5. 26. 2022
I’ve been thinking about the hidden costs of what others perceive as our natural gifts. Just because we’re good at something doesn’t mean it comes easy.
I notice two general tendencies in how we talk about bringing new people into social movements, or supporting their leadership. One tendency is to say: “The movement needs ALL gifts! Activism doesn’t have to look like just one thing! If you’re good at writing, then be a movement writer! If you’re good at research, then research for the movement! If you’re good at accounting, then be a movement accountant!” I think this tendency has really gained steam lately as people try to make getting involved seem and feel more accessible. It’s a way of challenging the production of activist celebrities, which can make organizing seem unapproachable, like something that only a special kind of superstar can do.
A second tendency is to see social movements as vehicles for revolutionary capacity-building. This tendency tells us that we don’t have to wait to be good at activism before becoming activists; practice is how we get good at things. There are many skills that are needed in the work of making change happen. Not only can organizing help us build a wide array of these skills, but we all actually have a responsibility to do so. This is important if our movements are to stay strong and resilient in shifting social conditions, and if the labour of sustaining them is to be fairly distributed.
I don’t see these tendencies as mutually exclusive. While I tend towards the second, I see the value of the first. But, while at its best the first is about cultivating diversity and accessibility in our movements, I also see it facilitating and entrenching burnout amongst us when it’s taken to its extreme.
My experience of burnout tells me that when you are seen as good at something, people tend to assume you will do it. When you are seen as good at something, sometimes that ends up being the only thing you find yourself doing, because people always expect it of you. This isn’t done maliciously. It simply becomes a collective habit, and can even be seen as a way of acknowledging your strengths. The thing you are good at is seen as your job.
When you’re a part of a social change organization and you’re the only one who’s comfortable with public speaking, or writing a press release, or facilitating a meeting, or posting on Twitter…and a speech, a press release, a meeting, or a tweet is needed…it becomes incredibly difficult to say no to doing that thing. Because the movement needs rousing speeches, savvy media skills, keen facilitation, and social media wizardry. And if you don’t do it, who will?
(This is burnout logic, of course. I know. And you could try to mentor other people, but have you tried doing that when you’re burnt out? Especially if you’re like me and have a full-time day job that involves a huge amount of care work?)
Maybe all of this is okay if what you’re good at feels relatively neutral to you. But when using your gift costs you something…I don’t know. What could it look like for us to see people’s gifts not as a resource to be extracted but as a cherished source of energy that needs care and replenishment?
I had to live three decades of life before I learned this lesson: being good at something doesn’t mean you have to do it. Being good at something doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Being good at something doesn’t mean you need to do it in all contexts of your life. Being good at something doesn’t mean that it has to be the only thing you do. And being good at something doesn’t mean you have to be alone in doing it.
Anybody with gifts that lie in the use of their body knows this, I think. Skilled singers know that singing constantly, at full volume, would harm their instrument. A weightlifter knows that it’s important to switch up the particular strength exercises they’re doing in order to work different muscles and avoid injury. The ability to run a marathon doesn’t logically translate to “now I guess I’m doing this every day.” That would be absurd. So why do we expect this constancy and consistency from more emotional and relational skills? Why do we think that a skilled conflict-resolver can or should do that work all the time? Why do we think that a skilled facilitator wants to always be facilitating, that a skilled listener wants to always be listening, that a skilled coordinator wants to always be coordinating, or that a skilled strategist wants to always be strategizing? We need a variety of people to be able to do a variety of things in order for those skills (and the people who have them) to stay present in our movements.
I desperately want people to feel like their being is indispensable to the struggle, but that the manner in which they contribute can grow and change and shift direction when needed (or wanted). I want this for everybody, including myself.
I don’t think that everybody has to learn how to do all things. Of course, we each have gifts, and those should be seen and recognized. Of course, we all have things that we absolutely cannot do, or that cost us too much. But I do believe in collectively having a general orientation towards learning how to do lots of different kinds of movement tasks. Because we know that how activist labour is distributed is gendered, it’s raced, and it’s classed. If we naturalize the fact that it’s always disabled activists facilitating the access stuff “because we’re good at it,” if we naturalize the fact that it’s always women of colour resolving conflict in our groups “because they’re good at it,” if we naturalize the fact that men are doing all the public speaking “because they’re good at it”…I mean, come on. This isn’t new; we’ve been talking about who’s doing the dishes on the left for ages. But I often wonder whether people realize that this well-meaning but essentially individualistic “gift-oriented” approach to activist onboarding kind of perpetuates these same age-old problems.
I am such a young activist. I have not been organizing for very long! There is so much that I still want to learn how to do! I want all of us to feel like radical organizations are spaces where we can not only build power collectively, but also feel powerful through the supported, lifelong cultivation of our skills. When lots of people know how to do lots of things, that makes it easier for people to take breaks, to make different choices; they can switch it up and mix it up and put on a new hat and decide to take it off again. It means the same people don’t always get stuck doing the same hard work just because we’ve all internalized the same “you should do what you’re good at” message. It means that when we start to feel burnout knocking at our door, maybe we don’t have to jump ship. Maybe we get to take some time to do something that costs us a little less, knowing there is space for that.
What new activist skill have you been wanting to learn but haven’t pursued because it was someone else’s “thing”?
Kate Klein is a facilitator, teacher, and activist based in Toronto. A self-described “process nerd,” she works with social movement groups to help them work together better. She also organizes with her local abolitionist collective to help keep their neighbourhood safe without police intervention (as well as safe from police intervention).