When Dismantling Power Dismantles You Instead
In the Trump era, many see activism as more vital than ever. But what happens when it takes a toll on your physical, mental, and emotional health?
Xavier Lalanne-Tauzia for VICE Magazine
Six. That’s the number of consecutive Mondays Mohammad Khan estimates he spent glued to his laptop, anxiously awaiting a ruling from the Supreme Court on the Trump administration’s travel ban.
Since the Supreme Court doesn’t announce when rulings will come, Khan and his colleagues at Mpower Change, a countrywide Muslim-led social justice organization co-founded by Women’s March co-chair Linda Sarsour, watched each livestream with trepidation. They were waiting to hear if the nation’s highest court would uphold the president’s ban prohibiting anyone from seven countries, five of them majority-Muslim, from entering the United States.
In the meantime, they were furiously organizing: As the group’s campaign director, Khan spent every day in “hyperdrive,” pushing out messaging on social media and coordinating with other activist groups and nonprofits in anticipation of the decision. But it felt like his efforts had amounted to nothing when, on June 26, the Supreme Court’s ruling finally arrived: In a 5–4 vote, the majority of justices agreed that implementing the travel ban was well within the scope of Trump’s presidential authority.
The decision was devastating to Khan, the final and decisive blow in a long struggle to strike down the administration’s most overt anti-Muslim policy. But he couldn’t dwell on it for long—he and his colleagues set to work that very day, helping to organize a rally in Manhattan’s Foley Square that drew some 5,000 protesters. “We didn’t have any time to process our feelings really, because the decision came down and then we immediately had to execute a plan,” Khan told me. “It probably wasn’t until 11 PM that night when I had a moment to myself. At that point, I just passed out.”
The life of an activist can be a wearing one, perhaps even more so in the Trump era, when, as Khan put it, social justice advocates feel like they’re fighting “attacks on every front.” When President Trump took office, mainstream news outlets toyed with the idea that the demonstrations that immediately followed might become regular fixtures in American life. After the Women’s March, a New York Times writer probed whether married fathers could adapt to a new reality that involved their wives’ activist awakenings; a few weeks later, The Week ran a story headlined “Is Protesting the New Brunch?”
In practice, weekly protests turned out to be much more difficult to sustain than Sunday brunches for some, because though it has its joys, organizing can be a thankless slog best suited to those with strong stomachs for disappointment. Popular narratives surrounding Trump-era activism paper over these unsavory realities, placing enormous stock in political protest—think of the pre-midterms emphasis on “women’s rage” to drive voter turnout—without examining the effects on the people who do it.
Activism brings with it the usual stressors of a full-time job—long hours, precarious work-life balancing acts, vexing “office politics”—as well as other more intense pressures. For activists like Khan, organizing isn’t just a job, but a moral obligation to do one’s part to create a more just world. In his line of work, the stakes are high: Defeat means conceding more power to the powerful, knowing they’ll use it to perpetrate harm against his own community.
It’s the nature of activist organizing that defeat comes often and can seem irreversible, and those who do it find themselves weighed down by stress, anxiety, and depression. Left unchecked, these bad feelings can accrete into “burnout,” a term first coined in 1974 by the German-American psychologist Herbert J. Freudenberger, who defined it as a “state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by one's professional life.” Recent research has found that people engaged in social justice work may be particularly susceptible to this condition, and that activist burnout can take on its own specific symptoms and effects. And it can have harmful repercussions for both the organizers and their movements.
“Activists have this sense of urgency about dismantling these huge systems of power, and when that comes up against how slow change can be and all the barriers that pop up along the way, it can cause burnout,” said Paul Gorski, a longtime activist and the founder of Equity Literacy Institute, an organization that promotes social justice in education. “I’ve found that burnout seems to come from the same place that drives people to be activists in the first place.”
As a fellow at George Mason University’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being, Gorski wrote a 2015 paper for which he and his co-author spoke to nearly two dozen social justice and human rights, or SJHR, activists. Since then, he’s interviewed more than a hundred SJHR activists, and in doing so has uncovered a troubling pattern: Roughly half the activists who reported experiencing burnout didn’t take time off or go on hiatus—they left their movements for good.
“When you have so many people burning out and leaving, it really messes up the potential for these movements to be effective,” Gorski said. “You’re always mentoring new people, there’s no consistency in who’s engaged, and everyone’s exhausted all of the time and snapping at each other.”
These findings pose a potential problem for movements that are seeing explosions in interest and involvement post-Trump. If all the people who marched in the Women’s March, jetted to airports to protest the travel ban, or flooded the streets to disavow the president’s repeal of DACA become too tired to continue, what then?
“At the end of the day, every day, I feel burned out. The fact is, you’re putting in so much work and don’t always see the results.”
“People leave all the time,” said Chanelle Helm, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter Louisville. “They think the work is too heavy, the work is too hard—we’re not getting black liberation right now so why bother?”
The effects of activist burnout can be especially acute for marginalized groups, according to Gorski’s research. Often, sexism and racism pervades activists’ own ranks, compounding the stress and anxiety women and activists of color may already be experiencing as a result of their work. And if they’re organizing around issues with direct implications for their own lives, activist efforts can trigger past trauma, or lead to vicarious trauma, the result of coming in contact with someone who is going through a traumatic event.
