Activism and fighting for things you care about can be damaging- you put too much time and effort into projects, burn out, exhaust yourself and in the end the whole campaign suffers. Obviously this sucks, not least because the distribution of workloads in activist groups is often gendered and racialized, leaving women, non-binary people, and people of colour more prone to burnout. Those who do the care that is fundamental to campaign success often do not get cared for and do not find the kind of comfort they’re supposed to in organising. So there’s an important politics and distribution of power within care that we need to be aware of and challenged.

Mental health and care also need to be taken into account on a more structural level. In a marketised/ privatised university, most of us go through our degrees with increasing levels of mental health issues, linked to exponential debt, financial problems and ridiculously underfunded mental health services. To top all this, since every student is encouraged to be selfish, apolitical and career-driven the feeling of alienation and atomisation is even more palpable. It’s getting harder for us to organise ourselves as depressed, busy, anxious and ‘neoliberalised’ students, with less people to shoulder more responsibility for action. But this situation makes care absolutely fundamental for any campaign to be sustainable.

Campaigns like Rent Strike fundamentally depend on students talking to each other and caring for their communities. Just to take two examples: the idea to join a rent strike is much more appealing when your mates are doing it, and eviction resistance (if it needs to happen) requires strong informal bonds between strikers to work. When the eviction threats start coming through, what 18 year-old freshers with mental health problems and parents on their back need most is support and agency.

This is why we need to make a conscious effort to build communities of care, or ‘solidarity networks’, on our campuses. This involves not just taking care of ourselves as individuals and sharing workloads or responsibilities within our groups, it also means actively trying to rebuild the student communities that have been destroyed through the marketisation of universities. Communities of care will improve student life, but also make your campaigns stronger (and more sustainable) as they’ll hopefully be articulated around the Rent Strike project. Care is not just about surviving day-to-day but enabling others and ourselves to grow, sometimes by facing difficulty, but always by supporting each other with radical love.

How do we achieve this? We don’t have all the answers, but we do know that in order to be effective and resilient, care needs to be embedded in the very structures of your group. This makes it much less ad hoc, and also allows for solidarity to be delivered with less effort than when only a few individuals in your group have to do all the care work.

Some pro tips on how to avoid individual and group burn-out:

  • Fundamentally, what we want to aim for in our local groups is a genuinely democratic structure. Participation avoids burnout in an obvious way: more people participate, hence more people share the workload. Democracy works in the same way: more people are able to participate, and want to participate, because this struggle becomes something towards which they have a sense of control and agency.

  • Democracy can be facilitated with formal roles (even if they’re in rotation) so that delegation and responsibilities are clearly agreed and maintained, and strong accountability structures to rectify mistakes when we mess up. For further guidance, check out the Salvage Toolkit below.

  • Having space to talk is in itself political: groups of people who are given little space in society are likely to not be given space in your group either. Make sure this doesn’t happen. For instance, facilitators can ensure that no one is spoken over and to call out discrimination and violence within the group. 

  • On that note, it’s important to say that burn-out happens not only because of exhaustion but also because of exposure to gendered, racialised, ableist, queerphobic violence. It is essential that your group put the voices of the most marginalised forward to avoid this. And specifically talking about care and its delivery: make sure the burden of care (and accountability) is equally shared and not just taken on by women, non-binary people, people of colour.

  • Good communication in groups is key. The best is to leave both time and space for people to air their concerns of any kind, during meetings and socials, for instance, by blocking a few minutes at the end of a meeting just for that. Also make sure to have more or less mandatory debriefs after big actions, to grow and learn from them. A granular organisation on campus (i.e. loads of small, hall-based groups) also means more time and space for people to speak at each meeting.

  • Don’t let the ‘productivity culture’ eat you and others up: it’s important to take breaks, to not come to meetings when you’re just too tired or busy, etc. You should actively try to create a culture that respects people’s mental and physical limits when it comes to activism. This requires understanding and empathy as well as fixed times for breaks - like right after big actions. People have different needs and capacities, so if it’s ok with them check what they are. 

  • Share responsibilities! This means making sure people’s workloads are balanced evenly, but also that the same people aren’t doing the same things all the time. Not relying on a few people is important both for them (because we all need breaks) and the group. This might mean training people so that they’re ready to take on new tasks. It might mean spending time building halls-based groups to make connections with students easier. It’s not always a question of individual responsibility, although you should also pay attention to that.

  • Try and do ‘2 in 1’ activities: meetings with food (avoid spending time cooking or the sempiternal activist ‘hummus and chips’ meal) ; ‘banner painting social’ for the next action, etc.. 

  • Socials!! They’re really important to build informal bonds between students, and bonus: they’re great at making the campaign look ‘cool’. Don’t spend all your energy organising them though, but still try and have a few at important moments: when a strike begins, when you receive eviction threats, etc. You can also try more ‘low-intensity’ socials, like ‘Rent Strike cafes’ in halls, or small, hall-based parties. If you’re low capacity, you can even do ‘ice breaker’ sessions during meetings! Remember to offer alcohol-free options for socials.

  • In terms of meetings, make sure they’re accessible: in ‘neutral’ spaces, physically accessible for everyone, with small recaps and jargon-busting for new comers to feel more welcome in the group. Take breaks and try to keep time during meetings so as not to run over.

  • As a group, plan ahead and strategise so that you can distribute the workload evenly throughout terms: you don’t want to be canvassing 5h/day in December because nobody did it the first two months.

  • Be in contact with other Cut the Rent groups (and the national working group!) - there are loads of tips and experience flying around in these students’ frazzled minds!

  • Get resources! We can’t tell you everything, but ~~ the internet can ~~ Check out stuff on radical self-care, on collective care, on community support, etc. The more you’re prepared, the stronger your activists and networks will be.

Bottom-line is: individual welfare depends on collective engagement and organising. The message is not just that certain organising structures facilitate collective and individual resilience; we all depend on each other, hence, we should all take care of each other. Caring takes energy and time, but when it’s done well campaigns are way better off for it.

Further reading...