Te kaupapa o tēnei tuhituhi: wellbeing in activist circles, and how everyone’s skills matter in the revolution.
I’ve been thinking about the accessibility and demands of activist spaces over the last few months, and it came to a head this morning, at the School Strike For Climate. The Strike has been massively in the news over the last few months, and is arguably the biggest youth activism project in Aotearoa. I’ve wanted to be a part of this movement, but for mental health reasons I don’t really do well in large shouty crowds, which the Strike is. I was beating myself up a bit this morning for not marching, and for just joining the rally briefly at Parliament. I felt bad; that I hadn’t contributed to the mahi, and that I wasn’t walking the activist talk, because I wasn’t in the middle of the mosh pit.
But I designed the graphic that promoted the petition the Strike was pushing that day. I did my part for the kaupapa not just by showing up and waving a sign, but by creating a visual that will attract masses of others to the mahi.
My skill is not in shouting, or marching, or in occupying a space, but in the written and digital arts. I’ve been doing graphics, and web design, and comms, and scriptwriting, and speechwriting, for youth organisations and leftist organising. I’ll continue to do so, because those are the things I can contribute to the revolution. I can’t be in the middle of big loud slogany spaces, my brain can’t take it, but I can do the things I’ve said I can. You can follow the same principle, whether your skills be in art, baking, agitating, direct voter contact – whatever you can do is valuable. Worry not if you can’t offer your skills – support and solidarity is always a valuable contribution.
I felt bad this morning because I wasn’t contributing what I thought were the right skills. I’d forgotten the fact that I was there, that I was contributing at all. I’d forgotten that I’d contributed my skills, the things I could do and was good at. I wasn’t able to contribute to the mahi in the exact same way everyone else was, by being right up close to the action, but I was still contributing.
Marx said that holdings should be distributed “from each according to [their] ability, to each according to [their] needs.” This is the case not just with welfare and goods, as he originally wrote, but with organising too. We need to take whatever skills people can give us, and use them in whatever place they need to be used. We need to do so without burning anyone out, by building a big enough volunteer base that the work can be distributed. We need to value the work people are doing.
This is especially important in long-term campaigns, and in smaller cities. Wellington has a relatively small number of hard-working volunteers and a lot of leftist causes that compete for their time. We take our people for granted in the expectation that they’ll give all they can in service of the cause. We forget that the five other projects they’re working on have that same expectation too. Even when we consider hauora and wellbeing, we make it more of an on-off thing; you contribute what we want you to contribute, until you can’t, then you have a break and come back. We as organisers need to have a more nuanced understanding of our volunteers’ wellbeing, and of our own. To act, we must first live.
Capitalism ignores our individual ability, setting us standards our minds and bodies so often can and will never meet, no matter how often we try. Anti-capitalism, socialism, and leftism, if they are to continue as social movements, must in response prioritise the wellbeing of their activists. As leftist organisers, we must do the same. To act we must first live. To be good activists, we must first keep ourselves healthy and well. To be good activists, we must do the work that we can without endangering our hauora. We must implement this kaupapa not just in our own lives, but in the organising structures we create. Those who suggest we sacrifice our wellbeing for the cause believe more in the politics than the people the politics is trying to help.