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Overcoming activism fatigue

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With nearly 40 million people out of work, it makes sense that the Black Lives Matter movement has had so much success during a global pandemic. People finally have time to advocate for the issues that they feel strongly about and attend protests due to reduced job hours, work from home, and unemployment. People have also had the opportunity to see how people of color, specifically Black and Native Americans, are disproportionately affected by the pandemic. 

The perfect melting pot of social activism and social awareness was created, waiting for the stove to spark. And it did. With the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, every major city across the United States held protests calling for an end to police brutality, racial equity, and systemic racism.

This movement grew with the help of social media as users posted resources for marginalized groups, GoFundMe pages for protesters’ bailout funds, petitions calling to arrest cops who have murdered civilians, and cancel culture campaigns to keep those racially insensitive in check. 

Many people participated in the fight for social change on social media. Blackout Tuesday, although deemed ineffective by many critics, racked 20 million participants. But like with most things, too much of something can prove to be detrimental. People began to stray from the narrative, and posts became emotionally saturated, while others felt like they weren’t doing enough. 

Others felt sickened and depressed by the amount of harsh reality in the media, while others felt that if they didn’t post enough, they would be seen as insensitive or against the movement. Others felt like the speed of their efforts was not matched by the rate of the change they were calling for. Others felt flat-out afraid. This is known as social justice burnout. 

Social justice burnout or activism fatigue defined by experts, alumni and students

  • As defined by Ayala Pines and Elliott Aronson, from Career Burnout, social justice burnout is “a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion caused by long term involvement in situations that are emotionally demanding.” 
  • Osvaldo Muro ’16 explains, “Your batteries run out. You get tired, your motivation runs dry and it’s not a good place to be.“ Muro is currently working as a College Access Counselor mentoring students in academics and mental health at Peninsula Bridge, a program aimed to prepare low-income, first-generation students for a 4-year college based in Palo Alto. “I’m just one person,” Muro expresses. “Burnout happens when you either don’t get to have that impact that you want to have or it’s not appreciated and you do that for an extended period of time.”
  • “Social justice fatigue is just when you start to burn out and you get tired, and I feel that it’s this tiredness of not only the work but the system and all these injustices,” said Gema Quetzal ’23, who plans to pursue a double major in Urban Studies and Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. “It’s just like every single day, you feel that everything is getting worse or nothing is changing or that people don’t care about it.”

So you’re experiencing social justice burnout. That is okay. It is normal to feel powerless against something as large as systemic racism and police brutality. But your efforts are not pointless. Activism is about strength in numbers because after all, this country was made “for the people and by the people.” You must take care of yourself before you can advocate for others. Like other emotionally and mentally heavy endeavors, activism fatigue can be relieved by some of the similar techniques used to relieve other mental illnesses. 

So how do you recover from activism fatigue? 

Reflection 

  • “I do a lot of reflecting. I do a lot of journaling and then there’s also self-care. Making the time for self-care,” advises Muro. 
  • Quetzal agrees with Muro, “I was reflecting on the process, what happened.”
  • According to the Mayo Clinic, it is important to ask oneself: Has the work you are doing made you cynical? Are you inconsistent because you lack the energy to do your work? Do you drag yourself to work?

This is a good starting point to identify that you are experiencing social justice fatigue.

Taking a break

  • Recently the narrative has been that people who have the ability to take a break from activism work are privileged. But that is not the case. Choosing to turn away from the cause and pain of others is detrimental to the cause, but taking  “a break, and [catching] my breath and [shielding] myself from over-traumatization enough to keep going” is okay to do” as Janna Malamud Smith a psychotherapist, author and writer for many news outlets puts it.
  • “If you are not taking care of yourself then you are not fulfilling your role, you’re not going to be able to reach the capacity that you need,” says Quetzal. 

Healing (mentally, emotionally and physically)

Social activism is an energy-draining feat, and if your body isn’t equipped to handle the storm, it is possible that you will fall ill of activism fatigue. 

  • Muro advises that “eating well, exercising, spending time with [your] loved ones” helps.
  • According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “exercise and other physical activity produce endorphins — chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers” and can improve a person’s ability to sleep, which consequently results in stress reduction. 
  • I would call my mom and go through the situation, and she would explain things to me or help me see the situation from a different point of view,” shared Masa. 

Talking to trusted friends, family, or even a therapist can contextualize your feelings and get to the root of this burnout.

Boundaries

  • “I say yes to everything. And since I say yes to everything that just builds up the organizing and then I take up everything,” Quetzal said. “No one teaches organizers to say no and take care of themselves.”
  • Activists must beware of “getting too close or too personal with the work…the way that I protect myself or [how] I recharge my batteries is to step back and understand that these are big challenges that we are working with,” Muro explained. 

It is important to realize when your abilities have been maximized. There is time to heal, and there is a time to fight. When experiencing activism burnout, one must take a step back and care for themselves before they become detrimental to the cause. 

Once you have healed from this round of activism burnout, it is important to be able to identify these symptoms early on to avoid emotional turmoil. Now it is time to set up boundaries. 

The work isn’t done for many causes, from BLM to LGBTQIA+ rights to immigration reform. It is important to recognize that systemic problems affect a large group of people, so don’t think you have to take it upon yourself (one person) to fix the system. It took a system to create this problem, and it takes another system to dismantle it. 

As Quetzal puts it, “when you’re in an airplane, and before they start the airplane they’re like hey don’t put on someone else’s mask before yours. Put your own mask on. Before helping the other people. That’s what organizers have to think about.” 

Contact Noelia Arteaga at arteaga.n ‘at’ northeastern.edu.

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Noelia Arteaga is writing as part of The Daily's 2020 Summer Workshop.