Holly Hammond (she/her) is a social movement educator and librarian. She is the Director of the Commons Social Change Library which includes a vast array of resources including a wellbeing collection. She has worked to strengthen social movements and promote activist wellbeing for many years through training, facilitation, coaching, and writing via the Plan to Win and Plan to Thrive projects. Green Agenda’s co-editor Felicity Gray spoke with Holly about how we protect and feed our passion for change in the midst of a pandemic, the importance of creativity, and key pillars for sustainable activism and protecting against burn-out.
Felicity Gray: The theme for this edition is fire. So we’re considering actual fire – bushfire, climate catastrophe – but also more metaphorical fire. And it’s the latter that I want to talk to you about, and how fire in its generative forms and in its destructive forms relates to activism and working in community. So my first question is what sparked your work as an activist and organiser initially?
Holly Hammond: Sure. Well, we have to go a long way back, to when I was in high school in the early 90s. Probably the best way to summarise what sparked me becoming active was both love and rage. The rage was about the injustice that I found really intolerable, and I didn’t want to see keep happening in the world: the way that people were impoverished, and exploited and mistreated in a whole bunch of different ways. The sense that things were wrong in the world, and that people and animals and the environment were harmed by that. It made me upset and angry and like I had to do something about it. That was, and still is, a key spark for me. Coming across ideas that showed an alternative way for the world to be also gave me a focus for my action and made change feel possible. And of course, love. I think it’s really about caring about people and caring about the world, and wanting to do what I can to make things go better.
FG: Thirty years is a long time to sustain both love and rage and the fire that motivates both of those. You must speak with organisers and activists about sustainability a lot. How have you sustained that over that period of time? And how, how have you been having those conversations with other activist communities?
HH: In my article Hope and Activist Burnout I define activists as people who: 1) See a problem in the world; 2) Believe the situation could be different; and 3) Take action in the direction of the change they want to see. I’ve had those three elements pretty consistently for thirty years.
In terms of the third part, taking action, I’ve been fortunate to have avenues for making a contribution. As a grassroots activist, in my teens and 20s, I was involved in different activist groups, part of campaigns, involved in forest blockades and setting up new groups and all of that kind of thing, I had ways to be engaged and be active and connect with other people. I also found ways to do the work through working in the community sector, especially in organisations that were run by the people most affected by the issues at hand. I worked in drug user and sex worker advocacy, and the community legal sector. So I had ways my politics could be enacted through my working life. And then, in 2005, I had the realisation that my contribution could be supporting social movements through training, facilitation and coaching. So that’s really been the key way that I’ve stayed engaged in social change since then, that’s given me a place to keep acting. One thing I’ve noticed happen is that people maybe do find a place for a while, and they put a lot of themselves into their work. They come up against inevitable setbacks, such as defeats of their campaign or conflict within their groups. Unresolved conflict can be very hard in activist groups, very confronting and one of the key reasons why people burn out. These things happen that mean people can’t continue to act for change in the way that they intended to, and if they leave a group, they might not find another place to be where they feel they can participate and contribute, especially if they need recovery from hard experiences. Where I’ve seen people be able to stay in for the long term, I think it’s when they’ve had a clear understanding of what their role is, and how they can make change, and an ongoing way to purposefully act. That combination is really important. Supportive community comes into that as well – people who will be around you and appreciate you and back you and celebrate you, which doesn’t happen enough.
Plan to Thrive surveyed 200 activists which revealed a lot of wisdom about the different ways people sustain themselves. This, working with others, and my own experience have helped me to define a series of key things needed for activist wellbeing. Often people will talk about burnout and assume that it’s about overwork, and that can definitely be a factor, but there’s many other things that mean people may not have a great time while they’re being activists. I’ve pitched it in the other direction – what are the things that really help us thrive?
Number one: An understanding of society, power relationships, and dynamics of social change. It really helps for people to have a clear picture of how the world is set up, and how they believe they can go about changing it.
Number two: Freedom from past distress, oppressive messages and limiting beliefs, which is pretty huge. Basically, things we all carry from coming up in this world that hold us back from being as powerful as we could be. So whether that’s a woman getting to heal from the hurts of sexism in a world that has told her that she’s small and not as significant or doesn’t deserve to be in the center of things, or any other kind of identity. Getting free of that helps us be the people who can create a new world.
