Once we recruit supporters, how do we ensure they will stay involved in our movements? Activist causes have wasted immeasurable amounts of community support by allowing dedicated and skilled activists to burn out and disappear from activism.
Burnout is a serious issue that deserves larger attention from all progressive social movements and organizations. Burnout is the deterioration of psychological, emotional, and physical well-being coupled with feelings of hopelessness. Burnout is a severe condition that often leads activists to temporarily or even permanently withdraw from activism. Unfortunately, burnout is quite common—one study found that 10-50% of union and peace activists have experienced burnout, and up to 87% of peace activists had quit activism within 6 years of getting involved. Unfortunately, burnout is even more prevalent among marginalized activists, such as people of color, as they must cope not only with the stresses of activism but also with everyday acts of racism and oppression.
Burnout is frequently caused by the culture of martyrdom often present in activist circles—activists have a heightened sense of responsibility for the issues plaguing the world, feel overwhelmed at the severity of these issues, and then over-work themselves in attempt to help as much as they can. The culture of martyrdom also affects activists when organizations place too much pressure and make too many demands of individuals, attack fellow activists in bouts of infighting, and withhold critical social support.
In recent years, more attention has been paid to burnout within progressive movements. Much of attention has been focused on small self-care activities, many of which involve buying consumer products, such as taking bubble baths or eating chocolate. Have any studies documented the links between the number of bubble baths taken and lifelong activism? No. While immensely important, self-care is not sufficient for building strong and resilient progressive movements. Self-care can help us cope with acute stress in our day-to-day lives, and may help buffer some of the symptoms of burnout, but expecting individual activists to manage a lifetime of underpaid work combatting the world’s most horrific and pressing issues with baths and chocolate is ineffective and irresponsible. We must address burnout together.
The research has shown that two most successful ways to prevent and combat burnout are (1) for individuals to prioritize their long-term career and activist development and (2) for organizations and movements to actively address burnout amongst their members. Career and activist development is important because we need to know our actions are making a difference in order to feel effective and buffer the stresses that come with activism. We will discuss how to integrate activism into your life to become an effective activist later on. Organizational attention to burnout is important because many of the causes and remedies of burnout exist at the organizational level. Organizations that help foster and nourish activists are crucial to creating resilient and strong communities and movements.
The most effective strategies for preventing burnout and fostering long-term activism include:
- Consider different levels of involvement
- Foster supportive environments
Consider different levels of involvement
Short-term and low-risk activism is easy and relatively free of danger, such as attending a nonviolent protest one afternoon or mailing a postcard to your senator. Long-term and high-risk activism, in contrast, is more difficult or dangerous. The Mississippi Freedom Summer project of 1964 is an example of high-risk activism. Individuals, largely white college students from northern states, traveled south to help register Black voters, but faced immense backlash and violence from local whites, leading to the murders of several college students within the first few weeks of the project.
Unsurprisingly, people are generally more likely to participate in short-term and low-risk activism. But scholars have identified many factors that differentiate individuals who sign a petition one time from people who spend their lives fighting for social justice, and that differentiate individuals who are willing to put themselves at risk to engage in dangerous activism from individuals who are not. Perhaps surprisingly, individuals who dedicate their lives to progressive change are not always more politically radical or more tough than one-time or fair-weather supporters.
Instead, the biggest predictors of both high-risk and long-term activism are having prior experience with activism and organizational involvement and having a strong sense of efficacy—working with successful organizations and believing that activism will make a difference in the world.
Other important factors for engaging in high-risk and long-term activism include having strong ties to other activists, living in an area strongly influenced by conflict or activism subcultures, having more time and energy to participate, participating in supportive and empowering social movements and organizations, having a strong activist or collective identity, and having low rates of burnout.
In short, for the most part, people who dedicate their lives to activism have been nurtured and supported by other activists and community leaders. Every successful attempt at low-risk activism and community engagement builds a sense of efficacy, creates stronger links to other activists, and generates more political knowledge and skills. Over time, this increases the chances that someone will continue to engage in activism and perhaps take on high-risk activist projects.
This is very important for radical activists tackling the most high-stakes issues to learn. The way to build strong communities that can resist oppression and violence is not through shaming inexperienced activists or developing ever more complicated political ideologies—it’s through community support, empowerment, and education. Paradoxically, those who want to see more lifelong activists and individuals who are willing to engage in high-risk activism should be pursuing more low-risk activist events, which can help train and nurture future generations of activists who have the skills and confidence to take on larger tasks later in life.
Foster supportive environments
Preventing burnout and sustaining long-term activism happens on the organizational and movement level. Effective organizations do not blame activists who leave their organizations. Instead, they recognize that poor retention is a symptom of unsupportive and ineffective organizations and they actively work towards creating more positive, supportive, and efficacious cultures of activism work.
Effective organizations that nurture happy, dedicated, and effective activists are attuned to the individual needs and motivations of their members. They know that activists often leave organizations due to a poor fit between members’ skills and interests and the roles they are assigned, and so effective organizations work to offer activists meaningful tasks.
Effective organizations with longstanding members also offer a supportive and friendly community, where conflict and oppression are actively addressed. The most successful strategies don’t attempt to completely prevent conflict from arising—conflict is natural. Instead, effective organizations attempt to work with conflict to move forward together.
Finally, effective organizations that successfully retain activists have concrete goals for social change that they are successfully working towards accomplishing. One study found that fundraisers who got to meet for 10 minutes with a student who had earned a scholarship funded in part by the fundraising organization spent 142% more time on their calls and raised 171% more money. Efficacy is crucial not only for achieving a better world, but also for retaining activists, who need to know that their work is worthwhile.
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