Being an activist is hard work. Most of us understand that the road to improving our world is riddled with potholes and boulders.
We spend hours reading about instances of injustice and atrocities. We sign and create petitions to get the attention of our representatives, attend rallies, perform civil disobedience, fundraise and blog. This list could go on for days and still wouldn’t cover the many things various activists do for their beliefs.
Planet Earth is a messy place to live. The war on women continues and gets worse all the time. Our LGBTQ community is constantly under attack in any number of ways. Political corruption is rampant. Pagans and practitioners of other non-Christian faiths are often discriminated against. On top of everything that is going wrong with the world we still have jobs, families, hobbies, and passions and there is only so much of a person to go around.
So how do we decide where to focus our attention when so much needs fixing? Do we need to advocate for every cause? How do we avoid burnout?
How do we define our boundaries?
1) What causes are impossible for you to ignore?
This is going to be different for everyone. Each of us has our own set of values. We have to clearly define those issues that we feel must be addressed. Some people are more passionate about GMO labeling while others focus on LGBTQ concerns.
Choose to advocate for the causes that truly call to you. Right now I find myself advocating for women’s issues a great deal. These issues directly affect me. I am a woman and I have three sisters so fighting to end rape culture and working to gain equal pay for women is personal to me. While I do support unions, I am not a union worker myself so chances are I’m not going to give up a day with my family to attend a union workers rally. This doesn’t mean I don’t care. It does mean that I am well within my rights to decide where my time is spent and how.
2) What actions and organizations will do the most good?
There are so many worthwhile causes but not all organizations are created equal. For many issues, there are numerous events to promote awareness and sometimes a number of groups representing that cause.
Some organizations have incredible operational transparency whereas others do not clearly express how donations are spent. Other groups advocate for causes in ways you may feel are unethical. Some events are poorly coordinated and degenerate into chaos rendering them less effective and occasionally, dangerous.
Ask questions. Write group organizers and don’t be afraid to grill them a bit for their policies and their track record. Speak with other activists who are involved. If something seems shady, badly arranged or has ineffective promotion, you may wish to use the resource of your time more wisely.
3) Not all activism is done in the streets.
When people think of activism they think of protesters in the streets with banners. It brings to mind images of sit-ins and in recent years, parks full of tents.
I have had my share of protests. I was an active member of my local Occupy camp. Recently my partners and I attended the Peoples Climate March in New York City. It was an amazing experience but it required resources of time and money that not everyone has to give.
We don’t live in the city so we had to drive to a train station, take a train downstate and catch subways from there. We had to take time off from our jobs and spend hours travelling. I also made a sign to display.
There are a lot of people who don’t have the ability to take that time or don’t have the money to spare. Some people have kids and don’t have a reliable sitter. Others are disabled and can’t handle standing on their feet for hours at a time. I even know of those whose jobs would be in danger if someone from work found out that they were demonstrating.
Whatever the reason is, it’s fine. Frankly no one has to defend their decision not to protest in public. But there are ways you can contribute to furthering a cause without hitting the pavement.
Many organizations ask people to help address envelopes for newsletters or events. Other groups are looking for people with graphic design skills to create signs and bumper stickers. Some volunteer work can be done from home while watching television with your family. These are not lesser contributions in any way. They help keep things moving behind the scenes which is vital to any advocacy group or campaign.
4) Don’t participate out of a sense of guilt.
Your time is precious. Good organizers and leaders will recognize that you volunteer and demonstrate in your own time and for the causes that speak to you. It should go without saying that manipulating people with guilt for a cause is rude and unnecessary.
Not that all activism is going to leave you feeling warm and fuzzy, but you should at least feel good about the potential gain and the people you’re working with. If you’re giving of yourself you should be doing it because you really want to, not because you happen to be dodging a guilt trip. Your boundaries should always be respected.
5) Schedule days off.
Burnout is a serious problem among activists. Most people who care about one cause tend to care about a million other causes too. When you research all that is going wrong in the world and you care to change it, your dance card gets full fast.
But what happens when your heart, mind and spirit are taxed to their limits?
Overwhelm is no joke and should not be disregarded. Some of us feel bound by our work ethic to “keep on keeping on” for the causes we support. This may mean sleepless nights. This may mean being arrested. This may mean missing out on birthdays, softball games, family picnics and recitals.
Nothing great is ever accomplished without sacrifice however that sacrifice doesn’t always have to be your personal time.
Sometimes we have to take the day off. Occasionally you need to sleep in, go for a hike, say hello to the Gods or visit with your grandparents. We’re activists to make the world a better place but if you don’t keep any of your energy for yourself, what are you fighting for? Sometimes having that day of respite can give you the perspective you need to continue on with fresh ideas and dedication.
Sometimes you need to remember.
Remember that you protest to preserve the quality of life for yourself and others. Remember that you volunteer to accomplish something meaningful; something that can be shared and will live on in others who will hear you. Remember that what you support can change the world.
Most especially, never forget that the most important thing you will ever contribute to any cause is you.