Number three: Purposeful action. Finding a way to actually put into action, your values, your commitment to change. Very often what burns people out is feeling that their efforts are futile. We experience that when we have a defeat or loss in our work, but also if it just feels like what we do doesn’t add up to anything. So being able to engage in purposeful action makes a huge difference.
Number four: Self awareness and emotional resilience. Knowing ourselves, being connected to ourselves and our own feelings, and having ways to bounce back from setbacks.
Number five: Strong and close relationships. Having people around us who care about us and who we care for, so we’re not isolated and trying to do things on our own.
Number six: A healthy body. That doesn’t mean it has to be like an entirely able body, there’s different ways to be a body, but a body that has what it needs to function as well as it can.
Number seven: Rest and recovery. This is one of the things that I see a lot of activists really struggle with, they put so much effort in and they start to treat themselves like robots, as though they don’t actually need time to recover and rest along the way. So they smash themselves, for example, in the lead up to an election, and then straight away, roll into whatever comes next, as opposed to recognising that they do need time off to compensate. Rest and recovery is something we can weave into every day and every week and every month and every year. It helps us come back to ourselves and keep our perspective. When there have been a lot of struggles it helps us process that and make our own fresh decisions so that we’re not as stuck in demoralisation.
And number eight: Joy and pleasure. Recognising that that is our right as humans to have. There’s a lot of messages to be stoic. And that’s the whole society that says you have to work really hard. There’s an extra piece for activists that says sacrifice yourself for the greater good, basically. But if we’re able to connect with joy and pleasure, we’re so much more effective and able to hang around for the long term, fostering those close relationships, weathering storms, and being a model for people so that they want to be part of this movement. Why would you want to put your life into something that looks like it’s going to be exhausting and denying and isolating?
FG: It’s interesting what you mentioned earlier about internal conflict. I’ve been meditating on how so many of us that are involved in doing activist and community work are incredibly passionate, and that’s the reason we have this fire in our bellies, and we want to do this work. And I was wondering what happens internally, you mentioned internal conflict, when perhaps some of that fire becomes unwieldy? Because that passion exists, there seems to me to be a lot of room for some conflict and clash within groups. Is that something that you’ve observed in your work?
HH: When I was saying internal conflict I meant conflict within groups, but people also have it within themselves too, within the different parts of themselves. As activists we really have to push against the stream in society, we have to fight to live a different life, and to stand up for our point of view. So when we come into groups, we have strong feelings about what the right way to do things is. We also often have big ideals, like we project onto this group our hopes for a future society that we want. We want our activist collective or organisation or not for profit, whatever it is, to be a paragon of virtue and a place that’s free from oppression. And that’s impossible. Instead we find a whole bunch of people who’ve got often strong opinions and strong feelings coming up against each other. We might have different theories of change, or different personalities or working styles, and also power dynamics, from oppression, identities that we’ve been raised in, in an oppressive society. To put all that together, it’s really not surprising that conflict emerges. The challenge is that people often fear conflict, try to avoid conflict, try to press it down, don’t necessarily have the skills to work through it in ways that are productive.
FG: I suppose in the last year, it’s probably fair to say that a lot of the pressures that can lead to that kind of conflict have increased, certainly on an individual level, but also organisationally. When we were talking about sustainability, you mentioned how the avenues that you’d had over the time period that you’ve worked in this space have really enabled you to be sustainable. What happens when a lot of those avenues, both for doing the work and for resolving internal conflicts, are so narrowed as they have been in the context of the last year and the pandemic, and all of the flow on effects that have come from that?
HH: Well, I think there’s two things to say with the pandemic is that it’s been very shocking and challenging for people. People’s capacities have diminished by that, people are reeling from something that’s a big hard shock. And many people have grief or have major changes happening in their lives that are connected to the pandemic, so that has to be acknowledged as a factor. And then, yes it has had an impact on how different groups can operate. To be honest though I have seen a lot of creativity in response to that, people have actually figured out different ways to keep working together. The various swift pivots that many groups made to being online when they were used to meeting in person and taking action in person. Showing how to do creative tactics that wouldn’t put people at risk of COVID transmission. I actually think it’s been a really great example of resilience.
