What if you were in a dysfunctional and abusive relationship? How many times would it be effective for you to ask or demand of your partner that s/he stop the abuse? How many times do you put up with situations where you have no choice but to defend yourself as best you can from vicious attacks against you and/or your children? How productive is it to argue or attempt rational discussion with your abuser in the hope s/he’ll see there error of her/his ways? How many times should you appeal to family, friends or authorities to exert influence over your abuser’s actions?

How much of your energy should be spent on trying to get your abuser to change, find supports or grapple with the demons that haunt her/him. At what point do you decide that you have to take care of yourself, draw on available supports and build the life you need and deserve?

These questions are parallel to ones raised in a process I have gone through as an activist. I started seriously ruminating on such issues back in 2007 when, on the verge of burnout from all my activism work in Indigenous sovereignty and Palestinian solidarity, my body forced me, through illness, to take a year-long “break.”

Yet an exemplary moment of clarity came years later when, on the Friday night of G20 weekend last June in Toronto, I was on the Queen streetcar heading to a talk being given by a visiting Indigenous Elder from Zimbabwe. This event represented a rare opportunity for me and I had been looking forward to it for weeks. Seconds after I boarded, the streetcar halted in front of the Eaton’s Centre and the driver announced we would be stuck indefinitely due to a protest that had blocked off the Queen/Spadina intersection. I shrugged in I-guess-it-wasn’t-meant-to-be fashion and prepared to walk home. (Luckily I was still in walking distance.) At the same time, I couldn’t help but hear the collective groan from riders (mostly working class and racialized) aboard the late-rush hour vehicle, who were clearly not looking forward to spending the end of their work week sitting indefinitely on a streetcar. Even though I had been a protester myself, just the day before at the Indigenous march, it occurred to me that this was not the reaction from working-class people that I wanted to elicit through my activism.

When I reflect on most of the activities I have engaged in for the purposes of promoting social change, I feel as though I’ve sometimes made the worst choices possible in the context of an abusive society.

While it’s clear that many activists maintain a healthy balance of pro-action and reaction, this article is for those like myself, who may have difficulty finding the balance and/or feel pressured by other activists to engage in activities they don’t feel are effective.

The case to establish that capitalist ideology, corporate power and governments are abusive is not a difficult one to make. Stats and stories on poverty, homelessness, racism, homophobia, ableism, police violence and daily assaults on the environment prove that our society is dysfunctional and that those in power get away with heinous crimes every day.

So the questions for me are: How much of our time and energy should be spent on protesting, lobbying and demonstrating in the hopes that those in power will change their ways? How many times do we react to oppressive actions, as opposed to acting on our own vision and goals? How much energy do we want to spend on (and how much responsive violence do we want to provoke by) exposing crimes that have been exposed over and over and over again? How much discussion do we have with our abusers in the hope they will make superficial and incremental changes, when we could instead be sharing and creating within our many communities? What is the appropriate balance of proactivity and reactivity?

The answer, in a general sense, is to recognize when we need to mobilize to defend or react to something that is threatening us NOW and balance that with working towards deep changes that will keep us sustained over the long term. The priority in that balance should be to focus on community empowerment (which by definition includes supporting the personal empowerment of community members) thus increasing our immunity to the impacts of abusive institutions, laws and authorities.

Now, obviously, if I’ve left my abusive partner and set up a good life for myself and my ex comes around threatening me where I now live, I’m going to defend myself. I may even go on the offensive and ask friends or my new lover to kick ass. If s/he’s really dangerous I’ll do my best to put her/him in jail. I take no chances with my life or the lives of my kids.

However, there is a delicate balance to be maintained in the choices we make about where to spend the bulk of our energies and time. As biology has shown us, the cells of any living creature in a state of “fight or flight” are not capable of taking on nourishment and growing. It is only at times when they are NOT under threat that they can turn their energies to normal functions like eating, growth and reproduction. Such activities make cellular “communities” (like bodies) less vulnerable to disease and toxins as well as more enabled to readily repair tissue damage.

The lessons for me as an activist are that I need to fortify myself and contribute to fortifying my community so we have the resources and strong relationships required to sustain ourselves no matter what. This means everything from planting community gardens to promoting skill development around renewable, clean energy technologies. It means nurturing children in a way that provides them with the resources they need to thrive and not just survive. It means a lot of things that others can expand on.

While there is sometimes an urgent need to prevent deportations, protect land from resource exploitation and save lives there are other times when taking to the streets seems more of a programmed response for movements that have lost their creativity and resilience.

What if, for example, instead of marching in the streets every May 1, as though it’s a reflex, we chose to honour fallen warriors with life-affirming activities such as building composts for families? Or offering teachings on organic indoor gardening? Or providing workshops on how arts projects can build relationships across difference? Or holding information sessions on alternative healing practices? Or delivering skills training on switching to solar power for your home or workplace. Or subsidizing healthy, fun activities for kids?

What if instead of going on strike, transit workers allowed commuters to travel for free, building solidarity, generating discussion on the issues and inflicting greater consequences to the employer? Such an action would enable people otherwise penalized by transit strikes because they can’t get to work or doctor’s appointments or schools to directly benefit from a worker action.

Abusers always crash and burn (if they live long enough). They cannot exist in a constant state of anger, hate and fear without serious consequences to their health, relationships and sense of self.

Likewise, capitalism is not sustainable and will crash and burn, even if we do nothing to hasten its demise. Although there is certainly a logic to hastening its demise, we don’t want to harm or weaken ourselves in the process. Nor do we want to crash and burn with these unhealthy, dysfunctional institutions. That’s why we need to spend a significant amount of time and energy on building the lives we want; creating the organizations, groups and participatory processes that will be highly immune to the abuses meted out by a system on its deathbed. Building empowered, resourced communities enables us to shift our attention from what is already dying to nurturing what will be born.

Zainab Amadahy is a mother, writer and activist. Her publications include the novel Moons of Palmares (1998, Sister Vision Press) as well as an essay in the anthology Strong Women’s Stories: Native Vision & Community Activism, (Lawrence & Anderson, 2004, Sumach Press). Most recently Zainab has contributed to In Breach of the Colonial Contract (Arlo Kemp, Ed. 2008) by co-authoring “Indigenous Peoples and Black People in Canada: Settlers or Allies?”