How do busy, dedicated campaigners care for themselves and others so we have the energy and resilience to stay in this work and win? And what can organisations do better?

Campaigning and social change is hard work. We put ourselves at risk and the challenges may seem insurmountable. Politics and technology are changing fast. Organisations and campaigns struggle to keep up and win, meanwhile demanding more from their people.  Campaigners face health problems, burnout, exhaustion and stress.

On 31 May, 2018, MobLab Live hosted a conversation with Ledys Sanjuan [FRIDA Young Feminist Fund], Professor Hava Gordon [University of Denver], Susan Comfort [Comfort Consulting]  and campaigners around the world to share experiences and ask questions about centering self-care and collective wellbeing in activism.

MobLab Live guests focused on how organisations, movements and campaigners understand the value of self-care, implement policies, practices and cultures that centre collective wellbeing, and grow resilience.

Watch a recording of the session here and catch up on highlights and resources.

Lessons and Takeaways

Self-care and collective care are political acts.

Self-care is under-studied, funded and discussed. Our guests spoke about the need for NGOs and leaders to dedicate funding, research, and time to changing internal cultures and providing support. Researchers, academics and leaders should view self-care as political action. As movements and organisations care for their people, we will build more experienced teams capable of greater, more innovative action.

Self-care and collective care are vital to social change work.

Self care is an opportunity for movements and organisations to model the world we’re fighting for. We need to embrace that care is a crucial and strategic part of the work we do. When activists are burned out and leave activism, this causes real harm to people – disproportionately affecting activists impacted by the issues they work on and marginalised groups – and it also sets back organisations. Recruitment and retention consume NGO resources. Preventing burn out supports movement sustainability and builds the power we need to win.

Self-care is not a separate task. It is how we do our work.

Campaigns and organisations (and the people in them) often minimise self-care because the work feels urgent and necessary. We tend to forget the long arc of movement defeats and victories. In pursuing immediate and urgent change, we lose sight of our health and what work is doing to those around us. Professor Gordon suggests that organisations study political and movement history to build resilience and collective strength. Put another way, centre self-care from the start of any campaign or movement.

Create a shared understanding of care.

Organisations should provide space for people to share experiences and insights about self and collective care. Talk with people about what’s working, what’s not working well, and and how to address concerns. Creating a culture of care and modeling it allows people to be mindful of collective wellbeing, and their own wellbeing.

Use a holistic lens to build a sustainable culture of care.

Susan Comfort talked about building a culture of team health by integrating physical and mental self-care strategies. A team can use all sorts of strategies to build collective wellbeing: flexible work hours, working from home, juice tastings and happy hours, for example.

Ledys Sanjuan shared FRIDA Young Feminist Fund’s Happiness Manifesto approach. The Happiness Manifesto looks at care from three perspectives: individual (work practices and behaviours), organisational (protocols and policies) and environmental/community care (our community and planet). Professor Gordon talked about how to address structural inequalities like age, race and gender to help build caring cultures. A holistic culture removes the burden of self-care from the most impacted and marginalised groups who are often forced to take on the burden of educating others and ensuring a healthy working environment that includes them.

Happiness and activism can co-exist.

Self-care can become more attainable when we are strongly connected to our sense of purpose, our vision as activists, our capacity to fulfill our mission, and if we do what brings us joy.

As activists and campaigners, we often find ourselves feeling guilty for wanting to indulge in small pleasures. Prioritising pleasure in the same way we prioritise civil action and grassroots organising helps us  defend our right to exist in the world and serve our community. Speakers shared the importance of integrating fun, play, recreation and education in our work. These are all acts of self-care that bind together living, workplaces and larger movements.

Look out for warning signs of burnout in yourself and your team.

Signs of burnout may include habitually working late at night, regularly missing deadlines when it rarely happened before, losing attention to detail, losing enthusiasm for the work and absenteeism.

Allyship and collaboration can help prevent burnout.

Professor Gordon’s research highlights an absence of allyship in youth-led organisations and movements that contributes to burnout. It’s important to consider how we leverage allies in the service of the broader work. Within organisations and teams, interdependent and collaborative work structures can help teams share both power and responsibility, helping avoid burnout.

Start small and build self-care and collective care into your political life.

Individuals, organisations or movements can all commit to everyday actions of self-care. It can be as simple as taking meaningful and restorative breaks from work, workshops to display team talent, or blocking off longer lunch hours. From there, build a more holistic, tailored and sustainable plan for yourself and your team. Team leaders are crucial to creating and supporting a culture of care as they set a tone and model behavior in ways that official policies can’t.

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