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.
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.