How To Keep On Keeping On: Sustaining Ourselves in Community Organizing and Social Justice Struggles

Jen Plyler

In the context of everyday injustices like poverty, racism, heterosexism, colonialism and ableism, community organizing is often carried out with a strong sense of urgency. While this urgency is understandable given the intense struggle for basic survival on the part of those living on the streets, struggling with HIV/AIDS, coping with gender-based violence, facing police brutality, and/or facing deportation, it is often accompanied by a marked disregard for the question of long-term sustainability. Social justice work often takes a detrimental toll on activists; I have witnessed – within the political and community groups I’m a member of in Toronto – organizers paying for their activism with their emotional, mental, and physical health. Instead of figuring out ways to take care of ourselves and each other, social justice groups lose brilliant and committed activists to burnout, disillusionment and poor health. As a result, movements are plagued by fragmentation, lack of reflection and discussion, and ‘wheel reinventing’ that keeps them from moving their agendas forward.

As an activist, the issue of sustainability is of both personal and political importance to me. I have been engaged in organizing for approximately five years, having initially become involved in the months leading up to the anti-FTAA protests in Québec City in 2001. Although five years is a very short time, it has been long enough for me to find myself both deeply entrenched in activist culture and brushing up against burnout on more than one occasion. While student organizing in Toronto led to sleep deprivation and frequent colds and flus, this toll paled in comparison to the emotional strain of working with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in Palestine where I witnessed firsthand the daily violence of the Israeli occupation. Back here in Toronto, I suffered a head injury in 2004 after being assaulted by police at a demonstration.  This has had long-term effects on my organizing. My work over the past two years with extremely marginalized women (including women without immigration status, survivors of gender-based violence, women who live on the street, and women who do sex work to survive) has made me acutely aware of the need for self-care as we struggle for justice.

Because creating change is hard work, we need to think about how to enable ourselves to ‘keep on keeping on.’ To this end, we need to learn from the experts: long-time community organizers, activists, and elders in social justice movements who have sustained themselves throughout decades of struggle. In addition to reviewing the qualitative and quantitative literature about activist sustainability and the longevity of particular movements, I have conducted in-depth interviews with three long-time organizers in Toronto who represent diverse identities and political involvements: Audrey Huntley, an Aboriginal activist who first became active in the 1980s while living in Germany, and who now organizes around the issue of violence against Indigenous women in Canada through the group ‘No More Silence;’ Mac Scott, a white male who has been active in the environmental, anti-poverty, and immigrant rights movements in Canada and the U.S. since the late 1980s and who is currently a member of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) and No One is Illegal (NOII); and Manuel Moreno who was very active with the Chilean Communist Party until the coup d’état in 1973, and who now works with the Coalition Against War and Racism (CAWR). I asked Audrey, Mac, and Manuel the following four questions:

1) What factors enable some organizers to stay active for so many years?

2) For what reasons do many activists leave movements?

3) What can organizations/movements do to sustain their members and encourage new ones?

4) What advice do long-time community organizers have for new activists?

This article is envisioned as an avenue through which to infuse our activist communities with greater respect for, and celebration of, those older organizers with long histories of struggle who can share their knowledge and skills – through intergenerational dialogues – with activists of all ages and movements.

Organizers, Activists and Radical Social Change: Defining the Terms

Community organizers work at the local level to create positive social change.1 They help communities come together to solve problems. This is usually called ‘grassroots organizing.’ While ‘activists’ may be engaged in social justice work without necessarily being grounded within the community for which they seek justice (and thus not be community organizers), this article is concerned with activists who are based within geographical and/or identity-based communities. Therefore, in this article, ‘activist’ and ‘community organizer’ are used interchangeably. This is a political decision; I feel that in order for activism to be responsible, it must be accountable to a community. I have also come to believe that activists have very little to offer other communities by way of solidarity if they are not invested in contributing to social justice in their own communities. That is why I have only interviewed community organizers who are currently based in Toronto. I feel that doing so demonstrates the diverse ways in which organizers combine local struggles with global visions for justice.

Because the essence of social justice work is the elimination of the oppressive power that some have over others in our communities, this article is concerned with organizing that targets the roots of the problem. Thus, the activists and types of organizing featured in this article are ‘radical’ in political analysis and action. Manuel distinguished radical organizing from reformist efforts during his interview when he said, “We are not like the social democrats that make a little change here and a little change there but don’t touch the essence of the system – don’t touch the exploitation and inequality that exists and is the core of all social problems.” Radical activism inherently carries with it a certain level of risk of confrontation and repression, because it directly threatens the functioning of systems and groups who profit from exploitation and injustice.

