“Activism is heart work”: How to resist without burnout

How do you stay motivated while sustaining movement? Janaya Khan shares her self-care practices and speaks with four seasoned activists about their own

Janaya Khan, Patrisse Cullors, Rosa Clemente, Najeeba Syeed and Raquel Willis

Clockwise from top left: Janaya Khan, Raquel Willis, Rosa Clemente (centre), Patrisse Cullors and Najeeba Syeed

Movements are necessary to push for change and expand our imagination of what is possible—but they are not easy to sustain.

Activism is not glamorous work, and activists are not only tasked with maintaining their own will to fight against what feels like insurmountable odds; they must inspire others to join in a tumultuous political climate.

In the past several years we have seen the rise of movements like Black Lives MatterStanding Rockthe Women’s March and, most recently, #TheMajoritya coalition of organizations coming together to fight white nationalism in North America. While the protest of 40,000 people in Boston two weeks ago can capture the public imagination, the countless hours that go into planning and organizing protests—before and after the event—are rarely acknowledged.

Activism is not paid or career work. It is heart work. Many are doing the work on top of full-time jobs, parenthood, school and other day-to-day realities. Some may just see a hashtag in front of a name or issue, but I see the emergency calls and round tables that go deep into the night. I see the fundraising platforms developed and media strategies formed. I see the literature created and goals and demands hashed out to form what becomes a years-long campaign.

It can be exhausting.

A headshot of Janaya Khan

(Photo: courtesy of Janaya Khan)

Often, we have to fight against the reality of burnout as fervently as we fight against hate. Sharing tactics and strategies to stay healthy and motivated, from self-care to squad careis vital to sustaining movements.

For me, I got into this work through boxing. I walked into my first boxing club because I wanted to feel strong enough to protect myself and my friends should anything ever happen, but I fell in love with the sport because it empowered me in all aspects of my life. Initially, I trained with many women and the first lesson I learned was to stop apologizing whenever I connected a punch; I didn’t have to apologize for being powerful.

I began my activist work by dragging a giant, smelly hockey bag full of borrowed boxing gloves and mitts to any conference and community I could get to, teaching—largely women and trans people—how to throw a punch. I wanted to share that feeling of agency I felt when I was in the ring. I still box for grounding, and I take that grounded feeling with me outside the ring when I sit at strategy tables or when I’m protesting in the streets. I know in my heart I can take a punch—and punch back—and knowing that I have that strength in me keeps me going and keeps me unwavering even when confronted by violence and hate.

Reading, to remind myself that I am not alone, and writing, to remind others that they are not alone, are also part of my practices.

That’s what I do, but I wanted to find out how other people take care of themselves. So I reached out to four seasoned activists to learn more about how they stay motivated and resist burnout, and also what self-care looks like for them. Here, a blueprint to keep you going, courtesy of Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter and author of When They Call You a Terrorist (due out January 2018 from St. Martin’s Press), Rosa Clementejournalist, hip-hop activist and thought leader, Najeeba Syeed, director of the Center of Global Peacebuilding and a spiritual leader, healer and scholar, and Raquel Willis, national organizer for the Transgender Law Center.

What keeps you motivated to keep doing the work of social justice in such a volatile political climate?

A headshot of Patrisse Cullors

(Photo: courtesy of Patrisse Cullors)

“Finding moments to express joy whenever I can is important” — Patrisse Cullors

My family keeps me motivated to do the work I do. I think of what I started with my partner and my child. I feel really motivated by them, and it reminds me that this is why I do this work.

In the last year, I suffered from serious depression and was really encouraged by my family to take some better steps around my health. I got myself back into therapy. I found a personal trainer too. (I haven’t been to my trainer in two weeks because I’ve been knee deep in stuff around Boston and Charlottesville, but I’m going back to it this week.)

My spirituality keeps me motivated too. It brings me solace. I don’t talk about it a lot publicly, but it’s really taken care of me in some of the hardest times of my life and continues to care for me now. And joy. The system isn’t set up to care for us, but I’ve found that little impromptu dance parties in the living room with my family—that is medicine. That’s joy. It keeps me going.

How do you resist burnout?

A headshot of Rose Clemente

(Photo: courtesy of Rosa Clemente)

“I learned how to say no without feeling guilty about it” — Rosa Clemente

I was always concerned about burnout, because my mentors talked to me about it. They warned me about people not making it, having mental breakdowns and real body and health issues later in life. They watched it happen.

I thought I was good when it came to taking care of myself, but feelings of burnout caught up with me in the last year or so. It’s important to remember: we all will burn out—even if someone gives us the lesson, no one is an exception. I have never been so burnt out that I was out, though. Today I manage it by knowing when I need to step out.

I think it’s also about embracing a real shift in the mentality of knowing that things can continue without me. It took a while to learn this, but after 25 years of movement work I’ve really tried to take it to heart.

Also, I am a laugher. I love making people laugh. I have never been so serious as a movement person that young people felt turned away.

So here’s my advice: Stay close to young people to avoid burnout. Get people together, phone-free. Walk away when you need to, take a break and learn how to say no without feeling guilty about it. The latter is so important. Sometimes too, I treat myself. I might buy a new dress and make myself look pretty. Feeling good and strong about yourself makes it easier to say no.

How does self-care help you stay grounded—and what are some of your practices?

A headshot of Najeeba Syeed

(Photo: Courtesy of Najeeba Syeed)

“I don’t practise self-care, but I do try to practise communal care” — Najeeba Syeed

I am a visible Muslim woman. I am embodied interruption. I don’t get to turn off. The second I walk out the door I am dealing with these realities. This means that the self-care model doesn’t translate for me. I don’t identify as an individual, I identify in a collective. That’s why one thing I do is go to women of colour hangouts where I can talk openly and freely. For me, it’s also about recognizing when I am physically, mentally, spiritually tapped out. And also understanding that it doesn’t always have to be me—part of my collective work is extinguishing the ego. When victories happen in communities, the burdens are shared as well. So it’s not self-care for me, it’s communal care.

I have been talking about the spiritualization of struggle because movement culture can be very transactional and hate is a commodity. I keep asking how do we keep making offerings that build each other up? Our healing models are based on the individual, so the ultimate goal of my work is in building alternative spaces that build people up.

How do you stay outraged and engaged?

A headshot of Raquel Willis

(Photo: courtesy of Raquel Willis)

“I think of all the glorious ancestors who lived in resilience” — Raquel Willis

As a Black trans woman, when I think about community, I think of all the glorious ancestors who lived in resilience. They persisted in times where the risks of authentically existing were much higher. 

If I’m not in my best form, I won’t be in best service to my own goals or the goals of my community. I try to take more breaks, rest more often and seek out the company of people who will listen and push me to keep me engaged. I also remind myself that I am more than a role or a job and that my life exists independently of the work I do.

My self-care journey has been winding. I’ve found that I often get used to routine, and it ends up being ineffective. Writing and creating without a purpose has been a constant outlet for me. Just being around loved ones I haven’t seen a while, mindlessly watching TV or treating myself to a concert or a day at the park acts as self-care for me too.

Janaya Khan is a lecturer, author and co-founder of Black Lives Matter – Toronto.

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