What can we do when we’re burnt out but still want to keep doing the work? How can we engage when we feel powerless in the face of global injustices that seem beyond our reach? How can we reclaim power, act and move in a system (that intentionally paralyses us) as individuals? An answer to these questions, I think, is this: community care. But what does it look like, and why is it a radical act?
Why do I feel burnt out?
Feeling burnt out? You’re probably not the only one. Burnout, according to the Vicarious Trauma Toolkit, refers to “the sense of exhaustion or being overwhelmed when we feel that our efforts and energy have not ‘done enough’ It’s both emotional and physical exhaustion that can feel a lot like major depression”. And it can happen when we’re advocating and organising in times of high stress. The pandemic, of course, is a major stress inducer for various reasons. Including increased care demands. Blurred work-life balance. Risk of infection. Zoom fatigue. Physical isolation. Uprooting of daily life. And general, prolonged uncertainty.
But beyond the pandemic, and speaking here from personal experience, the hyper-connectivity that defines this digital age is a source of high stress too. Today, more than ever, we receive constant updates on the ongoing injustices around the world. Especially with the pandemic, we’ve seen movements go online. Instagram infographics, Twitter threads, minute-long TikToks are increasingly becoming the primary news sources for those of us online. Here, I’m wary of the term “digital native”, which some have problematised. As Brown and Czerniewicz wrote in 2010, “the notion of a generation of ‘digital natives’ is inaccurate: those with such attributes are effectively a digital elite”.
This leads to a broader point here that always bears repeating. Being able to be aware of these injustices as news, and to be stressed out about being aware of them, rather than actually experiencing them directly or indirectly—is a privilege. As activist Padmini Gopal notes in this essay for the Bad Activist Collective, there is additional trauma for BIPOC activists. Who, along with their closely related kin, face these injustices. (According to the Vicarious Trauma Toolkit, witnessing trauma, or incidents of injustice online, and the exposure to such violence—even if not experienced personally—can be traumatising in its own right.) Not to mention, these activists, along with queer, and/or disabled folk, often receive attacks on social media… just for existing.
That being said, we can hold both. That being burnt out from the pressure of keeping up is a legitimate problem. (One that affects people even if they’re not activists.) And that such an experience is vastly different from and incomparable to that of BIPOC, queer, and disabled folk and activists. So what do we do with this burnout then?
A word, on guilt, before we explore solutions to burnout. I’ve realised, in myself and in others, that the feeling of being burnt out often comes together with feelings of guilt. Guilt for not being informed. Guilt for taking a social media break. And guilt for being someone who isn’t directly nor indirectly affected by injustice and oppression. This guilt manifests frequently in feeling like I should be reading more, and doing more. But as the Vicarious Trauma Toolkit reminds us: “Guilt is a powerful motivator, but it doesn’t have to be where our emotions end. What if you turned your understanding of your privileges and your guilt into a desire to end inequity in the world?” Indeed, guilt is not a particularly useful emotion. (In this regard at least.)
Guilt in this scenario isn’t exactly the same as white guilt. But the parallels draw out some important insights. As this essay explains, white guilt centres the emotions of whiteness. It shifts the focus towards how to get rid of the discomfort of complicity. “The self-focused nature of white guilt would seek quick compensatory acts for the harm done rather than consistent anti-racist commitments.” It continues: “The detriment of white guilt lies in its companionship with exoneration. White guilt thrives alongside a need for forgiveness – the absolution of guilt.” In other words, this type of guilt turns allyship into performative allyship. The guilty want to get rid of uncomfortable feelings. They end up turning to whatever means most easily reachable to do so.
But we cannot truly absolve our guilt. Instead, we have to acknowledge our complicity. I return consistently to Alexis Shotwell’s responses in an interview back in 2017. Shotwell puts plainly: “it’s not possible for us to achieve personal purity.” She asks: “What does a politics of imperfection look like? What happens if messing up is not the worst thing that could happen? We say, ‘I’m going to work on this thing and I’m definitely going to make a mistake. I’m already part of a really messed up situation, so I’m not going to be able to personally bend the arc of the universe toward justice. But I might be able to work with other people so that all together we can do that.’”
