I recently shared some ideas around building a support network – but a really great network requires willing and savvy people being actively supportive.
How do you actually go about backing someone who’s on a social change mission?
Everyone is different so every supportive relationship will have its own characteristics. With that qualification, here are some hunches I have about backing activists, based on my experiences of receiving and giving support. These are relevant for non-activists supporting activists, for activist colleagues supporting each other, or even for individual activists considering how they can better look after themselves.
Respect. Activists experience so much invalidation and so many attacks it’s important to counter that with respect for their intelligence, autonomy, choices and commitment.
Show care. Be sweet and show that you like them. You may meet with resistance. There’s a definite tendency among some activists to dismiss ‘warm fuzzies’ but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea. That culture will only shift by people modeling a different way and melting some frosty hearts.
Listen. Full, warm, relaxed, attentive listening is one of the best gifts you can give anyone. When we are listened to well we are able to process challenges, release emotional burdens, and think more clearly. Practice active listening or go further and try reciprocal peer listening (like Re-evaluation Counseling).
Bring lightness and laughter. A lot of activism is really heavy. A light touch can shift perspective to what is hopeful and sustaining. Laughter is a healthy way to release fear and tension and it’s fun.
Keep calm. Sure, this sounds like the beginning of that annoying meme but it’s important. When all around is chaos and struggle, calm people hold the space for rest and recovery. Staying grounded and not getting caught up in the drama could make you the safe port in a storm.
Appreciate. A lot of the time activists are so busy rushing on to the next battle that they don’t get to celebrate success. Acknowledging and appreciating people for their hard work and achievements can help someone really take on board success, which can be a bulwark against burnout.
Value the person, not just the work. Capitalism treats all people like their worth depends on what they produce. Many activist cultures do similar but with an extra moral weighting (the virtue of the mission and personal sacrifice). It can be a radical departure from this script just to be interested in how someone is feeling and what’s going on in their larger life.
Share skills and resources. If you know something or have something that could make a difference to the effectiveness of other’s social change efforts, don’t keep it to yourself. Connect people with similar concerns or complementary skills. Value education and development and encourage others too as well. You can start with sharing the resources of Plan to Win and Plan to Thrive.
Offer practical support. Sometimes the most useful thing you can do when someone is in the middle of a hectic campaign is help them cover the basics. Cook food, run errands, lend resources and equipment (like cars), donate to the campaign or directly to them. If it makes sense get involved in the group or campaign and volunteer your time.
Ask. “Is there anything I can do to support you? What kind of support would make a difference to you at this time?”
Look after yourself. To help others you need to be in good shape yourself – helping others at your own expense defeats the purpose. Have boundaries around what you’re prepared to offer and build reciprocity in your relationships. Apply this list to yourself – respect yourself, care for yourself, listen to yourself.
What have you figured out about supporting activists? What support have you found useful yourself?
This article is also available in Russian on the Activism Inside blog.
Disclosure: Holly Hammond offers mentoring sessions to campaigners, activists and organisers in a range of social movements. She is pleased to support people working for social change – including helping them develop support networks.