By Helen Cox
This article summarises findings from a survey that Plan to Thrive did with nearly 200 activists in 2014. This post covers all the nuggets of wisdom elicited in response to the question ‘what have you figured out about sustaining yourself as an activist’? We think there is something for everyone here, happy reading.
As with other analyses, we have trawled through the responses to identify common themes as well as outlying ideas or novel approaches to sustainable activism – needless to say there is a diversity of approaches included. This is a long article full of the rich wisdom of nearly 200 activists! To summarise, people are doing the following to sustain themselves:
- Saying no or limiting involvement with groups and campaigns
- Getting good exercise, sleep, and nutrition
- Spending time in nature
- Timeblocking and planning breaks
- Valuing group dynamics, teamwork and relationships of support
- Practising mindfulness and meditation
- Maintaining non-activist relationships
- Accessing coaching, mentoring or counselling
- Building emotional resilience and self-awareness
- Limiting social media
- Keeping an eye on the long term vision
- Fostering creativity and spirituality
So let’s get in to the details…
Saying no or limiting involvement with groups and campaigns.
There are only so many hours in the day, right?
It’s taken me seven years to learn this, but I’ve realised that I can’t be active all the time. A lot of the campaigners I know who have been active for over ten years take a few months off during winter, or take a year off from campaigning every few years. I have also learnt that I am probably only able to work sustainably on one campaign at once. While I know some people who are able to work on multiple campaigns simultaneously, this is not something everyone can do. I have learnt that limits are individual, and it’s important not to compare yourself too much to others.
There is a great quote by Thomas Merton that articulates the “frenzy of the activist undermines their work for peace” that really resonated with me. I have been super frazzled and frenzied in the past but would be less so now, and that is definitely a conscious decision not to take on too many projects or get involved in too many campaigns.
Did you know that exercise improves sleep and cognitive functioning in older adults? Our ability to attenuate important information and maintain good emotional awareness is pretty important to our effectiveness as activists, as well as our physical and mental healthy generally.
Exercise is critical to my well-being and balance. I need at least 30 minutes a day. If I am honest with myself, I can almost always find those 30 minutes though sometimes I have to be a bit creative about it.
I deliberately train to keep my physical fitness for street actions and don’t underestimate the impact this has on my mental wellbeing. Sleep is key and internet kills good sleep. Online interactions probably cause me more stress than real life ones so I use programs like LeechBlock to limit my exposure. Also, no interwebs after 20:00 helps!
Sleep is essential to our ability to learn and retain new information as well as our overall functioning and resilience. Check out Sleepio and The National Sleep Foundation for more information about and assistance with sleeping routines.
Unions didn’t fight for the 8 hour day for nothing! You need enough time for sleeping and eating properly, to be able to maintain personal relationships, to exercise and relax and enough money to live a healthy life.
Having a healthy routine – exercise, breakfast, mindfulness. Getting enough sleep. Saying ‘no’ I’m not going to be on call or do email when I’ve put aside time to rest.
Food and nutrition
Hippocrates said it best: ‘Let food be thy medicine, thy medicine shall be thy food.’
I’ve turned vegan a few months ago so live more guilt free.
Balance my activism with gardening, composting and cooking good food from the garden. keeps me grounded.
Eating meat cos I know that’s best for me and not letting the vegans get me down.
Eat well – protein, fresh vegies, limit addictive substances like alcohol, caffeine, sugar. Rest when I need to (listen to my body). Schedule mini-breaks and longer holidays. Get a lot of emotional support with the challenges. Invest in healing (e.g. acupuncture, osteo).
Turns out activists like nature and being outdoors – a lot.
It’s good to eat and exercise and spend time in healthy, beautiful forest, not just forest campaigning.
People offering me space to escape and relax, a nutritious home cooked meal and some time to debrief and reflect in a comfortable environment was vital to my survival as an activist. I got to stay with friends in beautiful places close to nature, take walks, go swimming or just listen to birds and frogs or have cups of tea in sunny kitchens. All without the peer pressure to be ‘active’ all the time, and without having to spend money on a vacation experience.
I need to connect to nature at least every two weeks. I just went to the ocean yesterday and it’s why I can now take the time to fill this out – I connected with the bigger picture and so can contribute to the bigger picture.
Timeblocking and planning breaks
Do you own a diary or use an online diary? If not, maybe its time to look ahead, get planning, and lock in some down time. Planning breaks can give us something to look forward to.
Timeblock planning time, vacation, and self-care (exercise). Get it in the calendar. Work should have cycles including recovery weeks (just like when you work out intensely).
I have recovery days planned into my calendar now (meaning I don’t go anywhere unless it’s relaxing) and have started to be more gentle with myself when I’m not able to do something.
I’m a full-time student and I have other obligations so I have become a big fan of lists. I try to block my time out so that each task gets my attention individually. This isn’t always easy though. I am trying to start yoga and exercise as well.
Valuing group dynamics, teams and relationships of support
Creativity and motivation flow best when groups bond and conflict is managed in a healthy manner.
That working with people who have a sense of humour and are ethical is essential – sometimes internal movement weirdness or politics can be way harder than anything external, so good people who you trust and value can keep you sane and keep you laughing.
Being very choosy about who I work with and spend time with the need to be strategic about where I put my energy and never to do so out of a sense of peer pressure (i.e. be brave enough to say that that is not a sensible approach and/or that even if it means no longer hanging out with people I like, that is not the group I should work with).
Self care needs to come first. The process is the outcome and burnt out or exhausted people have shitty process. They perpetuate the same systematic norms. It has to start with different ways of doing things and that has to start with a whole lot more love, and that has to start with loving myself. And that means self care first.
After a particularly upsetting episode, I reached out to other people interested and/or involved in social justice activism and created a private group online where we could vent our frustrations and not get pushback for being ‘too angry’. It hasn’t been active for long, but the interest in it surprised me and the overall effect seems to be positive for all involved so far.
Every project I do is a creative investigation into new ways of organizing, both in terms of strategy as well as social-organizing/anti-oppression work within the movements I am a part of. I’m attracted to groups that are just getting started, and/or are open to and interested in looking consciously at HOW we organize, that are collaborative in nature (vs. hierarchical). This keeps my interest and passion (unhealthy social dynamics, or oppressive systems of organization are a big turn-off.) Healthy conflict management is also key.
That feeling of mutual support and ‘momentum’ in a group as well as feeling like I have something worthwhile/unique to contribute has huge motivational and mental health benefits for me.
Mindfulness and meditative practices
There are plenty of different ways to meditate, including using mindfulness apps (check out these free ones!).
I practice Tai Chi daily, and have a dog that I walk daily.
Fortunately, I am a facilitator of group processes and includes self care and wellbeing in all of my workshops. We do daily mindfulness practices, breathing, yoga, and help participants name strategies they use and/or want to try to support their own wellbeing.
Maintaining non-activist relationships
It can be beneficial for self-identified activists to keep connected to a diverse social group, non-activist buddies can also keep us in check!
Have a mix of activist and non-activist friends. Activist friends ensure that you have like-minded company, while non-activist friends keep you feeling connected to the wider world. Remind yourself of what you have in common with people who aren’t activists e.g. shared experiences.
Don’t self marginalise – need to believe change is possible and mainstream.
Talking therapies and being heard in a reflective manner can help us process thoughts, develop our ideas into action and help us to increase our self-awareness.
I do feel like having mentorships, both being mentored as well as doing mentoring myself, is a great help.
Seeing a psychologist for PTSD [both from the police & from people within the activist scene], coming to terms with the fact that i will probably have PTSD for the rest of my life but there are things i can do to work on it without becoming a toxic person myself.
Emotional resilience and self-awareness
This is often a much under-estimated skill, see the above sections for help with this one!
Sensing when something makes me feel nervous and looking at that feeling to figure out how to deal with the source of it.
Recognising the signs of oncoming burnout and allowing myself time off before it happens.
Usually when i get a black mood coming on, i go into it fully and let it run its course. there’s usually some wisdom to be found in it.
Realising that my perfectionism gets in the way of looking after myself (that it’s crucial I take time out, and that this will most likely improve my study/work/activist efforts).
Limiting social media
Bit of a no-brainer this one.
Not much yet, other than that social media is not always helpful, arguing with people on the opposite side of the fence is rarely constructive, I need to get to bed earlier and spend less time at the computer… but this survey is pertinent as I think we’re all learning (perhaps the hard way) that we haven’t got a clue how to sustain ourselves and each other on this journey!
Trying to stay out of shit fights/when activists turn on each other [it might be worth googling a document called “geek social fallacies“, i think a lot of these apply to the activist “milieu” & explain some of the conflicts.
Long term vision and thinking
Keep things in perspective.
I have figured out that the world is going to be an effed up place in the long term, so it’s important to look after your health so you can be an activist for just as long.
I do not expect to succeed, and have let go of the idea that I can be responsible for things that are mostly outside of my influence or control.
A lot of people mentioned that they needed emotional outlets and creative inspiration such as dance or art.
Dance was becoming a chore just like everything else, so I stepped back and found a class that was only for my emotional health and not focused on fitness.
Reading fiction & poetry from other activists, appreciating & being inspired by art, music especially consciousness hiphop.
A lens of spirituality or religion can be important for making meaning of and empowering the work of activism and social change.
I am trying to develop my spiritual connections within the context of my work.
Who were the survey participants?
- There were 195 participants all up, from all over the globe with a significant bias towards non-indigenous people living in Australasia
- Participants were overwhelmingly experienced activists and campaigners, as opposed to relatively new activists of less than 5 years. Over 50% of the respondents had been engaged in activism in excess of 10 years.
- Participants were engaged in a wide range of campaigns and interests, the most popular was social justice and environmental activism and the least engagement was with animal rights activism although still high at 17% of respondents
- Over 65% of respondents were aged between 26 and 45 years old.
- There was an interesting range of gender diversity for the 153 participants responding to the open-ended question of gender identity: 67% identified as female, 18% identified as male and 15% identified as gender queer/agender/non-conforming/genderfluid/questioning or transgender.
- Over 80% of respondents were university educated.