Moving beyond guilt is a productive step towards dealing with the helplessness that often triggers or comes together with the burnout experienced. I’ve found that embracing complicity eases much of the unnecessary, unproductive emotional burden that doesn’t tend to be helpful to the movement.
What do we do with burnout?
So we know what causes the burnout, and we know what paralyses us from action during burnout. But what do we do while we’re being burnt out? The answer to this million-dollar question is, too often: nothing. Do nothing. Take a social media break, take some time off. Rest. To be clear, I am by no means taking any issue with the idea of rest. In fact, it is an issue I am struggling to work on myself. But taking a break, especially for privileged folks who have to do the work, is an answer devoid of much-needed nuance.
Hence, first: addressing the importance of rest. As Gopal alludes to in her essay, rest can help our movements thrive. Activists need to rest to “heal, imagine and reflect.” To do the work we need to do, we need rest. Rest grants us the ability to see, feel and do more. And rest is especially radical for BIPOC, queer, and disabled activists. Because people question, delegitimise, and oppress their existence. (That’s why organisations like Black Power Naps exist.) “Caring for myself,” as Audre Lorde once said, “is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
But rest is radical for everyone in our capitalistic society, where overwork culture is thriving. Some say it stems from the startup, entrepreneurial world of Silicon Valley in the late 1990s and early 2000s. (Unsurprisingly, Elon Musk tweeted in 2018 that “there are way easier places to work [than his companies], but nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week”.) In a world where the number of hours you work is a badge of pride, rest is resistance.
Jonathan Crary has written an entire book on this in 2013 titled 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. His central thesis? That, beyond the fact that we’re working too much, we’ve entered into a world of 24/7. He defines this phenomenon as “a generalized inscription of human life into duration without breaks, defined by a principle of continuous functioning.” As this review elaborates: “The constant availability of e-mail, online entertainment, and Internet shopping sites, the incessant call for attention from ubiquitous video screens, and myriad other potential occupations and distractions exert a persistent pull and eat away at the bases of noncapitalist life and rest. Sleep no more!”
So yes, rest is important. And yes, rest is a radical act. But this is not what this is about. I’ve always felt when told to rest that it’s not felt like a sufficient answer. I’ve come to realise that the reason why this is, is because rest, while an act of resistance, is still a solution focused on the self. Which doesn’t always feel productive. Especially as a solution told to a person of privilege (i.e. me). Who should be doing less of that.
Turning to community, turning outwards
Burnout isn’t a problem we can fix on our own, I think. This is why individualistic solutions, like rest, don’t quite work. When we ask questions like, “What more can I do?” “What actions can I take?” we turn inwards. While this is important at times, it creates more inertia towards others. Especially so, if taking action requires us to recognise that we’re but individual players in a system. Who cannot do everything on our own. It doesn’t help that the system benefits from us feeling so powerless, and so small. It’s the same logic, I think, as the way the system benefits from putting the burden on the individual to behave more ethically.
Defeating that logic—or at least resisting it—requires us to turn outwards, to community. It’s to redefine what we perceive as self-care. Community care is self-care. One way to understand this is, as the Vicarious Trauma Toolkit explains: “Community care is all the things we need to do to support each other within systems that don’t inherently support care.” As Mitra Jalali writes for Pollen: “We are unwell because we are inadequately cared for by an inadequate social safety net.” Again, this is especially relevant for marginalised and oppressed communities. In this way, community care is self-care means that for people with such identities, individualistic self-care is not enough. We need to deal with the “overlapping structural collapses of systems” to create space for self-care.