FG: Are there aspects of that you can see continuing to bolster movements in the post pandemic period when when COVID is no longer, hopefully, such a pressing issue? Are there lessons that we’ve learned in this period that we should be trying to continue and nurture, even when we’re not faced with that same level of threat?
HH: I think the tricky thing is that crisis will keep coming and it will take different forms. Many people have already been experiencing the kind of confluence of both pandemic and climate impacts, or pandemic and economic crisis, or pandemic and impact on migration, there’s these different things that even if we take the pandemic out of the equation it’s going to continue to be times of crisis. So I would really hope that people find some inner strength and some clarity around that can sustain action during these times and that can translate into future situations as well. I think it’s made people very thoughtful about relationships, and what makes relationships go well, what they might need from other people. Who will be good people to collaborate with in times of crisis? Setting up systems within organisations to navigate difficulties and make decisions under big pressure. Those are some of the things that we can take away from this time.
Another big challenge is, rather than this human need for stability, to somehow become more adept at living with change. We need to be able to navigate difficulty without an expectation of comfort. There are many people in society who have to do that all the time, it’s probably me speaking from a position of privilege to be like ‘oh, I have all this stability in my life’. This quote from Grace Lee Boggs resonates:
“The time has come for us to reimagine everything. We have to do what I call visionary organizing. We have to see every crisis as both a danger and an opportunity. It’s a danger, because it does so much damage to our lives, to our institutions to all that we have expected. But it’s also an opportunity for us to become creative, become the new kind of people that are needed at such a huge period of transition.” (Grace Lee Boggs, 2012)
I think it speaks a lot to the times we’re in now. You’ll also see this perspective in the speculative fiction of Octavia Butler, for example. Her Parable of the Sower book set in the 2020s describes apocalypse, and has a lot to teach around adapting to change, and shaping situations during times of crisis.
FG: It’s interesting that you mentioned that, Holly – one of the other articles that we have for this edition is about fiction that deals with bushfire, and how creative writing can help us to process and to act in relation to climate change. How has art and creativity in this period and more generally been instructive in how you do your work as an activist and work with other activist communities?
HH: I suppose the first thing that comes to mind as an activist trainer is that when I’m doing strategy work with groups part of it is freeing people’s minds up to be creative and imaginative. To spend time getting clearer on a vision of how you want the world to actually be, and then think through ways to get from here to there. A lot of that is about setting the scene for people to take risks, to show themselves, and think differently. To take people out of their usual environment, foster connection between people, encourage playfulness, and show that it is okay to make mistakes. The dominant culture of the societies we find ourselves in defines a lot of right ways and wrong ways, and there is a lot of judgment and a lot of constriction on what people think is possible. A lot of activism is really about holding space for people to see that things can be different, and creativity is a really key part of that. Everyone’s got creativity they can access given the right conditions.
Adrienne Maree Brown’s Pleasure Activism says a lot of things that I would say myself – that deciding to live a good life, and prioritising my own happiness and wellbeing makes me a better activist and makes me more able to do the long term work. And that is about having pleasure, enjoying food, friendship, sex, art, music and dancing, all of those things. Having a very full happy life.
FG: And in the midst of the pandemic and continuing to do your work, what have you been doing and reading and watching and listening to that has or is bringing that pleasure and fire and energy to your life?
HH: I look to my bedside table, what am I reading? Octavia Butler has definitely been important to me; Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy; some Ursula Le Guin. I’ve enjoyed the Octavia’s Parables podcast with Adrienne Maree Brown and Toshi Reagon. Esther Perel’s podcasts and videos provide an excellent perspective. I just listen to a lot of music all the time, that’s really good for me. And I make time to play and have fun.
FG: I think that’s a nice note to end the interview. Make time to play and have fun. Thank you so much for your time, Holly.
For a range of resources related to campaigning, burn-out, and sustainable political action, see Holly’s work at https://commonslibrary.org/ and https://plantowin.net.au/. You might like to start with 10 Great Resources About Activist Wellbeing.