Caring About Thriving in the Context of Struggle

by Rushdia Mehreen and Pascale Brunet

Pushed by a society that is always running, too often we are trying to be everywhere at once and to maintain high standards of productivity while working towards social change. Another protest, an extra meeting, and why not a conference at lunchtime before facilitating a workshop? We fight for social justice until we break down and, even then, we feel guilty for not doing, and being, “enough”. 

Rarely do we take the time to question our limits and the emotional involvement intrinsic to activist work. We tend to overextend ourselves without caring for one another. How many people around us have burnt out, are depressed or completely overwhelmed by our struggles and family life? 

In addition to internalized capitalist notions of productivity, the internal dynamics of a group have an immense impact on our collective well-being and in turn on the political work we do. The absence of accountability, lack of accessibility, dominant personalities, internal power relations, hidden hierarchies, lack of possibilities to bring up conflicts and other problematic practices damage not only individuals but also our collectives. 

Some of the ways to address these challenges is to integrate care in our  organizing and, in doing so, build collective capacity around emotional labor. Active listening, support work, mediation, defusing tensions, acting as confidants, protecting privacy and confidentiality, welcoming and creating spaces for newcomers, caring about people’s comfort, and much more, are all integral to the long term sustainability of and building solidarity within our  groups, collectives, organizations and political struggles. However, this work is consistently seen as secondary and apolitical, and therefore not valorized. 

We need to open up spaces for discussion and to think about collective care within our communities if we aspire to cease the reproduction of systemic oppressions and violences that we oppose. Acquiring tools for and actively engaging with ideas about collective well-being and (self)care are powerful ways to create thriving communities. We need to put as much emphasis on “how” we organize as we do on “why” and “what” we do. 

If you and/or your groups, collectives, organizations or political projects want to reflect on these ideas, here are some questions that could make for a great starting point. You might want to warm up some water, gather around the teapot, get cozy and open up your hearts. 

The Pressure to be Productive: 

– Do we leave meetings with the same amount (or even more!) energy than when we arrived? 

– Do we debrief past actions, conferences, protests, etc. before starting new projects? 

– Are we organizing within realistic deadlines? 

– In the context of organizing, do we think it’s selfish to take care of ourselves? 

– Do we have too many meetings?
– What kind of relationships do we have with the people with whom we organize? 

Accessibility & Welcoming Spaces: 

– Why have some people stopped attending meetings or organizing with us? 

– Is there food served during the meetings, conferences and events? 

– What accommodation do we offer to families and young children? 

– Who can physically access the spaces where meetings and events are held?
– What languages do we use (spoken, non-verbal, sign, jargon etc.)? Are they accessible to everyone? 

– Who do we naturally welcome into our group? Who do we leave out? 

– Is our group welcoming of everyone regardless of any privileges? 

– How can we really welcome a diversity of people to our groups regardless of race, gender or activist credentials? 

– Do we have rules or policies that deter new people’s integration? 

Working / Caring Practices: 

– How can we make space to talk about how we feel? 

– What elements can make us feel empowered to speak up against an injustice within the group? 

– What are transformative spaces? How can we create them? 

– How can we work to avoid recreating the oppression that we fight? 

– What are the decision making processes of the group and how can we really respect them? 

– Are our organizing structures conducive to those who are marginalized systemically? Are we alienating them? 

– Can those directly affected take space and leadership in our groups in 

meaningful ways? 

– Who feels comfortable taking up space? 

– Who is usually doing care work in the group? Is division of labor gender-/race-based? 

– How can we get past the phenomena of senior or charismatic personalities dominating discussions and leading collective direction? 

– Do we recognise that too much/concentration of responsibility leads to too much power and control? How can we avoid this? 


– How do we react when there’s a disagreement or conflict? 

– How do we deal with frustrations in the group? 

– How can we open up spaces for addressing hidden hierarchies within the group? 

– How can we hold each-other accountable? 

– When organizing in urgency, do we stop being accountable to one another and to the affected community(ies)? 

– How can we work towards having effective conflict resolution practices? 

Sustainable / Thriving communities: 

– Do we try to understand members’ irritability and exhaustion in relation to the way we organize? 

– Is there space for members to share the struggles they are facing in their personal lives? 

– How can we share responsibilities so that when people leave, contacts, expertise and relationships don’t leave with them? 

– How can we work actively to not let the founders / seniors / charismatic personas be the sole persons to hold on to key responsibilities? 

– How can we avoid situations where one or a few people get overburdened by taking on a lot of the tasks? 

– How can we strive, as a collective, to reduce stress associated with organizing? 

These questions, raised formally or informally, may only scratch the surface but most importantly, they can spark an exchange and can lead to group reflections on how to integrate care in our organizing. It is by opening up discussions on sensitive topics such as accountability and the pressure to be productive that we can sow the seeds of more profound change around 

collective care and well-being. They open up spaces where we can speak of the discomforts or frustrations which are necessary for the transformation of  internal dynamics. Such exchanges can pave way for more open communications where conflict and other issues are discussed openly, ultimately resulting in nourishing communities. Fighting for social justice does not have to equate to a burn out or an eventual total dissociation from  organizing; let’s create spaces where we can heal & thrive.