A few weeks ago I was asked to speak about my experiences of activist burnout at the meeting of the Glasgow West-sub branch of the Scottish Green Party. This is a written version of what I said, with less rambling, less self deprecating humour and a few additional thoughts.
I’ll start by giving a quick overview of my experiences, then move onto some themes that I think are universal and some advice I’d give and what I think we could change.
I joined the Scottish Green Party the day after the independence referendum, firstly because I didn’t want all the emotional energy and hope I’d sank into the Yes campaign to just peter away. I’d been impressed with the Green Yes campaign and found that the Greens most closely reflected my own policy position. Their stated model of being grassroots-led and engaging in participative democracy was attractive. It’s also worth saying that I’d recently become a father and lost a long term job due to poor mental health, and those experiences made me more keen to play a proactive role in pushing for a more progressive, hopeful future.
My first meeting was at the West of Scotland Cricket ground, being one of the lucky few to actually get inside and have a pint. The sense of a movement whose time had come, of a party on the move and keen to embrace the new members was palpable and inspiring. I dived into getting a group organised in my part of Glasgow (that’s the Southside) and as that started to gain traction, I put myself up for election to the Glasgow & West branch committee. To my considerable surprise, I ended up getting elected and picked up the Communications brief on the committee because I had some experience in maintaining a basic website, dealing with social media and I can write a bit.
The dual commitment of trying to develop the Southside group and handle that communications brief, especially through the Westminster 2015 campaign while the party was struggling to cope with the influx of new members and run a meaningful campaign at the same time was very taxing. Combined with the responsibility of being a father and my shaky mental health all took a toll and as we came into summer 2015 and the birth of my second son came around, I found that it was all too much.
So I handed the reigns of the Southside and the branch comms role over to folks who had stepped up and asked for things to do, trying to give as professional and helpful a handover as possible before I took a good few months away from almost all party involvement.
I started coming back to meetings in October and attended both days of the autumn conference and feeling reenergized, I put myself up for selection as a council candidate (I wasn’t selected which at this point is actually a relief) and was asked to join the committee for the Disabled representative group. In the new year I picked up the comms role for the Southside sub-branch after the incumbent got elected onto the Glasgow committee and I fulfilled that role through the Holyrood elections while being on the Disabled committee and helping to produce our mini-manifesto.
I’m still the Comms officer for the Southside sub branch and I’m now co-convenor (job-share) of the Disabled representative group, although both roles have been pretty hands off as everyone takes a summer break after the elections and EU referendum.
It has to be said that at the time of writing, I am considering stepping back from one or both of these roles in the near future for a variety of reasons, but mostly because I’m worried about my mental health and I’m aware that continued front line activism in the short term might not be in my interest or that of the party. Sometimes, discretion is the better part of valour after all.
OK, so that’s my experience and through speaking to a large number of fellow activists who’ve either fallen prey to burnout or come close to it, there seems to be two main threads we need to address – activist guilt and the party as pararsite.
Everyone who is a member of the Green party, everyone who stands for selection or takes on an internal role, everyone who works a stall, delivers a leaflet, shares a post on social media or just clicks that ‘join’ button on the webpage does so for much the same reason. We all believe in a fairer, more sustainable Scotland in a fairer more sustainable world. We’re also willing to give up some degree of our attention, money, time and/or energy to working towards that goal via democratic means.
That’s a big thing to take on and it can lead to folks putting the cause ahead of their own capacity or wellbeing. Of course, this isn’t always entirely altruistic and there can be a degree of ego-stroking going on where you want to contribute to find validation (this is certainly true for me) or primacy within the movement, but the effect is the same. To varying degrees, we feel bad if we can’t go to all the meetings, be on all the committees, man all the stalls, deliver all the leaflets.
I’ve spoken to dozens of members who say they’ve felt bad when they’ve had to stay home from a march or action day because of a powerful need to sleep after a night shift or to spend time with their family, and that’s a sign of an unhealthy – and in the middle-long term harmful – trend.