But another way to understand community care is self-care is this. By caring for our communities, we take radical action. And by taking radical action, we move—no longer immobilised by burnout. (Perhaps even curing burn out.) As activist Kamea Chayne asks: “What if instead of remaining in a state of helplessness, saying there’s nothing we can do unless corporations first took action, we rebuilt community-based systems of everything to render those centralized powers we currently rely on irrelevant and obsolete?” What Chayne gets at is the idea of community care as a radical act…
IMAGE: @annika.izora | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Alternative text available in this Instagram post
Why is community care a radical act?
To understand why this is so, we can turn to one of the forms of community care some of us might be familiar with. In these global pandemic times, especially so—mutual aid.
What is mutual aid? Activist Dean Spade explains. It is “a form of political participation”. In which “people take responsibility for caring for one another and changing political conditions, not just through symbolic acts or putting pressure on their representatives in government but by actually building new social relations that are more survivable.” It involves real actions between real people within real communities. The meeting of real material needs. In short, as this article summarises: “people offer help — which could be resources, like food or money, or skills, like driving or picking up prescriptions — which are then redistributed to those in the community who are in need.”
As Spade clarifies: “The framework of mutual aid is significant in the context of social movements resisting capitalist and colonial domination.” The world we live in is a world in which powerful people and institutions, reflecting these systems, extract wealth and concentrate resources. Most people “can survive only by participating in various extractive relationships. [Thus, p]roviding for one another through coordinated collective care is radical and generative.” This is one reason why community care is radical. We are working together to meet each other’s needs. We are defying the idea that individuals have to go at it alone. And that we can only achieve success if we accumulate enough through our positions in society and what they do. In other words, community care is radical because it is about each other.
Another big reason why community care is a radical act is because of the second half of the term: “care”. And it builds off the previous reason too. Critical theorist Nancy Fraser identifies that we’re currently living through a “crisis of care”. That is, that we see care work everywhere. So much so that it’s the labour that builds the very foundations of society. And yet, society and the economy continues not to recognise it, to undervalue it. As Dan Silver and Sarah Marie Hall write for The Sociological Review: “Since the 1970s feminist scholars and activists have made the case that care should be at the centre of any analysis of society and economy, and more than this, that it should also be the foundation for struggles against the injustices of capitalism.”
“As explained by Jeffries, care represents the ‘vital habitat of potential and actual anti-capitalist politics.’” By organising, activism, and everyday relations of care, they argue that across the world, care is increasingly becoming a way of resisting the dominance of capitalism. Because caring and cooperation—here building off the aforementioned reason why community care is radical—are opposite to the logic of capital.
How do we go about practising community care? It starts, I think, with ourselves and our immediate relationships. As Sarah Schulman writes in Conflict is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility and the Duty of Repair, “If a person cannot solve a conflict with a friend, how can they possibly contribute to larger efforts for peace? If we refuse to speak to a friend because we project our anxieties onto an email they wrote, how are we going to welcome refugees, immigrants, and the homeless into our communities? The values required for social repair are the same values required for personal repair. And so this discussion must begin in the most micro experience.”
I water u, u water me. We grow together
— 1550JAYY (@Luljamarr) December 10, 2020
We can begin to engage by desiring to repair, rethink and rebuild our relationships. Much has been written about this across various platforms. But here are some. This Twitter thread, which is about healthier romantic relationships. And its longer-form version on love, relationships and capitalism. Similarly, this long-form essay on revolutionary love. All of these ask us to reframe our understanding of what love should be. Relatedly, this Instagram post posits that we should look towards relationships that don’t accept domination as the default. And this long-form essay on nurturing autonomy in our lives. You will realise that across all of these, there is a similar, important notion. That what we want to see in the world we’re trying to build, we can carry through to our relationships in the now. We don’t have to wait.
