World Pulse

What's the Point of the Revolution if We Can't Dance

Posted May 13, 2010

By Jane Barry and Jelena Dordevic

Jane Barry and Jelena Dordevic met with activists around the world to discuss the culture of the women’s movement and uncovered a disturbing trend: We’re deeply unsettled in our work, and it’s affecting our progress. It’s time to change that.

Oxana Alistratova is an intense, driven activist running an anti-trafficking center in Moldova. When we first meet in Dublin, at a Front Line Human Rights Defenders meeting, we talk for hours about her work, her life, and her safety. Every day she works directly with survivors while managing a staff of 15. It’s difficult and dangerous work.

I finally ask her how she manages to juggle it all. She pauses.

“Well, I don’t sleep,” she says.

Oxana’s answer sums up the experience of most activists in the women’s movement. Across the world—from Rwandan peace activists to US domestic violence advocates—we are looking for more time. We are constantly trying to balance too much work with too few resources and never enough rest. We’re making choices every day about well-being—our own and everyone else’s. With so much to be done, and so many wrongs in the world to right, we almost always choose to serve others first. We don’t feel we have a right to rest.

I know because, with my colleague Jelena Dordevic, I’ve talked with more than 100 female human rights activists from 45 countries about this topic, and they all said the same thing: We’ve created a culture of self-sacrifice. And we’re tired. We’re fearful, exhausted, even traumatized.

When we sat down and talked with women about their hopes and challenges, what we learned was both disturbing and surprising.

What’s disturbing is that as activists, we manage high levels of chronic stress, exposure to trauma, and enormous workloads. We’re deeply stressed about the amount of work we have to do, and yet we almost universally accept this level of work as an inevitable fact of activism.

What’s surprising is that despite it all, we seem to keep going.

Susan Wells, the founder of Montana’s Windcall Ranch—an all-expense paid retreat for activists—said it best. She talked of “a damaging work ethic,” in which we are encouraged to override our own needs in order to reach our end goal. She explained that there is a damaging perception that a truly committed activist should be willing to tackle the Goliath of social injustice regardless of the personal cost. She pointed out the irony in the fact that when she first established her home as a free retreat for overworked activists nearly 20 years ago, she sent out 3,000 invitations, but only 30 people applied. Most felt that they—and their organizations—just couldn’t afford the indulgence.

Our work is messy, complicated, and personal. We’re fighting against warlords, mercenaries, and weapon-manufacturing nations. We’re up against state-sponsored terrorism, transnational corporations, and the factory down the hill that’s polluting our water supplies. We’re exposing our neighbor who just trafficked his daughter. We’re up against the world, and it’s taking its toll.

And yet when Jelena and I first started interviewing women activists about how they cope with the enormous pressure, most reacted with confusion and even frustration.

During one group interview in Sri Lanka, after we had discussed how they were coping with stress, one activist stopped me and said, “Look, I don’t get it—what does this have to do with our work?”

I heard this comment over and over again. As activists we can talk for hours about funding crunches, fundamentalisms, ending war, and violence against women. But discussing our own fears is much harder. Our stress, exhaustion, and personal safety are private matters.

Once activists got past the initial shock of speaking about themselves, issues of burnout inevitably came up. Sarala Emmanuel in Sri Lanka described it as an overwhelming feeling that you can never stem the tide of violence.

“When you hear about another rape or another killing, it makes you depressed,” she said. “In a way it does seem too much—we can’t respond to it all.”

It’s time we start talking. Sooner or later, the stress of the work gets absorbed into our hearts, minds, bodies, and into the movement as a whole. Without the time and space to reflect and recover, it stays there. Eventually it takes form as breakdowns, strokes, heart disease, cancer, suicide.

“I felt that I couldn’t cope with one more minute of handling responsibilities,” said Anissa Helie, a human rights activist in Algeria. “I spent five weeks in bed, only getting up to go to the toilet, not even able to make myself a cup of tea.”

The time has come to make our own personal well-being a priority. Because without physical and emotional health, how can we do the important work that we have set out to do?

Activist Pramada Menon coined the phrase “activist sustainability.”

“We never think of our own sustainability,” she said. “I am not talking about funding. The question is how do we sustain our own lives, get our own energy, and bring that change elsewhere?”

When we are living under constant pressure, the stress and anxiety of staying alert gets to be too much. When we are this tired, we have no time to strategize, to analyze threats, to do our jobs well. Worries about feeding our families or retiring without a pension are as important as concerns about funding our organizations and combating violence. These are part of the same sustainability equation.

