Activist burnout can be the result of many factors, such as overwork, high stress, trauma, prolonged interpersonal conflict, organisational ineffectiveness and a lack of long term planning.
But I think a key factor, which we don’t talk about very much, is hope.
Accumulated demoralisation from experiencing defeats contributes to many people burning out, or just dropping out of activism. Feeling that action is futile often translates into ceasing to take action.
Hope can either be very fragile or very resilient depending on personal and community circumstances. If we can set up our organisations and social movements to function effectively we’re more likely to foster hope and keep engaged and emotionally strong activists.
I define activists as people who:
- See a problem in the world.
- Believe the situation could be different.
- Take action in the direction of the change they want to see.
When organising, we sometimes need to work with people quite intensively to get them to:
- see a problem (although many people don’t find this part hard!),
- convince them that this can be changed (sharing a vision of a preferred future, outlining a credible path or plan to win), and
- translate that into action (overcoming barriers and objections, fitting action to skills or capacity).
Getting to number 3 tends to require belief, or hope, that individual and collective action can make a difference.
People don’t always move in one direction. Sometimes activists become really demoralised. If they didn’t have much understanding of how entrenched power operates in society they can get a nasty shock. After working really hard and not winning, or suffering defeats, hope can evaporate.
This can happen on a movement wide level. For example, millions of people around the world marched and rallied to try to stop the Iraq war ten years ago. The war went ahead. Many people stayed committed to ongoing resistance to the war, but overall there was a significant demobilisation – a lot of people lost hope that action they participated in could result in the change they wanted to see.
How do we deal with this? What can organisations do to reduce the risk, or rebuild hope in jaded activists?
- Political education and clarity about theories of change. It’s important for people to understand power relationships, how much is invested in the status quo, and how challenging it can be to shift powerholders. We want to run inspiring and engaging campaigns but we do people no favours by encouraging political naiveté.
- Develop a clear campaign strategy which builds movement power and maximises pressure on targets (powerholders/decision-makers). This is about using our precious human resources efficiently to have the greatest impact possible. We need to be clear about what it will take to make the changes we seek.
- Give people opportunities to express the depth of feeling they have about the current situation, how much they want to see change and the grief and fear that come up with setbacks and defeats. Plan recovery time after actions, have facilitated debriefs, seek support for the campaign from people with healing skills.
- Celebrate wins, whatever their scale. Share stories of people power, learn from history, and gain hope from what has been achieved so far.
Movements for change can’t afford to lose activists to disillusionment and hopelessness. The correct response to a setback is to reflect on it, learn from it, plan what comes next, and fight harder. An effective organisation or campaign, engaging resilient and hopeful activists, is a force to be reckoned with.
What helps you stay hopeful? How does your group or movement foster hope?
An earlier version of this article was included in the Change Agency’s enews in October 2010. For more on the 2003 attempts to prevent the Iraq War see Why We Didn’t Stop the War by Justin Whelan.