• For more ways to integrate inner sustainability into your work, download Barry's “Insiste, Persiste, Resiste, Existe” courtesy of Urgent Action Fund, Front Line, and The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation
What's the Point of the Revolution if We Can't Dance
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?” . . .