Activism Is a Relay Race

The Importance of Mental Health in Activism

Sam Chavez
Sam Chavez

Table of Contents

This week, I had a hard time landing on a topic to write about. Not because thereโ€™s not much going on but because thereโ€™s so much in the news.

Itโ€™s been overwhelming. This past week weโ€™ve seen the delta variant rage through unvaccinated areas and encroach on vaccinated enclaves like my hometown, San Francisco. Itโ€™s incredibly frustrating to do everything right only to step back from progress.

And thatโ€™s why this week, I want to talk about the importance of mental health in activism.

There is so much that needs to be fixed in our society for everyone to have an equal say in our democracy, have their basic needs met, and have the ability to live their life free from bigotry and hate.

Progressive Headwinds Are Stronger

We are fighting an uphill battle that makes every step we take much more challenging than our opposing forces. Adrienne Maree Brown in the book Pleasure Activism sums up the headwinds activists face.

โ€œI believe that all organizing is science fiction-that we are shaping the future we long for and have not yet experienced.โ€ - Adrienne Maree Brown in Pleasure Activism

Unlike the right, the progressive movement is trying to do whatโ€™s never been done. Our imagined future of a truly multiracial democracy does not have a roadmap. Itโ€™s our job to paint that picture in peopleโ€™s minds and convince them that it is possible.

Ms. Brown went on to outline another piece that makes our jobs more challenging. Fear.

โ€œI believe that we are in an imagination battle, and almost everything about how we orient toward our bodies is shaped by fearful imaginations. Imaginations that fear Blackness, brownness, fatness, queerness, disability, difference.โ€ - Adrienne Maree Brown in Pleasure Activism

Our bodies are biologically designed to be cautious and fearful. It comes from our ancestorโ€™s need to run from wild animals to survive. We donโ€™t have to survive like that anymore, but our bodies still react. So itโ€™s a lot easier for the GOP to make their voters fearful of an effective vaccine because itโ€™s unknown and therefore scary.

Fearful messaging is easy. The Right is very good at it. They overwhelm with constant fearful messaging until society acquiesces to their fearful narrative.

We are in a moment where the Rightโ€™s fearful message is working. Hereโ€™s just a few boogeymen that the GOP are latching onto.

  • Kevin McCarthy and his friends are desperately trying to whitewash the January 6th Insurrection as a bunch of โ€œtouristsโ€ or even blaming Nancy Pelosi?
  • The GOP has scared white parents into thinking Critical Race Theory is a threat to their children.
  • After months of Fox News spreading disinformation about vaccines, 23% of Republicans say they will definitely not get the vaccine.
  • Who remembers those caravans at the border in the 2018 midterms that never seemed to materialize?
  • And of course, the biggest of them all is the Big Lie.

Progress Comes in Fits & Starts

With all of those headwinds, it is easy to get down and feel like things will never change. Activists fought for four years against the former guys inhumane governing and put it all on the mat to win the Senate and elect Biden. Theyโ€™re exhausted.

While we beat back an authoritarian threat in November 2020, the work is not over and itโ€™s more important than ever. Our planet canโ€™t wait, our democracy canโ€™t wait, and the most vulnerable in our society canโ€™t wait. But we also have to remember that it takes time to reshape society.

We often forget that there was a massive anti-war movement in the US before Pearl Harbor. Despite FDRโ€™s popularity and the growing threat of Nazism taking over Europe, many Americanโ€™s were entrenched. They didnโ€™t want to fight another war happening on another continent. It wasnโ€™t until Pearl Harbor that most Americans came to realize that the threat of fascism was theirs too whether they liked it or not. That was after nearly 2 years of opposition to even support the British.

Another moment in history to remember is Reconstruction. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments transformed our democracy for the better (with some caveats). After the Civil War ended in April 1865, it took another 5 years to pass all three amendments. Itโ€™s a miracle they even passed at all. Imagine being on the ground during that time. 5 years would seem like a lifetime.

(p.s. if youโ€™re looking for more on the Reconstruction Era, check out this informative and short book, The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution by Eric Foner.)

Simone Biles focusing on mental healthโ€”how to tell if you need a break

Maintain Momentum with Breaks

As Simone Biles has taught us so well, sometimes you have to step back when something is not serving our mental health. Simone is a perfect example of why progress and activism are a relay race. Simone has been at the center of US Gymnastics since her Olympics debut in 2016. She has been faced with sexual assault from within the organization that was supposed to protect her. The main reason sheโ€™s at the Olympics this year is to continue to hold US Gymnastics accountable. She has done the work and sacrificed. To reference another sports metaphor, itโ€™s time for her to pass the baton. Suni Lee has taken up that baton and there will be many more talented young women to come along.

The pandemic opened many peopleโ€™s eyes to the need to talk more about mental health. Some in society have begun to feel more comfortable sharing their struggles which have helped others to feel comfortable. Our strength to continue to push for a better future comes from the ability to take care of ourselves mentally and physically.

A few months ago, I attended a webinar from Democracy Partnerstalking about this exact topic. How to sustain your activism for the long haul. The takeaways?

  1. Put love at the center of your work
  2. Relationships (personal and professional) are central
  3. Make a strategic plan for a lifetime in the movement
  4. Balance the personal and the work
  5. Build mentorship into your work to pass the baton

If youโ€™re interested in the webinar for yourself, you can watch the recording and view the presentation here.

There is no shame in taking care of yourself. The best among us have done it time and again. Going back to World War II, even FDR needed to take breaks. We have built FDR into a powerful god who moved mountains with the New Deal and shaped the early war effort, but he struggled with the same frustrations that activists today struggle with. When he was faced with a particularly frustrating opposition force against the war effort, he retreated to his room for a full week of rest only to emerge more refreshed and able to take on those forces and win.

Whenever you feel exhausted, take a break. Find something that brings you joy and step back for a bit. The work will be there when you get back. I for one, canโ€™t wait for a week-long camping trip I have planned. Iโ€™m going to disconnect and recharge. It will only help me feel invigorated for more.

Breathe. Weโ€™ve got this.

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Sam Chavez

Sam is a writer, strategist, and curious human. She founded the roots of change agency in 2020. Sam is a queer, white, LatinX activist whoโ€™s passionate about a livable planet & equitable societies.


Navigating heart-first activism & storytelling. We explore the ๐ŸŒฑ roots of our world to support communicators, organizations, and activists ๐Ÿฅต to avoid burnout and ๐Ÿ“š tell empathetic stories that cultivate connections that ๐ŸŒ empower โœŠ๐Ÿฝ social change.

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