Sustainability is about being able to do the work we love, while still feeling full and happy in every part of our lives. It’s about feeling safe, feeling connected, feeling recognized, respected, and valued—for who
we are, as much as for what we do.

But how do we sustain ourselves? How do we maintain the energy needed to create the change we so desperately seek?

As a movement, I know that we are resilient. We get knocked down. And we get back up again. Here’s how.

Joining Forces

As activists, we are each other’s families. We create peace by joining forces, by gathering, talking, and listening.

For many, the first time we come together with other activists is one of the first times that we find safety—not just in numbers but also in common experience. Sometimes, these spaces aren’t available in our own communities and we must seek them out by attending conferences, joining forums, and finding friends that can become our families and our pillars.

Let’s start talking. Not on the edges of conferences or in rushed e-mails. Not during tearful, exhausted calls from the office to another time zone at three in the morning. This has to be deliberate. We have to put talking, listening, and responding to our own needs at the top of our agendas.

Crying It Out

Crying has universal resonance among activists.

Hope Chigudu, a Zimbabwean activist, pointed out that one group who works on HIV/AIDS issues has a “crying room” to help its members deal with the tragedy and horrors they view every day. And, in our work, we see a lot of tragedy.

I am reminded of Barbara Bangura, a Sierra Leonean activist who worked with women who had been captured and enslaved by rebel soldiers during the decade-long civil war. When we met in her crowded offices, I was struck by her composure. What did it take to maintain serenity when surrounded by so much pain and sadness?

Barbara told me that usually she manages, but that there are stories that she just can’t shake. Every activist has these stories—those that seep, unexpectedly, into every aspect of our lives, haunting our dreams. These are the stories that drive us to the brink of despair, that leave us asking, “Why is this happening?”

We need to feel these stories, to take time to reflect on the gravity of the situations we are facing. These are the times when we allow ourselves to feel and release, to share in the sorrow.

Feeding the Soul

Spirituality, in its many forms, sustains many of us. Let’s get the “S” word out of the closet and talk openly about how to embrace what works and how to put aside the rest. For some, there is no name for this form of renewal; it is simply as natural as embracing the elements or digging bare hands into the earth to help create life. Spirituality takes us back to our deepest beliefs and values, to the source of our passion and commitment. For many, it can be the key to sustaining ourselves as activists. Because, as Margaret Schink, a US-based activist and one of the founders of Urgent Action Fund, says, “We’ll never have peace unless people have peace within themselves. To really bring about significant change, people have to go within themselves and find peace.”

It’s controversial, and deeply personal, and that can make it difficult to talk about. But the majority of the activists I interviewed practiced some kind of spirituality that kept them going—from walking in the woods to Buddhist meditation. Spiritual practices can help us make sense of the things going on around us. They can help us return to loving the world and loving ourselves. Making a practice of validating and affirming our spirituality can rejuvenate our work.

Make Sustainability a Part of Our Everyday Lives

As a network of organizations working for the world’s women, we must begin to dedicate real time in our own work environments to sitting down and talking about well-being together. We must begin to shift our culture radically by incorporating self-sustainability, activist safety, and well-being into our everyday routines.

Zawadi Nyong’o, an activist from Kenya, put together the following list of ways her organization can begin this shift. Let’s add to it.

  • Take 5 minutes every hour to stop, drink a glass of water, meditate, stretch, or do whatever is relaxing to you.
  • Create a space within the office for peaceful reflection.
  • Ensure that at least one day of annual staff retreats or gatherings are reserved for rest and restoration.
  • Fundraise for staff well-being. Give each staff member a personal well-being budget for massages, reiki, pilates, talk therapy, etc.
  • Say no to working on the weekends and budget sacred time for reflection during our work weeks.

Challenge Yourself to Challenge the Culture

Ask yourself what well-being means to you. What would it take for you to live in balance? Take the time to listen to your answer. It means change—and change can be scary. Let the process of exploring inner sustainability transform your own activism. Challenge your beliefs about what it means to be a part of this movement. It starts with ourselves as individual activists and permeates outward.

What does it mean if the way we’ve been active for generations isn’t working for us anymore? I’ve often wondered if embracing a different way of working negates all of the progress we’ve made until now.

Of course, it means exactly the opposite. Embracing activist sustainability is about celebrating where we’ve been and what we’ve accomplished. It’s about embracing the good and recognizing the bad. It’s time we start doing less and engage in “the extreme sport of stopping,” as one activist calls it.