Although the concept of ‘resistance’ broadly encompasses any opposition to a particular force, this article is concerned only with the subset acts of resistance that work towards radical social change; therefore, the terms ‘resistance’ and ‘radical social change’ are used interchangeably. Lastly, this article looks at ways to make resistance sustainable on the part of both individuals and movements; how do we stay healthy, strong and politically committed throughout years, decades or even a lifetime of social justice struggle?

What Factors Enable Some Organizers to Stay Active For So Many Years?

For activists with the political goal of eliminating a particular form of oppression - or all forms of oppression – the very existence of oppression motivates them to confront injustices on a daily basis. Numerous authors have discussed this in relation to several movements, including the environmental movement, the anti-racist movement, and the women’s movement. In his interview, Manuel told me about how the injustice of the coup d’état in Chile personally affected his life and is the driving force behind his ongoing political work:

One motivator is what happened in Chile. The coup in Chile was the most brutal and unjust crime. I don’t think anyone deserves to be in prison for even one minute, and I think what happened to us was very inhuman. What we were doing in the Socialist government was for all the people, with the exception of the very rich who had enjoyed privilege and power for hundreds of years. I think that is the main reason for me to keep going – I recognize the power of the enemy. I had planned everything in Chile, everything except to go away; I was part of a program for young workers that allowed you to go to university and, because of my long passion of reading, I was going to study literature. I had already taken the test that was required, and was planning to start school in September 1973. Then the coup happened, and came between me and my vision.

While ongoing injustice and oppression is a motivating factor for all community organizers, it is important to think about what other factors have enabled some to give so many years to struggle. One such factor is the supports (be they social, economic and/or political) that surround a person. Both Manuel and Mac noted in their interviews the role their extended families play in sustaining them. Additionally, Mac pointed out that it is important to include non-traditional definitions of family in this, including chosen or alternative families. One study that examined the longevity of the Plowshares movement (a Catholic-based anti-war movement) in the US found that some members were able to stay involved because other members organized to support them (financially or otherwise) during times of need. For instance, childcare was often collectivised to enable single parents to participate in meetings and actions while their children were young.

Audrey identified Aboriginal spirituality and traditions as a source of social and emotional support and a means of healing:

Certainly the most important thing to me has been to connect with my Native traditional ways – the ceremonies and the sacred ways. This has been new for me since about 2001; before that I was away and living in a foreign country for a long time. When I came back to Canada in 1998, I became more exposed to the strengths and powers of traditional ways. While living in downtown Vancouver’s east side, I got to experience the power of the drum, and the power of indigenous medicine. While it’s really important that I can do this alone and do it daily, it’s even more important to participate in collective ceremonies, like the full moon ceremonies and fasts and sweats.

Audrey also talked about how opportunities to connect with other activists, both locally and internationally, can be re-energizing and build a sense of community.

I say it’s seeing and connecting with other people that keeps me going. I’ve had incredible opportunities to network with people around the world, to go places like Bangkok or Sri Lanka. When I was in Europe I had a lot of second homes. One was in an anarchist community in Athens, another one was in Naples with a bunch of squatters. I think what inspires me is the synchronicity of people wanting change and connecting and working and creating amazing things for the sake of that change.

In both the literature and in the interviews, it is widely recognized that having the supports in place to continue struggling is tied up with a lot of privilege. For some, this privilege is white privilege or male privilege or able-bodied privilege. For others, it is the privilege of having access to health care and education, and having a job that pays a living wage. Both Mac and Audrey identified poverty as a factor which greatly exacerbates the already highly demanding challenge of raising a family while being politically active.

On the other hand, there seems to be a correlation between how entrenched an organizer is in ‘activist culture’/community, the lack of viable alternatives for community belonging, and the amount of time someone stays in a movement. As Mac puts it, every time he considers leaving activism he’s reminded that “I completely lack any other identity. My whole life has been built around being a revolutionary so what else would I do with myself?!!” When I asked him how he defines his ‘revolutionary identity’ he explained to me that he sees revolution as an ongoing process that encompasses not only radical political change at a systemic level, but also ongoing change in how we think and how we treat each other.

What Are the Reasons That So Many Others Leave Movements?

Over and over, the prevailing reason cited for why activists leave movements has to do with how we treat each other. At the end of the day, internal conflict and judgementalism seem to hold our movements back more than state repression and/or ‘selling out.’ Audrey talked about the poisoning effect of internal conflict:

I’ve certainly considered getting away from political organizing, but that always has to do with internal conflict. It was never because the other side was so oppressive I couldn’t handle it. It was never about ‘I can’t take another arrest or being thrown out of another space but rather about the internalized violence that I feel we often replicate in our own circles. People burn out from the resentment they feel towards the people they’ve been organizing with.

