Activists Are Burning Out — No One’s Picking Up The Pieces

We've always been told that if we work hard and follow the rules, anything is possible. So why does everything — from home-ownership to the dream job — feel further and further out of reach? SCAMbition is an exploration of where we live right now; it's the stark reality that we can't afford a down payment while we're paying down student loan debt, that the dream job might be no job at all, and that ambition might just be the biggest scam of all. Of course, the only way out of a scam is through it and so while the future might not look like we thought it would, we're ready to reshape it in a way that benefits everyone, not just a select few.
In the fall of 2020, Nialah Edari was doing her hair and felt an empty space on her scalp. She ran over to her mirror and grabbed a second, smaller compact to take a closer look. A bald spot was forming. For months now, she'd been organizing protests against racial injustice and police brutality in New York City. She was passionate about the work — being able to make a difference fueled her. But she knew creating change came with a price: grueling hours and the emotional toll of confronting our racist systems up close, to name a couple. Still, she had no intention of slowing down. She had an I'll sleep when I'm dead mentality. Until she began showing physical signs of burnout that she couldn't ignore. 
See, it wasn't just the bald spot — she also had painful cystic acne. "Even though I wanted to keep going, I couldn't keep fighting my body," says Edari, a cofounder of Freedom March NYC. "My body was screaming at me that I needed rest." 
Edari soon realized she needed desperately to adjust her approach to organizing. It isn't uncommon for those in social justice movements to ignore their immediate bodily needs for the greater good. "Ask any activist how long they can hold their pee for," says Laurie Bertram Roberts, cofounder of an abortion fund called the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund, who's been doing advocacy work for reproductive rights for a decade. "I'm serious, ask them!" 
The thing is, most activists care so much about the issues they're working on that they'll go above and beyond for them, at times to their own detriment, says Paul Gorski, PhD, founder and research director of the Equity Literacy Institute, which does research, training, and advocacy work to help people working against inequities. This overwork can pay off to varying degrees — for a recent example, organizing around abortion after Roe v. Wade's reversal contributed to keeping the "red wave" of Republican wins in the Nov. 8 elections at bay. But now, more and more people are questioning if exhausting themselves for good is necessary. "All activists put causes above their needs and relationships to a certain degree," Dr Gorski says. "That’s not the issue. The issue is when they allow their own health and wellbeing to be deteriorated because they’re doing this to an enormous degree." Even if this sacrifice and martyr-level dedication might temporarily advance a cause, it can have long-term negative consequences. If too many people burn out, turnover becomes high, which contributes to a loss of movement knowledge and experience in general. Bertram Roberts puts it most simplistically this way: "Burnout ain't cute."
Meanwhile, younger activists especially can feel the pressure to prove themselves and create change for their futures at all costs. Until you're a more seasoned organizer, it's also hard to spot the signs of burnout until they become so devastating they're impossible to ignore, as Edari found. As such, the causes they care about can take over their lives, sometimes leading to serious health outcomes. 
Although ‘burnout’ technically isn't an official medical diagnosis, it's been studied within activist communities and has been shown to lead to conditions such as stress, anxiety and depression, Dr Gorski says.
Health outcomes such as anxiety and depression can be particularly stark if folks are organizing around a cause that directly impacts them or their community — a sexual assault survivor organizing around Title IX or a Black activist deeply invested in racial justice work as part of their day-to-day life, for example. If you're adding the potential stresses of organizing on top of the exhaustion of being the target of oppression, it can take a heavy toll over time.
These impacts aren't just dangerous for individual health, they can be bad for movements. If activists flame out, they run the risk of abandoning organizing for good. This happens to about half the activists studied in a paper by Dr Gorski. His research also found four primary burnout causes: emotional-dispositional ones ("activists are generally so deeply aware of the impact of the oppression they’re fighting that they often feel responsible for eliminating that oppression on their own," Dr Gorski says. "Some people are better at coping with that than others."); structural issues (societal conditions, systems and structures designed to perpetuate racism, sexism, cisgenderism and the like); backlash (including arrest, doxxing or surveillance); and in-movement stresses (for example, disagreements about the best way to approach activism, what the goals ought to be or how to frame a particular issue). His research also found that racial justice activists of color often identified their interactions with white racial justice organizers — and the micro- and macro-aggressions they experienced from those white activists — as a primary cause of their burnout. "Any activist can experience burnout, but in this case white activists are protected by their whiteness," Dr Gorski says. 
