As activists, we are no strangers to the long hours and constant mental strain that puts a serious toll on both our personal and political lives. Many of us believe that, to do activism right, we cannot ever stop being active. This is, of course, true to a point. If you are going to fight against an oppressive hierarchy that has been oppressing you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for your entire life, it follows, then, that you would need to fight back constantly.
However, many people — especially within the feminist movement — are arguing that this kind of non-stop activism is not sustainable. In the 2007 book, “What is the Point of Revolution if We Can’t Dance?“ Jane Barry and Jelena Đorđević explore the mental and physical exhaustion that women’s rights workers around the world experience as a result of their activism.
Often, we see these difficulties as sacrifices that must be made for the well-being of others, but what about the well-being of ourselves? For Barry and Đorđević, self-care is just as important as the work itself. According to Barry, it is vital that activists care for themselves, or else the movement will not be sustainable: “Sustainability is about being able to do the work we love, while still feeling full and happy in every part of our lives. It’s about feeling safe, feeling connected, feeling recognized, respected, and valued—for who we are, as much as for what we do.”
The Urgent Action Fund has created the Sustaining Activism project, which focuses on identifying breaking points in people’s ability to continue activism. They found three key points that prevent activism from being sustainable:
The ‘culture of activism’ including unsustainable work habits, where activists work all hours possible without taking breaks; disregard for personal wellbeing, either due to peer pressure or a sense of guilt at taking care of one’s own needs when so many others are suffering; exclusion or marginalization of activists from mainstream movements because of their identity (sexual orientation, age, religion, ethnicity), their geographic location or access (urban vs. rural) or the issues they are addressing (LGBT rights, sex workers’ rights, disability rights, etc.)
In other words, activists are feeling burnt out because of their long work hours and lack of break time, they feel guilty or pressured to continue their activist work instead of addressing their own needs, and they feel excluded from movements that are not yet wholly intersectional.
According to this article, security is also a major factor in sustainable activism. When we think about well-being, we typically think of taking mental and physical breaks from the work we do to recharge, but we must also think about the risks many activists take when they work among their oppressors. Safety and security, or a lack thereof, can be a huge factor in activists feeling they can no longer work in their chosen field.
As an activist writer myself, I can attest to the mental and physical strain, as well as the safety concerns we should be addressing. Writing on the internet can be taxing, as you often feel the pressure to cover a certain story immediately in order to get your words out there. This can lead to writing at all hours without breaking. In a culture where news is pushed out at the click of a button, writing needs to happen very quickly. If there is something out there you want to cover, you’d better jump at the opportunity, or it will rapidly pass you by.
Furthermore, many people see the internet as an anonymous forum where they can say whatever they want without repercussions. As such, feminist writers and bloggers are frequently attacked and threatened virtually, whether through blog comments, emails or other forms of communication. These factors combined can lead to feminist activists throwing in the towel and giving up due to concerns about their safety or being burnt out.
If activism is to be sustainable, we need to start taking care of ourselves and being as concerned about our well-being as we are about that of others. My hope is that, as an activist community, we can recognize the signs of burning out and other safety concerns and help each other move toward a more healthy form of activism for all.
Photo Credit: Fibonacci Blue