Several conversations lately have me worried about burnout.
Not the individual “I’ve had it with social work and think I’ll open a bakery instead” kind of burnout (I have this thought occasionally, but I really, really don’t like waking up early. And I don’t think my customers would necessarily appreciate running political commentary. So I stay.), but the whole movement “maybe this whole social justice thing is too hard and times are tough so maybe we just can’t do this” kind of burnout.
And, truthfully, this kind scares me a lot more.
In a comment to a blog post awhile back, a colleague talked about how hard it has been to stay engaged in the political debate, since many progressives felt like it was “our” moment in 2008, and there’s a sense of whiplash in the intervening 3 years.
In some of my consulting work with nonprofit advocates, I had a very experienced lobbyist with a well-respected organization tell me that her greatest concern, looking forward, is how many of those alongside whom she has advocated are already giving up, saying that the more conservative legislature and Governor we have in Kansas today is simply more than they can stand.
And, perhaps most chilling are the conversations I’ve had with a few elected officials in our state recently, none of whom have answered my, “so, can we count on you to run again in 2012?” question with anything close to an adamant affirmation.
And I don’t blame them. Any of them.
It’s tough to spend every day advocating on what seem like lost causes, and so many of our dearest struggles seem that way these days: budgets that protect the most vulnerable, progressive civil rights legislation, adequate supports for families, equal rights for women, strong environmental standards, a solid regulatory framework for health care reform…fill in your own “lost cause”.
I wish we were winning more, too.
But the reason that I’m so concerned about these signs of movement burnout is that we will surely lose, and likely lose more ground than we even fear (and, perhaps, more than we’ve even won!), if we step away. If we wait for a better day, or someone else to take up the charge, it will likely never come.
But, lest this post turn into some inspirational poster with an odd animal photograph (is my kid’s classroom the only one to feature those?), here’s a quote from one of my all-time favorite social work advocates. Ever.
“We are all being told that we have to be pragmatic and recognize that this is not a “good” year for social issues, especially if they cost money. That implies that there may yet be a good year for social issues, if only we have patience. But no Congress has ever come to Washington vowing to make things right for the poor, the vulnerable, for workers, or for the environment. In that sense, this year is different only in degree.”
The advocate? Nancy Amidei, the woman behind the “ketchup is not a vegetable” campaign.
It’s always an uphill climb, no matter who sits in the White House or even how many votes we control in Congress. Trying to vanquish injustice is like that.
And, while I don’t have the answers to how we guard against this burnout and how we collectively care for each other so that we can continue on, I’d argue that the stakes have never been higher than in the next 13 months, at least.
Our causes are no less noble for being long shots. Our clients’ and communities’ needs are no less urgent. And our roles are no less critical. And, together, we can not just hang on, but even carve out some victories.
And maybe even turn some tides.