been thinking about these two, opposite aspects of an activist’s life and work
while on vacation in the mountains of western North Carolina. It seemed
appropriate that I spend some vacation time, in particular, considering the
issue of "burnout."
is when the demands of the struggle for change, the day-to-day grind of
organizational work, become so overwhelming that a person literally cannot
continue to do the work anymore. They pull back and withdraw, at least for a
while. In some cases the effect is permanent; the individual never returns to
the work of organizing and instead takes up a less demanding line of work.
burnout be eliminated? I don’t think so. Its occurrence can be lessened; there
are steps that can be taken both by individuals and organizations to minimize
its frequency. Ultimately, however, it is unrealistic to expect that all people
who take up the critically-needed work of organizing for social justice are
going to be able to continue doing so for years and decades, indeed, for a
question is not, "can burnout be eliminated?" The question should be,
"how can we hold and attract the energies and commitment of growing numbers
of organizers?" With this as the objective, our tasks become clearer.
and foremost, we need to build organizations that are welcoming to new people
and a source of support for all members. Community-building, through events such
as pot-luck meals, picnics, educational programs, retreats and cultural
activities, as well as through an open and friendly style of work on the part of
the organization’s leadership, are concrete ways that such groups can be built.
it is essential that all members of the organization, not just paid staff or a
few, hard-working, volunteer leaders, are actively encouraged and assisted to be
as active as possible. If much of the work of the organization is done mainly by
the paid staff or by a few, it is a certainty that some of those staff/volunteer
leaders will burn out, not solely because of overwork but also because the staff
will come to resent others in the organization and feel isolated and put-upon.
One way to keep up one’s energies is to see and experience the collaborative
work of others on collectively agreed-upon projects. And this is also a way that
new and/or inexperienced members can begin to learn in practice how to become
we need to build organizations, whether it be trade unions, community
organizations, or single-issue and constituency-based organizations, that are
fiercely independent and broadly democratic. You can’t have one without the
other. Together they can keep the group and individuals within the group from
falling prey to the seductive, cooptive lures of the system, keep everyone
focused on the prize of a genuinely democratic, people-oriented society.
means much more than just periodic elections for leadership. Elections are
important, but in the absence of conscious efforts and mechanisms to inform
those voting and encourage active participation in between elections, they are
little more than a hollow shell.
means the encouragement of discussion on a broad scale about key issues,
including the articulation and circulation of differing positions. If it is only
the views of the current leadership which are being circulated, and differences
within the leadership group are withheld from the broader membership, this will
inevitably lead to paternalistic or hierarchical, undemocratic forms of
is important that there be flexible but firm time limits on people speaking in
meetings to discourage the monopolization of discussion by articulate,
long-winded individuals. This is not a small issue. If time is not consciously
provided for all those who wish to speak and limited for those who tend to go on
and on, those not used to speaking will feel intimidated and discouraged from
employment of a small-group discussion format, when possible, helps to make it
easier for those afraid or not used to speaking up in large groups to find their
voice. This is a way of including those who can easily feel excluded. Sometimes
the best format is a mix of small-group and large-group discussions, with
report-backs from the small groups to the large group.
possible, a consensus-seeking method of discussion should be used. This
discourages "show-boating" by individuals trying to get across their
individual point and encourages a more collective process of listening and
collective evaluation is an essential part of a genuinely democratic process. In
this way those who are making mistakes or errors can have them corrected, and a
process is established in which everyone comes to understand that no one
individual is above the group.
all of these aspects are working effectively, there will be much less burnout
and new leadership will be emerging all the time. As importantly, we will be
"building the road as we travel," creating the new society in the
present as we work towards the day when the corporate elite is a class from the
past and all of the institutions of society are geared toward the maximum of
human and scientific advancement.
Glick is the National Coordinator of the Independent Progressive Politics
Network (www.ippn.org) and author of the recently-published, Future Hope: A
Winning Strategy for a Just Society. He can be reached at [email protected]
or P.O. Box 1132, Bloomfield, N.J. 07003.)