We have to change the culture of activism and heal ourselves, so that we can begin to heal others. When this cultural shift takes hold, our movement will become truly unstoppable.

Comments 15

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Medina K
Apr 28, 2010
Apr 28, 2010

This is such a wonderful and necessary piece---and so relevant for us at this very frenetic and stressful time in our world.

So much is changing so quickly--institutions are collapsing, global climate change, wars, seemingly endless natural disasters. We as human beings, and particularly as women, are absorbing all of this Energy and it's killing us. As a young American woman, I feel that our culture is constantly telling us "GO!" and be the best---the Perfectionist--and a woman is just not good enough if she is not running herself into the ground. I know so many women like this---family, friends, co-workers and employers who are sacrificing their health and sanity. Most are so out of touch with their body/mind/spirit that they don't realize what they're doing to themselves until it's too late---they need an emergency surgery, they're diagnosed with cancer or they simply collapse from exhaustion.

We must live a life in Balance. Self-sustainability should be a priority for all women.

Ellen Bergstone
May 27, 2010
May 27, 2010

Why do we, as women, do this to ourselves? We are often nurturing to everyone BUT ourselves. I think this is something my lovely mother has done all of her life. She sometimes apologizes for the role model that she has given me, but I cannot imagine doing things any differently from what I have been conditioned to do - working hard...striving to do the impossible...pushing myself at the risk of damaging my health and losing my sanity.

The list of ideas for how to lessen the stress are great, but will I implement them? Will I remember that there is more to life than meeting the next grant deadline? Will I take time to breathe, meditate, practice reiki, sleep, etc. when there is so much to do?

I have to say this would be a sea change for me. My inclination to put myself last is deeply ingrained.

So, why? Why do this? What am I responding to deep in myself?

Jun 22, 2010
Jun 22, 2010

I totally agree with you Ellen, we have been taught that a women's role in life is to work, stress and work a bit more. Yes I to don't relax my body & mind as much as I should, if women aren't doing something they are thinking of the next job they have to do or worrying about the finances, children, etc. These women are doing a important job and they need rest!

Jun 21, 2010
Jun 21, 2010

This subject is so dear to my heart .... my life's passion is for women to find their true power ... the state of being where they know that they are enough and they liberate all of their power and potential. When we start to access that in ourselves balance is inevitable ... we start to make different choices because they just feel right ... suddenly what seemed impossible to consider feels easy and natural.

It's not surprising that women activists struggle so much with this as they are the ultimate manifestation of what women do naturally ... care passionately - get on and make things happen - put others first. I have worked with a lot of women who have struggled to believe that by putting themselves first, spending time discovering who they are and liberating all of their unique energy, they make so much more of an impact on the work they do and the people in their lives. I love watching their faces when they start to experience it and realise that their all their fear was for nothing.

One of the things that gets in the way for so many women is the belief that to make this change is HARD ... that it will involve a long painful journey of self reflection and soul searching. It doesn't have to be that way. For so many woman it's more a case of seeing how much of what they've been carrying is simply a belief or a story about how things should be.

I can see that the 'reality' for many women activists is that people will suffer or die if they take any time out for something as indulgent as self care and their own well-being. Zawadi Nyong’o has highlighted something crucial by including in her list fund raising for staff well being. Every organisation should make staff well being as high priority as the specific work they are doing for the community. It's only by it being the ethos of the whole organisation they work for that women will easily be able to take the leap to empower themselves and find sustainability. It isn't a waste of valuable resources.

I would love to offer support to these amazing women to help them find that place in themselves where self-care is a natural state of being!

Jul 01, 2010
Jul 01, 2010

Indeed you have hit the nail on the head about women learning to find a place for self-care! I've been fussing because of a situation in my neck of the woods where the books were pulled from the library and replaced with electronic media. I'm sure my journey won't be easy but I feel it is necessary. Yet I must remember to take care of me in the process........

Thanks for those reminders!

Rita Banerji
Jun 25, 2010
Jun 25, 2010

What does it mean if the way we’ve been active for generations isn’t working for us anymore? I’ve often wondered if embracing a different way of working negates all of the progress we’ve made until now.

This is such an important point! Movements get large, and unruly, and tired -- and they keep plodding along the old path because they don't have the energy and focus to stand back and look at things clearly, analytically and have the courage to try a new path.

