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the point of the women's revolution if we can't dance
Jane Barry, World
March 30, 2010
is an intense, driven activist running an anti-trafficking center
in Moldova. When we first meet in Dublin, at a Front Line Human
Rights Defenders meeting, we talk for hours about her work, her
life, and her safety. Every day she works directly with survivors
while managing a staff of 15. It-s difficult and dangerous
I finally ask her how she manages to juggle it all. She pauses.
I don-t sleep," she says.
answer sums up the experience of most activists in the women-s
movement. Across the world—from Rwandan peace activists to
US domestic violence advocates—we are looking for more time.
We are constantly trying to balance too much work with too few resources
and never enough rest. We-re making choices every day about
well-being—our own and everyone else-s. With so much
to be done, and so many wrongs in the world to right, we almost
always choose to serve others first. We don-t feel we have
a right to rest.
I know because,
with my colleague Jelena Dordevic, I-ve talked with more than
100 female human rights activists from 45 countries about this topic,
and they all said the same thing: We-ve created a culture
of self-sacrifice. And we-re tired. We-re fearful, exhausted,
When we sat
down and talked with women about their hopes and challenges, what
we learned was both disturbing and surprising.
disturbing is that as activists, we manage high levels of chronic
stress, exposure to trauma, and enormous workloads. We-re
deeply stressed about the amount of work we have to do, and yet
we almost universally accept this level of work as an inevitable
fact of activism.
surprising is that despite it all, we seem to keep going.
the founder of Montana-s Windcall Ranch—an all-expense
paid retreat for activists—said it best. She talked of "a
damaging work ethic," in which we are encouraged to override
our own needs in order to reach our end goal. She explained that
there is a damaging perception that a truly committed activist should
be willing to tackle the Goliath of social injustice regardless
of the personal cost. She pointed out the irony in the fact that
when she first established her home as a free retreat for overworked
activists nearly 20 years ago, she sent out 3,000 invitations, but
only 30 people applied. Most felt that they—and their organizations—just
couldn-t afford the indulgence.
Our work is
messy, complicated, and personal. We-re fighting against warlords,
mercenaries, and weapon-manufacturing nations. We-re up against
state-sponsored terrorism, transnational corporations, and the factory
down the hill that-s polluting our water supplies. We-re
exposing our neighbor who just trafficked his daughter. We-re
up against the world, and it-s taking its toll.
And yet when
Jelena and I first started interviewing women activists about how
they cope with the enormous pressure, most reacted with confusion
and even frustration.
group interview in Sri Lanka, after we had discussed how they were
coping with stress, one activist stopped me and said, "Look,
I don-t get it—what does this have to do with our work?"
I heard this
comment over and over again. As activists we can talk for hours
about funding crunches, fundamentalisms, ending war, and violence
against women. But discussing our own fears is much harder. Our
stress, exhaustion, and personal safety are private matters.
got past the initial shock of speaking about themselves, issues
of burnout inevitably came up. Sarala Emmanuel in Sri Lanka described
it as an overwhelming feeling that you can never stem the tide of
"When you hear about another rape or another killing, it makes
you depressed," she said. "In a way it does seem too
much—we can-t respond to it all."
time we start talking. Sooner or later, the stress of the work gets
absorbed into our hearts, minds, bodies, and into the movement as
a whole. Without the time and space to reflect and recover, it stays
there. Eventually it takes form as breakdowns, strokes, heart disease,
that I couldn-t cope with one more minute of handling responsibilities,"
said Anissa Helie, a human rights activist in Algeria. "I
spent five weeks in bed, only getting up to go to the toilet, not
even able to make myself a cup of tea."
The time has
come to make our own personal well-being a priority. Because without
physical and emotional health, how can we do the important work
that we have set out to do?
Menon coined the phrase "activist sustainability."
think of our own sustainability," she said. "I am not
talking about funding. The question is how do we sustain our own
lives, get our own energy, and bring that change elsewhere?"
When we are
living under constant pressure, the stress and anxiety of staying
alert gets to be too much. When we are this tired, we have no time
to strategize, to analyze threats, to do our jobs well. Worries
about feeding our families or retiring without a pension are as
important as concerns about funding our organizations and combating
violence. These are part of the same sustainability equation.
is about being able to do the work we love, while still feeling
full and happy in every part of our lives. It-s about feeling
safe, feeling connected, feeling recognized, respected, and valued—for
we are, as much as for what we do.
