“People leave all the time,” said Chanelle Helm, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter Louisville. “They think the work is too heavy, the work is too hard—we’re not getting black liberation right now so why bother?”The effects of activist burnout can be especially acute for marginalized groups, according to Gorski’s research. Often, sexism and racism pervades activists’ own ranks, compounding the stress and anxiety women and activists of color may already be experiencing as a result of their work. And if they’re organizing around issues with direct implications for their own lives, activist efforts can trigger past trauma, or lead to vicarious trauma, the result of coming in contact with someone who is going through a traumatic event.Helm first got involved in racial justice organizing when she herself became a victim of police violence more than 15 years ago. Helm, now 38, says the incident occurred in 2002, when she was leaving a Louisville, Kentucky, nightclub: On her way out, she realized her cellphone, which had been attached to her hip on a clip, had disappeared. When Helm called the phone to see if it was nearby, she heard its ringtone coming from the general vicinity of a man she said had “felt her up” earlier that night. When she tried to follow him back into the club she said two police officers outside began to assault her because they said she wasn’t following their orders.
“At the end of the day, every day, I feel burned out. The fact is, you’re putting in so much work and don’t always see the results.”
“We can try as hard as we can, but maybe still sometimes we can’t move these old white Republicans in the Senate,” Narro said. “But in every activist campaign there’s a human element. Whether or not you succeed, you’ve formed relationships, strengthened connections. And you’ll take those to your next effort.”The next phase of Gorski’s research involves examining the flip side of the conversation about activist burnout—who’s exempt from it, and why? Everyone in the activist community experiences stress and frustration, but what gives someone the ability to move past those things, and build an entire life out of unflagging activism? Is it blind optimism? Expert compartmentalization? Or something else?It may be that it’s something close to what Narro suggests: that the people who are most able to sustain lifelong activism are those who can pick out the small gains when it would otherwise seem like losses across the board.“God, you make it sound so depressing,” Michael Kink, the executive director of the Strong Economy for All Coalition, said when I told him the subject of my story. “I don’t know if it’s because I’m a Sagittarius or something—but I’d say I’m more optimistic than other folks on this stuff. I take the long view to activism.”Kink, 55, remembers seeing protesters get pelted with rocks where he grew up on the South Side of Chicago, and seeing houses firebombed; he remembers, years later, his fellow organizers dying during the AIDS crisis. But he can also easily recall the victories someone with a different outlook might dismiss, like when, amid Bill Clinton’s “bullshit” welfare reform, Kink and the activists fighting alongside him helped win states the right to decide whether or not they would force people on public benefits to get regular drug tests. “There are times you have wreckage all around you, but you can still win something,” Kink said.Meanwhile, Khan said that, even in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the travel ban, what helped was seeing how many people were as outraged as he was, and willing to show up to uplift and support each other. Helm loves to joke around with the other organizers at BLM Louisville, “tell each other funny shit” and share memes on social media. And Kink said he thinks back to Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1957 “Birth of a New Nation” speech, where he suggests that creating a community can be an end in itself.“Enjoy the courage and joy and energy of the folks you’re working with,” Kink said, when I asked him what he would recommend to younger activists. “That ‘beloved community’ stuff Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used to talk about is the real deal.”
"In every activist campaign there’s a human element. Whether or not you succeed, you’ve formed relationships, strengthened connections. And you’ll take those to your next effort.”