The Party as Parasite
The party unconsciously feeds on this desire to contribute that it so often overcomes folks’ instinct for self-preservation. People in voluntary positions do an ungodly amount of work for far too little recognition and too much criticism. There is a sense as activists that if you’re not ever present, conspicuous and active then you’ll be seen as not contributing and left behind, considered unfit for candidacy etc. This leads to a culture of presenteeism which exacerbates the effects of activist guilt and makes activism exclusionary to folks who are disabled, parents, poor, work shifts that coincide with meetings and so on.
The combination of activist guilt and the party as parasite leads to a situation where activists can easily become burned out and, in some cases, so jaded that they leave the party. That is not a sustainable use of our voluntary human resources and we’re all about sustainability, right?
OK, with all that out of the way, here is my advice-cum-wishlist.
Take Care of Yourself
That sounds simple, but with activist guilt being a real phenomenon it’s important to remember that as much as you’d like to be involved, you’re no use to the movement if you give so much of yourself that you burn out or leave. Try and be mindful of your own capacity and spoons and if you start dreading that Greens meeting or that leafleting session or that Skype call, then maybe you’ve overstretched yourself and you need to think about pulling your horns in a bit.
Yes, admitting that you’ve overextended yourself and that you can’t stay on this committee or you can’t manage that task is more than a bit humbling, but in the long run you’re not doing yourself or the party any favours by spreading yourself ever thinner.
Take Care Of One Another
Sometimes it takes an outside observer to notice when someone is struggling. As the See Me Scotland campaign says, sometimes just asking someone if they are ok can be the first, biggest step towards someone asking for help and staving off a more calamitous mental collapse down the road. Look out for each other and don’t be afraid to ask – or be asked – if someone is alright.
By the same token, when someone asks for help or doesn’t complete that task that they said they would, be compassionate to them. If someone has fallen short, there is probably a good reason and a harsh word from a colleague is only likely to send them scurrying from the party, never to return.
Above all – be kind to one another, always.
The Party Needs To Take Care Of Us
While self-care and group-care are undoubtedly the front line of this issue, I believe the party, as both an organization and culture, has a duty of care to look after its activists in a more proactive way. Some of this may be in progress as part of the ongoing structural review, but its worth saying nonetheless.
The most obvious way this could be done is by the party using some of it’s increased resources to have a staff role of Welfare Officer who is basically tasked with assisting branches with issues relating to burnout, inclusivity and so on. Another option would be paid staff support members in each region to help with the nuts & bolts of party organizing – which so often falls on the shoulders of volunteer committee members who can so easily buckle under the strain in addition to their day jobs.
More emphasis on inclusivity would be good, with brand and sub-branch meetings opened up to virtual attendance via Skype and/or videoed so that members who could not attend due to disability, age, family commitments or work shifts can either take part remotely or at least view the meeting afterwards. It should also go without saying that all meetings should be held in accessible venues…
I think the party needs to be mindful of cultural aspects such as ‘let’s continue this chat in the pub afterwards’ which is exclusionary to a variety of folk who might be underage, recovering alcoholics, need to get home for the kids or because they are working the next day.
Similarly the tendency to thank & praise people who have done things like leaflet delivery or canvassing over people who have done less obvious things like organised the room, done the books, manned the social media etc. is exclusive to folks who are disabled or not free in the evenings/weekends.
It’s also true that folk in the party tend to wear several hats – I myself am, against all wisdom, on two committees – and that’s a recipe for burnout. This might well have been necessary before the surge where there was a much smaller pool of activists to draw from but now there is no real need for this and we should be looking to spread both the load and the experience. Perhaps a convention where nobody is allowed to hold more than two posts in the party would be a start.
We need to commit to looking after our people or we can’t boast about being a people powered party. We need to spread the load, spread the praise and generally be kinder to one another.
Neil Young sang that ‘it’s better to burn out than fade away’ but in this context I prefer to leave you with two more hopeful quotes.
First, from Audre Lorde – “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Last, from Bill & Ted – “Be excellent to one another.”