'I'm worried I'll burn out if others don't step up'

If you’re the only one pulling your weight in an activist group, is it time to step away? Our Agony Uncle gives some advice.

Illustration: someone with short hair holds their head in their hand as they look at a to do list
Illustration by Emma Peer

Q: Two years ago I started a community campaign to save a local amenity from closure. Initially we managed to distribute the work between a number of activists, but now – with the service under threat again after a brief reprieve – it seems like only me and one other person are doing all the work. It’s exhausting. If I drop out then I’m letting my community down but if I carry on, I feel like I’ll burn out and never be able to engage in activism again. What should I do?

A: The trouble with socialism, Oscar Wilde once said, is that it takes up too many evenings. It’s a good quip, encapsulating an utterly serious and accurate point. If you can submit yourself to the way things are, feel content with the status quo, then you’ll have plenty of time in life for sitting idly, staring at your screen. (This is how the Agony Uncle wastes his evenings.) But if you want to change things, play some small role in reversing the depressing direction of our social and political affairs, that will require meetings, organizing, managing – in short, work.

Whether it’s combatting climate breakdown or the austerity-ridden common sense of your local authority, a mass of people acting together can be the best agent of change. But activist burnout is real, and leftwing political currents can overwhelm the lives of those who jump in. As you know, movements require forms of leadership and organization, which can end up leading to lots of unpaid labour for a few, dedicated people – an outcome which often has a gendered character. (Doris Lessing’s 1985 novel The Good Terrorist acidly captures the way the work done by women is under-recognized in male-dominated activist spaces.) Coupled with a culture of self-sacrifice, you’re left with the possibility of being chewed up and spat out. And it sounds like the way things are going you may be heading for the worst of both worlds: losing the local amenity that you want to save and yourself in the process.

I don’t want to be too prescriptive. But it does seem to me like you need to pause and take stock. Also, take a moment to pat yourself on the back. Seriously. It’s deeply impressive to start a community campaign like this, especially if you’ve managed to get the authorities to pause. This might be the time to reflect on what went well in the first phase so you have a clearer understanding of what needs to be recovered from it – what was underlying that sense of momentum and motivating a bigger group?

Then it may be time to call one big meeting – more work, I know – involving as many people as you can get along who were involved in the first place. If they can bring along new faces too, then great: refreshing a group can bring in new ideas and energy. Remind the group of what you’ve all collectively achieved, but let them know the toll that the disproportionate work is taking on you. Don’t put on a brave face: be honest. They’re probably totally ignorant about what you’re going through and might be moved to start helping again. Tell them that there’s a strong chance that you’ll all lose the gains that you’ve made so far unless a new strategy is devised that involves a fairer distribution of labour.

But to stop this becoming another exhausting vortex of work itself, set a precise, realistic and manageable time limit for how long you and your comrade can dedicate to saving the campaign. If it’s breached, if no-one has anything to offer (which is, itself, totally understandable), then call it quits. There’s no shame in this at all. Remember, the connections fostered by your campaign between activists and the community may one day become useful again. The real failure would be to have done nothing at all.

Do you have a dilemma to put to our Agony Uncle? Get in touch on [email protected]