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I live in a city that’s dealing with more and more reports of hate crimes against Asians, especially the elderly. I’ve attended protests and donated where I could, but I’m feeling even more burnt out and helpless now. Some days, I question if what I do really matters and if things are ever going to change. What can I do to stay the course?
— Busy But Burning Out
Dear Busy But Burning Out,
First and foremost, thank you for giving your time and funds to fight against anti-Asian hate. On top of your commitment to concrete actions, taking on a system of oppression also requires a great deal of invisible emotional labour. Activist work is filled with passion and urgency, and it becomes inextricably ingrained in all aspects of our lives and identity. For those who are doing this off the side of their desks, this is another full-time job, without the paid coffee breaks and overtime.
Activist burnout, or fatigue, can catch you off guard when you are working towards a goal that involves sustained emotional, mental, and physical engagement. When we experience stress for an extended period of time towards something we feel we cannot overcome, we can begin to turn numb, devoid of motivation, and beyond caring.
In these moments, we need to learn to pause and turn our focus inwards. As Audre Lorde, a Black feminist and civil rights activist once said: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence; it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Your natural ability to care and empathize with others is what drew you to social justice, but keeping at it at a high level of intensity and emotional investment is not a long-term strategy. Staying on course requires a delicate balance between filling your own cup and pouring into others.
With this in mind, here are some guiding principles to keep you on course.
Refocus and reprioritize
When you notice the signs of burnout, it is time to refocus and reprioritize. Instead of doing everything, find that sweet spot where your talents meet the needs of the community.
I recently came across an article by an Indigenous journalist, Kelsie Kilawna, who reported on the discovery at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, Canada. Kilawna spoke to the importance of situating yourself during times of crisis and trauma in the community and knowing the lens you are approaching the issues from.
As you gain clarity on your role in the community, and where you feel most strongly, your voice and actions will follow.
If you are primarily concerned about seniors, you might take on the role of a caregiver, or a part of the young generation who advocate for senior safety and promote intergenerational education. You can also consider prioritizing your efforts on fundraising or volunteering for local organizations that specifically support Asian seniors. This will keep you focused and engaged, rather than spread too thin.
Look to history and community for perspective and inspiration
It can be difficult to keep the positivity afloat when we are constantly inundated by news and images depicting anti-Asian violence. Not only is the content triggering, it can also make us feel paralyzed and helpless, as if we took productive baby steps forward only to be set back in large strides.
While it is crucial to stay informed, thanks to the mighty Internet, the content will live there forever for your perusal. Stay in control of your media intake and ensure you are being critical of what you are ingesting.
If you begin to feel disheartened about current events and the perceived lack of progress, look to history and the community for perspective and inspiration. When you step back and trace Asian American history, you will see that things have been shifting.
Since the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, it took seventy years for Asian Americans to be granted the right to become citizens and vote in 1952. After the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982, the Asian community immediately formed American Citizens for Justice to protect the civil rights of Asian Americans for the first time in a federal civil rights prosecution.
Just the other day, after attending the National Forum on Anti-Asian Racism, my colleague commented that these racial discussions would have never happened ten years ago on a university campus, nor at any corporate workplace. After hearing from the voices of the younger generation, she now feels empowered to speak up and pave the way for the future.
These are just a few examples of how far we have come.
Additionally, don’t forget the power of community. To stay motivated, connect with like-minded individuals who share your vision. Learn from other experienced activists, as well as community groups who are also in the frontlines working directly with the marginalized groups.
As you commiserate with your newfound friends, take some time to acknowledge your shared successes. In talking with others, you may be surprised to find that the impact of your actions isn’t as modest as you’ve made it out to be. Don’t be shy about celebrating the steps you have taken to show up for the community.
Activism is a team sport
Anti-racism work requires not only persistence and passion, but also humility. Recognize that you are ultimately one person, and that you do not need to solve all the social issues on your own.
When taking on systemic racism, we are participating in a marathon, not a sprint. The placement in the race is what many individuals strive for, but participating and enduring the course is the most important feat of all.
If you ever find yourself waning, recall how far you and the community have come. Above all, remember that it is okay to slow down your pace to refuel and refocus.
Always here for you,
Dear Kiki is Cold Tea Collective’s advice column and it is published in the last week of every month. To get advice from Kiki, submit your questions and comments here. You can also follow along for the latest column in our newsletter.
Featured photo credit: Jason Leung
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