By Kjersti McDonald
If you’re like me, there are probably several times a week* (read: day) that you take a look around and go… What. The. Fuck.
Our country’s politics are a complete mess. Working-class people are broke. Somehow, Nazis are a thing again. Reproductive rights have been rolled back in many states, and the national threat of overturning Roe v. Wade is ever-looming. Black Lives Matter is met with chants that All Lives Matter (*insert eyeroll*). Our planet is dying, and everybody cares more about consumerism and convenience to do jack shit about it.
One look at this shit storm of bad is enough to discourage any good-hearted, wannabe social activist. I’m definitely one of those people who wants to fix everything, all at once. But I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older (and through therapy…) that placing that responsibility on myself is not only unrealistic, it’s simply unfair.
So how does one move forward, trying to tackle the many problems in our world? Essentially, how can you be an activist in this time where it feels like everything around you is burning, without getting burnt yourself?
As a grassroots organizer for a state-wide health care advocacy non-profit, I’ve learned some tricks of the trade – sometimes the hard way – of how to preserve your sanity, while continuing to help work toward positive, much-needed change.
1. Pick *one* issue: I’ve found that focusing most of my efforts on one issue I care about helps me not get so overwhelmed or feel so defeated. For example, I’m lucky enough to have a job that pays me to organize Missourians around achieving access to affordable, quality health care for everyone, no matter where they live or how much money they make. Like any job, this work takes up a lot of energy, but it’s a way for me to put effort into fighting for something I believe in.
Does this mean I don’t support or work toward other causes? Absolutely not! But I limit my efforts to those multiple other causes – supporting candidates, Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, etc. – to more passive actions, like donating, signing petitions, responding to their calls/emails to reach out to legislators, etc. If there’s a really big event that I can make time for, I’ll always try. But keeping the major focus of my efforts on one issue has helped me to feel like I’m not splitting my physical, mental and emotional energy between a bazillion important issues. The way I see it, it’s better to give 85-90% toward one cause, than to split 10% between 10 causes.
2. Invite your friends: We all know most things are more fun with friends! So, if there’s an issue you feel passionate about, round up a couple of pals who you think would be interested, and invite them to join you! If you’re thinking about going to a meeting or a rally, you’ll be way more likely to go if you’ve got a buddy. Plus, that means you’ve recruited more people to work toward that cause, so everyone wins!
3. Don’t be afraid to go alone: On the other hand, sometimes we use our friends as crutches, and when they won’t or can’t show up, we use that as an excuse to bail. Don’t do that! I *promise* you, going to a fundraiser or rally alone won’t be terrible. There’s actually a pretty good chance you’ll make a new friend or two! And even if you don’t, there can be something empowering about being brave enough to step outside of your comfort zone and go by yourself. Just remember to play it safe (pepper spray, etc.), like that even really needs said….
4. Look at what’s happening locally: If you’re struggling to find an organization that is working on your cause of choice, find a local group that is tangentially related to that issue, reach out, and ask! They will more than likely have a suggestion of ways you can work on that issue that you hadn’t thought of, and might even know of an organization or group you had overlooked.
I know it’s easy to sit behind our laptops and phones and not branch out into our communities, but through my work, I’ve found that there are LOTS of groups, organizations, coalitions and teams who are working SO HARD on almost any issue you can imagine. If you reach out, you can almost always find a place to fit in.
5. Take care of yourself: I know there’s a pretty popular “self-care” movement happening, and I’m happy to see that. Our rat race, capitalist society is constantly pushing us to go go go and burn the candle at both ends, and oftentimes, our mental health goes by the way side.
If you’re looking to get involved with social activism – and you should – it’s important to be cognizant of the warning signs of burnout. Some common signs are: apathy, hopelessness, extreme fatigue, irritability, and an inability to think about anything BUT the cause you care about.
One of my favorite quotes (almost certain I’ve mentioned it in a previous self-care piece) by Thomas Merton is: “There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”
I think this quote supports my advice to pick one main cause, but it also reminds us of the importance of self-care and only taking on what we know we can handle.
Burnout is very real amongst activists, and it feels almost inevitable. It’s important to be checking in with yourself if you start to notice those warning signs, and to give yourself a break if you’re getting burnt out. Take a social media and news fast. Say “no” to some tasks and events. Take a vacation or a trip.
Some of the best safeguards against burnout and mental deterioration are your basic self-care upkeep: plenty of sleep, plenty of water, exercise/cardio, going outside, spending time with friends/family/loved-ones, eating healthy. But the tip I often forget is to make time for pastimes that bring you JOY. Whether that’s hiking, playing music, writing, reading, playing table-top games – you need to make a healthy dose of recreation a priority. It’s not selfish. It’s necessary.
At the risk of spending too much time talking about self-care, I want to leave this reminder that you can’t cop out of your social responsibility under the guise of “self-care” ALL THE TIME. There should be a reasonable and responsible balance, and if you’re in a place where you can’t find that balance, re-up on the above suggestions and maybe look into therapy (truly one of my go-to pieces of advice).
Looking to get more involved? Please accept this humble list of suggestions as a place to start:
- Planned Parenthood
- NARAL Pro-Choice America
- National Organization for Women
- Missouri Health Care for All
- Poor People’s Campaign
- Fight for 15
- Southwest Missouri Democrats
- Lafayette House
- Moms Demand Action
- Missouri Coalition for the Environment
- Southern Poverty Law Center
- Gay Straight Alliance
- Your favorite candidate!!
- And so many more… Google is your friend.