I have constantly argued here in India -- that that is what we need to do with what has been called "the gender ratio crises." Something is not working. The rate of elimination of females is increasing every year! 3 years ago when I argued that we have to begin to recognize that this is not an arithmetic problem but a genocide -- a massive uncontainable violation of human rights, people were very unhappy. The targetted elimination of a group through violence and the systematic prevention of its birth and continuity is genocide under the 1948 UN Act on Genocide.

But that is exactly what we call our campaign today -- The 50 Million Missing is a fight against female genocide in India. Do visit our website at

Thanks for a wonderful and very refreshing article.

The Afrika way
Jul 06, 2010
Jul 06, 2010


Nicollette Changaiya
Oct 20, 2010
Oct 20, 2010

They say that our male partners are strong but I believe we are the stronger of the 2 species.. becoz we are able to harnass our emotions and able to feel these emotions that makes us more determined and resilient wen coming to such tasks..

Jul 07, 2010
Jul 07, 2010

Dear Jane,

Thank you so much for a great article. I want to suggest that it becomes mandatory for women activists and all activists to take time out for self care and silent moment. Go to the hiding place where you can replenish yourself. I've learned that retreat time give me the chance to find myself a-new. I worked for the African Women's Coalition for six years and I tell you in the first few years I wanted to resolve all the problems, I wanted to address the many issues that my African immigrants and refugees sisters were facing. True leadership and true activism has to take the road to self-sustaining, self-nurturing and self care. Again thank you!


Jul 19, 2010
Jul 19, 2010

What a great article. I am pretty new to activism and one of the things that keeps me from getting more involved is the fear of loosing my self to the cause. I love that you are bringing this issue to the fore front.

Thank you! Suzanna

Kendra Griffith
Aug 19, 2010
Aug 19, 2010

As a student social worker our lecturers keep reinforcing this point to us. The want us to start practicing it while still in school so that we can prevent burnout in the future. With so much sadness in the world, it is easy for us all to want to bear the burden, but we must realize there is only so much one person can do and be content when we really have done all we can.

Irmia Fitriyah
Sep 19, 2010
Sep 19, 2010

When I had to do research about trafficking, I met a lot of survivors. I was influenced by their stories. So, at that time, I was afraid of going out alone, always suspicious, and other negative feeling.

It was hard!

And your lecturers are right! That's so relieving for me :)


Roberto Vargas
Oct 19, 2010
Oct 19, 2010

Self-sustainability, balance, and loving self to serve others are essential. My activism began at about 15 years and now at 60 years I am finally learning how to integrate these lessons more fully. It takes learning to accept one's value or love self, and then mindful self-discovery and practice. Clarifying what it is that inspires and nurtures me, and then developing those practices that makes it happen. For the past 35 years its been the daily morning ritual of Por Vida Tai Chi-- movements, breathing and thoughts that grounds me in my power, stimulates my vital energy and reminds me of my purpose-- to be love in the world. For me this is part of the cultural-spiritual activism we need to advance healing for self, those we call family and our communities. I call it Por Vida activism because it has to do with connecting with our spirit essence which is "por vida" (for life and love) and allowing it to be the power that energizes us. Thank you for your reminders-- to breathe, drink water, and dance so as to be the force of love in the world.

Ruth Beedle
Nov 14, 2010
Nov 14, 2010

I read your beautifully written article, all the time shaking my head and asking myself the same question again and again.... 'what else is new?'

Women have been selflessly working their fingers to the bone for as long as the earth has turned and there have been women on it. It seems that women were born with some innate sense of working for the things/ones we love and not thinking about the time or effort or price or pound of flesh that it costs personally.

I remember my own mother, in what I only understood much later as our poverty, standing in the kitchen and working into the wee early hours of the morning cleaning and cooking and canning the vegetables from our garden so that we might have food all winter long. She would stop long enough to tuck me in and rub my back so I could sleep - her hands so rough from the kitchen work that her skin snagged on my little night dress.

To this day my mother never takes the time for her own comforts and she is now 85.

It is time to dance. We will never stop working and wanting more for the people we love and I would never want us to take our eye off of those goals.... but it is definitely time to dance around the fire.

Anita Kiddu Muhanguzi
Nov 27, 2012
Nov 27, 2012

I totally agree with you Jane that we are caught up in our work day in day out and before you know it the year has come to an end and the war has not been won. And so you start re-strategising for the new year, forgetting that we are human and we need that break and rethink and socialize with family and re-energize our bodies so that we are more focused on the fight that we are passionate for. Stay blessed and thanks for a nice article it puts us in check....