Balancing Human Rights Activism and Self Care

Conversation Details

Dates of conversation: 
Wednesday, October 5, 2022
Conversation type: 

Human rights defenders do the crucial work of alleviating injustices and protecting the most vulnerable. Yet this challenging work often has a detrimental effect on activist mental health. HRDs are chronically overworked and under-resourced. They are frequently exposed to distressing situations, both directly and indirectly. Because of this, HRDs experience high levels of fatigue, burnout, and secondary trauma.

This online conversation explores why individual AND collective self care are important for activists. It also recognizes systemic barriers to the right to rest and leisure and gives insight into the actions individuals and organizations can take to counter the mental health risks of activism.

This inaugural #HumanRightsChat was grounded in New Tactics’ philosophy that in order to affect positive change around us, we must first and foremost take care of ourselves. We were joined by leaders in the fields of resilience and wellbeing in human rights, as well as mental health and psychosocial support staff from the Center for Victims of Torture. These stakeholders participated to reflect on their work, share ideas and experiences, and connect with new allies in human rights based advocacy. The goal of the chat was to exchange relevant and useful resources regarding how activists can maintain their wellbeing in order to sustain themselves and their work for the long haul.

Why is self-care important for activists doing human rights work?

The conversation began with respondents exploring what self-care is and how it has shown up in their own lives. Together they illuminated an important part of the path to self care: it can be found anywhere and it looks different depending on a person's needs and the needs of their community. Participants made clear that self-care in the life of an activist cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach. Rather, it requires a deep understanding of the trauma and healing associated with the work.

It is evident that burnout is a common experience in human rights work. Fred Abrahams shared this study by Sarah Knuckey, Meg Satterthwaite and Adam Brown: Trauma, Depression, and Burnout in the Human Rights Field. In order to mitigate these risks, activists need practical and accessible forms of self care. As Douglas Mawadri stated, self care as a regenerative practice in activism enables HRDs to rejuvenate and continue their work with less risk of burnout. Self-care is essential for activists to sustain their bravery and dedication in their journey toward change. Ta’Mara Hill mentioned the old adage, activists “can't pour from an empty cup." To sustain movements for justice, activists and organizations must cultivate ongoing self-care practices and structures that prioritize rest, community connection, and happiness. As Simon Adams noted, self-care is essential because “human rights work is a marathon, not a sprint.”

A long time trainer from New Tactics, Nancy Pearson, shared that the foundation of New Tactics in Human Rights’ methodology is Sun Tzu's 3 sources of knowledge from The Art of War: Know Yourself, Know Your Opponent & Know the Terrain. Activists must develop self awareness in order to recognize the signs of fatigue and burnout in themselves, because we ourselves are our most valuable resource in advocacy. Taking care of oneself can be a revolutionary act, an act of resistance. Keeping activists in their work is a beneficial tactic in itself for sustaining movements. Prioritizing resources to facilitate self-care practices is critical to every step of the changemaking process.

There are many in the work who continue to contribute to the growing knowledge of this topic. Books and essays like Loretta Pyles“Healing Justice: Holistic Self-Care for Change Makers” and Naomi Klein's “Stop Trying to Save the World All By Yourself” continue to push the envelope on what it looks like to exist in human rights work without sacrificing longevity. Islam Al Aqueel recommended the book “Even The Finest of Warriors” by the Egyptian writer and activist, Yara Sallam, which elaborates on the ways in which our activism and personal wellness are inextricably linked.

What barriers exist to rest and relaxation in human rights advocacy work?

Advocates are in the field for a reason. They care about their chosen issue and are dedicated to making a difference, but what happens when that work overrides the necessary upkeep required to keep them there? One of the critical barriers to rest can be the work itself. 

As Ta’Mara Hill illuminates, this can be especially true for those who themselves and their communities are personally affected by their issue area. She writes:

One participant added to the conversation: “It can be hard to find rest & relaxation while people, families, & communities around them are being impacted. Finding a place to heal can feel selfish.” This idea of recognizing and removing the stigma around self-care is a theme which persisted throughout this talk. Cultivating mindfulness even when the norm is to focus exclusively on work is a powerful skill. 

The conversation pivoted to the barriers which the culture of activism brings to the table. Jessica Douglas, a member of CVT Georgia drew attention to how the global push for productivity both within and outside of the field can create a culture equating self-care with feeling as if a person is doing nothing.This challenge can make meaningful self-care feel impossible for activists. 

As activists continually refine their changemaking efforts, the time and money to facilitate mindfulness isn’t always plentiful. Traditional Western notions of “self-care” might indicate that it is a privilege for those who have the resources to participate. However, activists have long prioritized self-care as a radical and political form of empowerment.

Beyond individual self-care there are also structural and systemic challenges to human rights work. Without organizational recognition of the hazards of the work, it can be hard for activists to commit to self care. Douglas Mawadri spoke to this issue saying, “Human Rights organizations do not prioritize rest and relaxation within their operational policies, and so [the] focus in an organization benefits but not activists. Activists further lack direction on rest and relaxation as part of human rights advocacy work.” 

What exactly are some of those hazards of the work? One participant answered, “Vicarious traumas, micro & macro aggressions, retaliation, harassment, intimidation, & violence are many of the things we can experience while doing this work.” There must be recognition that anyone who works in the field of human rights will be impacted by these hazards - both personally and professionally. It is unrealistic for organizations to assume that their workers can separate these spheres of influence. It is crucial for activists to develop a self awareness of these roadblocks, set appropriate boundaries, and keep a mindset of grace for themselves, prioritizing time to rest and recuperate from the hazards of the work.

How can individuals counter fatigue, burnout, and secondary trauma in activism?