Helm first got involved in racial justice organizing when she herself became a victim of police violence more than 15 years ago. Helm, now 38, says the incident occurred in 2002, when she was leaving a Louisville, Kentucky, nightclub: On her way out, she realized her cellphone, which had been attached to her hip on a clip, had disappeared. When Helm called the phone to see if it was nearby, she heard its ringtone coming from the general vicinity of a man she said had “felt her up” earlier that night. When she tried to follow him back into the club she said two police officers outside began to assault her because they said she wasn’t following their orders.
Combating police brutality in Louisville and helping families heal from it not only resurfaces these memories, it also reminds her that her son and daughter, ages six and nine, could one day find themselves in a similar position. “It is a lot of work based on a lot of pain and a lot of hurt,” she said on the phone, asking me to hold on while she gave her children a snack—it was nearing dinnertime. “At the end of the day, every day, I feel burned out. The fact is, you’re putting in so much work and don’t always see the results.”
Helm was frank about feeling drained, but it’s not always easy for activists to acknowledge these sentiments, and some found it too exhausting even to discuss. When I texted a source to see if she could connect me with anyone who might want to talk to me for this story, she said she would send a call-out to an activist group thread. A few minutes later she texted back with contact information for two men who said they were up for an interview. “I don’t know why only the boys on the chain responded,” she wrote. “But most of the women said they’re too burned out to talk about it.”
Gorski said it’s the culture of “martyrdom” often intrinsic to activist communities that can make people unwilling to admit they need a break, or make people feel guilty when they do. “It can become almost a competition over who’s going to work themselves to exhaustion,” he said.
That may be changing. The activists I spoke to suggested that the broader cultural shift toward “self-care” may have begun to pervade their communities, encouraging organizers to make time to attend to their emotional and physical well-being.
Khan told me he took a three-week trip to Spain in August to decompress after the organizing he did around the Supreme Court’s travel ban ruling, and when I tried to get in touch with two other activists for this story, a friend of theirs mentioned one of them was on vacation in San Francisco; the other, enjoying a long-overdue beach stay. They weren’t leaving activism for good, as many of the subjects in Gorski’s study reported—they were being honest about needing a break.
But the next battle, according to some activists, is figuring out the best way to incorporate these practices into the work itself, without relying solely on the occasional vacation to stave off burnout, especially considering not all activists can afford to take time off and travel.
This has been the mission of Victor Narro, the UCLA Downtown Labor Center’s project director. Narro, who has been involved in activism since the Salvadoran liberation movements of the 1980s, devotes a portion of his time to leading seminars and workshops designed especially for activists. He teaches breathing exercises, mindfulness, meditation; he gives activists practical tips to apply to their work and opens a space for them to talk candidly about what’s stressing them out.
Most recently, he gave a workshop to a group of lawyers feeling overburdened by their caseloads in the Trump era. Sometimes he’ll do one-on-one sessions, or bring along mental health professionals with ties to the activist community to help facilitate discussions. “The point of these practices isn’t to teach you to completely disconnect for two hours and go meditate,” Narro said. “They’re meant to be integrated into your everyday work.”
One of the points Narro tries to hammer into activists most is the idea that their work isn’t defined by the result. Thinking otherwise, he has found, is often the greatest source of distress for the organizers he works with. And so Narro tries to help activists find the bright spots in their work.
"In every activist campaign there’s a human element. Whether or not you succeed, you’ve formed relationships, strengthened connections. And you’ll take those to your next effort.”
“We can try as hard as we can, but maybe still sometimes we can’t move these old white Republicans in the Senate,” Narro said. “But in every activist campaign there’s a human element. Whether or not you succeed, you’ve formed relationships, strengthened connections. And you’ll take those to your next effort.”
The next phase of Gorski’s research involves examining the flip side of the conversation about activist burnout—who’s exempt from it, and why? Everyone in the activist community experiences stress and frustration, but what gives someone the ability to move past those things, and build an entire life out of unflagging activism? Is it blind optimism? Expert compartmentalization? Or something else?
It may be that it’s something close to what Narro suggests: that the people who are most able to sustain lifelong activism are those who can pick out the small gains when it would otherwise seem like losses across the board.
“God, you make it sound so depressing,” Michael Kink, the executive director of the Strong Economy for All Coalition, said when I told him the subject of my story. “I don’t know if it’s because I’m a Sagittarius or something—but I’d say I’m more optimistic than other folks on this stuff. I take the long view to activism.”
Kink, 55, remembers seeing protesters get pelted with rocks where he grew up on the South Side of Chicago, and seeing houses firebombed; he remembers, years later, his fellow organizers dying during the AIDS crisis. But he can also easily recall the victories someone with a different outlook might dismiss, like when, amid Bill Clinton’s “bullshit” welfare reform, Kink and the activists fighting alongside him helped win states the right to decide whether or not they would force people on public benefits to get regular drug tests. “There are times you have wreckage all around you, but you can still win something,” Kink said.
Meanwhile, Khan said that, even in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the travel ban, what helped was seeing how many people were as outraged as he was, and willing to show up to uplift and support each other. Helm loves to joke around with the other organizers at BLM Louisville, “tell each other funny shit” and share memes on social media. And Kink said he thinks back to Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1957 “Birth of a New Nation” speech, where he suggests that creating a community can be an end in itself.
“Enjoy the courage and joy and energy of the folks you’re working with,” Kink said, when I asked him what he would recommend to younger activists. “That ‘beloved community’ stuff Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used to talk about is the real deal.”