RebelSteps is a member of the Channel Zero Network. Head over to channelzeronetwork.com for more anarchist podcasts.
Alana organizes with fellow anarchist social service workers to provide mutual aid, advocacy, and radical support to others in the field.
Billy is part of Alliance Psychological Services, a cooperatively-owned group therapy practice in Ridgewood, Queens.
Dean Spade is a trans activist, writer and teacher. Read Dean Spade’s piece “Burnout: What It Is and Some Ways to Address It In Ourselves and In Organizations,” part of the inspiration for this episode. Read the latest updates, learn about his book, read other writing, and watch videos. In particular, check out his resources on Mutual Aid, including this video, article, and syllabus. Also check out this interview with Dean on the Mutual Aid on Lockdown podcast on “Motivation, Pacing, Building Capacity for Sustained Movements, and Doing Mutual Aid During A Pandemic.”
Learn more about the Jane Addams Collective. Read the Jane Addams Collective’s piece “Mutual Aid, Trauma, and Resiliency,” which includes a list of questions for groups to jumpstart conversations about preparing to handle trauma as well as tools for individuals.
Listen to Rebel Steps season 1, episode 7 “Be an Organizer 102” for some thoughts on burnout from our season 1 interviewees.
Listen to Irresistible, a podcast about collective healing & social change. Each interview is released alongside a practice for organizers to try.
Hi this is Amy, the producer of this podcast. This is yet another of our planned season 2 episodes, created before the pandemic, protests and uprising. So, once again, this episode is not specific to the moment. But we feel that today’s topic of burnout and mental health couldn’t be coming out at a better time! As mutual aid projects continue and street protests flare up and die down intermittently and rent strikes come up against threats of eviction, it’s likely a lot of us are dealing with very challenging situations. And on top of that, the uprising is far from over. So we hope that this episode will help you seek out the boundaries and support you need as these struggles continue. Here’s the episode!
Welcome to Rebel Steps. I’m your host, Liz.
When making season one, almost every person I interviewed brought up avoiding burnout and prioritizing mental health as a crucial part of organizing.
To anyone who’s new to organizing or those looking in from the outside, this may be a bit confusing. Often, those new to a movement experience a burst of energy in their first few months of involvement. When I was new, I was bolstered by the new social connections I was making. It was exciting to meet people with similar ideas to mine and to work with them on engaging projects. But I found myself attending more meetings and events than was sustainable. Inevitably, this level of excitement wore off, and eventually I had to slow down and re-evaluate my commitments.
With so many experienced activists citing mental health as an important ingredient for success plus my own experiences, it felt important to explore this issue as we close out season 2. So, in this episode, I’ll be exploring ways communities and individuals can prepare for the inevitable mental health struggles that accompany organizing.
Addressing Mental Health as an Individual
Alana: I’m Alana. I’m an anarchist. I’m a social worker. I work at a community health center that primarily works LGBTQ folks. I do individual therapy, group and couples with adults.
Billy: My name’s Billy. I’m a clinical psychologist in private practice in Ridgewood, Queens. I am relatively new to anarchism, but pretty dyed in the wool at this point. I’m on the team and it’s largely due to Alana’s influence in my life that I’m now rolling with anarchists and it’s a good scene.
In 2019, Billy & Alana put together the Anarchist Mental Health Conference. I spoke with them about how individuals can prepare for the challenges of organizing. One thing Alana highlighted is remembering that these topics are something we all can think about, even if we don’t see ourselves as fitting into a diagnosable category or label.
Alana: Mental health tends to be dichotomized into like those who are well or unwell. Everyone has mental health. It’s at different levels. And the extremes people can feel it can be different for different folks at different times. When we say mental health, it refers to everyone not just folks who necessarily could have diagnosable illnesses.
One thing that impacts everyone’s mental wellness is stress levels. That’s part of the reason why activists and organizers might find themselves needing to give their mental health extra attention.
Billy: Thinking a little bit more about just the relationship between stress and mental health. So if you’re experiencing more stress, it requires more resources to manage that stress and you’re more likely to suffer from symptoms that we associate with mental disorders, anxiety, changes in mood, fatigue, energy levels, physical health problems that kind of thing, suicidal ideation. So activists are by definition are experiencing more stress on purpose, right? Like we’re sort of inviting that stress because we’re trying to conceive of a different type of world than the one that we currently live in. If you’re struggling to pay your rent and you have a shitty job and your relationship is stressful and you’re out in the streets risking arrest let like guess what you’re probably going to experience more symptoms and that’s gonna just end up taking more of a toll on her mental health. So mental health is important for everybody. It may be especially important for folks like us and there’s a lot of opportunities too in mental health. If we are healthier, if we’re functioning better, then just think of what that means in terms for the organizing itself. We’re going to be a lot more resilient, a lot more capable of hearing other people’s perspectives, a lot less reactive when we’re getting together to do the work that we are doing.