"The thing that burns me out the most is talking about race," adds Bertram Roberts. "Having to explain why shit is racist. Having to be a white-people-whisperer and teach Racism 101." That's why, they say, at the abortion fund they run, they actively work to keep their staff as diverse as possible. "We're not going to sit here and handhold people because we don't have time for that with all the work we have to do."
Dr Gorski says that he's interviewed many members of more marginalized groups about additional tolls that can lead to burnout, including LGBTQ+, low-income or women activists. "If someone feels marginalized in their day-to-day life," he explains, "there's an upsetting compounding when they come into a space of activists where they might assume they’d feel more safe, only to be marginalized there, too." 
This is also true of ableism in movements, Bertram Roberts says. Because for many social justice organizations, a bulk of resources often go to the cause, some spaces don't have accommodations for those with disabilities — and moreover, it feels like "most organizations, big and small, aren’t even thinking about providing these accommodations," Bertram Roberts says. "We’re an afterthought."  
"People say all the time, not directly, but in coded language, that I shouldn't be in leadership because I can't attend events and marches in the same way," they continue. "And that can take a toll and just add to the burnout you'd already be feeling if you were doing this work as a non-disabled person… If you're doing this work and you're poor or disabled or queer or trans or undocumented or you're at any intersection of oppression, that makes it harder for this to be sustainable." 
Thandiwe Abdullah helped launch the Black Lives Matter Youth Vanguard in 2015 at just 13 years old. "I spent three years of my childhood working relentlessly, going up against adults to get random searches out of L.A. schools — which we accomplished but which was exhausting," they say. However, after years of organizing, they realized the mental anguish of protesting required them to take a massive step back. After racist reports and backlash, Abdullah says their house was swatted by police multiple times, meaning a group or individual falsely reported emergencies in order to draw a large police presence to the location. Swatting can be dangerous and such incidents have proven to be deadly in the past. (A Los Angeles Police Department spokesman has confirmed police responded to calls to The Los Angeles Times, and department officials have previously defended their officers' actions, saying they followed protocols, despite the fact that a lawsuit has been filed regarding a swatting incident at Abdullah's home in August 2020. The LAPD hasn't returned Refinery29's request for comment.)
"My personal information was sold on the dark web, and it was a little crazy," Abdullah says. "I was supposed to be starting school soon, but I had to pack up and move and sleep on people's couches or in their spare rooms." Meanwhile, there was a pandemic happening and an uprising for racial justice. Amid all this, Abdullah pushed themselves until their mental health could no longer handle it. A mix of backlash online and in person, racism and other factors caused Abdullah to pull back from the movement for a while, and they stayed on the fringes until they were inspired by a new cause while off at college. 
Young activists like Abdullah face all sorts of additional challenges to fighting burnout that older people don't. At the same time as they're growing up, they're often fighting for issues they can't even vote on yet, and they don't have the same resources such as licences or credit cards to buy protesting supplies, from gas masks to glitter glue for signage. Older people also often don't take younger organizers seriously, another major hurdle. 
"A lot of parents consider it dangerous for their kids to organize, and until you graduate and can be somewhat independent, you don't have the autonomy to tell your parents you have to leave dinner early for a protest," Abdullah says. "Older adults can also be patronizing. Like saying young people aren't capable of coming up with plans… However, I always found that for every adult who was telling us no, there were five more who were telling us we were doing the right thing." 
Another particularly fraught issue among young activists is social media. For her part, Edari found that social media helped her build her platform, find her people and get the word out about major protests coming up. To her, it was a modicum of information and data. But others say it contributes to burnout itself.
Abdullah, for instance, says that some activists become so consumed by publicity on social media and getting that coveted blue checkmark on Instagram that they can lose track of the real meaning of their work. "There's a corporatization of youth organizing and it's become a super huge part of this movement," they say. "I was 14 and everyone was trying to be a girlboss — and make me into one. It was a lot. I believe organizing should be centered on the issues and communities, and not followers and events." Even if social media is a way to reach people, it can quickly become a slippery slope, they add. "We're seeing so many people who are using activism as a means to make money," Abdullah says. "People are getting brand deals for advocacy. Capitalism is making it so people are able to profit, essentially, from the suffering of disenfranchised groups." 
Getting caught up in the likes and views feels like the antithesis of Abdullah's movement, they say. They've also seen it make things harder for organizers as they work to juggle the trolls and metric-induced stressors of social media while also organizing on the ground. "Capitalism can be a sinister evil force in our work," they say. They believe that the best way to use social media is as a tool for education and outreach with an emphasis on transparency, while the bulk of the work should be in community-building and change-making. 
Paxton Smith knows this juggle well and has taken a step back from social media and advocacy, in part due to backlash within her movement. She blew up on social media in 2021 for ditching her principal-approved valedictorian speech to speak out about the near-total ban on abortion in her state, Texas. This speech led her to organize and speak at rallies around the world — and to use her platform to make educational TikTok videos on topics such as self-managed abortion and reproductive justice. Soon, though, she began to face nasty comments and retaliation online, and not just from those who opposed abortion. "A lot of the backlash came from people who weren't fully informed on the topic at hand, which led them to boldly make statements about the quality and truthfulness of the information I shared," Smith says. "There were also times when informed individuals would nitpick at my videos, saying I failed to explain some things. That's something that frustrated me about using TikTok as a platform because I had to make very short videos to share information, which made it difficult to be comprehensive." She especially was troubled by a certain in-movement fighting about wording and semantics — all of which mattered but also detracted from their larger cause and made people, including herself, afraid to speak up for fear of saying the wrong thing. Dr Gorski says this is a common example in action of "in-movement" burnout causes. "I’ve seen activists get into vicious, personal, almost-coming-to-blows arguments over what language to use," he says. For instance, debating whether to use the term "'equity' or 'justice' or 'anti-oppression?'" he says.
While Smith agrees that communicating effectively is paramount and misinformation is dangerous, she notes that the pressure of saying the exact "on message" right thing all of the time got to her — especially when different people within her movement all used slightly different messaging. There were times it felt like she couldn't win. "You can be super aware of everything going on in the movement, but you're never going to say everything exactly right all of the time by everyone's standards," she says. "It scares you into saying nothing at all.” Smith, who is also a singer, has stepped back from this kind of work for now, after a difficult few months in the wake of the Roe v. Wade reversal. "It can be really exhausting to think about abortion all day, and especially exhausting to constantly think of how to effectively communicate the magnitude of the situation to others," she says. For now, Smith's focusing on her music and school full-time. 
Although this kind of burnout can be hard to avoid, Edari, Abdullah, Bertram Roberts and Gorski say there are things activists and organizations can do to beat back burnout. Leaning on people who "get it" is especially crucial. Other activists you trust can act as a sounding board, help pick up the slack if you need a break and remind you to rest — or just stop scrolling through the comments on your latest TikTok. Abdullah says that finding comfort in community was one of the only things that pulled them back to organizing after burnout. "It's scary when you lose touch with your people," they say.
"It needs to be about community care not just self-care," Bertram Roberts adds. "It was never self-care that helped me through the toughest times. It was always my community pulling me through." 
Dr Gorski agrees that community — and good leadership — are two major factors for righting or combatting burnout. The best leaders listen, remind their people to take breaks and create an environment that fosters change without putting a cause over those fighting for it. "So much of the conversation about not burning out is built around the idea of self-care," says Dr Gorski. "A lot of it is asking the question: what are people doing to survive these conditions within these movements? But what people should really be talking about is how to address those conditions themselves institutionally. How can leaders do this? How can they get better at community care? How do we attend to one another’s wellbeing while also tending to the cause?" 
Some answers to his rhetorical questions: some leaders in movements are linking their activists up with mental health supports, including culturally informed therapists. Some folks who work at nonprofits are unionizing, including more recently the reproductive justice organizations The Guttmacher Institute and Planned Parenthood. Mutual aid, in which communities come together to support each other amid a common struggle, is also an option, especially for volunteer workers who may still need help with food and bills. Wellness retreats are also an option for some, says Edari, who organized such a retreat for burnt out activists like herself. There are also other tools made specifically for activists struggling with burnout. Dr Gorski recommends The Wellbeing ProjectThe Activist Handbook, The Commons Social Change Library and his very own tools at the Equity Literacy Institute. Edari also recommends The Nap Ministry, which promotes rest as a tool for liberation and resistance. The organization helped her make a necessary mental shift and she encourages others to find ways to open their minds to such mindset adjustments that can help banish burnout.
"This organization helped me see: we praise Black bodies for working so hard and studying until they fall asleep at the library," Edari says. "But this helped me change the narrative. We should be praising rest.
If you are experiencing anxiety and are in need of crisis support, please call the Crisis Call Center’s 24-hour hotline at 1-775-784-8090 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 9-8-8.

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