Em-URGE-ing Voices

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How We Can Sustain Our Activism in 2023

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December 8, 2022

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As 2022 comes to an end with the holiday season, times for reflection naturally bubble up to the surface, propelling us to look inward and outward, as we intimately face the year past. Because of this, the holidays often bring up feelings of gratitude and melancholy for me. I get frozen by loneliness, comparison, and the sun disappearing at 5 P.M., yet warmed by home-cooked meals and the earthy scents of never-ending candles. Having feelings exist in opposition is similar to how I’ve felt about social justice activism in my own spaces this year. There’s a feeling of invigoration by conversations about justice and liberation, yet dismay as they all fall short of any substantial action. I’ve noticed this to be common amongst my generation of peers, where we feel fired up about issues, while also generally exhausted about how many there are to keep up with. We depressingly joke about the unlikelihood of being alive in 10 years due to climate change, or the everyday threat of gun violence. Even while writing this I can place exactly where the despair and disillusionment lives in my body as my shoulders droop down and my arms weaken. My body has gotten used to this formation, automatically positioning itself upon hearing breaking news about another mass shooting or laws passed that tell us we don’t have control of our bodies to begin with. That’s why I can empathize when people want to tune out the world altogether. This “statistical numbing” is common to fall into, especially during the winter months where, like other animals, it’s a time for hibernation and rest. These acts of slowing doing are necessary of course. This year was challenging, if not more so, than the last. But during this time, I wonder how we can hold opposing emotions of gratitude and grief while recharging individually and collectively. As we reflect on the year past, how can we chart new, more sustainable ways of being as we move forward in our fight for Reproductive Justice?

Our emotions, in their vastness, play a powerful role in the way we engage in social activism. While conducting a study of ACT UP, a direct action AIDS movement in the 1980s to early 1990s, Deborah Gould found that managing despair is essential to sustain in any movement. Since they are “gnawing” and “repetitive”, feelings of despair are the internal enemies of social movements, as described by psychotherapists Paul Hoggett and Rosemary Randall. Interested in understanding the opposing feelings of hope and despair in social change spaces, the two carried out interviews with climate change activists in the UK. In this process, they found that “schizoid” thinking – a state of mind where everything exists in polarity (i.e. all-or-nothing) – is what creates the overwhelming anxiety that one tries to manage and avoid. Desiring a perfect utopia then being faced with the harsh reality can lead to hopelessness and exhaustion. 

Another experiment, conducted by researchers from the University of Toronto, echoed similar findings as they studied how participating U.S. citizens felt after the 2016 election, and how those feelings affected their political action. Many who used “reappraisal,” an emotion-management tool that reframes problems through a positive mindset, were found to be less engaged and involved in political causes afterwards. Reappraisal can look like acknowledging silver linings or using neutral/less negative terms to reinterpret a difficult situation. Upon reading this, I realized how often I’ve used reappraisal to alleviate my anxiety from distressing events. But as I explored in a recent piece about abortion rights in blue states, this act, while an understandable coping mechanism, can lead to the deflation of momentum when we need it the most. Lead researcher Brett Ford amplifies this as she states, “People naturally will attempt to protect their emotional well-being, but there might be important trade-offs. Reducing negative emotion seems to have implications for action and engagement in politics.”

So how can we feel our full range of emotions, soothe them, and still engage with meaningful social change? While there is no current study that has explored this question, mindfulness, Ford states, is an interesting place to start as previous research has shown that practices, like meditation and short, daily pauses, has led to “greater emotional regulation” and “kind and helpful behavior.” Mindfulness invites us to bring awareness to our varying emotions and let them run their course, without judgment or attempts to suppress them. A helpful exercise is the acronym R.A.I.N, which is a tool for radical compassion that stands for the following steps: recognize what is happening, allow the experience to be there as it is, investigate with interest and care, and nurture with self-compassion. While it can be challenging to incorporate from the get-go, mindfulness embraces the totality of our human nature, countering the binary of schizoid thinking or the toxic positivity reappraisal can bring.

Both mindfulness and political activism should be looked at as a marathon instead of a sprint, as it is essential to find practical, nurturing ways to care for ourselves when met with moments of grief and distress. With Reproductive Justice’s emphasis on creating safe and sustainable communities, the practice of the word “sustainable” becomes all the more important. Although sustainability is frequently used in matters of the environment, it applies to all aspects of our lives with its definition being, “a method of using a resource so that a resource is not depleted or permanently damaged”. The resource here is our energy. We cannot fight the long fight for the right to bodily autonomy and protecting our communities when we, individually and collectively, are fueled only by stress, fear, and anger. These emotions can be helpful motivators in the short term but can easily deplete us in the long term. Here is where moving towards sustainable activism, or the practice of “holding optimism and pessimism in tension”, is essential. Sustainable activism can be embodied through various acts such as self care and community care. Previously explored by fellow URGE writer Aimaloghi Eromosele, self care and community care are historically rooted in the Black Panther Party’s “survival programs” spanning health, education, and food distribution, which were created to emphasize the importance of wellness within Black communities as they faced systemic racism. With this history, community care has been essential not only as a way to survive, but also to thrive when systems in place fail marginalized bodies. Within the Reproductive Justice movement, methods of community care (in the macro and micro level), can look like relational organizing during election season, donating to abortion funds, sharing resources for LGBTQ+ services, or driving a friend/family member to a clinic. Anti-capitalist in nature, community care specifically demonstrates our ability to look out for one another. These practices of care – for the self and for the community – thus give birth to “sustainable nurturing” and are one of the core tenets of how we can keep going. So as we enter a period of rest to balance out a year of intense political engagement, reflecting on how we can cultivate sustainable activism is a worthwhile endeavor that will help us continuously act towards Reproductive Justice for all.

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