This article was written by an Australian primarily for an Australian audience but folks other places may find some of the insights useful. To any US friends reading this we send you solidarity. We are watching and we are with you.
When Trump was elected in 2016 I was with a group of wonderful women environmentalists in the nurturing setting of Commonground in Seymour. I was cofacilitating a week long retreat for Womens Environmental Leadership Australia. We went into that week knowing we were either going to be witnessing a breakthrough moment for women’s leadership or the election of an avowed misogynist.
We had a day of training sessions planned with a watchful eye to the results coming in. When they did start being revealed and the signs were terrible we made space in the program for the big impact on everyone.
During a break my cofacilitator and I exchanged peer counselling. We made space for our feelings in order to be able to access our best thinking. I noticed big fear coming up for me. As a child I had lived with the fear of nuclear war and that came up strongly. A lunatic was going to have access to the button that could ruin us all! There were many other feelings: shock, horror, anger, despair, overwhelm, as well as the worry that I wouldn’t be able to hold space for the group while all this was going on.
With some initial emotional release and reinforced connection with my cofacilitator we were able to think through how to proceed with the day and support the group. We emerged and checked in on people and it was touching to notice all the ways people were supporting themselves and each other.
A handful of people were glued to the TV and Twitter, hearing the latest news and analysis. Some women were having a very vigorous game of basketball, imagining the ball was Trump’s orange face being smashed into the pavement. There was a lot of cathartic laughing in that corner. Some women had gone for walks on the property, either having solo silent time with the trees or walking with others. There was concerted comfort eating around a table covered in cakes, cheese, pickles and crackers. There were puddles of pairs and small groups checking in, lots of talking and some tears. Others were on the phone talking to their close people or work colleagues.
After dinner we heard from Christine Milne, former Senator and leader of the Australian Greens, long time environmentalist, savvy political thinker and accomplished storyteller. Christine gave the long view, placing this moment into the context of what had come before and what could come next. She framed Trump’s election as an opportunity, an unveiling of the tensions at the heart of an unsustainable system. It was the end of business as usual and the start of a new phase of battle for life on earth.
The night was topped off by a tired, awkward, funny bit of collective action: the classic group photo and solidarity tweet.
I went to bed feeling privileged to have had this experience with exactly this group of people in a physical space built with intention and love to hold people engaged in social change.
I share this story in the lead up to this US election in part to remind myself of people’s resilience, and our capacity to adapt and connect with each other. As an experiential educator I can’t help but draw out lessons from this experience that can be generalised and applied to the present situation.
In times of great stress we have different needs and strategies to address them. To summarise some of the strategies from this example:
- Talking and listening
- Emotional release
- Physical activity
- Quiet contemplation
- Nature connection
- Connecting with the people we’re closest to
- Taking in information
- Making meaning
- Collective action
If you’re stressed out about the upcoming US election I encourage you to consider your own strategies and give yourself what you need. This could be a plan around how you will watch election coverage, who you will connect with, the exercise you’ll plan into your week, the object you can hold and fidget as you go about your work, or whatever else works for you.
If you are thinking about a group of people I encourage you to come up with options that recognise that there will be different needs or preferences. Some people will want a lot of information and chances to talk excitably. Others will want more of a heart connection or space away from others. Having been through many elections I’m familiar with the tendency for many activists to form opinions extremely quickly and sprint into action. However there are also many people who find all those hot takes overwhelming and need more time to process and be.
The model ‘routes of safety’ is a neat summary of tendencies that show up in response to trauma. Getting familiar with your own routes can help you give yourself what you need in times of high stress. Considering the breadth of routes can help design group processes that cater to diverse needs. For example having a clear schedule that’s well foreshadowed (Structure & Clarity), building in time for individual reflection (Inner Guidance), paired listening (Quality Relationships), creating a comfortable environment whether together in person or encouraging it in each person’s space when connecting online (Sensory Experiences), connecting to shared values (Common Humanity), and so on. Remember if you are holding space for others it’s crucial that you yourself have what you need to be as grounded as possible.
Bear in mind that this election process is likely to be drawn out with ongoing conflict of different kinds. That means there’s potential for our attention to keep being pulled in the direction of the US, pushing our buttons and draining energy. All the more reason to be intentional about self and collective care!
In case some people need this point to be underlined: it is completely natural to have strong feelings about world events including this US election. It is good and appropriate to take measures to support yourself and others in this context.
The Commons Library is gathering a number of resources relevant to the US election. If you have particular questions or you would like to contribute a resource contact the librarians.
Looking for more on activist wellbeing? See 10 Great Resources on Activist Wellbeing and the whole Wellbeing topic.
Interested in Womens Environmental Leadership Australia? Check out the WELA collection on the Commons.