Imagination is everything in activism
In our first blog, Tom Godwin, Hope not Hate Wales organiser and Cardiff based activist talks about the importance of self care and support, and discusses the need to ensure we are happy and healthy to remain effective and strong enough to make a positive change in the world.
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare” – Audre Lorde.
As someone who works as an anti-racist campaigner and organises independently, there are a series of tactics I employ to keep myself happy and inspired enough to act. I am careful to maintain a work and life balance; I play football and have a roast dinner with the same friends at the same places every Sunday; I take care of my friends and family; I put these things in my work diary to make sure they happen; I exercise regularly and eat healthily; I drink with friends and put the world to right every so often; I go dancing whenever possible.
Imagination is everything in activism. The list above includes a few things that fuel my imagination and give me energy. This is what works for me. But self-care in activism should not be an act of individualism. It should be a collective act. That’s why the Cardiff Activists cafe is important. We need to support one another with the most basic forms of friendship and guidance, give each other energy, and build solidarity and strength through that process.
I began developing tactics for self-care after going through a bad period of depression a few years ago. Over time – beginning with counselling – I developed a series of tools to build resilience against spiralling into anything like it again (to varying degrees of success). Activism, campaigning, volunteering (and more broadly attempting to live with kindness and compassion) was something that helped me achieve the purpose and energy needed to combat depression in those years. I had never thought about politics growing up, and suddenly became deeply invested in social justice. The transformation individuals go through by becoming an activist should not be underestimated. It provides a sense of identity, purpose and deep connection with others. This was certainly my experience. And it made it more difficult to accept when I needed to take a step back.
An early mistake I made was to believe that the cause was more important than me. A hypocritical position as it was not something I expected of others. I was prepared to sacrifice everything. I became guilty of believing that feeling under-pressure, stressed, and generally miserable was all part of the struggle. After two years of going gung-ho, I became burnt out, depressed again, convinced I could not cope, and walked away for over a year before feeling able enough to get active again.
“Struggle has become a rite of passage in this movement. It’s become the way we do things. Our movement culture uses struggle as a word to define itself. We are always struggling against something. The term itself connotes hardship and extreme exertion. While this definitely describes a portion of our work in this movement, it is not and should not be the entirety of it. We are more than just struggle”
It is now a few years since I have made the transition from activism between jobs to organising professionally, and in the process I have began to think more tactically about my actions. Marshall Ganz’s definition of strategy is “how we turn the resources we have, into what we need to get what we want”. The realisation of my own worth as a resource to the movement helped me to understand that taking care of myself was not an act of self-indulgence, but an essential tactic to ensure I was most effective as a tool for change. If I was serious about playing my part in a movement to win, then I needed to sharpen myself up and stop these unproductive periods of burn out and depression.
The truth is that our fight is big enough without putting unnecessary stress and anguish on ourselves. If we really care about changing the lives of others, we need to provide a safe space for ourselves so that we are healthy and happy enough to work effectively. It is something we all need to factor into our activism if we are to remain effective and strong enough to force the change we need.
More to the point – if we are serious about the change we want to see – we are in this for the long game! There is no point in using all our juice over the course of one campaign year so that we are too tired to join the next. I personally hope to live until I am old, and I expect fully to be involved in this struggle for the duration. I work hard, but I don’t sacrifice my physical or mental health. It is important to think sustainably (we are, after all, seeking to build a more sustainable world) and understand that every campaign we run is part of the longer-term objective of changing the structure and atmosphere in our society.
The Activist Café is a pit stop for activists to provide shared support, and provides a forum to discuss shared values. It is a space I would like to see established in every town and city. I attended for the first time last month and was asked to share some of my thoughts on self-care. I spoke a little about my own experiences and then shared some of the notes below. You only need to spend a few minutes online to find a multitude of articles with similar tips to consider. Take some time to have a look for yourself.
