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Activism for the long haul: helpful tips

--Book cover courtesy of Dan Kovalik

Here is a personal reflection of PeaceWorks-KC member Jim Hannah after watching the webinar “Balancing Activism and Self-Care: Staying Sane for Another Day.”

With apologies to Sir Walter Scott:

Breathes there an activist with soul so dead

Who never to one’s self has said,

“To heck with it! I’m going back to bed!”

The Missouri Green Party’s Oct. 6 webinar on balancing activism and self-care brought into sharp focus the large and growing challenge of burnout faced by today’s activists.

One of these challenges is “cancel culture,” a recent phenomenon described by Cambridge Dictionary as “a way of behaving in a society or group, especially on social media, in which it is common to completely reject and stop supporting someone because they have said or done something that offends you.”

Two of the webinar speakers addressed cancel culture with real-life illustrations. Dan Kovalik, a Pittsburgh union lawyer, has published a book on the topic, Cancel This Book. His concern is for honest dialogue without being punished or shunned—a growing tendency on both sides of the political spectrum. Social media attacks have destroyed careers, reputations, and even lives.

Molly Rush–Photo from nuclearresister.org

One such case was the experience of a second speaker, Molly Rush, co-founder of Pittsburgh’s Thomas Merton Center and one of the Plowshares 8 protestors against nuclear missiles. Despite her decades of justice and peace activism, when Molly reposted a meme that some interpreted as racist, the Merton Center posted an online complaint, saying, “we cannot work with Molly until she demonstrates both accountability to the people she has harmed and a commitment to continuous learning about how her behavior embodies white supremacy culture and impacts the people around her.” On Twitter she and other family members were repeatedly accused of being white supremacists, despite her attempts to apologize for reposting something she had failed to read in its entirety.

Such attacks are a further disincentive to activism, made difficult from the outset because advocacy is most often countercultural, and hence unpopular. Each speaker agreed that activists must be self-aware, and exercise self-care, if they hope to continue long-term.

John Courtney–Photo courtesy of Amalgamated Transit Workers Union 265

John Courtney, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 265 in San Jose, CA, described a mental health crisis stemming from the fatal shooting of nine transit workers May 26, 2021. Awhile after the massacre, people were further shocked when one of the caregivers most helpful to others took his own life. For Courtney, this highlighted the need to reduce the stigma around mental health issues and encourage people to get help. He said that for most of his life, he neglected his own mental health, going it alone despite symptoms of depression, PTSD, and sleeplessness. But now he said, “The people who have gone through treatment are my heroes, facing their own demons.”

Air Force veteran and PeaceWorks Board member Christopher Overfelt detailed coping techniques he has employed to deal with PTSD and depression. His remarks are posted at https://peaceworkskc.org/nonviolence/like-a-leaf-on-the-river-let-life-take-you-where-it-will.

And Tamala Turner, Missouri Green Party Chair, offered a strong shout-out for the practice of yoga to balance mind, body, and spirit. Her counsel seemed a fitting capstone for the event: “When you’re not taking care of yourself, you’re hurting yourself.” It seems that those who seek a kinder, gentler world would do well to start by being kinder and gentler to themselves.

Copyright 2021, Jim Hannah, Dan Kovalik, Molly Rush, John Courtney, Christopher Overfelt, Tamala Turner, Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 4.0 International License.

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Man hanging origame peace cranes.