I was recently talking with a friend about ways to increase the sustainability of her activism. I noticed she was getting cagey and when I asked about it, she said ‘You’re just going to tell me to do less, aren’t you?!’
Well, that’s often a good idea, but the truth is many of us have really big, audacious goals, which challenge us and take a lot of work. The answer isn’t necessarily to do less, but to increase the support and resources for that work.
To use an analogy: elite long distance runners have support teams, to help keep them mentally motivated, to massage achey muscles, to ensure they eat the right balance of foods. Their ability to run marathons owes a lot to the support of others. In order to achieve the goals they’ve set for themselves, they get help.
Many activists act as though getting help, or investing in their own self-care, is a distraction from the main game, and a waste of time. Being kind to yourself is a good in and of itself – but it may be a useful perspective to adopt, that being ‘self-indulgent’ is actually about increasing capacity for effective action.
Research shows the more individuals from whom we draw intimate support, the more stress we can handle well (Psychologist Stephanie Simonton referenced in Grassroots and Nonprofit Leadership). So if you have committed to big challenges, make sure you set up big support.
Audit Your Support Network
Take some time to notice:
- Whose support currently enables you in your activism? Who do you support?
- Where do you get emotional support? (Such as listening, affirmation, a shoulder to cry on)
- Where do you get practical support? (Like financial support, meals, childcare)
- Where do you get guidance and development? (Feedback on your performance, insights, mentoring)
- Where could you use more of a hand – and where could you access that?
Plan for Stressful Times
If you are heading into a high intensity campaign think about the people in your life – how can they support you at this time? Whether it’s listening to you at the end of a hard day, making dinner for you, baby-sitting, or volunteering on the campaign, it can make a big difference to have folks on your side. Let people know why you’ve made the decision to commit to the campaign, what it means for you over a particular period of time, and what it would mean to you to have their help.
You don’t need to guilt people, just ask! If you’re usually someone who spends a lot of time caring for others, or is very self-reliant, your friends and family may not be used to being able to help. This may be a great opportunity for them to get closer to you, by letting yourself lean on them a little. It also makes sense to be clear with people about how available you will be during busy times, and that you may not be able to offer them certain kinds of support for a while.
Appreciate and Reciprocate
Don’t forget to appreciate your support network and give back! If it’s a one-way relationship for a prolonged period of time there’s a risk of exploiting their kind hearts and wearing them out. This can be particularly true in partner relationships – don’t expect your partner to carry the burden of your emotional health. Take responsibility for your own needs and share the load.
It can be helpful to negotiate supportive relationships with people who are prepared to provide one-way attention – such as paid professionals or people with lots of capacity who see it as a social change contribution. Another option is negotiating a fair exchange of support, such as swapping equal amounts of listening time, or bartering goods and services.
Activist support networks require willing and savvy people being actively supportive – here’s some tips on how to support activists.
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.