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Avoid Activist Burnout and Sustain Your Commitment to Community

It's easy to feel like we're not doing enough to help the community, but our Community Service Office has advice on how to combat helplessness and support each other through the coronavirus pandemic.

Six Tips to Help Sustain Your Commitment to Community

Many of us who are used to supporting our community in person, but being forced to physically distance ourselves from our neighbors and loved ones has led to emotions such as hopelessness and guilt for feeling like we aren’t doing enough. On top of that, there is frustration that the response to COVID-19 isn’t equitable for all populations.

As we try to learn new ways to advocate for ourselves, our peers, and our communities, we can feel burnt out, according to Community Service Coordinator Jamie Willer, and dance movement therapy graduate student Patricka James ’21. They share these six tips for community activists to navigate self-isolation.

Icon that reads: 6 Tips To Help Sustain Your Commitment to Community: Prevent Activist Burnout & Compassion Fatigue

Tip #1: Take a daily assessment.

One way to cope with feelings of hopelessness is to map out the things you can't control that are causing anxiety and stress for you. Then, map out potential actions you can take—however big or small—to address what you do have control over as a way to feel less hopeless during this time of crisis. Try taking this daily assessment—either as a way to start or end your day—and develop an action plan for yourself.

Tip #2: Engage in wellness planning.

Support each other's wellness by communicating your needs and checking in regularly with your support system. This framework for wellness planning comes from The Audre Lorde Project, a community organizing center. The framework encourages you to assess your needs in these four categories and to ask yourself the needs you will anticipate having during this event:

  1. Heart: Motivational needs, spiritual needs, and how you stay grounded
  2. Body: Biological needs and physical needs
  3. Mind: Emotional needs; thought process
  4. Community: Interpersonal needs; need from social relationships

After writing these needs down, think through how and by whom they can be met. Then, instructs the Audre Lorde Project, "Strategize with your community about your wellness plan and meeting your needs.”

Tip #3: Try a body scan meditation.

Feel calmer by bringing awareness to each part of your body, noticing your experience with openness. Try this guided full-body meditation by Lesley's Mindfulness Studies Associate Professor Nancy Waring.

Find more guided meditations with Nancy Waring and a written transcript of the recording.

Tip #4: Schedule 'action hours' into your weekly planning tool.

If you feel overwhelmed by the number of requests for action—whether it be calling and emailing legislators, phone banking to check in with more vulnerable neighbors, donating, signing petitions, or other volunteer opportunities—try scheduling some of these tasks into an “action hour” on your calendar.

Several local community groups, including the Asian American Resource Workshop and Building Up People, Not Prisons: Reimagining Communities, have organized weekly virtual action hours over Zoom and have shared links to join on their social media pages.

Action hours can help you feel connected to others who are also taking action, and you can use this strategy within your own networks for causes you care about. Make a shared document with a list of action items you want to accomplish during the call and take an hour out of your week to accomplish them together.

Use the Office of Community Service's Caring For Our Communities During COVID-19 Guide for virtual community care ideas.

Tip #5: Be aware of symptoms of activist burnout.

Primary symptoms of activist burnout (Maslach and Gomes, 2006):

  • Exhaustion: Feeling emotionally and physically drained
  • Cynicism: Having negative associations with the work that once seemed so important
  • Inefficacy: Doubting self-worth and lack of activist achievement

Tip #6: Participate in collective efforts.

  • No single person is the one hero. This is a long haul. Remember, generations before you have worked to fight systems of oppression and generations after you will continue. Treat it as a marathon, not a sprint. 
  • Join a collective network of activists who care about similar issues. That way, you are able to step up and step back as needed, and you can learn from one another about what has worked and what hasn’t. 
  • A source of activist burnout, particularly for those from marginalized groups, is struggling within the movement and experiencing oppression from within one’s organizing group. This is why joining or building affinity spaces can be important. Visit Racial Equity Tools for information about how caucus and affinity groups work.

Want more tips?

Follow Lesley's Community Service Office Instagram account for more tips and support.