Divisions and conflicts within our organizations are often rooted in unequal distribution of power. This imbalance can lead to undue judgement, disrespect, and even dismissal. The misconception that there is only one ‘right way’ to effect change is destructive, and judging others for not contributing in the same way we are leads to frustration, disillusionment, and isolation. Although social justice movements strive for social change that is based on justice, equality, respect, and accessibility, we actually have to train ourselves and work hard at modeling these values in how we organize. Mac talked about the importance of incorporating our politics into our relationships:

There’s this wonderful thing I learned from hanging out with some people who were involved with the Black Panther Party for a long time. There is a path to revolutionary politics but there is also a revolutionary way of relationships. There is a way of honesty, of confronting power and still trying to send love. And we don’t often use that with each other within groups. For me, that’s what constitutes ‘burning out.’

While the way that we organize ourselves and treat each other is incredibly important in our ability to stay active, Audrey reminded me in her interview that activists leave movements for reasons other than burnout, disillusionment, or lack of commitment. For some groups facing oppression, the basic act of survival can in itself be very political:

Some people leave because life overwhelms them. In this country I see First Nations communities being under siege and in a state of constant crisis. That’s basically the reality if you’re a Native person, whether you’re living on reserve or you’re an urban Indian. It’s incredible how much strife and tragedy is present everyday – some people are just surviving. In a way, survival is a form of struggle, so I don’t really see those people as having left the struggle. It’s more that they’re not in an organized and formal setting, but they’re still surviving and that they’re still here makes them a part of it.

What Can Movements Do To Sustain Members and Encourage New Ones?

Creating organizational cultures that are welcoming and accessible to new activists is central to building up political membership. Audrey suggested that this includes using language that is accessible to a diverse range of people from different educational backgrounds. Within groups, how we make decisions and share power is incredibly important for sustainability. The message from the interviews is that inclusive decision-making is key to building sustainable organizations whereas organizations that centralize power in a few hands lose members. Building radical or participatory democracy means working towards consensus-based decision-making models that respect diverse voices. When I asked Manuel about this, he responded:

I think one element is that we have to be respectful of each other – to have a real interest in what new people think. Be creative, be brief, be precise. Be respectful, don’t interrupt. In my experience of attending political meetings, discussions were very disrespectful; rather than being real political discussions, they were personal attacks. Our discussions need to be more democratic, more participatory, so that we don’t have one person imposing their views. The discussions must be collective, so that everyone has the same right to speak. We don’t have to push anyone to speak if they don’t want to, but we have to try to convince everyone that their opinion is important. It’s good to have an opinion. We have to encourage young people to move forward, not to always have the same debates and do the same things.

Another thing organizations can do to help sustain their members is to make efforts to evenly distribute the work of the group so that there is a sense of shared ownership and responsibility for the group’s progress. As Mac says, “People aren’t going to stay in a group if all they’re doing is putting out posters and making placards. In order for people to really be involved they need to be given responsibilities and leadership.” In addition, part of participatory democracy is making the space for members to share knowledge with each other and reflect on the work that they’ve done. This can take the form of popular education or skill-sharing. Audrey stressed the importance of transparency and integrity in our work. Taking the time to debrief properly on our actions and events so that we can evaluate power and learn from our mistakes is part of this.

For those who have been involved in community organizing for a number of years, it is often discouraging to find the same disagreements, discussions and tactics being recycled due to lack of intergenerational dialogue and creativity. Rather than movements learning from past experiences and moving forward, we can sometimes get caught in debates about the ‘right way to do revolution.’ This lack of creativity especially frustrates Manuel, and he argues that it limits both our sustainability and our ability to make change:

When I first came to Canada, I went to many meetings and demonstrations before I realized that we kept repeating the same activities over and over all of the time. The demonstration, the march, the meeting, the round table, the conference – always the same thing, nothing new, nothing creative. The left must be creative it we want it to last, if we really want it to change a society. It must be creative and committed to that process of change. If we don’t change our ways of doing things, the people in power will realize that we’re stuck. They know that they can afford to have us work like that – they allow us to because then they can say at an international forum that we have democracy here, because they are “allowing” the left to be visible in the streets and march as far as we want. The government doesn’t feel like there’s any real threat – they are not risking anything with the left being so uncreative.

Sustainable movements are ones that foster community through the collective creation of culture and social space. Activists are much more likely to stay within a movement when their relationships and communities are entrenched within it. The Raging Grannies attribute much of their sustainability to the friendships and collective identity that has come out of their creative song writing, costume making, and convention-going activities. More militant groups, like the Weather Underground and MOVE, are known to have encouraged members to live together in order to build trust and comradeship. Manuel recalls how the Communist Party in Chile reached out to young new members through organizing soccer leagues and all-night dance parties. In keeping with participatory and inclusive principles, this social component of organizations must be done in a way that includes all members. No one ‘activist community’ can encompass the social needs of all community organizers, and complete entrenchment in activist spaces and discourse can be exhausting. But organizations that do not create spaces in which members can support each other through friendship and celebration seem to have a harder time holding onto organizers in the long-run.

