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Sharing the struggle of activist burnout

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Photo taken at the Toronto Climate Strike in September 2019. Image: Lewis Parsons/Unsplash

I used to think burnout was individualized; personal with varying degrees of over-commitment and exhaustion. And certainly, that rings true. But that story points to a personal failure, rather than to a cultural expectation that is hard to live up to. Or more so, the challenge of coming to terms with the reality in which we find ourselves.

With the rise of the political right, and climate grief -- and, as I'm writing this, a global pandemic of COVID-19 -- taking up so much of our mind space, anxiety seems to steer much of the work that we do as activists and citizens globally. Although burnout isn't new, the collective grief which we are facing seems to be at an all-time high.

I've been concerned about activism and burnout for some time now. This is a topic that has been close to my heart since I started getting involved in various climate justice and local concerns, and then crashed and burned on multiple occasions. As someone who often takes on too much and struggles with emboldening boundaries and saying "no," it's easy for me to find myself at a state of over-capacity, often without even realizing it.

The feeling I've had after waking up after a large-scale event that I've poured heart and soul into for weeks or months on end, and finding myself in a strange state, having to reconnect myself to the everyday life I'd been avoiding, can be paralyzing. To wake up and suddenly feel a loss of identity, of direction and sometimes of hope, and also fear for what is to come next, points to a lack of balance. To carry all that weight and bear an individual brunt to systemic problems, is a recipe for this kind of burn out. 

And I believe this points to a need for balance and sustainability, not only on a personal level, but on a broader level for movements as well.

What has changed since I first started thinking about this issue is not only the technological mechanisms with which we find ourselves consistently connected and ensnared in the name of staying informed, but also the urgent message that this next decade is the make-it-or-break-it test for the entire planet. It's all significant. 

Those of you like me, who know all about "worrying," also know there is truly no end to it -- our relationships, our family, our work, our health, our living situations. And now, the very future of the planet. 

"Anxiety is an everyday word for teenagers these days" says Elisa Lee, facilitator of Solstice Grief Rituals for the Earth and the Fire and Flowers girls program. This is a word that wasn't part of the school curriculum when I was growing up. Although this does point to important strides in mental health education, the extent to which youth are afraid of their future, and not just in a personal sense, is saddening, though not at all shocking.

In Lee's work around climate grief, she clarifies the difference between grief and mourning. Grief is the honouring and public expression of the pain of loss, while mourning is in private. The same goes for climate grief. In this way, the most important armour against the collective angst which we face is in the nature of community as a whole.

This is because stopping the fear and paralysis that comes with bearing what often feels like the weight of the world, can not be pacified by one more time-tracking smart phone app. The worry that one day it will all be too much can not solved by one night of self-care remedies. A collective problem calls for a community-based approach.

Christine Boyle, a Vancouver city councillor, United Church minister and former organizer with the Self Care Project -- a program geared towards community organizers integrated a community-based approach to self care and activism (full disclosure: I was involved with the project for one year) emphasizes how community self-care is a more holistic approach to activist exhaustion.

"It's based in relationships of reciprocity, of accountability and of love. Individual remedies are short-term solutions. The justice work we have ahead is a long haul, and so we need to be tending to ourselves and one another in ways that carry us over the long term," she says.  

"Ideally when some people are feeling down, others are carrying on, and so we can grieve when we need to grieve, and feel hopeful when we're able to feel hopeful."

In this way, strengthening the very mechanisms of our local communities and building receptacles of support creates an auxiliary system for community organizing. The work is important, but without a surrounding culture, how can it thrive?

Longtime local activist Irwin Oostindie began the Under the Volcano Festival; a community arts and social justice festival supporting grassroots front-line resistance, which ran for 20 years on the traditional territory of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation in North Vancouver. When asked what made such a strong community-based activist event sustainable all those years, and of the value of cultural events in warding off the exhaustion of organizing events like this, Oostindie points to the issue of "how many people are separated from the culture of resistance. Without the cultural components all is lost."

As more and more people individually select various campaigns, sometimes based on trending issues, to get involved in, it's important to be both grounded and beholden to the communities they serve. Without a community anchor integrated into the web of social activism, lies the risk of burning out.

And so maybe our hope lies in numbers; in the ever-changing scene of new and young voices emerging, engaging, and learning from their communities, and stepping up to the plate when others can't. 

Tania Ehret has been involved in various community development/organizing endeavours around Vancouver and is currently rabble's operations coordinator.

Image: Lewis Parsons/Unsplash

Editor's note, June 19, 2020: A previous version of this article misspelled the last name of Irwin Oostindie. He is Irwin Oostindie not Oostinidie.

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