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As we come back from a (hopefully nourishing) end-of-year season, some activists are facing a binary choice to keep going or check out permanently. If you’re trying to decide between “stay engaged or quit” yourself, read on.

We want change now, so when results are slow, it’s tempting to give up in frustration. But are there only two options—stay or quit? No, like the infamous porridge in the three bears story, there are three.

Activism option 1: Too hot

A new Congress is installed, and there’s so much that needs changing, stat. The climate crisis. Political polarization. Crude oil in drinking water. Gun violence. Extremists taking over our democracy. All of these are dire and urgent, right?

While it’s good to be motivated, running too hot leads to burnout. Playing whac-a-mole with every issue that comes up leads to burnout. It’s humanly impossible to stay on top of it all and do it all this minute.

Activism option 2: Too cold

Sometimes threats are so present and uncomfortable, we disengage to escape the toxicity and tension. On the cool side, we lose faith in a system that, at its best, could be by the people, for the people. We can forget that We the People have the power and give up just before reaching the tipping point. Unfortunately, silence implies consent. To disappear from all civic engagement would condone extremist ideologies and the suffering of our neighbors.

The dilemma

Since neither of these options yield the results we want, a third way is necessary. Asking these questions can guide you toward it.

Q1: Which issues are “yours” and which are not?

Since you can’t do it all, are there issues you could drop for your own well-being? Then explore which issue(s) you care about enough to sustain efforts long term. What calls to you? (Check out the AoCC Sustainable Civic Engagement Worksheet to explore this idea further.)

Q2: What habits discourage your engagement in activism?

Some of our habits work against our best intentions. I’m personally guilty of doom-scrolling, over-consuming negative media, and arguing with ignorant remarks in comment sections. (I know, it’s not my finest attribute.) When I do these things, I start to feel overwhelmed and hopeless, fantasizing about escaping to the deep woods forever.

The good news: All of these activities are just habits. Habits can be changed. With a little discipline, for example, I am limiting social media time and staying out of the comment sections. When I do, my hope and energy miraculously return.

Are any of these habits familiar to you? Doom-scrolling, media overconsumption, arguing with un-swayable people, talking with people who “awfulize”, expecting leaders to be perfect, expecting the worst, gloating about enemies’ misfortunes, catastrophe pile-ons, playing the blame game. All of these habits can tank your motivation and lead to giving up, but you can swap them out for more sustaining options.

Q3: What habits support your engagement in activism and give you energy?

This is where you can take your power back. Supportive practices could include connecting with community, joining an effort, choosing only a few issues (instead of all of them), taking one action, taking breaks, unplugging, listening to people of color and other marginalized people’s experiences, remembering you can’t do it all, celebrating small wins. For me, collaborations with like-hearted people and organizations brings new strength, warmth, and fun to my work.

Activism option 3: Juuust right

This third way sustains your participation while also solving our social and planetary challenges. It’s a more balanced middle way that includes effort, yes, but also rest and celebration. Instead of reacting to the latest events, you can turn your activism into a lifelong practice grounded in your values and desire for contribution.

In difficult moments, remember that thousands of people–right now–are leading the way toward the brighter future we want. We don’t need to act alone. What those groups need is our allyship. They need followers like me and you to have their back and act on their suggestions. So, reflect on who’s doing work you admire and consider joining them.

Doesn’t solidarity seem more sustainable than bad news and overwhelm? If you don’t know where to find these groups, you’re in luck; the Americans of Conscience Checklist points you toward innovative and effective organizations in every action.

You are cut out for this work

You’re here at this time in history to contribute something meaningful for future generations to enjoy. We’re on the precipice of so much positive change in our country and world. Offering your gifts and experiences can make a real difference. What we need to succeed this year is you.

So, as we merge back onto the activism highway in 2023, think about what you can reasonably and sustainably contribute. AoCC will keep being here to offer your new ways to engage.

Onward together, and happy new year!
— Jen Hofmann

What actions and habits help you sustainably engage? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments!

7 Comments

  1. Thank you for this message! I tend to get overwhelmed and discouraged. To counter that, I focus on small things that I can do in my community and move forward one by one. I welcome your checklists and encouragement and remind myself that no one can do everything, but everyone can do something!

  2. thank you so much for this. I am 80 with physical issues making it hard to do all I want to do but your options 1,2 and 3 give me hope of still being a part of the movements.
    I have trimmed down on the many thing you talked about to “save” my sanity. I have kept what helps me in a positive way like my 15 acre farm with my livestock. the chores and livestock are my therapy both mentally and physically.
    I have quit interacting with negative people who suck my energy including some family. My extra activities must pass my boundaries of what is uplifting for my spirit. I opted out of an art group that was draining me with the group dynamics. I added new friends who are a boost to my spirit energy.
    The big BUT is that I was struggling with how to be a part of helping the “movements” I feel so strongly about and your Option 3 is the answer. I cannot donate money, so that is out. BUT I can find ways to be involved . I haven’t done the checklist of Option 3 yet but you have given me a way out of this rut of not doing anything to add a “little bit” to the issues that call to me.

  3. I live in an area of Northern VA that has gone from rural to suburban over the past 30 years. Recently, I’ve become involved with a local organization that supports wildlife and human communities thriving together. I volunteer with habitat restoration projects, monitor bluebird nesting boxes, and am gradually reducing our lawn and adding native pollinator plants to our garden. I find it very rewarding to connect with nature and like-minded folks in small ways that have noticeable results.

    • I live in Santa Monica, CA which I love due to its liberalism! I sometimes feel like I’m “preaching to the choir “ calling our governor & representatives. Therefore I address other issues that are important! I really do appreciate the “good news” in your AOC. It lifts my spirit! Thank you!

  4. Thanks so much for this. So very helpful. It puts everything in perspective. I, too, have reduced the amount of incoming negative information, as well as limiting the causes in which I am involved or to which I contribute. I agree completely with Jenna that no one can do everything, but everyone can do something. I so appreciate the checklist to help me identify my “something”.

  5. I’m ramping up by finding one – however small – thing to do each day.
    Examples: Sign up for things like this checklist, sign up for webinars, and check the box to get the downloadable presentations to share (internet is variable here) make postcards (I can make them for about 3 cents, customized, and so can you!) share accomplishments or bits of news with my local peeps (we live in what is considered a Red area, but that’s an overstatement!), email the CongressCritters, donate (even a cup of coffee worth!) online and for fun, follow the litigation disaster tours connected to the GOP. Some of the legal efforts are hearteningly, heartstoppingly ill done and it’s comforting!

  6. Thank you for all you provide for those of us who feel the need to be good citizens during these trying times. I do have to pace myself and I especially appreciate the roundup of good news. I am 86 but I will continue to be involved in issues I most care about. Having connection with this organization has been encouraging.

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