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The Activist Support Circle: Dealing with Activist Fatigue and Other Problems

by Rick Panna Monday, Aug. 28, 2006 at 5:17 AM

Organizers and participants discuss this monthly gathering in Santa Monica.

The Activist Support...
activist_support_circle_med.jpg, image/jpeg, 200x206

The Activist Support Circle meets on the last Wednesday of every month in Santa Monica to help activists address issues such as burnout. The gatherings are attended by as many as 40 people.

Some of the participants say it’s helpful to be around other activists in an environment where they wouldn’t ordinarily interact. “I think hearing about other people’s activism is always good because it makes you feel less alone,” said Alexandra Paul, who appears in the film Who Killed the Electric Car? while getting arrested during the recall of EV1s. “As an activist I never want to be the most passionate person in the room because then I’d feel really alone, which is why I have friends like Jerry Rubin, who are more passionate than I. They continue to inspire me and make me step up. Most of my friends are activists in one way or another. That’s why the Activist Support Circle is inherently helpful, just because you’re around other people who are like-minded, even if their issues might not be exactly the same.”

Long-time activist Jerry Rubin, who started the circle with his wife Marissa, also benefits from being around like-minded people. “I think it’s good to have an opportunity to share your frustrations and fears as well as your hopes and aspirations in a safe, supportive environment,” he said. “We try to have some ground rules. Occasionally [there are] slip-ups. and people drift off the direction. [T]hat seems like a natural [activist] tendency: you want to get out there and be organizing the next project or rally or protest in your own mind rather than getting to the feelings behind everything. So that’s the difference between this and a regular discussion group, or a regular networking meeting, or a regular educational organizing meeting.”

It should come as little surprise that a major issue faced by activists is burnout. Some participants shared how they deal with it in their daily lives. “I read some good books about what an alternative society would look like, and that inspires me at times, although we’re a long, long way [from achieving that],” said Joel Isaacs, whose history of activism includes being “an ultra-leftist at Berkeley.” Such books include Michael Albert’s Parecon(1): Life After Capitalism. “It really is based on equality, and worker’s councils, and self-management, which are the kind of themes I’ve been familiar with for a long time,” explained Isaacs

Actress/activist Alexandra Paul described how she avoids burnout. “First, I make sure that I know what I’m best at in terms of activism , and I say no to things that I’m not very good at like Hollywood red carpet fundraisers, raising money, going to parties, and things like that. I’m more of a hands-on activist: phone calls; standing on the street; but if you ask me to do something, I’ll do it. “

Another problem faced by activists, of course, is inter-personal conflicts. “[W]e don’t have a lot of experience in this country in working communally or collectively or harmoniously,” noted Isaacs. “I came from Denmark, a much more democratic, socialist country. [My colleagues in body psychotherapy] had a group that worked together for 20 years and shared income for a long time. With that background they helped my group in this country to be much more collectively-oriented. We had learned ways of running meetings that were much more democratic. When we finally did that, we often enjoyed our meetings as much as our trainings and our workshops, where we did things emotionally.

“At times I use a flip chart to help people focus and write down what they say so that they feel heard, and then make decisions when people are focused on that. We don’t always do it, but sometimes we do it as a way of dividing up what we want to discuss that evening.

“Generally, we have been able to run the group very harmoniously and not have any difficulties. Although, once in a while someone talks a little too much.” (Currently, Isaacs is “trying to use some of the skills I’ve been talking about to help other activist groups, but so far I have not gotten any takers. I’ve had ads in Change-Links and the LA Free Press, but nothing much has come my way yet.”)

Rubin’s wife Marissa is heavily involved in the circles. ”My wife does this part where you stretch and breath,” he explained. “That’s an integral part of the circle when we do a break.. She has people get in a circle and stretch, and breath, and hang limp, and then everyone grabs the shoulders of the person to their right and starts rubbing it. Then she says, ‘And now let’s take a more progressive turn to the left,’ and we turn to the left. That always gets a little chuckle. While we’re on the left [we draw] a peace symbol with your finger on the person’s back in front of you.”

Rubin had the idea for the Support Circle 20 years ago, but it didn’t actually happen until the aftermath of Bush. Jr.’s re(s)election. “People thought it was a good idea, but the movement was so entrenched in working on the nuclear freeze ballot initiative and [concentrating] on that issue that it would have been hard to get everyone’s involvement in it,” he recalled. “So it was put on the backburner. And then after the stolen election in 2000, we saw a lot more frustration, and then finally in 2004 I said, ‘Let’s just do it!’

“. . . I do want to say how grateful we are to the Friends Meeting Hall for doing this. We rent a place from them. It’s very nice: there’s free parking on-site,. It’s accessible to people with disabilities, and it’s a very conducive place to have a support circle. ”

Oftentimes, there are guest speakers: Alexandra Paul came last month, and others have included Michael Benner of KPFK’s Innervision; James Lafferty of the National Lawyer’s Guild; Frank Dorrel, publisher of Addicted to War (see: www.addictedtowar.com); Lila Garrett of KPFK’s Connect the Dots; Maria Armoudian, journalist and KPFK board member; Mark Scully of Veterans for Peace; Stephen Longfellow Fiske, a musician, peace activist, and descendant of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; filmmaker and environmentalist Sheila Laffey, (she directed Last Stand: The Struggle for the Ballona Wetlands); and environmental, social, and civil rights activist Kelly Hayes-Raitt.

Upcoming speakers will include environmentalist John Quigley; Jodie Evans, one of the founders of Code Pink; activist and politician Tom Hayden; Ron Kovic, Vietnam Veteran and author of Born on the Fourth of July; and Don White, a seasoned activist and KPFK board member. Rubin would also like to invite Office of the Americas’ Blasé Bonpane, Don Bustany (host of KPFK’s Middle East in Focus), Julia Russell of Eco-Home Network (see: http://www.ecohome.org/) , and John Johnson of Change-Links. However, “often we don’t have any speakers,” he said. “The speaker is more of a brief, activist-related motivational talk.”

Rubin said he could probably come up with enough guests to last through 2010—and the Activist Circle will probably still be needed then, even if times have improved. “That’s a time when we would need to double our efforts,” he stated. He pointed to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent political defeat of Bush, Sr. as times when activists became complacent. “I don’t think we’ve learned that adequately,” he said.


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(1)Parecon – participatory economics.

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