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Creating a Balanced and Sustainable Activist Life

You’ve taped flyers to phone poles, raised your voice at a rally, organized a fundraising event, and challenged your uncle at a holiday dinner or two. You consider yourself an activist, and show it in more ways than a couple paltry examples can show. If you’re like most activists, you frequently look within for solutions to a few dilemmas. You might ask: How do I keep my hope and energy up? Where do I find the time to do it all? How do I avoid burnout? Thankfully, there are a growing number of writers who acknowledge these challenges and encourage fulfilling and creative solutions.

The Women’s Studies scholar Leela Fernandes believes that when we feel overwhelmed by the world’s immense inequalities we face a “foreclosure of the imagination” that “reflects a deeper spiritual crisis that often lurks behind visions of movements for contemporary social justice.” Her definition of spirituality is much broader than traditional religious belief systems, which feminists have rightfully critiqued for lack of inclusiveness of women, and for justifying women’s inequality. Feminists have alienated some women from the movement by overlooking spirituality’s positive benefits. Leela Fernandes calls spirituality, among other things, “a transcendent sense of interconnection that moves beyond the knowable, visible material world.” She believes in “decolonizing the divine” and moving beyond spiritual and religious power relations. The activist-writer Aurora Levins Morales similarly writes that “The spiritual is whatever allows us to notice the miraculous nature of life, how it keeps coming back, asserting itself in the midst of destruction.” Spirituality includes a belief in an energy bigger than our injustices and us, in an energy that unites us. These notions can help us imagine a just world beyond identity politics—a freedom beyond any collective victim identity for women.

Spiritual practices can include spending time in nature, such as walking through a park, or meditating near a river, and can calm our minds. Women particularly need to take time for ourselves; we’re often the ones performing the majority of care-giving and household duties, on top of our activism and bread-winning. I suggest Nora Isaac’s book, Women in Overdrive, as a quick overview of these issues, and for its mind-body practices for finding balance. I believe that yoga and meditation are powerful complements to social justice work. In exploring feminism and global processes, which involve frustration, anger, sadness, and painful awareness of suffering, I am drawn to a balanced spiritual life practice. Exploring yoga—beyond the physical postures or asanas—I have discovered a 5,000 year-old lineage of practical life advice for creating compassion, accepting suffering and change, and finding active solutions. Taking moments to ourselves helps us find balance between the little things—mundane administrative duties or an unfortunate news story—and the sweeping whole—the beauty and regeneration of land and spirit. This helps us recover our energy, transform our emotions, find simplicity and inspiration and, ultimately, know ourselves enough to effectively help others.

With these beliefs and practices in place, activists can consider some tips for creating a balanced and sustainable activist life. The activist-writer Hillary Rettig wrote a book called The Lifelong Activist that specifically guides progressive activists toward a balanced life. Rettig advises realistic mission, time, fear, and relationship management strategies. She encourage readers to determine what kind of lifestyle they need to be happy, such as part-time or full-time activism, and activism as a hobby or job. She’s adamant that activists be realistic about the amount of money they need for the lifestyle that will make them happy; it’s not virtuous to be a poor anti-capitalist if the stress and lack makes someone miserable. Rettig can help activists think through these issues. Also, readers learn valuable tips on selling and marketing a cause.

Please consider leaving some comments on how you stay sane and healthy as a feminist activist! After all, activists cannot sacrifice their wellbeing to their cause. They must take care of themselves, as they are the means and the models for a transformed world.


Transforming Feminist Practice: Non-Violence, Social Justice and the Possibilities of a Spiritualized Feminism by Leela Fernandes
Medicine Stories: History, Culture and the Politics of Integrity by Aurora Levins Morales
Women in Overdrive: Find Balance & Overcome Burnout at Any Age by Nora Isaacs
The Lifelong Activist: How to Change the World Without Losing Your Way, by Hillary Rettig
The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle


acdadesky's picture

I agree about the need for

I agree about the need for balance. My balances: dancing at night, and also my future belated rock n roll performer singer of sorts in the future. Hey, it's the dreams that keep us happy.

Thanks for posting, ac

Anne-christine d'Adesky
Director of Global Advocacy
3345 22nd street,
San Francisco, CA 94110

Mobilizing Women and Girls to Fight HIV/AIDS

When I am working online I like to take "breaks" by going to YouTube or other sites and watch videos of kitties. If I stop laughing I tend to get into black and white thinking and cease to see shades of gray.

Goldie Davich, PulseWire Online Intern

cgoodmojab's picture

Self care isn't selfish

Balancing our activism for causes bigger than ourselves with self care is essential for our individual well-being. Finding such balance successfully is difficult in contemporary society. It's even more important, though, when we're parents, because our personal balance is essential for the well-being of our children and our families. For more thoughts on why self care isn't selfish, see my article, "Coping with Maternal Stress and Depression" on the publications page of my website, It's in the 2006 publications section. While it's written for mothers, it's also highly relevant for fathers and for those without children.

Cynthia Good Mojab
Director, LifeCircle Counseling and Consulting, LLC

Maria Jett's picture

Thanks for adding your voice, Julie!

I had no idea you had worked as a doula! Or perhaps I forgot. In any case, it's thrilling to learn more about you and your admirable work after being distanced from you for so long.

In partnership,

Maria Jett, Online Community Director

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