I had been struggling with what it meant to be an activist (or what the term even means) for a while before my health knocked me on my ass. My junior year of college, I spent the fall in a program called Semester in the West (SITW), traveling around the western United States studying politics, ecology, and writing. Along the way, we met with activists of all sorts, seeing on-the-ground organizing and the complications that come into play with community engagement. The semester left me completely confused, not only about the politics of things like ranching, but what models to use for my activism. The litigious non-profit employee? The soft-spoken biologist? The entrepreneurial rancher? We’d met all of them, yet I didn’t know where I fit into the definition of “activism” or how to feel like I was making real change.
However, one thing I realize now is that all those varying models of activists still implied that you are active, even if that—often—meant running yourself to the ground in the process. The models showed people who were able-bodied and able to engage in the typical means of organizing. I took this for granted until I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism. I ended up leaving school early the spring after SITW, once I finally admitted that the mental and physical drain was too much for me to handle on my own. That self-definition as an “activist” was taken very abruptly away from me. I felt excluded because of my health from the “activism” I had known. And the truth is, when we think about traditional results-based, goal-oriented organizing, we do exclude a huge population of the population and the people we care about. Able-bodiedness is assumed as the default experience. But what happens when you have chronic pain and can’t sit through a meeting? What if you have a mental health issue that keeps you from going to public demonstrations? What if you can’t engage in certain political actions because of your conditions? Though I couldn’t see it before my diagnosis, with results as the focus our activist communities leave no room for those who do not fit into the traditional activist mode—and for those who do, the pressure to get results can easily lead to participatory fatigue and burn-out.
Part-way through Semester in the West, my confusion with this activist definition led me to talk with Mary O’Brien, one of our ecology professors and a woman with more energy than all 21 SITW students put together. I couldn’t understand how she worked so (seemingly) tiredlessly on issues of land and species preservation in the West. How did she get refueled from her work when so many of the projects’ goals failed or were thwarted in coming to fruition? I asked her how she viewed success, and what she had to come out of a project with to feel like the work she put in was worthwhile. Her answer was surprisingly simple. She said ultimately she would like to see the land and animals come out for the better. But, if that doesn’t occur to the level she desired but she comes away with better connections, more understanding of the problem and how other people view it, and not having burned any bridges, then she’s done good work.
Basically, she was emphasizing a relationship-based approach to organizing. And her success as an activist and her ability to work at such full-tilt speaks to the benefits of this model.
It was not until I came back to organizing after my diagnosis that I realized how few of my activist connections and conversations went below that logistical surface, below the facts and tasks and the abstract ideological diatribes. It was my senior year of college, and yet I had few real relationships from my time there. My drive for results to show I was making change had driven me away from the people I was working with. So I started to have conversations not related to the organizing topic at hand, and I finally felt some of that participatory fatigue fade away. When we are faced with actual conditions, actual stories, relationships built on the level of everyday life and not on short-lived and polarized political events, we are provided with the opportunity to learn and become something…other. We are given the opportunity for self-reflection, for support and care, for laughter and frustration, and in so doing, activism falls out of the “active” assumptions so many young people seem to be stuck in.
We don’t have many activist mentors anymore. Yes, there are the greats like Bill Mckibben and Van Jones whom you might hear at a conference. But within our communities, our elders are hard to find. Society has evolved so quickly and organizing has progressed to so many different tools and levels that we don’t often have people who can show us successful relationship-based organizing and the power of activism that occurs off Google docs and spreadsheets. But in this age of virtual communication and engagement over broad expanses of place, it is even more important to emphasize those relationships. To carve out that time for care of ourselves and others.
Our strength as activists comes from the density of our relationships, not from the numbers on petitions. That mutual support for and from people doing my kind of work—a definite peership I’ve developed recently—has given me solid roots in the face of the problems we face. Those deeper connections within my communities of engagement have given me the strength to recognize participatory fatigue and both ask for and offer help when needed. And it has only been through these relationships that I have actively been able to reflect on and carve out a new definition of activism for myself—and so far, that effort has only helped me thrive as a person, a community member, and as an organizer.
Building meaningful activist communities is a daunting prospect—but I think more because we lack a clear model that because of the cost of the work actually involved. I believe it’s time to create our own model, one that is more inclusive, validating and caring.
And it can start with a simple conversation.