Em-URGE-ing Voices

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Self-Care for Activists

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December 12, 2023

From Roe vs. Wade being overturned to abortion bans and various policies and rulings that have put basic rights under attack, Gen Z are dealing with immense amounts of injustice and threats that will have a disproportionate impact on their rights. Emboldened by either their personal experiences, their connection with their peers, or their need to create safe spaces for their identities/beliefs, an increasing number of young people are engaging in activism to channel their despair and anger into positive action for change. For many, activism can become a means for dealing with the stress and frustrations caused by institutional wrongs and oppressions. Many youth find that becoming involved in activism lessens their essential dread and offers them a sense of community and agency. 

However, despite the benefits, activism can take a mental and emotional toll on youth activists. Creating movements for social changes such as reproductive justice requires sustained resources, commitment, and momentum. Due to the pressure of being touted as “the generation of change” and the culture of martyrdom common in activist circles, youth activists may spend more time on activism at the expense of their mental and physical well-being and overlook their own psychological needs to those of the community. In addition, younger activists may feel the need to prove themselves and create change for their future at all costs. Providing constant emotional labor, coupled with threats of harassment and violence and backlash from friends, family, and the general public, compounded by constant exposure to trauma, can exacerbate feelings of burnout among youth activists. 

Common signs of activist burnout are: 

  • Lack of attention to self care 
  • Feeling emotionally drained and experiencing depression 
  • Experiencing physical problems such as insomnia, anxiety, or being constantly ill 
  • Feeling cynical about work previously deemed as important 
  • Doubting worth and belittling achievements 
  • Feeling useless and as if no change will come if you don’t  continue working 
  • Regularly missing deadlines and missing work/scheduled events

Although it can be difficult to avoid, there are ways to lessen the effects of burnout especially for youth activists. Young people may feel as if the future of the world depends on their activism, and this can be even more burdensome for youth with marginalized identities. As such, it can be hard to disconnect from the movement with guilt or stress. However, if young people are not provided with tools to prevent and alleviate burnout, we risk losing dedicated and skilled voices that can diversify and lead our movements. 

Self-care for activists

Young people have an incredible chance to transform communities, and that’s especially important for youth of color, low-income youth, and other young people that have been historically marginalized in the reproductive justice movement. Taking care of others also means taking care of yourself, and by taking care of yourself, you can create sustainable and long term change. 

Prioritize self-care 

  • Remember that you are more than your cause. Do not link your self-worth to how much change you have inspired. 
  • Prioritize good sleep, nutrition, social connections, and hobbies that aren’t related to your activism. 

Find balance  

  • One of the most important phrases to utilize in activism is “no”. Set and respect your own boundaries so you can find balance among your work, rest, time alone, and time with others. 
  • Limit social media. Gen Z is lauded for their use of social media, but being constantly plugged in can be draining and demoralizing. 
  • Consider different levels of involvement. Despite their passion, some youth activists are not willing to engage in activism that may put them at risk for harassment, violence, or death. Additionally, many youth activists do not have the resources such as licenses or monthly income to participate fully in activism. Writing letters and sharing information via social media are some methods of activism that are low-risk. 

Find a supportive organization 

The prevention of burnout shouldn’t only be the burden of individuals; organizations should actively address and eliminate structural sources of burnout. Organizations that prioritize creating an environment that tends to the cause while tending to their members’ wellbeing. Here are some strategies that organizations can introduce to reduce burnout: 

  • Offer proper psychological support when continuously exposed to trauma 
  • Limit working hours
  • Establish organizational procedures and clear division of meaningful tasks and  responsibilities with space for discussion. Conflict and oppression should be actively addressed to move forward towards social change.
  • Offer career and activist development as a lack of progress can be demoralizing 

Engage in collective care 

  • Years and years of oppression cannot be undone in a day and certainly not alone. Think of your goal as a marathon, not a sprint. 
  • Join collective networks of activists with similar interests as they are able to understand the issues you may be facing. 
  • Whether that’s your friends, family, or fellow activists in the community, find a community that trusts, respects, and cares about you (inside and outside of activism). Community should be re-energizing, reaffirming and fulfillingoffering you inspiration and support. 

Celebrate your wins 

  • Keep track of the milestones reached and accomplishments done no matter how “small.” The accomplishments can serve as a reminder that change is happening. 

Additional Resources 

Breaking Isolation: Self Care and Community Care Tools for our People, The Audre Lorde Project

A Burst of Light and Other Essays, Audre Lorde 
We Fight to Win: Inequality and the Politics of Youth Activism, Hava Rachel Gordon