As Billy mentioned, stress can come from an array of outside factors. One of those factors can be pressure to give a little too much.
Alana: Something that is common for our community is that we’re kind of expected to be martyrs and self sacrifice and keep working and working. And this sort of idea I’m not an anarchist, I’m from not woke enough, if I’m not constantly going going going. And that’s really unsustainable and can burn us out and lead to even more anxiety and depression. So just being aware what the expectations are within our culture of activism and kind of what’s expected of us. It’s really important to be aware of what our mental health is at any given moment.
When thinking about mental health, individual therapy is often the first thing that comes to mind. This kind of therapy can be a useful tool. It’s one that’s been helpful for me. But sometimes, therapy can be out of reach, logistically or financially. Billy offered another way of thinking about therapy.
Billy: A lot of the treatments that are available end up just being kind of learnable skills. So a lot of it is mindfulness practice, a lot of it is developing emotional capacity, emotional resilience, developing distress tolerance. Just kind of ways to get through your day a little bit better, a little bit more smoothly, just with more kind of capacity. So to the degree that you’re interested and willing and able to just kind of like see mental help that way and to learn some new skills, a lot of that is available in more kind of self help formats.
The Jane Addams Collective, an anarchist collective made up of social workers, psychologists and others, writes about this in their book on Mutual Aid Self Therapy or MAST. MAST is a method that seeks to help individuals teach themselves different responses in stressful situations. The key is remembering that psychologists don’t have a monopoly on these skills. The collective writes, “MAST practices extreme transparency as part of its model by presenting all the tools of MAST prior to them being used in a session combined with participants experiencing both using the tools to help others and the tools being used by others to help them.” Check out the show notes for more on that method.
None of these ideas stand in for medical assistance. These tools can be helpful in situations where professional help is out of reach or you just want to work on yourself. But none of this is meant to dissuade people from seeking professional help when needed.
Another thing that commonly comes up when discussing mental health is self-care. Here’s Alana.
Alana: For folks who might not be interested or can’t access more traditional types of therapy, self care is a completely legitimate aspect of well being in general and mental health. We’re not just talking about massages and manicures, of course. But when we talk about self care like boundaries, being really honest with yourself, about what you can and can’t do and being honest with the people around you about that. Honestly like sleeping well, eating well, getting outside, making time for yourself. These are all things that physiologically affect your body and that can really help with some anxiety, depression, and stress. I think also telling the people in your life like what’s happening, being open about it writing it down, not holding things and looking for support all different ways.
There’s no doubt self-care is important. I’ll come back to that at the end of this episode. But as I touched on last season, an overemphasis on self care can become very individualistic.
Since the last season, it’s become even more clear to me that mental health and burnout require community responses. Sometimes that just means being intentional about listening when someone’s having a hard time.
Alana: If we start talking just about what is it like for one person to be a support for a like a loved one or a comrade who might be struggling with mental health concerns, I would say you know to listen to what the person has to say find out what kind of support they do want maybe they just want someone to know, maybe they’d want someone to go to appointments with them. But just really have a good, open, honest conversation with your loved one about what they need, what support looks like for them. If they’re comfortable with it, if they do have a diagnosis that they identify with, maybe research on your own. If they’re on medications, research that, just to know kind of what they’re going through. But ultimately just to be an ear, to validate, and support them. It’s generally not a good idea to give them advice on how to feel better, on what to do, because most likely they’ve already tried everything. Something I also want to say that’s really important for people who are supporting those with mental health concerns is it can be really tiring for you as well as the support. So to find your support system as well, people you can go to so that when it gets a little tough you’re not the only one who’s kind of handling this on your own. And also to keep in mind that mental illness is never an excuse for abuse from someone, so your loved one that you’re supporting, you should still have the same standards for how you’re treated, for what you accept for what your boundaries are, and not to let yourself be abused by this person because they’re going through some rough stuff.
Billy: Thinking about not often a continuum is helpful in this conversation. You know instead of kind of two categories of mentally healthy or mentally ill, just kinda seeing that all of us are at some point along that continuum at any given time. And that is all all sort of situated within context. You know my current mental health struggles are a little different on a day when when I’m just kind of feeling better physically, when my rent is paid, when the future looks a little brighter. At any given point when you’re kind of like in a room with other people, like we just really don’t know what folks are going through. And some folks there act of self -care has been to come to this meeting today. They’re choosing to do some work that’s important to them as a way of kind of not letting depression win that day. So just kind of keeping that in mind, but to Alana’s point validation is really, really key and kind of like the main ingredient that’s often lacking in society itself. So just to be able to like really hear someone when they say like I feel like shit today. But it is important to kind of know your own boundaries in your own limits. So if you feel like you’re kind of getting in over your head, just to be able to reach out and to try to help someone connect to a higher level of care. If you’re ever in a situation where you feel like you’re someone’s only support, like that’s kind of scary, not-great situation to be in. So just kind of be aware of that and always be ready to kind of set and hold your own boundaries. Because it’s not gonna help anyone, it’s not gonna help your group, it’s not gonna help your work if you and this person that you’re trying to support are both just kind of spiraling down together.
