It took time to get those conversations going. And finally, the worries, and common themes, emerged:
Money: one of the things that activists opened up with – and were comfortable talking about – was money. The endless cycle, and stress of, fundraising. Trying to raise money with dignity. And how the very bare basics for the work – decent salaries and safety, not to mention health insurance, pensions and training – are seen as extras.
Overwork: then we moved on to overwork, how activists work on a 24/7 schedule, without rest or a break (some activists had worked for 20 years without a vacation); the lack of boundaries – how work seeps into every aspect of your life. On top of that, there is the work of living – taking care of your home, elderly parents, children… managing it all.
Grief and loss: we talked about something we so rarely speak of publicly: our grief. About two kinds of grief: that which comes when loved ones fall ill and from losing them – friends, brothers, sisters, mothers, lovers, children; and that which comes from the sadness of the work – the stories, the loss, the violence that you experience every day. How activists suffer these losses in private… and so rarely take (or are offered) the time truly to feel them.
Money (again): the fact that activism doesn’t pay the rent, and that there is no safety net if you fall ill, or for when (one day) you retire. So often, activists are trying to balance supporting themselves and other family members, lovers, friends – trying to make enough money to survive – and still do the work they love…
Guilt: internalised guilt – self-denial, self-flagellation – the feeling that it is just never enough – often compared to others (how do I have the right to feel anything, when others are suffering so much around me?). Then there is externalised guilt – how we judge others (or are judged) for not doing enough…
Relationships with each other: on the one hand, activists are each other’s greatest support system, each other’s family. But these relationships are complicated, and replete with power dynamics that we are reluctant to talk about. Because another side of being so important to each other is this: a betrayal in the activist world is one that cuts the deepest.
What next? Leadership transition, generational differences: we talked about the things that all activists have in common, across generations. We realised that wherever we are in our careers as activists, whether we are just starting out, or whether we are in a phase of transition, or retirement, it doesn’t matter. We all want respect. And we all want to know what comes next.
Pleasure: we asked the following question: where has pleasure gone in our lives? Where is the fun? When did we last feel our bodies, laugh until it hurt, dance until we dropped? Touch our lovers with ease, with joy?
Spirituality: and what do we do with the big questions that arise daily in our activism – the ones that haunt us – why is this happening? Why the violence? Why can’t I stop it? Where can I go to ask these questions when so often the very places and people we were taught should offer us answers – and sanctuary – are the ones that reject and challenge us?
Safety and fear: finally, we talked about safety – and about fear. How we cope with fear, and how it is connected to our concept of safety and security.
Many activists told us they handled fear by:
- denying it;
- becoming paranoid;
- staying hyper-vigilant/always alert;
- laughing at it;
- belittling themselves for feeling it;
- belittling others for feeling it; and/or
- recognising it, but then minimising it, saying, in comparison to others, it’s not that bad…
So often, you suppress it, and banish it to the same place where you have put all your experiences of fear, and violence – as survivors and constant witnesses.
Ultimately, though, it has to show up somewhere. As Jelena Djordjevic put it, no matter what we do, it gets written down into our bodies.
It affects every aspect of our lives. And frequently it manifests itself as illness. Heartache. Trauma. Irritability, anger, fights with our lovers, friends and family. We end up destroying relationships and are increasingly alone and isolated.