5 Keys To Staying Well While Fighting For Good
Women have taken to the streets and to the phones since the election, many engaging in activism for the first time. We haven’t won on every issue, but our actions have made a difference, including slowing the administration's plans to dismantle health care and deport millions of people.
Now, the challenge is to stay active as the initial energy subsides. Here are some things that can help us keep the momentum and avoid burnout.
Take a breath.
After the election, a beautiful Facebook post went around comparing activism to a chorus where people take turns breathing, so the ensemble as a whole can hold the long note. Whether that means keeping up your yoga practice, walking in the woods, or taking a vacation, pacing yourself will help you to be a more grounded and productive member of whatever group you join. Just taking a breath periodically also gives you a chance to reflect on how to best spend your time and energy, something you can’t do if you are frantically running from one activity to the next or obsessing over the latest news.
Don’t just react.
Many people protest whatever happened last week, reacting whenever those in power do something objectionable. While that is sometimes necessary, the most effective movements push for what they actually want not just what they don't. That means setting their own goals and timelines. Whether it’s a health care system that covers everyone, police officers who respect every person they encounter, or solar energy for your whole community, working for your vision in ways that are proactive will be more energizing and inspiring in the long run than just reacting.
Find your niche.
Research shows that every successful social change movement includes people playing different roles, so you might as well find the role that works for you. (Watch: What Kind Of Activist Are You?) Not everyone is going to want to emulate Rosa Parks, who went to jail for defying Montgomery’s segregated bus system. Some are more like Jo Ann Robinson, who stayed up the night Parks was arrested, mimeographing flyers announcing a bus boycott in Montgomery. Then there were the people who walked to work, and those who offered rides to help sustain the boycott for over a year, while others took the issue to court. All were important, but no one could have done it all.
Over the past thirty years, I’ve played a variety of roles, most recently board chair of a climate justice organization and online teacher of new activists. I’ve realized that some jobs wear me out (like phone calls to politicians), while others give me energy (like running productive meetings and classes). To stay involved for the long haul, I need to prioritize the roles that energize me, trusting that someone else will prefer the phone calls.
Realize you’re not alone.
Trusting that other people will cover the roles you can’t is key. The most common anxiety I hear from students in my online classes is that they can’t pick an issue to work on because all of them are important. While it’s true that there are many urgent issues, it’s not true that you have to work on all of them. If you try, there’s a good chance you won’t have an impact on any and will just get discouraged. On the other hand, if you give the bulk of your time to one thing—maybe an issue that moves you deeply, or one where a local group is already doing effective organizing—you’ll be more likely to sense the impact you’re having, which helps to sustain motivation when the work is slow and hard.
Learn from the past.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott was successful because it focused on one issue, but that victory helped inspire other people to take on the segregated lunch counters and schools. To achieve that first win, people, many of them women, had to walk to work for over a year. It was another decade before the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were passed. The fight for women’s suffrage lasted even longer. These historic examples can give us perspective when we feel discouraged, especially when we remember that such victories often came during periods of increased polarization and hateful rhetoric, when things seemed even more discouraging than they do today.
This is our moment to show persistence, to reaffirm that we have a vision of the world we want to see, and that we are willing to work for it—not by burning ourselves out, but by taking care of ourselves and each other as we each sing our part in the chorus.