Addressing Mental Health as an Organization
Discussions about mental health in organizing spaces often center around the kinds of individual solutions that Alana and Billy described. These conversations can be helpful for learning skills that help us cope. But they often leave out the context of group culture.
Sharona from Outlive Them brought up the importance of group culture when discussing community self-defense.
Sharona: Emotional health and wellness and mental health and wellness within organizing community is so important because, besides the fact that the world around us is so traumatizing, and that were being gas lit all the time, the work is really difficult too, because you feel like I don’t know if we’re gonna win in my lifetime. I don’t know how this is gonna go. Am I gonna lose family members for my views? A hundred different things come up. So something that is one more tactic of community self defense is affirmation for one another. Really intentionally building healthful communities of respect and trust, actively being anti-sexist and anti-racist. And specifically as being an organizer in a group of Jews, when things happen like the Halle shooting which was in Germany, when there’s traumatic news that impacts your community and you can process it with other anti-fascist anti-capitalist members of that community, you feel way less gas lit, I feel more empowered to be able to continue doing this work. That kind of community as an antidote to the barrage violence that we see and that’s especially true for those of us most in the line of fire of fascists and white nationalist and the state.
I think all of us want to work in groups and movements that have the culture Sharona is describing. Establishing that culture takes intention and care, and it’s not easy to connect these big picture ideas of culture to our day to day meetings and interactions. The rest of this episode will explore ideas for building toward supportive group dynamics. Creating a supportive culture can help to avoid burnout and reduce other activist-related mental health issues.
Dean Spade: I’m Dean. I live in Seattle and I’ve been working on Queer and Trans Liberation and prison and border abolition type work for about twenty years.
Dean has written extensively on group dynamics, including a piece on the issue burnout in particular. His work is inspired by his long history of activism and organizing.
Dean: A lot of my politicization happened living in New York City under Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the ‘90’s. And there was a lot of really like multi-issue, anti-police, economic and racial justice centered work happening, where people were working across a lot of differences and like really seeing how Giuliani was like attacking taxi drivers and try to clear queers who had sex in the park and making it hard for street vendors and making it hard for people in the sex industry and putting a lot of people in Rikers who were struggling psychiatric disabilities. Like there was a kind of cross issue response to the Giuliani administration’s like brutal right wing policies that really gave me my early education in radical thinking and action and social movement dynamics. That’s kind what I got my start and I went to law school because I saw a lot of the criminalization happening in our communities and a lot of the harm happening to people in like housing court and in other kinds of poverty venues. And after law school, I started an organization called the Sylvia Rivera Law Project that still exists and that provides free legal services to low income people who are trans, intersex, or gender nonconforming and operates collectively so that it operates on a consensus model with people who are on staff and people who are members are not on staff and seeks to build like racial and economic justice centered trans liberation.
I reached out to Dean after reading his writing on burnout. It really summed up a lot of the patterns I’ve experienced, and it also offered some concrete ways to move forward. He argues that group dynamics have a big impact on whether or not individuals in the group experience burnout.
Dean: Burnout doesn’t really happen just because we have a lot of work. Group dynamics are central to whether or not we burn out and what happens with our behavior when we burn out in orgs because groups can be a place where you get super activated in your own trauma stuff, and your worst behaviors from privilege systems. And groups are also ideal spaces for healing, where we can have experiences, a feeling seen and heard, of not being isolated anymore of getting to do satisfying work and collaborate and feel like people have each other’s backs. Both those things can happen and so group dynamics are central to like whether or not burnout is going to happen to people, what we’re gonna do when there is burning on conflict, whether or not we can hear from it or whether it’s going to destroy the group, whether or not we’ve set things up so that one person’s burn out can destroy the group or whether we’ve set things up so that we’ve got some durability even if somebody goes through a really rough patch.
Dean wrote this piece after witnessing an organization falter when one of its key organizers was struggling with burnout and also after experiencing burnout himself.
