On the night of Monday, February 8th Black Lives Matter activist MarShawn McCarrel blew his brains out on the Ohio State House steps. He organized actions around Michael Brown’s killing in 2014 in Ohio, founded a youth mentorship program Pursuing Our Dreams for Ohio’s homeless and was honored for his commitment to activism by the NAACP and Radio One’s “Hometown Champions Award”. But I’m not writing an obituary for this great activist I’m writing to lamenting the trend for activist to burnout and suffer from mental health problems they are not addressing. I’m writing this to lament activist who waste so much time not loving themselves.
The suicide of MarShawn touches close to home, too close. Activism was my life for 4 years in college. I worked tirelessly as a student activist and readied myself for the world of “professional” activism when I graduated. I haven’t really gotten there, instead I burned out. I considered killing myself, suffered depression, and took over 3 years almost completely off from activism. It wasn’t until spring of 2015 that I reentered the world of activism and have been hesitant about my commitment to it in fear of burning out again. I want to do more than data entry for a union, but I’m not sure if I’m ready. I look around and am worried for myself as I see non-profits burn through and burn out activist by overworking them and underpaying them. That’s because activist don’t work a job for the pay or the hours, they work it because of there passion to better the world and non-profits exploit that.
Non-profits intentions aren’t necessarily malicious but the results are the same, burnout. Some organizations are especially bad like Clean Water Action and Grass Roots Campaigns, which both find well intentioned young people who want to change the world and with little training have them knocking doors fundraising, a truly exhausting job with long hours and with quotas for them to meet. This minimal direction and high expectations leads many youth to believe they aren’t cut out for activism. Some organizations act like the fact that people are driven to their work because of passion they should be exempt from paying their worker a minimum wage. Non-profit advocacy group, U.S. PIRG recently came out against a law that will have salaried employees paid overtime for the work they do over 40 hour a week, READ: workers will get paid for all the hours they work even if they are salaried. When arguing against it they even to the extent of arguing they should be exempt because they are “mission-driven” work.
The problem is activists by their very nature are often selfless people driven by the work and are willing to overextend themselves for the work (passion). They are committed to their cause (work) and tend to forget about themselves. Organizations only encourage such habits and encourage working long hours, meaning no one is concerned about activists’ mental health.
It truly hurts me to see activist being so selfless and having so much of themselves taken by their work. We are such devoted people but we aren’t devoted to what matters: sustainability.
I have had conversations and arguments with friends about sustainability in the paid-activist world, it has led us to be hesitant to getting involved. You can’t have a life and work for most organizations committed to change. It seems like you have two choices: make real change and being apart of something that matters or try to live a life that’s sustainable and healthy.
Of my friends that work in activism most have or do struggle with depression, and for some this wasn’t something they had before being a paid-activist. One coworker confided in me that she used to cut herself, another talked about her time at a Intensive Out-Patient facility, and another eluded that her isolation and overwork has caused her and countless fellow coworkers to become depressed. I know for a fact that a majority of my coworkers have suffered from depression (the rest I haven’t heard either-way from them)
These are the people who are working to change the world for the better! How? How can you expect people to change the world they are in when they can’t even be happy and healthy themselves? As an activist and an anarchist I believe that you have to live the revolution everyday. What sort of revolution is it when you don’t have time to enjoy yourself? to love yourself? to take care of your own mental health? That’s no revolution I want to be a part of, to paraphrase Emma Goldman, “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution”