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Healing for Activists

350 Seattle activist Emily Hazelton

It’s hard to prioritize personal well-being in the face of so much to fix in the world.

I struggled with it, certainly. I started volunteering with the climate movement in early 2019. In two years, I’ve already pushed myself to the brink of burnout. Despite a keen desire to make a difference, it began to wear on me to attend meetings, gather signatures, or speak for public comment — all in addition to work and maintaining my personal life. I’d been prioritizing showing up as an activist before tending to my own healing – in large part because it was healing I hadn’t even realized I needed to do. But pushing for transformational climate policy will be necessary all my life, and fatigue is a story I’ve heard from other activists as well, so I began to look for ways to ensure that I can keep showing up.

Vivien Sharples is a 350 Seattle volunteer and has been an activist for almost 50 years, with a particular focus in the last decade on the intersection of racial and climate justice. Vivien is now also co-facilitator of a group designed to help activists face and feel their emotions and emerge empowered from the process — Climate Grief and Empowerment, a monthly group using “The Work That Reconnects”.

“I think that in the past, we, or at least I, have not taken a trauma-informed or compassionate approach to activism,” Vivien told me. “I’ve always pushed myself ‘for the cause’ beyond tiredness and my limits, mindful of the urgency and levels of suffering and injustice. I am now suffering some of the consequences in terms of my health. Activist culture has often been judgmental, guilt-tripping, and not inclusive, with pressure to be ‘on’ 24/7, and that has alienated many and caused them to burn out. I kept going full-on for a really long time, while also working, and that’s not sustainable.”

Vivien’s words spoke well to my own experience. As the effects of burnout started to take their toll, I had to reckon with my own limits; I would be sitting in a Green New Deal meeting and suddenly realize I was exhausted and depleted. At the time, I couldn’t articulate the dynamics as eloquently as Vivien. But when I started reading  My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies by Resmaa Menakem as part of an anti-racist book club in May, I began to understand my feelings more clearly. Menakem is a therapist and trauma consultant who writes about how to heal. He starts with an explanation of what trauma is and how it works in the body. I was astounded and realized I had unhealed trauma. It felt like someone had stuck their finger in a deep wound. I put the book down for a few weeks to regain my equilibrium—but as the COVID-19 shutdown forced everyone to slow down, I knew I needed to begin a healing process.

Words from Menakem rang true for me: “For some people, intense activism is actually a dodge—a way to try to avoid some of their own pain or personal trauma … These folks need to step back from activism for a time, slow themselves down, face what is bothering them, move through clean pain, and resolve the issue.”

The constant busyness of activism, whatever one’s place in a movement—gathering signatures, writing resolutions, giving public testimony, making art, organizing street protests—can be a way to stay one step ahead of personal pain. My work at 350 Seattle was, in part, functioning as a numbing agent. I decided to slow down long enough for some of that pain to catch up with me. I didn’t want to show up in a way that was somehow pushing my trauma onto others; I wanted to show up as my best self, ready to make a positive impact. I took the time to read Menakem’s book carefully and work through his body exercises. I also hired a personal coach and worked through some issues with her for eight weeks.

I’ll be honest: it sucked. Beyond the unpleasantness of facing my pain, I also felt deep guilt about slowing my pace, knowing that I have a great deal of privilege. But two things kept me centered on the healing path—I had already made some important breakthroughs by listening to my body’s “yes” and “no.” So when my inner voice loudly said, “You need to work on your trauma,” I listened and steeled myself for the work. Additionally, Menakem’s book stresses the importance of healing in order to maintain a life of activism. In Chapter 18 of his book, Menakem writes about a pattern he’s observed: former activists show up in his office for therapy all the time. After pushing themselves for years or decades, they reach a state of exhaustion and unhappiness and drop out of activism. Menakem explains:

No human body can be activated all the time. Your body’s abilities are finite. Like every other human body, it needs regular periods of rest. Listen to your body. Give it adequate rest, recovery, leisure, relaxation, and rejuvenation.

Help it settle, over and over. Have a bit of fun now and then. All of this is required, not optional … As you will discover, self-care will help you be a more effective activist—and a better human being. You will bring a healthier body and nervous system to your activism. You will also lead a happier and more balanced life.

Attending to our own well-being is crucial—both for ourselves and for the movement. If you intend to be part of social justice and/or climate justice movements for the long term, it’s necessary to tend to your well-being, to face and feel your emotions. Otherwise, they’ll show up inappropriately in the work.

Vivien’s work within the Climate Grief and Empowerment group creates a space to do exactly that. She says it has revolutionary potential. “Feeling and sharing our feelings, rather than numbing out and filling the void with consumer goods or drugs as our capitalist society wants us to, is a powerful thing. It enlivens and energizes us so that we can then ‘see with fresh eyes’ how deeply interconnected we are.”