Dean: I initially wrote this piece probably five or ten years ago because I was working with some younger people who were working in an organization where one of the members had gotten really burnt out and was acting out. Like making decisions without the other rest of the group getting to be involved, being really like short and unkind to other people in the group. Like this person that kind of entered that spiral of being controlling, of ignoring group process, of kind of being martyred. Like they were the one of the founders of the group and felt they’d done more than everybody else and they were resentful of everybody else. And so I wrote the piece to this group of people. Like okay what do we do to make orgs durable when somebody goes down this path, because this is a patterned path. It’s not because this is a bad person, this is just like all the things our society has set up for us to feel in these situations. So how could the group be as durable as possible in the face of this kind of behavior and have things set up so that one person couldn’t like let’s say take on a bunch of work that the group had decided not to just because that person is in a burn out headspace or they have no boundaries and they say yes to everything or because it feeds their martyr story. How could the group try to establish good relationships between people in the group even if one person’s acting unkind?
Dean: The piece also has tips and ideas and about how if you’re the person who’s acting burnt out feeling burnt out how do you notice at all kinds of signs and symptoms, like oh god if I think I’m going to die when I think about this or if I feel like I can’t do anything but work, I might be in it, right? And then what can I do to try to travel back to wellness. And so that was why I wrote it for, but of course I was relying a lot on my own experiences because when I was really young like 23 or something 24 maybe, I founded an organization that was serving a lot of people who were in extreme crisis in jails and prisons and immigration proceedings and eviction proceedings, some of whom were sometimes dying and experiencing police violence all of this, and I went through an experience of burn out of having way too much on my hands, of not knowing how to say no to any of the work, getting resentful of not having good boundaries, of not knowing how to do good group process. So I had my own experience of what some of those emotions and experiences were like and also how strong group processes helped that group not be just the results of my worst behavior as the founder but instead to build something better around that that could that could hold the group even while different people in the group, like in that case me, are going through a learning experience but how to have better group processes or how to have boundaries or how to acknowledge and go with your decisions instead of going rogue or all the things that people do when they’re going through burnout moment.
When individuals in a group are experiencing burn out, it can take a toll on the group as a whole. One of the first steps to addressing burnout is recognizing when it’s affecting the group, which is easier said than done. There’s a wide array of symptoms that might crop up when working together.
Dean: Some people only realize they have burnout when they’re already like I can’t get out of bed and I’m never going back to that organization or work again. But a lot of times I would say burn out is happening before that moment. It can look like a lot of things. It’s like the work has become joyless. There’s often a lot of resentment for people. Sometimes people are feeling controlling of the work. They need things done a certain way. If people have conversations with them and they’re like “Hey you know I think you work way too much like, could we reduce your work at all,” they can’t see a way to do that and they’re defensive and mad and maybe defend over working really strongly. And I think for some people there’s even kind of like a work addiction element where it’s like “I can’t think of anything it makes me feel better besides working. I numb out by working. I only feel good about myself if I accomplish things,” can be parts of it. Some people got depression, anxiety, a lot of overwhelm and fear. Sometimes burnout include things like getting paranoid about other people in the org or other people in the movement or feeling competitive with people when actually it would be more aligned with our values to be collaborative and to want us all to get this really important work done that matters to our well being. So there’s different elements of it but often can have this kind of like poisonous, resentful, unkind edge where there might have once at the beginning of the work been like pleasure, joy, excitement about collaborating with others. A lot of times people with burn out get pretty isolated, because they say my way or the highway and no one else understands, no one else working as hard as me. It depends on personal types, but often just looks like someone disappears from the org eventually.
That list can sound a bit overwhelming. How can we address such a large range of issues? Dean has a long list of ideas for handling burnout. One of the first things we can do is make sure our onboarding is thorough and inviting. This sets up our newest comrades and collaborators for the difficulties ahead, and also brings in crucial support for the people who are already doing the work.
Dean: I would say on the left in general one of our biggest problems is that we don’t have a very good on ramp for new people into orgs. Big nonprofits will let somebody come stuff envelopes, but if we’re trying to actually build participation and leadership, we need to let lots of people come into orgs, gain skills and new analysis, and help run those organizations, spin off new projects. There’s just so much that’s not being done, so many people need support. So to do that we need to think, how do we welcome people and orient them, so that when they get here they’re not just like “oh I’m sitting in the corner during a meeting. I don’t know what any of these acronyms are they referring to. I don’t know what the history of this project was.”
Dean: But instead we have some method of making sure people know like some basic history what we’ve been up to, maybe they’re sitting next to a buddy who they can like ask any question maybe before they’d even ever come to the meeting someone’s on a one on one or there’s been a group orientation where they get like background of some of the key parts of the history of the group, who are some of the major players at the other orgs or institutions in the community who are our targets or who are our allies, how do we make decisions, what’s what are good ways to be heard in a meeting, why is it so important to us that you be heard in a meeting, like there’s no bad question to ask please just say like if you just like, why is that happening on a Saturday that should definitely be on a week day, just say it. Like that kind of deep deep encouragement to participate people need because most people have been in families, schools, and jobs where they are discouraged from participating. You’re supposed to agree to do whatever the authority figure says. You’re not a co owner of the space in any meaningful way, you’re not stewarding this resource together. You’re just doing what you’re told. So we all have a lot of unlearning to do it in that kind of authoritarian context, to become like meaningful co participants.
