I’ve been thinking about these two, opposite aspects of an activist’s life and work while on vacation in the mountains of western North Carolina. It seemed appropriate that I spend some vacation time, in particular, considering the issue of “burnout.”
Burnout is when the demands of the struggle for change, the day-to-day grind of organizational work, become so overwhelming that a person literally cannot continue to do the work anymore. They pull back and withdraw, at least for a while. In some cases the effect is permanent; the individual never returns to the work of organizing and instead takes up a less demanding line of work.
Can burnout be eliminated? I don’t think so. Its occurrence can be lessened; there are steps that can be taken both by individuals and organizations to minimize its frequency. Ultimately, however, it is unrealistic to expect that all people who take up the critically-needed work of organizing for social justice are going to be able to continue doing so for years and decades, indeed, for a lifetime.
The question is not, “can burnout be eliminated?” The question should be, “how can we hold and attract the energies and commitment of growing numbers of organizers?” With this as the objective, our tasks become clearer.
First and foremost, we need to build organizations that are welcoming to new people and a source of support for all members. Community-building, through events such as pot-luck meals, picnics, educational programs, retreats and cultural activities, as well as through an open and friendly style of work on the part of the organization’s leadership, are concrete ways that such groups can be built.
Secondly, it is essential that all members of the organization, not just paid staff or a few, hard-working, volunteer leaders, are actively encouraged and assisted to be as active as possible. If much of the work of the organization is done mainly by the paid staff or by a few, it is a certainty that some of those staff/volunteer leaders will burn out, not solely because of overwork but also because the staff will come to resent others in the organization and feel isolated and put-upon. One way to keep up one’s energies is to see and experience the collaborative work of others on collectively agreed-upon projects. And this is also a way that new and/or inexperienced members can begin to learn in practice how to become effective organizers.
Finally, we need to build organizations, whether it be trade unions, community organizations, or single-issue and constituency-based organizations, that are fiercely independent and broadly democratic. You can’t have one without the other. Together they can keep the group and individuals within the group from falling prey to the seductive, cooptive lures of the system, keep everyone focused on the prize of a genuinely democratic, people-oriented society.
Democracy means much more than just periodic elections for leadership. Elections are important, but in the absence of conscious efforts and mechanisms to inform those voting and encourage active participation in between elections, they are little more than a hollow shell.
Democracy means the encouragement of discussion on a broad scale about key issues, including the articulation and circulation of differing positions. If it is only the views of the current leadership which are being circulated, and differences within the leadership group are withheld from the broader membership, this will inevitably lead to paternalistic or hierarchical, undemocratic forms of organization.
It is important that there be flexible but firm time limits on people speaking in meetings to discourage the monopolization of discussion by articulate, long-winded individuals. This is not a small issue. If time is not consciously provided for all those who wish to speak and limited for those who tend to go on and on, those not used to speaking will feel intimidated and discouraged from active involvement.
The employment of a small-group discussion format, when possible, helps to make it easier for those afraid or not used to speaking up in large groups to find their voice. This is a way of including those who can easily feel excluded. Sometimes the best format is a mix of small-group and large-group discussions, with report-backs from the small groups to the large group.
Whenever possible, a consensus-seeking method of discussion should be used. This discourages “show-boating” by individuals trying to get across their individual point and encourages a more collective process of listening and healthy interaction.
Finally, collective evaluation is an essential part of a genuinely democratic process. In this way those who are making mistakes or errors can have them corrected, and a process is established in which everyone comes to understand that no one individual is above the group.
If all of these aspects are working effectively, there will be much less burnout and new leadership will be emerging all the time. As importantly, we will be “building the road as we travel,” creating the new society in the present as we work towards the day when the corporate elite is a class from the past and all of the institutions of society are geared toward the maximum of human and scientific advancement.