It’s the time of the year when activists are grateful to be taking some time off for seasonal celebrations and family holidays. With the warmer weather in the Southern hemisphere, its also a perfect time to start organising an activist retreat for the people you care about- with a bit of forward thinking and planning, an activist retreat can be a cheap and low stress way to boost the energy and emotional resilience of activists looking forward to a year of action in 2014. Helen Cox has a few tips for planning activist retreats.

Recently, I joined another facilitator in planning and running an activist retreat for a bunch of folk at the idyllic Gembrook Retreat, located on the outskirts of Melbourne. While some activist retreats include a bit of strategic planning or workshops, this one was most definitely about rest, relaxation and connectedness- we wanted to create a space that nourished hard working activists without placing any demands on them. Retreats, in my view, provide important strategic breaks in the routines of activists but also facilitate the building and maintenance of personal connections between people in a non-work (or organising) context.

In his talk on ‘friendship as resistance’, Todd May theorises that ‘irrational’ (namely emotional) connections between people threaten the transaction-based nature of interpersonal relationships and social hierarchies operating within the greater neoliberal project. With this in mind, retreats at their most basic can create space simply for emotional connections to be nurtured and experienced, including friendships. They can create a brief glimpse into a possible ‘other world’ where social relationships are not judged on their utility- rather they are not measured at all. Ongoing friendships and relationships of equality can provide essential support networks for those who are marginalised by virtue of their identity and/or political orientation by dominant political paradigms and structures. May also theorises that the extension of friendship (including imagined relationships based on the experience of friendship) into democratic space creates a foundation of collective trust where social movements can thrive.

Aside from creating a space for active organisers to unwind, retreats can be way of including new people in our circles or reconnecting people who have taken some time out. I have heard from many people that they want to become more involved with organisational aspects of building social movements and community development projects, but find groups and networks to be rather closed and difficult to navigate. One way we might help people feel more included and likely to engage in political activism in meaningful ways is to prioritise relationships of trust and see these relationships as the foundation of the world we seek to materialise. People who have ‘burned out’ from activist work could also benefit from being included in retreats; it might just be the bridge they need to feel connected again and valued as a member of the community irrespective of their measurable contribution.

Planning, organising and running a retreat can be a great gift to the people you know and also the social movements you seek to contribute to. If you’re planning to run a strategy focused retreat you may want to check out Andrew Willis Garcé’s article, but if you like the sound of a space that is free from the demands of activist labour- here are some tips based on my experiences (and the excellent feedback provided by folk from the recent Gembrook retreat):

  • Find a space that connects people to the natural environment. This might be camping in a nature reserve or finding a space that has been set up deliberately for retreats and renewal- keep a budget in mind. If some kind property owners have previously offered you a rural/regional space to use for free or on the cheap this is the perfect opportunity to accept their gift.

If weather conditions and fire-bans allow, a gathering around a outdoor fire can be the perfect addition to a retreat.

  • Frame the space. Use written invites (Facebook events, email, PDFs etc) to build anticipation and expectations of the retreat, i.e. that it is a space for R&R.
  • Get confirmations of attendance. It is important to know how many people you are planning for. It is also important to think about the needs of parents if they planning to attend- do you have safe spaces for kids? Additionally, is the space accessible to people affected by physical disabilities if they are planning to attend?
  • Plan ahead. Food, travel, facilitation and childcare all need to be considered and planned. Being prepared and having a bit of structure takes the load off people who might be tempted to take on more than their fair share of chores. For example, meals, cleaning up and childcare can be arranged with a simple sign-up chart the so work is shared and people can chill out after they have done their shift.

Organising chores does not have be complicated!

  • If meals are being prepared for the group as a whole you will need to be aware of allergies and preferences before purchasing ingredients. Other planning may include nominating a willing first aid person or two.
  • Check-in. When the time is right (normally when everyone has arrived), you might want to gather the group and get a sense of where everyone is at and what their expectations are of the retreat, keeping in mind some people might not know eachother- you could use an icebreaker exercise to kick this process off. This is a good time to make space for people to openly acknowledge their boundaries and personal needs. This is also the time to do the housekeeping spiel. Make sure you can do all of this over an appropriate time frame and keep an eye on people to make sure they’re not frustrated with the process (it might be a hint to move faster if you see a few yawns).
  • Invite people to make offers to the group to run activities like sharing circles or yoga. Self-organisation rocks!
  • Check-out. Before people start heading off, it is can be important to reflect on the experience of the retreat and the special connections people have developed. This could take the form of a go-round for people to share where they are at and perhaps a simple (culturally appropriate) ritual to place a ‘full-stop’ on the experience and allow people to transition back to regular life.
  • Evaluate. If you’re keen to run more retreats or want to encourage other people to take up the role, its good to have a quick discussion about what bits of your planning worked for people and which bits need improvement. Ideally, this can be done as a group before closing the retreat. Again, plan to do this using an appropriate time frame.

You don’t need a large crew for running a successful retreat, just a small team (as few as two people) to create space and basic structure for ultimate activist relaxation!


Gembrook retreat.

Many thanks to my co-facilitator Regan Bleechmore who organised the Gembrook retreat I recently attended, also thanks to the folk who shared their feedback on the experience.

Have you attended or organised an activist retreat you thought was a great experience? What were the most memorable moments and what would you recommend to future organisers?