As a prisoners’ rights advocate, I get tired. Some days, the projects I work on seem so large and unwieldy. They just seem too troublesome or cumbersome to get off the ground. And worst of all, it becomes harder and harder to convince others — those who will benefit from the movements I work on — that the movements are actually in their best interest. Suffice it to say, I get tired and worn down. At times I suffer from the type of burnout that even Red Bull and a pack of Marlboros won’t cure (since my prison’s commissary sells neither, imagine the state that I’m regularly in!).
When I feel like this it can be easy to take a day off. Heck, a few days off. But when I do, I feel bad about being lazy and unproductive. I take a look around after sleeping in and realize that the extra time in the rack was a failure, not only a failure to my morning but a failure to those around me who are in need. I realize that as a prisoners’ rights advocate — one who certainly agitates for reform — my life and my time are more than just mine. They are collective property. And as collective property, personal whims or feelings (like fatigue or boredom) shouldn’t even enter the equation when scheduling my day and week. Thus, I push myself to get back to the grindstone. But sometimes the grindstone grinds not the sword, but my very being.
I have heard from others in the prison reform movement that they get worn out too. A friend recently shut down a longstanding prisoner newsletter because she just couldn’t summon the energy to sort through another batch of prisoner letters, most of which wanted something from her. She was burnt out, she said. And now the newsletter is on hold after five years of successful outreach.
To combat this burnout, I try to vary my projects as much as I can. For example, when I’m working on a book project and just can’t stay focused, I’ll switch to a blog project. Or, when I’m neck-deep in a huge blogging project and just can’t take it anymore, I’ll pick up a content aggregation project. And when I can’t stand reading other’s articles on prison reform, quoting from them, and analyzing them, I’ll work on my own studies. After all, the best resource that I have to offer is me, and the knowledge which I possess. Thus, developing my knowledge and skills is an investment in the movement, an investment in those I serve.
What I’ve found is that the variety helps to keep me going. Asking for a helping hand also helps tremendously. Even collaboration can be a lifesaver. The point is simple: when you feel the effects of burnout approaching, vary your routine. When you want to lay it down, find a different angle or a different project that also fulfills the overall mission. And when you just don’t know where to go or what to do, ask someone you trust — someone in the prison advocacy community. Chances are, those of us out there in the trenches with you will have just the right spot for you to fill.
Remember, your value in the prison reform movement isn’t so much project-based, but movement-oriented. If you can’t make yourself write another blog post, write to an incarcerated advocate (they’ll certainly love to hear from you). If you can’t bring yourself to read another study or report, how about doing some outreach, informing people? And if you can’t bring yourself to hand out flyers or greet people at seminars or conferences, how about visiting someone in prison? It is a great way to stay grounded to what really matters. The point is that you aren’t a project. You are a person. And as a person, you need to take care of yourself. But as an advocate, you also have a mission to fulfill. Don’t allow one component of the mission to wear you down. Find new and exciting components of the movement to get involved with. We are not a stagnant group. We are dynamic and free-flowing. Let your part be known and appreciated and loved.
Fight the good fight and keep pushing forward. There is work to do, progress to be fulfilled, but it can only come to fruition with your needed and valued part.