“The exhaustion in social justice work transcends the typical stress of a busy and taxing job” (Dolan, 2013). I keep this quote, and its implication, in the back of my thoughts always. Indeed, social justice work is incredibly stressful – it often leads to burnout quicker than most other types of work. Silverstein (2013) summed up evidence that managing oppression in our daily lives leads to physical health issues. This burnout is multi-faceted and intersectional. Not only does burnout come from conversation with students and peers about what social justice is and some students’ initial resistance to the idea and ensuing action, but my own desires to be a good (insert privileged identity here) person. Though I identify as queer in terms of my sexuality and gender, I am also White, temporarily able-bodied, raised Christian, and middle class, just to review some salient identities.
In trying to be a good (insert privileged identity here) person, burnout can sometimes come about because I am afraid of doing social justice wrong or having thoughts such as, “how inclusive is inclusive” or “should I say that or should I not”? These thoughts are active, and sometimes ever-present, in my mind as I get up every morning. When we are “in our heads” with such thoughts, it often prevents us from having authentic relationships with one another and prevents us from engaging in action (Linder, in press). Yet another facet of burnout can be how daunting and never-ending the work seems to be (Andruszka, 2013; Clark, 2010). A final aspect of burnout is how we, as social justice educators, interact with one another and others – we sometimes may not completely honor or give space for others’ growth in “getting it.” When someone who understands and espouses support for social justice makes an oppressive comment or action, how often are we so quick to scoff, jump on their comment, and say how wrong they are? How often does our response to oppressive comments or gestures come from a place of education or care? We were all once in a place of not knowing or not getting it. How much do we honor the growth of others?
When all of these issues and reasons come together, social justice work gets even more complex and makes burnout very real (at least for me). Working in student affairs and social justice education, I have seen others face social justice burnout alongside of me. When first learning (or even enhancing learning) around power, privilege, and oppression, you can start to see and hear it everywhere – from window-shopping to TV commercials to this very sentence where I use physical sensory language to describe understanding. Filipiak (2013) observed “[b]urnout that was due to the overwhelming number of different types of horrible things in the world, the overwhelming reach each of these issues had, and the overwhelming severity of evil each of those bad things represented.” Being so immersed and entrenched in the work exhausts us to the point where we stop moving forward due to our worry and fear, rather than continuing towards a more just resolution for our campuses and society.
So social justice burnout is a thing; what do we do about it? Practice self-love. Many use the phrase self-care and I think we could practice both! Self-love includes, and goes beyond, self-care. Self-care refers to activities and practices that one can engage in on a regular basis to reduce stress and enhance our short- and longer-term wellness. Self-love, on the other hand, involves loving oneself; we must care about, take responsibility for, respect, and know ourselves (Fromm, 1956). As social justice educators, it is incredibly important to practice self-love. While this includes care, self-love is especially applicable to social justice education as we are often both subject and educator of our work. As Cornel West once said, “justice is what love looks like in public.” Moving forward in social justice endeavors involves loving others while loving ourselves. While we are in the process of loving others in public, how do we practice self-love as educators?
- Care for Yourself – Social justice burnout often creeps up on us because we have many moving parts to our lives and often forget about taking care of ourselves. Are we getting a fair amount of sleep? Are we de-stressing with a good book, T.V. show, or some other activity that can get your mind elsewhere? Are we eating to a routine that works and promotes bodily energy? Are we achieving personal balance in various dimensions of wellness? We know the best ways to care for ourselves. While we often care for others through our work, we may neglect ourselves in the process. When we care for ourselves, it becomes easier for others to care for us as well.
- Have Good Company for the Journey – At our institutions and in our work, we often may feel alone and that the burden is ours to bear solely. We cannot bear the brunt of the work to change the world by ourselves – we must lean on one another and scaffold each other’s work to help build a just society. Reach out to a friend, a colleague, or a peer and have someone who you can just vent to from time-to-time. Offer that mutual support back to that person. This work is a family effort; support each another like one.
- Practice Forgiveness While Moving Forward – Rea Carey (2014), the Executive Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, recently shared the following in her address: “I have to decide every single time someone on a bus, or train or plane asks me what I do for work, if I am going to say, ‘I work for the freedom of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.’ And, friends, admittedly, I sometimes hesitate. I sometimes falter. And I am sorry.” This work is hard, it is personal, and we sometimes make mistakes. We slip and say something unjust or oppressive. We do not speak up when our voice may be needed. We do not have the energy to educate in every moment where it is warranted. It is important to take responsibility and keep moving forward with the work while also forgiving ourselves in that process. We all slip up but when we do, we must acknowledge it, forgive ourselves, and continue forward.
Social justice work and education is often thankless and has its up’s and down’s in terms of affirmation and positivity. As Clark (2010) observed, “[e]xpecting miracles, trying to overhaul the system, and expecting encouragement and positivity at every turn seems like a recipe for disappointment and bitterness when those expectations aren’t met.” It is important that we love one another and ourselves in the process of educating others about social justice. There are many ways to approach the work, but if we do not practice self-love, we may end up in a vicious cycle of burnout and, ultimately, not continue to move forward.
Andruszka, R. (2013, August 15). How to avoid burnout when you’re saving the world [Web log post]. The Daily Muse. Retrieved from http://www.themuse.com/advice/how-to-avoid-burnout-when-youre-saving-the-world
Carey, R. (2014, February). State of the Movement Address. National Conference on LGBT Equality: Creating Change, Houston, TX.
Clark, A. N. (2010, November 28). On avoiding burnout [Web log post]. Social justice. Retrieved from http://www.personal.psu.edu/anc5206/blogs/social_justice/2010/11/on-avoiding-burnout.html
Dolan, C. (2013, October 29). We are enough: Reflections of an emerging LGBTQIA* professional by Christine Dolan [Web log post]. Commission for Social Justice Educators Blog. Retrieved from https://acpacsje.wordpress.com/2013/10/29/we-are-enough-reflections-of-an-emerging-lgbtqia-professional-by-christine-dolan/
Filipiak, N. (2013, March 20). Social justice burning you out? Stop trying to change the world [Web log post]. At a Crossroads: Navigating Life and God in a Uncertain World. Retrieved from http://www.atacrossroads.net/social-justice-burning-you-out-stop-trying-to-change-the-world/
Fromm, E. (1965). The art of loving. New York, NY: HarperCollins
Linder, C. (in press). Navigating guilt, shame, and fear of appearing racist: A conceptual model of anti-racist white feminist identity development. Journal of College Student Development.
Silverstein, J. (2013, March 12). How racism is bad for our bodies. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/03/how-racism-is-bad-for-our-bodies/273911/
Alex C. Lange is a Graduate Assistant in the Office of Student Leadership and Service at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. Alex earned his B.A. in Law and American Society from the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College @ FAU and is currently finishing up his M.Ed. in the College Student Affairs Administration program at the University of Georgia. Alex enjoys the works of William Faulkner, is a self-proclaimed U.S. Supreme Court nerd, and loves to learn more about the history of the 60s/70s rights and power movements. He also occasionally tweets (@OwlDawg).