In this article, you will learn what wellbeing practices you can use in your activist movement. We focus on things you can do as a group, instead of as an individual.
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If you and your fellow activists are healthy, you can make a more positive impact. We recommend you to take these steps right now, and do not wait until you end up with an activist burnout. This guide is also useful for people already dealing with mental health issues.
Like all articles on Activist Handbook, you can make this guide better by adding your experiences and knowledge!
When getting together with a group of people, it is important to take into account wellbeing in the way you organise. For example, ask yourself and your teammates these questions:
Do we make sure everyone feels welcomed & safe during our meetings?
Do our practices encourage people to be open about their feelings?
Is it usually extraverts who give the most input during conversations?
What are our practices when conflict arises?
Do people sometimes feel unprepared or not skilled enough?
Do organisers feel stressed?
Implementing good organising practices will help prevent burnout and other mental health issues. Below are some suggestions.
Hold effective meetings
Emotional check-in: Start every meeting by doing a round to ask how everyone is doing. If you know what people are dealing with personally, you will better understand why people might seem a bit absent, get agitated quickly or are not constructive in conversations. You can start off yourself by being open about your own feelings. This will encourage others to do the same.
Ground rules: Start your meetings by setting some ground rules to facilitate healthy conversations.
Step-up, step-down: Before the meeting, encourage extraverts to listen more attentively and give more opportunities to others to share their perspective. And encourage introverts to speak up. Do not point to specific people, introverts really do not like to be put on the spot. Instead, talk about this in general terms, explaining the value of making sure everyone’s voices are heard.
Acknowledge privileges: Make sure people are aware of their privileges, so they can give more space to members of marginalised groups. For example, old white men are used to speaking first and loudest. Explain how they can be a good ally. You might want to try counting how frequently men are talking in comparison to women and nonbinary people.
Dialog, not discussion: Our toxic society has taught us that everything, including conversations, is about winning. In order to have healthier and more productive conversations, explain that the purpose of your meeting is not to find out who is right or to make a compromise that is as much for your own benefit as possible. Instead, talk about why you want to focus on creating understanding. Sometimes you need to make decisions, but you can do so after creating understanding.
No blaming and shaming of individuals: Make sure to explain that you welcome everyone and every part of everyone (even the ugly parts). We are all part of a toxic system. Even if we are fighting against it, we bring bad habits to our movements as well, sometimes unconsciously. Create a safe space for everyone to reflect on themselves and the system they are part of. For example, in a climate movement, do not shame people for still going on a holiday by airplane. Instead, have constructive conversations that help everyone understand why flying is bad and what systemic issues cause us to continue our bad habits, even when we know they are bad.
Healthy decision-making: Decision-making is one of the hardest parts of activism. If you do not think thoroughly about your decision-making practices, people will get hurt guaranteed.
Not everyone has a say about everything: If you are with just three people, you might be able to work with a full consensus-based system for every single small decision you need to make. However, this is impossible as your group grows. Either you will become unable to make any decision at all, or you will start making decisions behind closed doors in order to speed up the process. Both are unhealthy. In the first case, people will become frustrated that your group is not able to achieve anything. In the other case, people will feel left out. A better strategy is to have transparent and clearly defined rules about who has a say in what. Involve everyone in big decisions (e.g. about your organisation strategy), and leave small decisions to individuals or smaller groups.
Marginalised voices are more important: An unfair power distribution has negative health consequences, so it is important to set in place decision-making practices that mitigate power. “Everyone has one vote” is not a fair system. Right now, some people are being marginalised in society and in your movement. The only way to change this is by giving power to marginalised people. Do not make decisions for them, allow them to make the decisions.
Reflection: End every meeting with a reflection. Reflect on the meeting itself, and think of better ways of doing meetings. Make sure to follow up on reflections: there is no point in recognising problems without doing anything about them.
Ask yourself: What do we do when conflict happens, when things stop working, when differences show up?
Conflict belongs to the whole community, because it affects the whole community. The first step to approaching conflict situations is to put in place support. This means that support is in place for the person involved ahead of a conflict, and they know where to turn. If you notice someone in conflict and there is not support in place, you can offer them neutral listening space and hold that without ‘taking a side’.
We find great value and learning in discussions that sow seeds for looking at conflict in a different way. Opening dialogue and a space to hear each other without judgement.
Questions you can ask yourself and your group:
What does ‘conflict’ mean to you?
How do you know you’re in conflict?
Consider what goes on for you when you’re faced with conflict.
What do you experience physiologically and/or psychologically?
Why is it sometimes so scary?
What helps and doesn’t help in responding to conflict?
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Think about the attitudes, mindsets and actions that you’ve experienced as working/helping or not working/helping.
What’s your dream about how to respond to conflict?
Your thoughts here will shape any system that you might create.
There is so much value in rebels upskilling themselves in relation to conflict and communication.