Dean: And it’s so easy in organizations to have people not really deeply invite new participants. And then the burnt out, old guard might be like these people don’t show up they don’t do anything. And it’s like well they’re not being fully invited and trained and connected with how to participate in this group fully. So I think it’s both a burnout prevention. It’s also a movement building piece. And it’s a piece around if we want everyone holding the old guard accountable or the potential burnout people accountable who might go on to become the resentful destroyers, we need those new people be like, “I’d actually like to see the budget again” or “like wait what happened to this ?” Like they need to feel skilled up and that might mean we’re teaching people how to read a spreadsheet they have never seen one before, or were talking about how grants work, or we’re talking about how legislation works or something that people for many reasons might not know about. Especially because we want to have the most new kinds of people and always who haven’t gotten to participate before participating. So we have to assume lots of like training and orienting instead of just come and sit in this meeting and be baffled and probably don’t show up again.
Setting people up from the beginning with a good groundwork can make their experience with organization better in the long run. There’s also plenty of ways to improve group culture in our day to day meetings and in our ongoing group structures. Dean recommends creating a space to thank other group members and also offer feedback. This can help prevent a build up of ill-will.
Dean: People really love to be appreciated for the work they’re doing. People doing any kind of work want and deserve chances to develop and have new skills and then also be appreciated for the work. So having some kind of regular check in. And one we have seen groups to this, let’s say we’re in a group of twenty people. We’re all trying to you know shut down the prison or something. We’re trying to do something amazing. And maybe a couple of people are paid or maybe nobody’s paid. Having it be like once a month it’s somebody’s turn. We all get an evaluation form. We get to write in like the things that are most amazing about Dean. Let’s say I have some special duties. Like how’s Dean doing with the website, how’s Dean doing with the calls or whatever it is I do. You know some people might have more to say or less to say depending on how closely work with me on that, that’s fine. You know what’s Dean like in meetings, and does he show up regularly, and does he participate. Where I think could you support? Are there areas where there’s challenges. And then somebody who works closely with that person’s down with them and it goes over it all not showing them by name who said what, but instead just like picks up big themes. And just has maybe like a one conversation or meal with the person. I’ve seen that make people feel like they’re getting a real chance to grow and change. And when you hear a lot of positive things along side some of your areas of growth, people are often really willing to hear it. Instead only hearing the area of growth in the moment where someone explodes on you, because no one’s mentioned to you for a long time that it’s really annoying you never come on time or whatever it is. So I think having actual structure around evaluations can be useful. And also it helps because some people tend to get more feedback than others because they’re doing the more public side of the work or something and that’s not really fair. It doesn’t that have to be that model, but some model where we actually openly appreciate and offer people feedback about challenges. It’s like what we deserve and what most of us have never gotten any kind of workplace or family group or anything.
Hearing appreciation is the easy part, but hearing the areas of growth can be really challenging. Receiving training on how to give and receive feedback can help participants build up these skills.
Dean: I mean we live in a prison culture, right? We live in a culture at premised on the idea of like being good or bad and exiling bad people. So we’re all terrified of being bad people. We want to prove that we’re exclusively good people. That entire thing is a set up of immense pressure where it’s the opposite of accountability. We’re afraid to ever admit our mistakes and we’re really afraid to say to somebody else “what you did just didn’t work for me or that hurt my feelings or I’m worried that’s not the right thing for us.” So we’re really bad at feedback because we live in a culture where if we gave and received actually good feedback, we’d have accountability instead of like a culture of terror and of like extremes of you know imaginary good and bad. So all of us like need these skills. Like how do I let somebody know something’s not working. How I speak up in that meeting even if I disagree with the proposal that was just made instead of just kind of like sitting here keeping it to myself and like brooding and like being mad later, right? That’s… These are hard skills. And what happens in a lot of orgs is people don’t say when something’s not working for them and then they instead of saying to the person who they felt offended by or hurt by, they only say it on the side other folks. They only do gossip. And so either, that’s creating a lot of divisions and often might be pressure on the person who heard it. Like oh god what do I do? Or it might be creating cliques or creating little hierarchies of a coolness. Or I don’t say anything, I don’t say anything, and then I just disappear from the org or I blow up. Either way more likely to be harder for the group to recover from. Not impossible but a lot of groups I think just lose people in this way. We just we just lose people. We really need people, we need people stick around, gain skills, lead, do amazing things. And so, having pretty much any kind of training, and I think there’s lots of different models, where people you know offer this in the community. Some kind of training, either we do our own research and our own training inside our org. Or we get somebody who thinks about the stuff who is in our community to help us, where we agree. We have deep conversation about why not giving direct and receiving direct feedback might be harmful. Why it’s hard to do and how we might want to try to do it. And there’s a lot of different ways we might decide to do that. We might decide to certain kinds of check ins with people we work with most closely. We might decide to use a model like some people will use like non violent communication or some other model where gives us like a little script of how we say this stuff. There’s a lot of great ideas and great ways to do this. But just something where we even start to say, this is our norm in the group, is to try practicing giving and receiving feedback, to notice how it’s hard and we can feel defensive, to notice how we can feel scared, and to say actually it’s worth it, And then also if gossip is happening, I’m not just gonna participate gossip. I’m actually going to try to encourage people in the group to bring things to the surface. Either maybe something that’s being gossiped that actually needs to be brought to group space or maybe it’s that two people really need to talk to each other who are not giving and to receiving feedback in the ways that would be most beneficial to themselves and the group. We’re not blaming and judging ourselves for not already having these skills. We’re like, yep we live in a culture where we don’t have the skills. That’s reasonable and we’re gonna try to practice something radical and different which will make us much better able to stay together and much harder for that system to tear apart.
