Columns, Opinion

Welcome To The Greenhouse: Activism Burnout

My mother is my climate change activism hero. In the spring of 2017, she took on a gigantic challenge as one of the primary organizers of a march for climate change activism in the center of Nashville, Tennessee. 

Inspired by a conversation between my mother and her friend, a Facebook page for “Nashville Climate Change March” was born and got thousands of likes in the first day. 

On Earth Day in April 2017, I watched in awe as my mother stood on the steps of the War Memorial Plaza in downtown Nashville and spoke to a crowd of 4,000 about climate change activism. Before watching her speech and then marching alongside my fellow high school students and Nashvillians around downtown, I never really understood the scope of the project. That day, I felt as if it was all a dream. 

Nowadays, my mother tells me about her activism burnout. She still works for Climate Nashville, her local climate change organization, but she says that she is tired, and often remarks on feeling hopeless in her activism work. After that first March in the spring of 2017, the Nashville climate movement lost numbers, and my mother frequently told me that she felt as if the effort she and other activists put in did not equal the outcome.

Smaran Ramidi / DFP Staff

It was strange and daunting to watch this fiery movement lose steam. I have heard similar things about activism burnout from friends of mine. My fellow members of Divest BU, the currently inactive climate change activism club at Boston University, would remark to me from time to time about how all the work rarely if ever met a desired outcome – and that this could feel defeating.

The responsibility of the good fight can often feel overwhelming. Activism is a struggle against the system that we live within and an attempt to convince a large group of people or authority to change their ways for basic rights or futures. 

When your activist movement loses traction or fails, it can feel as if you have failed the people or thing you were fighting to protect – and perhaps also yourself. That feeling is depressing – and this is the activism depression that I have witnessed in those around me.

To combat activism burnout, we first must acknowledge it as a real problem. Indeed, many have. News organizations such as NPR and The Washington Post have written about this type of burnout.

In a 2020 article titled “Black Activist Burnout: ‘You Can’t Do This Work If You’re Running On Empty,” Christianna Silva of NPR gave a voice to activists of color that are fighting for their rights. Silva showed that, though these activists were working hard, they frequently felt depressed about their lack of progress and anxiety about their situations not improving.

Acknowledging activism burnout as a community and society allows us to realize where these feelings of depression or anxiety are coming from, and thus giving us an opportunity to start treating it.

A nonprofit journalism website called Rewire published an article in early 2019 called “Here’s How to Recover from Activism Burnout.” In it, journalist Vanessa Willoughby advises activists experiencing burnout to first identify their feelings, then “talk to a trusted confidant.” Next, she recommends “find healthy outlets outside of activism work,” “exercise” and “learn when to step back and say no.”

Stepping back and saying no in activism work may feel like a betrayal to the cause you are fighting for. It is quite the opposite. Taking a break when you need to and regaining your energy will allow you to re-enter your activism work with the ability to better serve your movement and get more done in the long-run.

Next time you feel depressed or anxious from a lack of progress in your movement, put yourself first – and encourage others to do the same. You cannot continue to fight for something if you are losing a battle with your own mind. You – and your movement – will be better if you prioritize your health.

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