Sustainable activism

This month I’m starting off a sabbatical research project (which is looking increasingly likely to stretch beyond the year) on sustainable activism: what makes it possible for people to keep going in social movements (despite all the pressures and difficulties associated with them), or to get involved in the first place? Obviously it’s a big question for movement activists personally, as well as for movement organisations; my idea is to talk particularly to people who are effective either in supporting other activists informally (eg as mentors, shoulders to cry on, etc) or in formal movement programmes of various kinds geared to building sustainable movement cultures, infrastructures, etc. I’ve just started doing a bit of fieldwork, and one of the most interesting things is seeing my own categories and ideas being stretched further by what people say to me. What I’m trying to do is to give the people I’m talking to a chance to unask the question, or re-ask it in ways that work better for their experience. Often the normal procedures of research funding (or earlier down the line postgraduate research) make it hard to move too far away from the framework identified in the proposal, so this is quite a liberating experience. 

I’m also thinking of starting to talk to possible (activist) publishers at an early point. My background thought is that this could become something of a self-help book for activists, or for organisers (there are of course quite a few such things out there, though as far as I know none with an explicit focus on sustainability in movements). Anyway, the only people likely to publish such a thing are activist presses, so talking to them at an early point, and seeing what they think people might be interested in reading, is another way of letting the world in at an early point. I hope!

 This is an interesting piece of research for me, in that keeping going has always been the hardest thing for me for a range of reasons. When I was trying to identify what I could do on a sabbatical (which I badly needed to avoid my own burnout, after 16 years of teaching and over 25 of activism – I’m taking a break from any kind of organising during it!) I wanted to find a subject which was close to my heart and would actually help with recovery. One of the things I’ve been pleasantly surprised by is finding that I didn’t simply want to reconfirm my own feelings and experience, but that I felt very strongly that it was important to get beyond that and go as far outside the field I was familiar with as possible. Hopefully setting my own experience of the issue in context will make for a stronger piece of research as well. The difficulty with big questions like this, as any supervisor kno, is narrowing them down to something that can usefully be researched. In the normal course of affairs, the narrowing down is done early in the process, primarily in rituals of subordination to “the discipline” (eg through funding applications), but in any case as a process of inserting your ideas into an existing way of thinking within a single professional caste. I think (though I haven’t arrived at this very consciously) what I am trying to do is to open up the question and then reshape it primarily in the course of discussions with practitioners (and some academic researchers).  I’ll have to wait and see if this way of going about things makes any difference to the end result: it isn’t a very classic way of doing participatory action research (PAR), which is what I mostly do, in that there is no very clear organisation or group of peers to report back to. I’m comfortable that this can still be action research, in that it is all about gathering practical knowledge, examples of best practice, and so on – and sharing those with other practitioners in other movements and contexts. The participatory element is about as loose as it can be, given the scale of the research; if there is any, it relies on trusting myself to actually listen to people, take what they have to say (including about the research as a whole) on board and feed back what I hear and how the research is going. We’ll see!