Recognizing the many barriers which can perpetuate a culture of no breaks, and a system of burnout, it's important that activists as a community are able to share the ways they combat this with meaningful, accessible, and individualized self-care. As we embark on the journey towards a better cared and even more resilient community of actors there are many resources that are available to facilitate this.

Our conversation led to many ways activists are doing this. Loretta Pyles spoke of spending time outside in nature, joining groups and clubs doing activities you love, and above all, being willing to try whatever it is that works best for you. Self-care is a universal need, but it isn't identical for each person. As Yusra Al-Kailani made clear, listening to your body, recognizing where you feel worn out or need a little more time, and finding the resource that allows you that relief is an important part of self care, and it yields different results for different people. Using tools like CAPACITAR's Emergency Response Tool Kit, which Nancy Pearson shared during the conversation, activists will find that there are many ways to address and respond to feelings of stress. Simon Adams shared that being able to get outside and skateboard was one of his favorite ways to disconnect. Additionally, he shared this example of “defiant self-care,” an act that can happen in the midst of conflict and destruction:

Beyond these activities, the conversation also covered the power that can be found in doing nothing. Completely disconnecting for the only purpose of resetting and taking time to breathe. When an activist finds themselves overwhelmed and burnt out, allowing themselves time to rewire and refresh is a critical tactic to keeping them able to do the work in the long term. Jessica Douglas added, “When things start getting to you more easily and you're feeling despondent, that's your body's way of telling you that you need a break. Listen to your body and rest!”

And lastly on this question, the respondents spoke to the importance of group work. Just as advocates connect to enact change, it is also necessary to connect in preserving yourself so you can continue towards those goals. According to Jessica Fjeld, talking to others, cultivating friendships both inside and outside of the field, and being someone others can lean on for help are all critical in promoting self care for activists. A large part of all of these methods is finding an organization that values and prioritizes your right to self-care, something that was also explored during our twitter conversation.

What can Human Rights organizations do to create a culture of self-care?

Beyond self-care itself, systems which recognize and promote its importance are also necessary. Organizational culture can be in direct conflict with an activist's self-care when this is not the case. Yusra Al-Kailani described this responsibility stating “Organizations need to provide supervision and listen to staff needs, ensure that staff are taking enough time off for personal and sickness, provide workshops and resources to promote the culture of self-care at the organization.” This also extends to those in leadership positions. Fred Abrahams said this “starts from the top. Leaders/managers must set an example, make clear that mental health and wellbeing are priorities. Guide by showing in their own actions and set a culture of responsible care.” The combination of organizational wide recognition of the importance of self-care and individual actions to facilitate it is critical to the introduction of mindfulness into organizational culture. 

Knowing the importance of this, it’s also necessary to explore how these steps can be taken. Loretta Pyles said “Changing organizational cultures is necessary but not sufficient. We must make significant STRUCTURAL changes in organizations. I have an entire chapter devoted to this in my Healing Justice book.” Simple suggestions described in her book and throughout the conversation are doing group check-ins, discussing joys and hiccups both in and out of the work. More in-depth suggestions like meaningfully engaging and confronting discriminatory social structures in the workplace were also explored. Loretta Pyles sums up the importance of organizational change nicely: “Organizational change may include consensus-oriented decision making, moving toward cooperative models, or unionization. As long as workers are relying on scraps of wellness that management may offer, it is not likely to be sustainable.” 

Share something you enjoy that has nothing to do with your work.

In the spirit of self-care and recognizing activists as whole people outside of their work, we ended the conversation by sharing some activities outside of the work that also  bring joy. Loretta Pyles shared one of her own practices. “I go outside barefoot and feel the earth under my feet, then lay down on a patch of ground and feel the back of my heart against the earth. There's a magnetism there that downregulates my system like a charm. It's the way the ancestors always lived.” Ruth Yeo-Peterson chimed in with her love of “spontaneous silly dancing! Theater! Exploring new spaces and places! Grounding barefoot outside!” and “ finding a good sit spot in nature and just soaking it all in!” Throughout the conversation one thing that remained clear and was put to name by Jessica Fjeld: “Play and self-care are an asset to advocacy, not a distraction!”

Click here to see the archive of the conversation.



Study by Sarah Knuckey, Meg Satterthwaite and Adam Brown: Trauma, Depression, and Burnout in the Human Rights Field

New Tactics in Human Rights’ Strategic Effectiveness Methodology

Sun Tzu’s Book: The Art of War

Loretta Pyles’ Book: Healing Justice: Holistic Self Care for Change Makers

Naomi Klein's Essay: Stop Trying to Save the World All By Yourself

Yara Sallam’s Book: Even The Finest of Warriors

CAPACITAR's Emergency Response Tool Kit

Resmaa Menakem's My Grandmother's Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Mending of Our Bodies and Hearts

Jane Barry and Jelena Dordevic Book: What’s the Point of Revolution if We Can’t Dance?

Amnesty International’s Staying Resilient While Trying to Save the World: A Well-Being Workbook for Youth Activists

Article by Douglas Mawadri: Balancing Human Rights Activism and Self-Care in the Digital Era

From Open Global Rights, a variety of articles on Resilience as Resistance: Mental health and well-being in human rights



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Conversation Leaders

Jessica Fjeld's picture
Jessica Fjeld
Amber Gray's picture
Amber Elizabeth Gray
Simon Adams's picture
Simon Adams
Islam Al Aqeel's picture
Islam Al Aqeel
Yusra Al-Kailani's picture
Yusra Al-Kailani
Ta'Mara Hill's picture
Ta'Mara Hill
Douglas Mawadri's picture
Douglas Mawadri
Fred Abrahams's picture
Fred Abrahams
Loretta Pyles's picture
Loretta Pyles