In part, this entire series is designed to answer a basic question: How do you retain your activist momentum? It’s easy to get fired up for a discrete, individual event, but it’s harder to keep going week after week, month after month, year after year. If millions of people turn out for a march in January, where will they be in two months? What are they doing? A lot of issues surround how and why people engage in activism, and one of the biggest is burnout and fatigue — followed by sneering from ‘real’ activists who think they have this on lock and you’re just not dedicated enough. Those people, if it isn’t obvious, are wrong.
Here’s the thing: It is really difficult to keep focused for extended periods of time, especially with competing demands. There’s always going to be some new thing to pursue, and longstanding issues are always going to be bubbling in the background. There’s always going to be something that demands all of your focus right this very minute. And there are always long lulls where it feels like nothing is happening and it’s easy to get distracted, to think you’ll check back in later, to assume that someone will let you know when you need to show up.
There are a lot of different ways to do activism and I’m supposed to tell you that there’s no ‘wrong’ way to do it, but that’s actually not true. There are forms of activism that are inefficient and ineffectual, and that’s why I don’t encourage you to engage in them. If you want to do things like signing petitions, be aware that they aren’t given very much weight (unless we’re talking about an organised petition to put something on the ballot) and please budget your resources accordingly.
That said, the notion that you have to be noisy and constantly in motion to be a ‘real’ activist is also garbage. Some of the best activism takes places in dark rooms and quiet places with a small, dedicated group of people. Someone who decides that she wants to dedicate 10 hours a week to doing research to support the work of other activists and organisations is doing a really important and useful thing — and she may never leave her house for a march.
Just because someone’s activism doesn’t look like yours doesn’t mean it’s wrong, is what I am trying to say.
But when it comes to keeping up momentum, there are some things you can do that may help you stay focused and on task. Your mileage may vary, and that is okay. Others may have great suggestions with things that work for them — this is not an inclusive list. Consider it a work in progress.
- Pick a cause. I’ve said repeatedly that it’s important to select and own a cause so that you can dig in deep on it. There’s another reason: Over time, it is way easier to track just one thing, rather than spreading yourself thin trying to keep an eye on a gazillion things. If your cause is, for example, foetal personhood laws, you can set yourself up some Google Alerts, follow some organisations, subscribe to some things, and have a very good handle on what is going on. You’re going to find that by going in deep, something is always happening, even if it doesn’t make it to the national stage, and you’ll start to learn what’s going to move forward, what’s a red herring, and how to leverage your resources.
- Commit to a set number of clear, specific, defined actions a week. Be honest with yourself about your capacity and what you can do. Think about your one specific cause and how you can further it through your work. Don’t overbook yourself, because when you start to flounder, the temptation will be to just let go of everything, rather than scaling back. It is okay to have limits.
- Here are some things: Calling legislators; calling three friends to ask them to call their legislators to take a specific action; attending a government or organisational meeting; contacting a local elected official about an issue you care about; volunteering a set number of hours for a specific task or at a particular organisation; volunteering unique skills.
- Commit to intersectional organising and hold people accountable. When you see people planning things, read their diversity statements, mission statements, and other documents. Are they explicitly intersectional? Who has been left out? Why? Consider keeping a stack of templates for emails — I do — to event organisers highlighting failures of intersectionality and why they are a problem.
- Make time for learning. I am always learning things that make me a better person and a better activist. That’s why I set aside a minimum of five hours a week for focused learning, whether I am reading books or articles, checking out research papers, viewing archived speeches, or anything else. I learn from what organisers are doing all over the world and I have an opportunity to increase the depth of the knowledge I apply to my activities.
There are lots and lots of things you can be doing, sometimes in brief, focused bursts. Maybe you want to organise a march, conference, or teach-in, or you want to team up with organisers. That’s great! Recruit help, budget your time accordingly, and plan for the ramp up and postmortem. But never lose focus of the things that should be driving your
Image: Women’s March New York City, mathiaswasik, Flickr