There has never been a more pivotal moment to stand up for what we believe. Yet, in the midst of all of the political and social upheaval right now, it can be hard to stay hopeful — let alone committed to a cause. Activists across the country are experiencing this struggle firsthand as they continue to fight for the causes they hold most dear.
So what’s their secret? How are activists sustaining their engagement, avoiding burnout, and taking care of themselves during this unprecedented time? We interviewed four activists working for change in racial justice, economic justice, and politics to find out.
Founder of TalkOakland, an effort to heal generational trauma by telling powerful stories
As an African American woman, my most powerful form of activism is inward work. I’m slowly uprooting the generational trauma that I inherited. And in that process, I’m focused on unlearning the limiting beliefs that oppress Black people.
I’m currently building a production company called TalkOakland that specializes in storytelling — through both film and virtual reality. I use my skills to advocate for some of the most marginalized communities across the nation.
In order to facilitate my growth, my main focus is controlling my emotions. I constantly study ways to increase my emotional intelligence. I center myself with meditation. I process my thoughts through journaling. And at least three times a week, I cycle long distances to familiarize my mind with discomfort.
Despite all of this training, I still have moments of weakness. But in order to avoid burnout, I treat my process with compassion. The root of success is the way you talk to yourself. I’m learning how to be kinder in my internal dialogue.
In all, the way I stay hopeful is by maintaining my own small sense of freedom. The power to work for myself has afforded me the tremendous privilege to heal. And I aim to leverage that privilege to ultimately support other people of color.
Economic Justice Organizer for Coalition for Spiritual and Public Leadership (CSPL)
Working with community residents for community transformation is not a 9-5 job and it can lead to burnout. What has helped me the most to stay healthy, centered, and hopeful is being part of an organization with a clear vision and strong culture that values the dignity of the human person, practices solidarity, and encourages action and reflection. Being part of the Coalition for Spiritual and Public Leadership has helped me feel connected.
To do my work effectively and avoid burnout, I must take care of myself. I do that by investing time in building relationships I can rely on. In difficult times, these relationships keep me calm: A phone call with my parents about their lives in our small town in Mexico; a simple dinner with my sister; a long walk with my partner; a drawing session with my daughter; a socially distanced movie night with friends; a formal retreat with my work colleagues. Most of all, I carve out quality time alone with God on walks by the lake, or anywhere I can pray and hand out my worries. This is time for me to reflect on what I’m grateful for, intercede for others, and ask for guidance and strength.
In order to sustain my engagement, I rely on a team. I value my colleagues at work and seek their advice. I remind myself as often as possible that I play a part of the work of community transformation, the building of God’s reign on earth — work that can’t be done alone. I treasure people who hold me accountable to do and be my best.
Laura Munoz Lopez
Congressional staffer for a freshman member of Congress
After the 2016 election, I decided to dedicate my career to working on immigration policy in the halls where the decisions are made – Congress. It took a couple of years, but I eventually made my way to become a congressional staffer. Last year, I got to advise my boss on H.R. 6 – the American Dream and Promise Act — to create a pathway to citizenship for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients. This was especially personal for me as I was a DACA recipient and had previously been undocumented.
It is incredibly hard when your work directly impacts you, your friends, and your family. I would not be able to work on such a taxing issue without my support system: my wife, my family, my mentors, and friends. They are the people that motivate me to keep going and don’t let me lose hope in the possibility of a better future.
To take care of myself on the most challenging days, I journal, play tennis, paint, and spend my time doing something not related to politics. Before becoming an advocate, I never gave much thought to what self-care meant, but I quickly realized that I would burn out easily without a couple of things that I could turn to.
I can’t picture myself working in anything else, not right now. Not when everything feels like it’s at stake. I will continue to advocate for immigrant families across the country and hope to see the day when my advocacy is no longer needed because immigrants will be treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.
Co-chair of the Caribbean African Student Assemblage (CASA) at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA
It has been my mission to raise awareness for mental health among our Black students. More informally, we have been advocating for a place on campus, as Black and Brown students are often marginalized. We try to make our presence known on campus and provide a sense of community for students of color.
Initially, I was motivated by my passion for acceptance and change. However, I found that the role could be exhausting and that expelling all of my energy for this position was not the healthiest way to take care of myself. I was pushing myself too hard. I needed to learn to release, and I began to devote time to this mission. It started with conversations with Father Keith Maczkiewicz, or “Father Mac” as he is commonly known on campus (one of our chaplains). He helped me get through a very difficult time last semester. To me, he is more than just a priest; he is a friend, advocate, and confidante.
Throughout this period, the key to transformation wasn’t what I did, but rather the way I felt when I allowed myself to loosen my grip. It guided me to refocus and avoid burnout. I now use my alone time to think about feedback and remember why I should be hopeful. Identifying this time as a form of meditation, I recognize it rejuvenates my engagement while challenging me to assess how I am growing.
I have a lot of energy, so I try to pour it all into my work. However, I’ve noticed that I sometimes just need to take a step back and take time for myself. One way I’ve done this in the past is by going on runs. It was how I dealt with my stress, worked out, and avoided burnout. These days, I go on walks to alleviate stress and burnout.
Being an activist can be exhausting and take a serious toll on our mental and physical well-being. Without intentionality, we can succumb to the strain of carrying heavy emotional burdens for a sustained period of time. But by taking time to step aside occasionally and hit reset, practicing self-care, and surrounding ourselves with a solid support system, we can champion the causes we care about with even more energy, tenacity, and hope.
Working toward a more just society through activism is the steady work that God calls us to do — building the kingdom one step at a time. Like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ says in his prayer “Patient Trust” — “Above all, trust in the slow work of God.”