Active listening is a fantastic skill!
Giving someone your presence and ear without judgment is both simple and profound. Practice this in your conversations and see how it feels. You can even repeat what the person says for clarity - “What I’m hearing is…” - and check that you heard correctly.
“Conflict is only dangerous when we try to get away from it” Dominic Barter
Resolving conflict_: What do we do when conflict happens, when things stop working, when differences show up?
Training: We need to learn how to be kind to ourselves and others: we are taught how to act and interact with others in ways that hurt, so we must unlearn that and learn how to do it properly
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“We actively mitigate power” and “We are based on autonomy and decentralisation”
See “in practical terms this means”: https://xr-regenerativecultures.org/inclusion-and-power-1/we-actively-mitigate-for-power
A healthy strategy
Once you are convinced that it is indeed important to take care of your own wellbeing, or once your mental and physical health forces you to do so, it is easy to make the following mistakes:
Telling yourself things are not as bad as they seem. Often, when people feel powerless to bring about change, they convince themselves there is no need for things to change. Because when things do not need to change, you also do not have to feel bad about not helping to bring about that change. Of course, lying to yourself does not actually make things better out there in the real world. In fact, lying to yourself will probably make you feel worse, because you will need to numb yourself by mindlessly watching TikTok, doing drugs or whatever else helps you forget reality. You can make a positive impact, though perhaps not as much as you would desire. But you can only do so if you base your strategy for change on reality.
Telling yourself your contributions made more positive impact than they actually did. When you put a lot of time and energy into your activism, you want it to be worth it. But often, you are just not doing the most effective thing. This is not your fault: nobody is born an activist, and we are not taught how to change society by our parents or in school. So we have to teach ourselves, and we can only do so if we acknowledge the mistakes we make before.
It is attractive to use the strategies and tactics that are easiest or most familiar. However, this is usually not the right path to take. Ask yourself not “ what can we do?” but “what should we do to achieve our goals?”.
You will often find that what needs to be done is not yet possible because you do not have the resources to do so. For example, you are only with a small group of people, you do not have the skills that you need, or you do not have the financial resources. This means that you will have to set out a roadmap that empowers you to get where you want to be. And you can only create this roadmap after having decided where you want to arrive, not where you think you can realistically get. Activism is about rethinking what is realistically possible, and this is a difficult task.
If you do what is easy, not what is necessary, you might be able to celebrate short-term ‘successes’. But in the long term, you will fail to achieve your actual goals. It is attractive to deceive yourself and convince yourself and others that the easy way is the right way. But truth will hit you in your face eventually. Lying to yourself is not healthy.
The hard way is accepting your failures, reflecting, and adapting. This will help you come to terms mentally with how horribly bad things are going in the world, so you can create space in your mind to reflect and start thinking about how to take action more effectively.
🙄 TL;DR (too long; didn’t read): Don’t lie to yourself, it’s not healthy. Don’t make problems smaller than they are, and also don’t tell yourself your contributions made more positive impact than they actually did. Instead, reflect, learn and strategise.
It is important to take care of your fellow activists during protest actions. Read our guide on action wellbeing practices.
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No blaming & shaming of individuals
During actions: de-escalation
Non-violent communication https://xr-regenerativecultures.org/all/non-violence
Don’t mix this up with internal communication, this section is about messaging. These might fit better elsewhere:
Active listening: https://xr-regenerativecultures.org/communitycare/empathy-circles
Hand signs: less barrier to talk
Non-violent communication, not hurting others and each other
“We openly challenge ourselves and our toxic system” and “We avoid blaming and shaming”
As activists, we must recognise that we are always part of the problems we are fighting. We can make changes as individuals in our personal lives to try and to limit our contribution to the problem. For example, when it comes to the climate crisis, we could stop eating meat and avoid taking an airplane.
However, at the same time, we should also not overestimate our own part in the problem. In fact, it might be in the interest of the largest contributors to the problem to make you think that you should focus on your part. For example, fossil fuel companies have funded and lobbied for campaigns that tell us we should shower less, turn off the lights, etc. Why? As long as we are pointing fingers to each other, they can continue to make billions of profits by destroying our planet.
“personal responsibility can be overstated and is based, to some extent, in privilege”
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You could create workshop templates for each of the practices described (so describe each practice in more detail and provide a step by step guide on how to implement it).
Add a list of training organisations that can provide IRL support about wellbeing for activist groups
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Look into these concepts and see if we missed any practices
Regenerative culture (by Extinction Rebellion)
Active hope (by Joanna Macy & Chris Johnstone)
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What is this article about?
This article is about practical things that groups can do in regard to activist wellbeing. If you want to write about self-help, improve our other articles in the Wellbeing chapter. If you are more interested in theoretical discussions of themes related to wellbeing (e.g. intersectionality), check out our Theory chapter.
Related articles on Activist Handbook website:
Work from the following sources was reused in this article: