Activism Activist How Tos

Save Yourself, Save the World

Fibonacci Blue, flickr
Written by Sarah Lancaster

I’m sorry everyone, but I have some bad news. You are not a superhero. You are not a god. You’re not even a robot with an incredibly lifelike artificial human skin. You’re just human. You can do a lot of things with that, but it does mean that at some point you’re going to push yourself too hard and too far and will need repair. And not just physical, but mental and emotional fixes as well. When you’re fighting against constant abuse and injustice, it takes a lot out of you.

Here’s some ideas about how to patch those holes in your psyche before you burnout, throw your hands up, and move to a secret lair under the ocean where your only companions are the jawless and uncomplicated lamprey eels:

Make your activism fun. There are tons of different ways to effectively protest bad government policies and abusive organizations. Choose ways that amuse and delight you. Put a charity donation bin in front of a WalMart owner’s high rise to mock her decision to ask for food donations for her employees instead paying them fairly. Ask anti-choice congresspeople for help in making all of your sexual health decisions on their Facebook page since they clearly want to participate. Everyone can challenge social mores that damage us: men can wear skirts to protest sexism and sexual assault in their culture, and women can organize and participate in SlutWalks. Anyone can let their freak flag fly at a Pride event. And there’s always craft projects! Incorporating your humor, wit, and biting sarcasm into your activism well is a great way to make the world a better place while enjoying the stress relief of humor and mockery.

Mentor new activists. Do you remember when you were bright eyed and full of energy? When you could stay up all night making signs and planning your protest targets? Does meeting people new to the movement now make you feel grumpy and old? Don’t despair and kick them off your lawn! Instead, take a newbie or two under your wing and show them how they can learn from your fails and become effective protesters faster. This will help your movement, your fellow activists, and getting to see positive change happen in real time with someone can refill your anti-oppression batteries.

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Engage in micro activism, aka volunteering. When people hear the word “activism” they tend to think about speaking out against governments, companies, and large-scale social issues. This is big and important work, but it can be demoralizing as there often isn’t a lot of change to see over time. As Stalin said, “One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.” People tend to value immediate experience over faceless groups. If you’re an activist you’ve clearly gotten past that, but it’s still okay to need a shot in the arm of direct action sometimes. So take a break from agitating for factory farm reform to volunteer for a farm animal rescue group or a soup kitchen. Care about education? Give some of your time to an afterschool tutoring program. For those with computer skills, the choice of who to help is endless. Whatever cause is near and dear to your heart, there’s a local branch that desperately needs your support.

Spend some time with people who get it. Activism is a practice in slamming yourself against a wall until people listen to your point and hopefully agree with you. It’s important work and has led to many amazing and necessary changes over the centuries. It’s also really, really draining. You can lose faith in humanity, yourself, and your cause far faster than you can get others to understand they need to care about these things, too. No one should live in an echo chamber of their own ideas, but sometimes you need to take a break from the front lines for a day and spend time with the people who are fighting this battle with you. Share war stories and remind each other that none of you are alone. I’m sure most people do this to some extent, but when you feel the apathy build and the lack of visible progress really dragging on you, consciously make time for friends and allies.

Spend some time alone. Extroverts charge their emotional batteries by being around others, introverts by having time to themselves. Many people need a balance of both. Not all parts of activism need to be a team effort. If you find yourself annoyed or frustrated by even your fellow agitators, take some time to code, plan, write, create, or any other thing you can do for the cause on your own. Even the best teams need breaks from each other, and not every action needs to be a group project.

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Stand up for others. Is the customer in front of you swearing at the cashier? Say something. Did a friend just say something sexual about a woman as she walked by you? Say something. Did a coworker just tell a racist joke? Say something. You’re an activist because you want the world to be a better place, right? Start today. Push back on the negative treatment of your fellow human beings when it happens in front of you. As you know, letting stuff pass is a way we all support and maintain harmful systems. Note: I leave it up to you whether you will also take this up in comments on articles, videos, or on social media. Those tend to be stressful and fruitless places of trolling instead of times when a quick word can actually have an impact.

Go outside. If you find yourself caught up on a fight on the Internet over Israeli apartheid, or rampant violations of your fourth amendment rights and you’re starting to lose your shit: go outside. If you spent all day locked up in your room writing essays, designing flyers, editing videos, and calling your senator: go outside. You don’t even have to take a break from the practical things you’re doing, just change the scenery for a bit. Sunshine and fresh air have proven benefits to your mental health, and it only takes fifteen minutes to start to see the effects. It’s certainly better for the masonry than getting so stressed you throw a brick at the next person who asks you to do something else for the cause.

So there we go: ways to take care of yourself that aren’t the standard “quit agitating for a while.” We all know that’s an option, but hopefully using some of these ideas will quell your burnout before having to take such a drastic step. Remember: care about your own wellbeing as well as the causes you fight for and you’ll be around to fight again tomorrow.

About the author

Sarah Lancaster

Sarah is an LICSW specializing in outpatient work with adolescents and their families in anxiety, depression, and trauma. Her social work hobby is answering questions about sexual health and supporting women's rights. Her activism is often on the micro or mezzo scale, and she is working to support mental health and child protection reform.

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Save Yourself, Save the World

by Sarah Lancaster
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