Combating Activist Burnout: Our Stories of Radicalization
I love my own story of “radicalization,” though it came so early that I can hardly attribute it to my conscious self. My dad has always been committed to leftist ideals, and he participated in the civil rights movement and worked for the UAW when he was young. When my brother and I were young, bedtime songs and stories were his opportunity to express these ideas to us. He sang union songs and told us stories about holding sit-ins for restaurant integration with SNCC or getting beaten up by a police officer at an antiwar rally. We sang “Joe Hill” and “We Shall Overcome” and asked questions about what it meant to be a scab. Through these childhood memories, my dad gave me and my brother a sense of how important it was to take action on personal beliefs — even if those actions carried consequences. Radicalism was always part of our personal narratives, and we felt that activism would be a natural part of our adult lives. We wanted stories to tell our own children.
By joining in the ritual of telling my personal narrative of radicalization, I’m perpetuating the belief that these stories somehow give us a key to future recruitment. If we learn what brought each of us to radicalism, maybe we can replicate it in others. The answer, of course, is never this simple. Most people, no matter what their histories, choose not to participate in political action. Those of us who join radical organizations - especially when they lack mass public support - are anomalies. Who says that what worked for us will work for others?
Although they may not be the keys to organizational growth, there is something satisfying about personal narratives of radicalization. As activists, we often work for years with little or nothing to show for our labors. We hold events that are poorly attended, we lead spectacular actions that seem to make no dent in corporate or government action, and we put so much of ourselves into our activism that we frequently face burnout.
At the moment, I’m dealing with this burnout myself. I’m involved in an anti-sweatshop group and a graduate student unionization effort that are struggling just to survive. Graduate students at my university just won a huge victory when the school agreed to give us dental insurance after a five-year battle led by the union movement. Nonetheless, student interest in unionizing seems to be at a low point. Our call-out meetings rarely attract more than one or two students, and the steering committee is overwhelmed at the task of simply keeping the organization afloat. Similarly, the anti-sweatshop group, which definitely generates more enthusiasm on campus, is mired in a seemingly endless campaign to end the university’s Coca-Cola contract. Years of repetitive actions and little progress have left me feeling demoralized, dragging my feet on attending meetings and participating in the campaign.
I wonder, then, whether the personal narratives that we often request of others are at their most useful when they attempt to combat burnout. While day-to-day activism can feel stagnant and frustrating, personal narratives of radicalization are stories that help us remember the emotions behind our activism. Because when activist work goes well, it’s exhilarating and addictive. They are also stories about progress—we move from a point of lesser understanding to a point of greater understanding. In these narratives, we see our ideal activist selves, and we gain some hope that this progress will continue.