“The root of radicalism is embracing the fearsome, creative tension that comes when we choose to live resolutely in-between the world as it is, and world as we would like it to be, refusing to be condemned either to materialism or false idealism as a way of life. Living well with the two word tension is the root of true radicalism” – Edward T. Chambers
The notes and tips on self-care below have been taken from The Activists Handbook: A Step-by-step guide to participatory democracy, by Aiden Ricketts (2012):
The power of positive thinking
Negative images of an issue can provide anger and spur you on. They need to be balanced by positive messages that encourage hope and effective activity.
“Many people have had the experience of deciding to buy a certain model of car. Suddenly overnight that model appears to be everywhere. There are not more of them; it’s just that you have set off the “search pattern” in your mind that will now look for opportunities to bring your vision to reality… envisaging a better world will help alert you to the opportunities that exist to achieve it”.
“What many famous visionaries have in common is their focus upon the world they want to create, not on what they want to eliminate”.
Be the tortoise! (not the hare)
The worst thing you can do is decide the campaign is more important than you. This leads to burnout. “Remember, what we want is a more sustainable world, so achieving it sustainably has to be the first step”.
Spotting the signs of burnout
Advanced burnout is closer to nervous breakdown – Can be characterized by depression, exhaustion, chronic fatigue, mood swings, anger, cynicism, emotional freezing, irritability, inability to find meaning in anything…
“In the earlier stages it may be less obvious, but the danger signs include withdrawal from social life, workaholism, relationship breakdowns, neglect of family and friends and a general attitude that there is nothing more important than the campaign and no one else who can be relied opon to do it properly”
Taking small wins
We want to win, so we need to find ways to win. Small victories along the way are crucial, and need to be factored into our campaigns even if they are only part of the way to the change we want to see. Importantly, we should celebrate when we do win.
“Some activists seem to fear their comrades celebrating successes and actively try to contain the celebration with more bad news or obsessively reminding everyone that it’s not over yet. This comes from a fear that people are motivated only by impending disaster and that they will slack off if they are allowed to celebrate. This is wrong; we need to take a breath after each flight of stairs and celebrating small successes helps foster an optimistic and positive feeling in a campaign”.
We also need to plan for when we fail…
“Sometimes it is necessary to first accept the possibility of total failure, then to find that state of mind that will allow you still to act with hope and integrity…
… Acceptance in this sense is not the same as despair or resignation and it’s not the same as approving of something either. To accept that there is injustice in the world is actually the most important first step in organising yourself to correct it. Accepting that there will still be injustice in the world after you have corrected some of it is also important…
… Acceptance is a state of simply acknowledging the way things are, and it is a great basis of simply acknowledging the way things are, and it is a great basis for committing yourself to changing them. You may have wondered how some people can live a whole lifetime among the very social conditions that they aim to change. How can a human rights worker spend years working with victims of abuse? How can an animal rights worker spend so much time dealing with scenes of cruelty? The answer has to be that they have learned to look the problem in the face without flinching (accept the existence of the problem) and then commit themselves to taking useful steps to bring about change…
…A successful activist should aim to minimise their internal suffering over their chosen issue in order to maximise their effective actions to bring about change. Wringing our hands and feeling bad does not change the world, but taking action can”.
The spirituality of activism
“It is difficult to seriously address the issue of burnout without delving into the spirituality of activism to some extent. This is because the prospect of burnout brings us face to face with the very things that first motivated us to become activists…
… sustainable activism proceeds from a balanced understanding of what it is to be a human in a very large and complex universe” – We are all very small, but capable of choice, agency and effect”.
“We need to have the humility to accept the diversity of the world and its people, yet be sure enough of our position to pursue our goal with dignity and perseverance. Above all we need to understand that we are a natural, valid and relevant part of the universe, just as we are, and that we have nothing to prove”
Check out this video on this subject:
 Independent consultant Lisa Garrett, quoted in “Movement Strategy Centre Review of Movement Culture” (2010)