So having these trainings and moments of reflection help members fully engage and grow.
Another way to promote good group culture is structuring the organization to be prepared for moments for burnout and crisis. One of the building blocks of a good structure is transparency through decentralizing skills, resources, and information.
Dean: If we want to protect our orgs from people being burnt out or otherwise going through some terrible crisis and being able to really mess up what’s happening in the org, transparency is vital. The key thing is to make it so that no one person is holding all the keys, not holding all the money, not holding all that contacts, because if that person is going through a rough moment and acting out in ways that are harmful to them or others. It’s gonna be worse for the org. And also when there’s more transparency in orgs, if people participate more fully, right? Like when more people feel like they own an org, then there’s we’re also doing burnout prevention, because more people are helping hold that responsibility, hold that global picture, know what to do to handle crises together, and like co-own the org and developing more and more leaders. And we need so much more participation in general in our movements so we don’t to be designing movement orgs where one person like holds all the knowledge, holds the keys, and holds the money and all that kind of thing. So that’s what I mean by transparency is it can be burned out preventing, because it can mean, instead of me going around town and promising to things for org that is like way impossible, I actually had to run it by my friends back in the org. And also instead of me just knowing like who the contacts, where we get that the supplies or whatever, I can’t kind of control. I can’t do the control moves that sometimes come with burn out if there’s more people in the mix with me. And if we’re all kind of not totally interchangeable, but we all could step in and back each other up as needed, which is not the design of businesses that are hierarchal in the U. S., which unfortunately often how people accidentally default designs their orgs.
A second part of good group structure is rotating positions. As people try new roles, they collect news skills so they can step in and help if someone burns out. And they’re preventing themselves from getting too tired of a single task.
Dean: Rotating positions and tasks is a great way to also deal with like burn out. Like if it starts to feel not fresh to be the welcomer, than that should be something that rotates in the group in the same way rotate facilitation or might rotate who’s writing different things. Like we want to have all of us skilled to do more things and then rotate a lot. That’s like healthy for the group in a lot of ways and prevents burnout, including the burn out of orienting new people or giving trainings 101’s.
While steps can be taken to foster healthy group dynamics, at the end of the day, each group and structure will have strong and weak points. No one is going to be able to construct a perfect group! The goal is to have as many tools at our disposal as possible for when challenges arise and appreciate what works and doesn’t work in your particular group.
Dean: Every group I’ve ever been in has had moments of really hard conflict and every group ever been in has like parts of its culture that are like amazing strength and parts that are troubling, right. So like this group is so great people really care about each other and they like follow up over text and they know that when each other like having a baby or like they bring soup when you’re sick, but at this group everybody shows up to everything late. Or in this group of people really follow through, they do everything they say they’re gonna do, it’s amazing. And also they can be a little bit disconnected socially. I mean whatever, all groups have these strengths and weaknesses in culture. I’ve been in some groups where people really use like art, dance, singing as a way to have fun and come together. And so that you could have a meeting that’s got heavy stuff in it for two hours, but even those five minutes or less ten minutes of something that made everyone laugh or smile or that kind of lifted people back into their purpose was renewing and relationship building during each session. That can be a really big cultural win. I’ve been in groups where people, especially groups that you know explicitly are about accountability outside of criminalization systems, so groups were people our dedicated to transformative justice principles where people have a deep conversation going about accountability. So they’ve already thought about how, gosh I don’t wanna be defensive, I want to listen people are having a hard time. Wow I want to give direct feedback. So I’ve been in groups where people are better at giving like direct feedback and hearing it. I’ve been in groups that were really really good at thinking who’s not being heard in this conversation. That’s a really amazing cultural norm is like if groups where it’s like wait we haven’t heard from that person yet or who is missing from this room. Wow why have we still not, don’t have any members are currently homeless or why do we not have any members right now who’ve been hospitalized in psychiatric facilities. All members have been in other kinds of facilities, you know. That kind of attention and care for that and then like concrete follow up steps for like how to get that feedback we’re missing. Some groups I’ve been I’ve been like really strong at that. It’s a starting place for groups is to be like what our culture strengths and what our weaknesses. And sometimes those are based on like what your like the founding person or people, it often tracks to their strengths and weaknesses, or if there’s a charismatic person or people. And sometimes that’s also the person who brings out. So it can be useful to like look at some of those not with any blame or shame, but just with the like oh, what do we want to try harder and what would do that and are there people in this group who’ve got like cool ideas we haven’t tried about what it would look like to work on our punctuality or to work on our ability to give and receive feedback or to work on our ability to notice who’s not talking.