What Advice do Long-time Community Organizers Have for New Activists?

Most long-time organizers probably look back on their activist careers and think “If I only knew then what I know now….” With that in mind, I asked Audrey, Mac, and Manuel to share their advice for young people just getting involved in social justice work. Finding some balance in terms of our politics and taking care of ourselves was one theme that emerged. Respecting a diversity of movements and tactics was another. Learning to see social change as an ongoing process that we can contribute to throughout our lives was also echoed throughout discussions with the three organizers.

On finding a balance, Audrey said:

Don’t take on too much. That’s the biggest thing. There’s nothing worse than feeling like you’ve failed, and that tends to be inevitable when you take on too much. Pay attention not to overload your weekly calendars. An elder once told me that every person should spend at least some time alone every day. It’s essential for your sanity and for your life balance in terms of the medicine wheel – the physical, the emotional, the spiritual and the mental. You should preferably do this sitting on the ground on mother earth. Even if you have to go in your room and sit on your floor for fifteen minutes. I would encourage people to talk to elders and to people who have more experience than them when they’re feeling frustrated or completely hopeless because that can give you a lot of hope and inspiration.

On learning to work with a diversity of movements and tactics, Mac said:

Steer away from being judgemental. Which movement you pick to be involved in isn’t so important as how you deal with issues of oppression, where you take your leadership from and how you do social change. There are good people in all different social movements, and sometimes it’s just plain destructive to label some movements as being radical and others as not. There are still good people doing all types of organizing, there isn’t just one way of getting things done. Force the people who are already involved to teach you skills; a lot of the time hierarchies that are actually based on race, gender, class, sexuality, ability, and age pass themselves off as being based on skill. You can blow those lies away when you have a particular skill, be it designing a poster or filing legal papers. And you really have to push to get those skills.

And on seeing yourself as part of an ongoing struggle, Manuel emphasized the following:

We need to remember that it is a long struggle. To change a culture requires the best of you. Every social system - slavery, feudalism - lasted hundreds of years. Who knows how long capitalism will last. We have the long-term vision, but we can still get something done now; we can fight for housing for homeless people, for status for refugees. But we have to know that we are not going to get everything we want. Everything we want is something we are going to have to convince our children, and our children’s children, to get. Our fight will always be the unfinished fight. But in the meantime, we can get many things done that make a difference in people’s lives. The big picture belongs to the future, and the future is much longer than you or me.

Conclusion: Creating Knowledge to Inform Social Change

My current research into sustainability is a way for me to contribute   knowledge that will inform movements, and a way for me to explore ways to heal and re-engage myself. One of the aspects of ‘activist culture’ that has at times pushed me to disengage and/or take breaks from organizing is the fear of having open dialogues about how our organizing impacts us emotionally, politically, physically and spiritually. This dynamic often plays out in varying forms of exclusion, dispersion and/or cliquishness. I have begun to understand this fear as a symptom of internalized oppression, in that it’s our own shame of the ways in which we are marginalized and hurt that keeps us from having this dialogue. Some groups of activists, such as those taking on accessibility issues or those addressing sexual assault within our own organizations, are challenging this fear and I am hopeful about such initiatives.

Looking into how organizers sustain themselves in struggles for justice has impacted my own organizing in two ways. First, it has enabled me to extend my political identity as an anarchist, an anti-capitalist, a white anti-racist, and a feminist who is a survivor of violence. Politicizing the ongoing process of healing from violence means that I can see that piece of my identity as an asset rather than a barrier to my organizing. I feel that this increased what I have to offer as a community worker working primarily with women who are street-involved and engage in sex-work as a means of survival. I also feel that I’m in a better position to help bridge the gap between activists and organizations working against gender-based violence, on the one hand, and other anti-capitalist and anti-racist groups on the other.

Second, I have managed to regain an emphasis in my life on relationships and caring for those that are close to me. Spending time with family and friends is no longer something that competes with my ‘activist time’ and that I feel guilty about. Rather, it is an essential part of building an alternative radical culture that I want to sustain myself in.

By better understanding why some people are able to sustain themselves in social movements while others are not, and by learning from the experiences of long-time organizers, we can strengthen our own contributions to social movements. Learning ways for our organizations to attract new members and retain the ones they already have is essential if our movements are to grow and influence change. Working towards sustainability creates an opening to transform the nature of our movements in that it provides an opportunity to celebrate the contribution of long-time organizers and create a culture within activist communities where their experiences and sacrifices are honoured and respected.

Notes

1. The concept of ‘community’ is being understood here as an ever-changing group that shares a space, experience, culture or politic that informs a shared identity.