy, kicking corporate ass, and taking back and building power for as long as you are given the opportunity. We live in a beautiful world with exceptional opportunities for wonder. Make sure you're giving yourself time to access that too. Not a day goes by that I am not overwhelmed with gladness to know you and have the chance to work with you. But I'd be a liar if I said I'm not a little worried about this trend.
So take a break. Recognize someone's work. Cultivate wellness. And know in your heart that we will win eventually.