Amy Andre

Self Care for Activists: Robyn Ochs Shows Us How

Filed By Amy Andre | May 07, 2012 5:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, The Movement
Tags: bisexual, burnout, leadership, self-care

Robyn_Ochs.JPGBi activist Robyn Ochs is an educator, speaker and editor of the 42-country anthology, Getting Bi: Voices of Bisexuals Around the World. She is the recipient of the Susan J. Hyde Activism Award for Longevity in the Movement and the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Caucus's Lifetime Achievement Award. She lives in Massachusetts, and in 2004 - on the first day it was legal to do so - Robyn married Peg Preble.

An advocate for the rights of people of all orientations and genders to live safely, openly and with full legal equality, Robyn's work focuses on increasing awareness and understanding of complex identities, and mobilizing people to be powerful allies to one another within and across identities and social movements.

And she has a training in her pantheon of classes that may be tailor-made for you.

Not you specifically, although perhaps and quite likely. It's about the "you" among us who are activists and who need some care and guidance learning how to do self-care. It's called Self-Care for Activists.

If you're like me, most of the activists you know - whether they're doing social justice work on behalf of the LGBT community or any other marginalized group - are either burnt out or heading in that direction. Burn out is defined as exhaustion from long-term stress. In fact, in working on this article, I was hard pressed to think of more than a handful of activists I know who seem unstressed or unexhausted.

That's not good for our community, nor is it healthy for the activists in it. How can we move forward as a people, when we're half asleep on our feet?

Luckily, there's Robyn. She knows how, and she's here to teach us.

At the recent BECAUSE conference, I had the pleasure of attending her Self-Care for Activists workshop. [Sidebar: if you ever get a chance to attend BECAUSE, do.] Afterwords, I caught up with her to learn more about this training.

Amy: What inspired you to create this workshop?

Robyn: I have been an activist for a long time, and I have seen too many of my colleagues crash and burn, many leaving activism completely, some bitter, pessimistic and depleted. I mourn the loss of these people's energy and leadership, and I want to figure out strategies for balancing our lives and our activisms so that more of us get pleasure from the process and stay in it for the long term. My friend Bob Bossin, a Canadian songwriter and activist used to say, "Just because you're saving the world, it doesn't mean you have to have a bad time."

Amy: When did you create it, and what has been the response so far?

Robyn: I've been doing this workshop for several years now, and I've found that it really helps activists think about strategies for nurturing ourselves.

Amy: Has anything come up in a workshop session that has surprised you?

Robyn: The first time I did a workshop on this subject I was surprised how many of the same messages we carry around as activists. A few examples:


  • "If I don't do it, it won't get done."

  • "No one cares as much as I do."

  • "Where is everyone else?"

  • "I am irreplaceable."

  • "I might be replaceable."

  • "Is my list long enough?"

  • "I'm not doing enough."

  • "Am I a real activist?"

  • "It's safe in this particular movement for part (but not all) of me."

  • "Am I making a difference?"

I am also moved -- every time I do this program -- by the palpable sense of relief expressed by some of the activist present at these workshops.

Amy: What do you think is the number one cause of burn-out (or, in general, a need for self-care) among activists?

Robyn: It's not enough just to change our personal relationship to our activism. When we are overstressed and under-resourced, it's all too easy to engage in horizontal hostility and to lash out at one another. It's important that we also develop a culture around us into one in which we support and appreciate each another as activists both within and across issues.

In this workshop, I point out that different subjects of activism carry different stresses and rewards. I make a distinction between the type of activism I call "Kittens and Puppies," about which you can proudly talk to those in your extended family and to almost any stranger about and which will evoke smiles; and "Other Subjects." Examples of "Kittens and Puppies" include animal rescue, Habitat for Humanity, Special Olympics. Examples of "Other Subjects" include abortion rights, LGBT advocacy, safer sex education." As one older family member once said to me, "I'm proud of your success. I just wish it was in a different line of work." Students involved in "Other Subjects" who are seeking employment are often uncertain whether to include their activist experience on their resumes, uncertain whether it will help or hurt them on the job market. It's important to recognize the extra stress of doing this type of activism.

Amy: What's your self-care regimen?

Robyn: I plan to be in this for the long haul. I prioritize physical self-care by making sure to get plenty of sleep, exercise and good food. I try to break projects down into bite-size pieces, and to celebrate small victories along the way. I give myself - and other activists - lots of positive feedback, and I try not to be competitive or mean. I try not to take on commitments that will stretch me beyond capacity. I make sure that at least some of my projects give me pleasure. I try to remain open to learning and to receiving feedback. I try not to take everything personally and to assume that others have good intentions. I try to multiply myself by nurturing and encouraging new activists, especially those who represent voices too often absent from the table.

(img src: Robyn Ochs)


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