But how do
we sustain ourselves? How do we maintain the energy needed to create
the change we so desperately seek?
As a movement,
I know that we are resilient. We get knocked down. And we get back
up again. Here-s how.
we are each other-s families. We create peace by joining forces,
by gathering, talking, and listening.
For many, the
first time we come together with other activists is one of the first
times that we find safety—not just in numbers but also in
common experience. Sometimes, these spaces aren-t available
in our own communities and we must seek them out by attending conferences,
joining forums, and finding friends that can become our families
and our pillars.
start talking. Not on the edges of conferences or in rushed e-mails.
Not during tearful, exhausted calls from the office to another time
zone at three in the morning. This has to be deliberate. We have
to put talking, listening, and responding to our own needs at the
top of our agendas.
Crying has universal
resonance among activists.
a Zimbabwean activist, pointed out that one group who works on HIV/AIDS
issues has a "crying room" to help its members deal
with the tragedy and horrors they view every day. And, in our work,
we see a lot of tragedy.
I am reminded
of Barbara Bangura, a Sierra Leonean activist who worked with women
who had been captured and enslaved by rebel soldiers during the
decade-long civil war. When we met in her crowded offices, I was
struck by her composure. What did it take to maintain serenity when
surrounded by so much pain and sadness?
me that usually she manages, but that there are stories that she
just can-t shake. Every activist has these stories—those
that seep, unexpectedly, into every aspect of our lives, haunting
our dreams. These are the stories that drive us to the brink of
despair, that leave us asking, "Why is this happening?"
We need to
feel these stories, to take time to reflect on the gravity of the
situations we are facing. These are the times when we allow ourselves
to feel and release, to share in the sorrow.
in its many forms, sustains many of us. Let-s get the "S"
word out of the closet and talk openly about how to embrace what
works and how to put aside the rest. For some, there is no name
for this form of renewal; it is simply as natural as embracing the
elements or digging bare hands into the earth to help create life.
Spirituality takes us back to our deepest beliefs and values, to
the source of our passion and commitment. For many, it can be the
key to sustaining ourselves as activists. Because, as Margaret Schink,
a US-based activist and one of the founders of Urgent Action Fund,
says, "We-ll never have peace unless people have peace
within themselves. To really bring about significant change, people
have to go within themselves and find peace."
controversial, and deeply personal, and that can make it difficult
to talk about. But the majority of the activists I interviewed practiced
some kind of spirituality that kept them going—from walking
in the woods to Buddhist meditation. Spiritual practices can help
us make sense of the things going on around us. They can help us
return to loving the world and loving ourselves. Making a practice
of validating and affirming our spirituality can rejuvenate our
Sustainability a Part of Our Everyday Lives
As a network
of organizations working for the world-s women, we must begin
to dedicate real time in our own work environments to sitting down
and talking about well-being together. We must begin to shift our
culture radically by incorporating self-sustainability, activist
safety, and well-being into our everyday routines.
an activist from Kenya, put together the following list of ways
her organization can begin this shift. Let-s
add to it.
- Take 5 minutes
every hour to stop, drink a glass of water, meditate, stretch,
or do whatever is relaxing to you.
- Create a
space within the office for peaceful reflection.
- Ensure that
at least one day of annual staff retreats or gatherings are reserved
for rest and restoration.
for staff well-being. Give each staff member a personal well-being
budget for massages, reiki, pilates, talk therapy, etc.
- Say no to
working on the weekends and budget sacred time for reflection
during our work weeks.
Yourself to Challenge the Culture
what well-being means to you. What would it take for you to live
in balance? Take the time to listen to your answer. It means change—and
change can be scary. Let the process of exploring inner sustainability
transform your own activism. Challenge your beliefs about what it
means to be a part of this movement. It starts with ourselves as
individual activists and permeates outward.
What does it
mean if the way we-ve been active for generations isn-t
working for us anymore? I-ve often wondered if embracing a
different way of working negates all of the progress we-ve
made until now.
it means exactly the opposite. Embracing activist sustainability
is about celebrating where we-ve been and what we-ve
accomplished. It-s about embracing the good and recognizing
the bad. It-s time we start doing less and engage in "the
extreme sport of stopping," as one activist calls it.
We have to
change the culture of activism and heal ourselves, so that we can
begin to heal others. When this cultural shift takes hold, our movement
will become truly unstoppable.
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