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Why healing activist burnout is essential to dismantling capitalism

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Image: Markus Spiske/Unsplash

This blog is the first part of a series on activist burnout. This blog gives an overview of activist burnout and how healing is linked to justice and dismantling systems of oppression. The second part will focus on regenerative activism and support needed throughout movement cycles. The third part will examine ways we can integrate community care and collective healing directly into organizing and activism.

I've had several bouts of burnout over the years, despite finding the water and social justice work I have been doing for more than a decade deeply rewarding. I have also seen people I work with, know and care about burn out.

People who experience burnout don't always call it burnout nor do they experience the same symptoms.

Symptoms can include exhaustion, insomnia, anxiety, depression, fatigue, illness, pain, the inability to concentrate, or emotions like despair, grief, anger, resentment, sadness, guilt and shame that intensify or persist over time.

These emotions and states are normal reactions to the state of the world.

Our climate is in chaos with raging forest fires, intense tropical storms and extreme weather. Waters continue to be polluted, extracted and dammed. Black and Indigenous peoples continue to experience physical and structural violence at a devastatingly disproportionate rate. These crises along with the COVID-19 crisis, food security and migrant rights, white supremacy, gender-based violence and other crises intersect and compound each other.

Front-line communities often face sustained and unrelenting assaults that tax their time, energy and resources.

Yet when these emotions and states persist over time, they take a powerful toll on our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health.

On top of experiencing most of the symptoms above, I also experienced compassion fatigue and major digestive issues. People with chronic stress in fight, flight or freeze can experience a range of health issues when their bodies direct energy away from parasympathetic activities like digestion, healing, regeneration and building immunity to prioritize protecting them from danger.

Burnout happens for many reasons. A root cause of burnout is internalizing systems of oppression such as capitalism, colonization, white supremacy, racism and patriarchy as well as personal, intergenerational and collective trauma.

Tricia Hersey, also known as the Nap Bishop and founder of the Nap Ministry, sees rest as a form of social justice and began napping for her ancestors who were slaves and could not rest. She posts quotes on social media like, "Rest is a form of resistance because it disrupts and pushes back against capitalism and white supremacy."

In the book Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, adrienne maree brown and contributors highlight the need for social justice work to be pleasurable, and question our discomfort with pleasure as a result of trauma, capitalism and other forms of oppression.

Recently announcing her sabbatical, Eriel Tchekwie Deranger from Indigenous Climate Action highlighted the importance of taking time to heal and that healing is justice.

In doing my own healing, and supporting others through theirs, I continue to come up against the way we have internalized notions of work, (self-) worth and our bodies as limitless resources as defined by capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy and more. Honouring the needs and cycles of our bodies in the same way we call for the honouring of lands, waters, ecosystems, wildlife, people and the other things we fight to protect is critical to justice work.

In April, I did a webinar about activist burnout with local chapters of the Council of Canadians. Some ideas to address burnout and resource ourselves stemming from that webinar include:

1. Structure work cycles to be regenerative: Extinction Rebellion promotes the regenerative action cycle, working in "natural cycles as well as teachings from many regenerative cultures and Indigenous cultures around the world." This includes nourishment, celebrating, sharing stories, debriefing, processing grief, resting, reflecting and dreaming new visions after an action or event. 

2. Carving out space for people to step back from the work: Structuring groups and organizations in ways that allow and encourage members or staff to step back to restore, reflect and heal so that they can come back healthier and more whole. In the La Pêche Coalition for a Green New Deal, we take turns leading and bottom-lining projects so that other members can step back when needed and know the work will continue.

3. Integrating community care: Toronto organizer Nakita Valerio, who wrote the viral Facebook post, "Shouting 'self-care' at people who actually need community care is how we fail people," has highlighted the limitations of self-care. In the recent blog "Sharing the struggles of activist burnout," rabble's Tania Ehret wrote, "A collective problem calls for a community-based approach."

4. Providing on-site trauma response, support and care at direct actions, marches, events and more. Teresa Mateus, trauma specialist and co-creator and director of Trauma Response and Crisis Care (TRACC) for Movements, sees parallels between combat and war trauma, and movement trauma. Movement spaces can also be triggering for people who face systemic oppression or have experienced (intergenerational) trauma and can produce vicarious trauma. There was on-site trauma response care at Standing Rock. TRACC for Movements provides care to frontlines and movement spaces.

Healing and addressing burnout is the missing piece that will enable our movements to continue to work for the liberation of all in a regenerative way. Healing is integral to dismantling systems of oppression and building communities based in justice, equity, health and compassion.

Here is a list of resources on activist burnout out and healing. Thanks to Council of Canadians Atlantic regional organizer Angela Giles and Atlantic chapters for their contributions to this list.

Emma Lui is co-founder of the La Pêche Coalition for a Green New Deal, a member of Cooperative Biblioterre and a holistic health practitioner who works from a healing justice lens.

Image: Markus Spiske/Unsplash

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