The Vicarious Trauma Toolkit notes that: “In a community where we look out for each other, take care of each other, and uplift each other, we don’t need police, because we can protect each other. We don’t need jails, because we can work together to mediate conflict and move towards transformative justice. What kind of future would that look like?” Indeed, by building better relationships, networks of care in our lives… We can start imagining and creating a world without the governance of oppressive systems and institutions. (An entire body of work has been written about transformative justice—certainly worth a read. See here, here or here.)
And speaking of imagining… Another resource I always return to for practising community care is this. Writer Annika Hansteen-Izora’s piece on Communal Dreaming. Hansteen-Izora elaborates on the idea of collective dreaming. Which they explain we can find “in the calls for abolition, Black trans and queer leadership, disabled justice, Indigenous activism, Black Feminism, and every articulation of movement against the status quo.” Instead of dreaming in its normal, misinterpreted form—a frivolous, self-centred, useless practice—they offer the concept of communal dreaming. It is the work of “thinking, and implementing, sustainable structures that allow each of us the capacity to care for ourselves and each other, and thus the space to dream. Systems rooted in accountability, interdependence, communal care, and love.” In short: dreaming for, and with each other.
Then beyond ourselves
What follows looking inwards at ourselves and at our relationships? Looking towards creating: organisations, initiatives, networks, etc. that help us solidify community care. (But we must be careful, of course, to resist neoliberal co-optation. As Spade highlights: “How do mutual aid projects remain threatening and oppositional to the status quo and cultivate resistance, rather than becoming complementary to abandonment and privatization?” Keeping each other accountable, I imagine, is an answer. Being aware of co-opted networks of radical care is another.)
We involve ourselves in the work of mutual aid, of which there are many resources available to read and learn from. There are likely also mutual aid efforts near you. Or in places that are fighting injustices now (like India, Myanmar, Palestine, Colombia, and more). We can also involve ourselves in the work of food sovereignty. That is, securing the rights of communities and people to local, healthy food. It doesn’t even have to be too complicated. It can start with community care groups. These are really just extended support groups. That involve reaching out to folks who might not have access to support, and networks of care in their lives.
And once we’ve started creating networks of community care, we can look at how to extend that towards even bigger ideas. We can find such bigger ideas in The Care Manifesto, published in 2020. Among them: extending public space, progressive government, and local democracy. As the authors of the Manifesto explain in an interview: “In rebuilding a caring world, we have to insist on radically democratising everything”. Of course, much has been written too about not having the systems of governance to begin with—look to the study of anarchy for that. But for those of us who aren’t yet comfortable with thinking in that way, this is a start.
FEATURED IMAGE: Are.na | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A black and white image; featuring two diagrams of three arrows each, one diagram of arrows in the clockwise direction, the other in the anti-clockwise direction, and in the second diagram, which is below the first, there are three rectangular blocks inside the three arrows; the text on the image, in black and all capital, reads: “CREATE FOR EACH OTHER”, “INVEST IN EACH OTHER” and “TRADE WITH EACH OTHER”
Community care is a radical act
If community care is a radical act, then it’s one way to engage in activism. To do the work even when you’re burnt out. (To be clear, as emphasised earlier, rest is valid, and rest is important. If, and only if we have rested enough, then we can engage in doing the work. This is a solution for those of us who feel like rest isn’t for us right now, but we feel burnt out, or unmotivated to move. The importance of knowing what you need cannot be understated!)
It might feel like a small, insignificant way to change the world. Especially when you’re starting with yourself, and your relationships. But in a world where we’ve forgotten about care, in a world that undervalues the work of care, care is revolutionary. It’s work that matters. It’s work that will matter. And it’s work that we can do, from wherever we are. It’s work that’s accessible—not always easy, but certainly accessible. And it becomes easier when we want to do it.
On that note, I leave you with these words from Angela Davis. “During the coming period, our primary job will be to build community, to create community … in ways that allow us to understand that the work that we do now does matter, even if we cannot see in an immediate sense the consequences of the work we are doing. It will matter eventually.”
So we should start now.