This emotional work is essential; and it’s difficult. My path of healing trauma has been hard and painful. Trauma is embedded in our bodies and can cause a “fight or flight” reaction with the slightest touch. As a result, working through that pain has been a slow and careful process. Menakem’s exercises taught me how to feel the places of constriction or looseness in my body, and then intentionally settle the parts of my body that were perpetually tense or activated due to past experiences.  The sensations can vary, but I often find that it feels like I’m holding my breath. And once I turn my attention to settling my body, I can let go of tension in my gut and spine.

I now believe that body awareness is key to building a new way of being in the world. This attention, for me, is also a practice of embracing the belief that I am enough. This sense of “enough” isn’t about settling for the status quo; in fact, it directly challenges the status quo, and allows us to embrace other values. A belief that we are not enough and that our value is based on what we produce is core to the extractive aspects of capitalism, says Vivien. “Relentless urgency, perfectionism, exclusion, and not paying attention to our bodies are norms of white supremacy and patriarchy, and what a relief it is to see that starting to change in activist communities.”

As we do the work of healing on our own and as a community, that itself begins to change the world. In addition to healing ourselves, we can build relationships that create greater resiliency. And those relationships then become the fabric of our next action, our next idea, our next pivot. We can build a culture of activism that centers this work. “At its best, activism is a form of healing,” Menakem says. “Activism is not just about what we do; it is also about who we are and how we show up in the world. It is about learning and expressing regard, compassion, and love—for ourselves and for our fellow human beings.”

I’m still working on my healing journey. “Healing and growth take place on a continuum, with innumerable points between utter brokenness and total health,” says Menakem. But after doing a lot of work, I live much more of my life healthfully. The sense of “utter brokenness” that Menakem describes still happens. But as I’ve moved towards “total health,” I feel more at rest in my life; I have more clarity in my vision for the world and more connectedness in my relationships. I’m not sure exactly what my next steps will be as an activist, but I feel more rooted and powerful, and I feel something big is brewing inside me.

I’m sure you’ve also faced unique stresses and challenges this year, too—nearly all of us have. I encourage you to take care of your body and spirit, to heal as we head into 2021 and beyond. We need you centered, ready for revolutionary truth-telling, and ready to stand firm. We need you for the long term. How can we fight for a world of well-being if we are not willing to be well ourselves? I hope the following exercises help you in your journey.

Exercises for Relaxation, Healing, and Reflection

Exercise 1 (5 minutes or more):

This exercise is from Chapter 11 of Resmaa Menakem’s book My Grandmother’s Hands, titled “Breathe, Ground, and Resource, Revisited.”

Take a few deep breaths. Let your body relax as much as it wants to.

Think of a person, an animal, or a place that makes you feel safe and secure. Now imagine that this person or animal is beside you right now or that you are in that safe place.

Breathing naturally, let yourself experience that safety and security for about a minute.

Feel into your body. Where does it seem constricted, uncomfortable, or unwell in any way? Note each of these locations.

Pick one of these locations and focus on it. For a few seconds let yourself fully experience the constriction or discomfort.

Then, once again, visualize the person, animal, or place that helps you feel safe and secure. Imagine you are in that place or that the person or animal is beside you. Experience the safety and security for a minute or two.

Do this for each part of your body that feels uncomfortable or constricted.

Exercise 2 (10 minutes):

This exercise is a body-relaxation meditation, guided by Anna Humphreys.

Exercise 3 (15 minutes):

This exercise is offered by Vivien Sharples.

I think Coming from Gratitude to ground, open, and resource ourselves will be crucial and powerful as we reflect on 2020, seek healing, and pivot to a new year in the face of so many challenges. Coming from Gratitude is the first part of the Work That Reconnects Spiral, a truly wonderful spiral journey that we follow in our group every month to structure our time. It has four stages: Coming from Gratitude; Honoring our Pain for the World; Seeing with New/Ancient Eyes; and Going Forth. “Each of these stages leads naturally to the next. The journey helps us experience firsthand that we are larger, stronger, more creative — and more deeply interconnected — than we knew.” The Spiral is a useful way of approaching anything we do.

In the spirit of Coming from Gratitude, I offer here some questions you could reflect on:

  • What are you grateful for?
  • What are your sources of inspiration right now?
  • Where are you finding joy?
  • Who and what are you leaning on?
  • What is the current reality making possible?
  • How can you bring these sources of support, joy, and inspiration with you into the activist work ahead?

Exercise 4 (60 minutes):

You can attend an upcoming session of the Climate Grief and Empowerment Group with Vivien Sharples and co-facilitator Anna-Brown Griswold. It occurs monthly and is open to anyone 18 years and older.

Vivien says that the group can be relevant to process many challenges that have come up this year. “The portal of the group is through climate grief, but we very intentionally take an intersectional approach and bring in the structural causes of the climate crisis in capitalism, exploitation, extraction of people’s labor and resources from the land, and structural racism. As facilitators, we provide the space and the practices, but the content comes from the group members, so every month we are processing our lived experiences and feelings and responses to what is happening, in pairs and small groups and the large group.”

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