Well-Being in Feminist Activism

‘Let’s Dance (The End)’

This is the  last chapter of the 2007 book ‘What’s the Point of Revolution if We can’t dance’ by Jane Barry and Jelena Dordević.’ In this chapter of the book, we are invited to dance and see where it takes us, but this invitation wouldn’t have been possible without the reflection on the remarks made by a young girl who imagines that adults stay up late and dance naked. The authors admit that it was an idea that got them thinking about the different ways of being. Understandably, it’s difficult to imagine a revolution that ends triumphantly and somehow without heads rolling in the streets, it’s difficult to visualise a pacifist, non-violent revolution. Stripped down to the etymology and history of the word ‘revolution’ which is the act and process of (forcibly) changing political power, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to conclude that violence is woven into revolution. For this reason, it is not easy to imagine a non-violent revolution, and yet such a revolution is possible and has been written about extensively even if not as extensively compared to war and violence. One wouldn’t have to dig deep to confirm that there is more investment in violence and force than there is in non-violence: trillions of dollars in military budgets, investment and research by states globally. It is no surprise that we live in such violent communities globally. Injustice is violent, and to live in an unjust world is to have our well-being deliberately, perpetually obstructed. The work that feminists do is a large well-being project that is referred to using a different name. When feminists fight against violence against women, or fight for economic empowerment, or environmental conservation and care, or mere freedom to do whatever they please with their bodies, what they’re saying is we want to be well, we want the people around us to be well, and we want to live in a society that is deliberately invested in the well-being of everyone. The revolution feminists seek is a non-violent revolution with well-being at the core of what drives the movement. 

This article is a very brief reflection on Jane & Jelena’s book thirteen years later in a climate of widespread sense of burnout within feminist activism and organising. 

The book makes a reference to a quote by Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi who was referring to feminist activists,

  “Many of us are tired, burnt out, depressed and angry, and many of us have gone through intense periods of crisis characterised by a breakdown in relationships, problems with our families, betrayals of trust, bitterness and deep hurt. Increasingly, we are cynical and just “going through the motions.”

This statement is made within the subject of putting the soul back into our feminist movements. This means remembering that the movement is made up of both ideas and people and that both are equal and crucial components of the movement. The problem of forgetting that the feminist movement is made up of women is exacerbated by the increasingly institutionalized work of feminist activism. The process of the institutionalisation of feminism has over time changed the bottom-line of the work organisations as well as collectives, ensuring above all that the organisation is financially resourced, which means that the donors are happy. So in addition to the already difficult work and the aggressive response in society towards feminist work, the feminist activist also works in set-ups that do not do much to nurture them. 

At a typical conference where feminists happen to meet, it is never a surprise to see one run off with her laptop in tow because she needs to finalise or prepare some work related document, normally way past working hours that would be considered within any kind of ‘work-life balance’ standards. As trivial an example as this is, the reality is that women working in highly institutionalized feminist activist organisations are overworked, partly due to being inundated by bureaucracy and mostly because of insufficient resources within organisations that would allow sufficient capacity enabling everyone to be able to achieve their work objectives within working hours. Jane and Jelena write about activism being a bargain because the true cost of one’s work is hidden by the passion that drives activism. Since many women have organised and built initiatives for no pay before, it creates the false impression that a lot of work and progress has been accomplished with limited amounts of money.But it is often the case that ‘progress on a budget’ is only possible  because it is offset by the high non-financial costs incurred by activists, that could look like one person doing the work that would be done by three, working 60 hour weeks, or juggling a full time job and activist work.   Activists inadvertently set the bar low and signalled that activism is cheap. One of the activists interviewed in this book is quoted saying, 

If donors were reluctant to pay for something as basic as lunch when we are working in rural areas, do you think they pay for our security?” – Bernedette Muthien. 

This bargain activism mentality has led us to situations where feminist organisations rarely have any benefits for staff, low salaries (because for some reason being an activist requires that compensation for work done is valued differently, lower), no pensions and you can forget about safety and security. (Barry & Dordevic, 2007) The funding organisations often receive is certainly not meager, however the priority is to do as much project work with as little overheads as possible, because if the overhead is sufficiently covered, then less project work is done, somehow. The authors argue that this way of thinking is an extension of the undervaluing of women’s work because women are supposed to care for others anyway, and that because we are busy doing the work, we have little energy or time left to turn such deep rooted ideas on their head.  

Of course we can not ignore the reality that funding for human rights activism is dwindling along with aid generally. It might therefore seem particularly frivolous and self-indulgent then, at such a time, for an organisation to think and talk about ensuring the well-being of their constituents let alone their staff members. We have somehow managed to separate well-being from activism, to the extent that we are still discussing the soullessness of our organisations for a little over a decade. Being overworked and exhausted coffee chugging feminists is the norm, and, if we insist on  institutionalising feminist activism, we still don’t have unions for feminist activists (which is an oxymoron because why would feminists need protection from…a feminist organisation)?

It is encouraging to read about those organisations that have taken well-being within the organisation seriously enough that they institute specific measures to ensure staff well-being. The African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF), was reported in the book to have flexible hours for all staff, they have a three month paid sabbatical for every three years worked (sounds dreamy), makes statutory pension contributions for staff, has a well-being budget for staff, celebrate everyone’s birthday and promotes a safe fun space for women to “work hard, play hard, have fun, dance a lot, and enjoy the revolution!” While AWDF, which is a grant making organisation, has the kind of resources that many other feminist organisations don’t, it is certainly good news that this is a possibility. 

Jane and Jelena remind us that “[human rights activism] isn’t corporate”, and that one size will not fit all. Yet somehow as activists, for those that are organised into NGOs, we have found a way to order our organisations in often similar ways. We have done this partly because the donor said so (as a prerequisite of receiving funds), and partly because the one size was dictated to us by the laws that govern how registered organisations should be structured, and we were so busy doing the work that we did not stop to imagine for ourselves how feminist organizing could look even within these institutionalised frameworks. Jane and Jelena calls feminist activists to action, they ask that we start talking about well-being and commit resources to it, that we develop and explore various initiatives to support well-being, that we radically alter our relationships with donors and figure out how we fund ourselves. The Coalition of African Lesbians is answering this call many years after it was made, we are conducting research into the state of well-being in feminist activism in Africa even as we figure out our own well-being internally and the well-being of the women with whom we work. Well-being has to be at the top of our agenda, it is our non-violent approach to the revolution we’re seeking. 

Note: ‘What’s the Point of Revolution if We can’t dance’ by Jane Barry & Jelena Dordevic was published in 2007 by Urgent Action Fund. This book is contains a wealth of insights into understanding well-being in feminist activism at large. This article only briefly reflects on one subject within the book. 

Reference

Barry, J., & Dordevic, J. (2007). What’s the Point of Revolution if We Can’t Dance? Urgent Action fund.

 

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