We need different types of groups in the world. So recognize that each group structure has its place in the movement.
Dean: There’s a strength in having many different kinds of orgs in our movements. The longer I do this the more like each structure has strengths and weaknesses and actually that’s okay ecosystem, even though it’s so fucked when you’re in each one experiencing the weaknesses you know like in the same way that like there’s different problems with the really horizontal open group, there’s quality problems whatever, and the other one there’s like hierarchy and like exclusivity. We kind of need both, you know? But it’s very painful because all the harm in our society shows up in both and we always like maybe we just if just change the structure it would work. I’m not sure, I am not sure ever gonna find a structure people don’t treat each other in these ways. I definitely think things like consensus and clarity of decision making help. But I also think some of this is like going to show up in the different structures.
Aspiring to have this sort of culture requires addressing structural issues and decision making processes, like I examined in episodes 1 & 2, and embracing conflict resolution like I examined in the last episode. It’s a lot to take on, but small improvements can add up over time to transformative change. We need sustainable, healthy groups to build a resilient movement.
The individual limits and the collective possibilities
Even a culture that centers collective care doesn’t negate the need for individual reflection and transformation. One of the more challenging aspects of this topic is finding a balance between taking care of ourselves and participating in collective care.
Dean: We usually come to work for justice from painful experiences. A lot of us work in areas where we experienced harm or violence. That’s why we’re driven to work in them. And so it’s good to be like I’ll probably be activated, my own trauma be activated. That’s one area that a lot of self awareness about can really help us. Like oh I’m dealing with people who experience this kind of family violence and I experienced it. Or I’m working with people who had you know a traumatizing immigration experience and I had these things happen in court and now I’m in court with this person. But not seeing ourselves as robots who can just boundlessly do that and not need support and care and process. And then the other thing is you know we’re all so deeply programmed and conditioned with this culture, that we’ve come into organizations and we act out the cultural narratives. We act out white supremacy, we act like little bosses, or we actually submissive because we were trained that’s the way to be safe. Or we don’t share our opinion or we wanna dominate with our opinion, all of these things. And so just being like gentle and caring, like oh wow look at that, this programming is this group, this person is not evil for having it or I’m not evil for having it and it does require care, feedback and transformation. How could a group be strong enough to hold those moments of transformation instead of either I gotta leave because I’m so humiliated that people called me out or I can’t admit that they’re saying that I did what they’re saying or we gotta get this person out because they said or did this thing. Like that’s not going to make our movements big and that’s not gonna give people places to transform. So we really need to create organizations that are emotionally intelligent, that are places where we can see that if conflict is not like because something’s gone wrong, conflict is the result of working on things you care about with people you love. It’s gonna happen. And so burnout often happens when people are like oh god there was conflict and so my life is over, it’s terrible someone called me out or I was hurt… Like there is a kind of believing we failed if there’s conflict instead of expectation that this is part of it and part of what we’re all here to do is heal the world. And also do in our personal healing work and how we change how we interact with each other in this group. And if we don’t do it, the group’s not going to get to do what it wants to do as a group and we’re probably gonna just have people leaving or we’re gonna leave.
Dean: One part of it is how to build group processes that are durable so that when conflict comes up or when somebody has kinda gone off the deep end for a while, that we’re protected. So like do we have multiple people looking at the schedules or the money or whatever the things are that if one person’s having a rough time and loses track, it’s not over. How do we set up a group that has a culture of caring about relationships and caring about people in crisis so that, when crisis emerges, we have some skills? How do we have culture norms about gossip versus feedback? All of those things! How do we set up a group that’s durable for when these things that are gonna happen, happen? And then the other piece is how do we wake up and notice when we’re the one acting out or burning out or flipping out about what’s going on? If you’re noticing, I stay up all night thinking about this conflict in the org or I can’t relax at all, I just work again. Or my entire sense of self and whether or not I’m worthwhile is happening through this work. Or when I do this work I then have to go like get wasted or check out something that isn’t totally good for me that I feel a little iffy about. If I’m noticing some of this, then it might be time to add more introspection about what this work and the dynamics of the group are activating in me. And I honestly think that we can’t do healing work in the world if we’re not on a healing path, of healing the trauma of living in these cultures we live in under these norms and under these scripts. So the work is not just out there in the world. It’s in our groups and it’s in here in my person and in my experiences and in my desire to become the kind of the person that can be part of these societies we’re trying to build, which is not the person I’ve been programmed to be. So there’s gonna be some transformation that’s needed there.
In David Graeber’s book Direct Action, he notes that many activists have a short stay in movements. The demands of work or family life often draw people out of movement spaces. Those who stay often have found work close to the movement - like being a labor lawyer for example. There is one type of activist that is an exception to these trajectories, those who, he writes, “learn how to carefully limit their involvement to a single, manageable project.” Graeber continues, “The trick to staying involved for the long term is to find a way to resist the temptation to overcommit… Relatively few, in my experience, successfully manage to do this.”
This passage outlines a pattern I’ve experienced. Once someone starts getting involved, sometimes it’s hard to stop. There’s a desire to get to every meeting and be at every action. This impulse comes from a good place. Once we commit to joining the fight, we want to contribute in a meaningful way. And when you’re new, embrace that excitement. Go try a bunch of new groups and experience new ideas. Then, when it starts to get exhausting, take a minute to draw some boundaries and make reasonable commitments.
A big part of being able to draw those boundaries is trusting the rest of your group or movement to take care of things without you. John of Anarchist Black Cross touched on this in our first season. Here’s what he said:
John: Being around for any amount of time but especially as long as I’ve been around here in New York. Burnout is to be expected at least at some point in your organizing. And one of the important things that I have found to help deal with that is kind of a thing that you have to do beforehand which is to find yourself a good fit in a good group of people that you trust folks that you know that if you have to take a step back from something for a certain amount of time that they’ll pick up the slack and the work still gets done.
This pattern is true in small groups, as well as across large movements. Naomi Klein writes about this in her book _On Fire. _She writes, “Yes, we need to grow faster and do more. But the weight of the world is not on any one person’s shoulders: Not yours… Not mine.” She continues, writing, “That means we are free to do the kind of work that will sustain us, so that we can all stay in this movement for the long run. Because that’s what it will take.”
I’ve had many moments where this has been challenging for me. When I first started the podcast, there were weekends that were filled with a combination of podcast chores and organizing with groups. I found myself stuck in a boom-bust cycle of constant work punctuated by episodes of discouragement. Now over 3 years into my current chapter of organizing, I’ve learned some balancing tactics. Sometimes I have to take a break from a script in order to prioritize a meeting. Sometimes I have to stop all my organizing and activist work in order to recharge in the aftermath of personal challenges. Other times, I have to think on a longer timeline. Maybe winter will be a season of focusing on the podcast and spring will be a season of participating in groups in New York. It’s not easy for me to say no to things. But, slowly, I’m carving out a rhythm that doesn’t require so many sporadic episodes of burnout.
When thinking about this topic, it’s important not to make it about individual self-care versus community care, as if it’s an either/or situation. Rather, I’ve found these things are deeply connected. On one hand, individuals have to set some boundaries for themselves and find a commitment level that works for them. No one else can set those boundaries for you. On the other hand, when we’re part of groups that work toward supportive cultures and are full of people willing to take on the work, it’s easier to set and hold those boundaries. And it’s easier to trust that the work will go on without you.
This is just a small sliver of what’s out there pertaining to mental health and activism. Hopefully this exploration gave you some new things to think about, both for yourself and for your community.
I want to wrap up with a word of thanks for those who have stuck it out in social movements for years, and even decades. As I worked on this episode, I was struck by how much people go through in a lifetime of activist work. I feel a deep gratitude for anyone who has shared their projects, stories, and experiences with me. But I feel a special gratitude for those who have managed to stay politically active for many years, despite experiencing state repression and despite living through many periods of discouraging odds. Thank you to everyone continuing the work even in trying circumstances.
You’ve been listening to Rebel Steps. I’m your host Liz. Believe in yourself, trust one another, and get organized.
This episode was written, edited, and produced by Amy and myself. Music for this episode was kindly gifted to us by Tutlie, Ellen Siberian Tiger and also includes some songs that I created. Special thanks to our interviewees, Billy, Alana, and Dean. For a transcript of this episode and more resources, check out the show notes for this episode on rebelsteps.com.
If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider supporting us on Patreon or sharing this episode with your friends or via social media. This podcast is part of the Channel Zero Network, an anarchist podcast network run by radical media makers. Head over to ChannelZeroNetwork.com for more podcasts.