Why Movements need to Revive Love.
“It’s not burnout. It’s morale.”
Over the course of this Summer, I have heard this in different forms by many activists who I respect. They have told me this when I ask them how they are holding up. Don’t get me wrong — burnout is a real thing. There are some good and some (in my opinion) mediocre articles about it floating around the internet. But, morale is a different issue than burnout. Morale issues among leaders are common and very serious. But, solutions for them are often not prioritized within groups and movements. When morale is low, hope is low. When hope is low, social justice work suffers because very little feels possible. I currently see a whole variety of factors that can contribute to low morale: social movements like Black Lives Matter (and other movements lead by people of Color) are under attack in many venues of mainstream media, and by federal agencies and institutions. Local groups lack resources, and they are not ‘brand new’ so allies who see them as ‘too controversial’ are drifting (or running) away. The list goes on and on.
However, many leaders are prepared to be under attack from opponents. What many describe as hurting their morale more is the in-fighting, factionalism and competition between groups and leaders. I cannot imagine being in my first two years as an organizer and having every mistake I make made visible on social media, or being publicly dragged for every controversial thing I do (I say THANK YOU every day that social media did not exist when I was a novice organizer). To be fair: some people inauthentically represent themselves as leaders of movements that they do not represent. Online forums are helpful for pushing back on these people. At the same time, social movements have always expected their leaders to be perfect, charismatic, and hold an endless oceanic reserve of resiliency and optimism. On top of that, deeply marginalized and oppressed leaders are constantly expected to ‘out perform’ their white, straight, cis, middle class male counterparts.
We are communal creatures: we need some nods mixed in with the critique. Or as I said to someone who wrote me an appreciative note the other day: “Thanks for sending this because these days haters always write, but lovers rarely do.”
So what do I mean when I say that movements need to revive love? What does that have to do with morale? In my own life, loving has not been a set of syrupy experiences. Loving has been the hardest work of my life because it has asked me to resist the belief that intimacy and proximity are an excuse for my worst behavior. Love has pushed me to not blame the people closest to me for my personal suffering or my suffering under structural oppression. Love has asked me to stay in it with someone or something: to do things that are scary or boring. It has asked me to intervene or interrupt broken patterns in personal and movement relationships. It has made me come back after making humiliating mistakes. Love has made me more faithful to what I believe in word and deed. bell hooks talks about love as the idea of being committed to the spiritual growth of the other. Love is the creature larger than myself nudging me forward on the path when I am digging my heels in on the ground of my own ego and cynicism.
Sometimes when I talk to groups about Movement Building and Love I ask: “Who here has ever really loved someone? Changed a million diapers or spent long nights by a hospital bed in the name of that love? Who here is a better person because of loving another that way? What if we loved our movements that way?” Sometimes when I say this, older and grouchier activists (who I count myself among many days) say: “These young activists don’t know about that kind of love! They haven’t stuck it out on anything before! All they care about is social media hits!” My response to them is whether or not younger people know about that love is not the question, the question is how does a person learn about that kind of love in movement? I think I learned about it because a whole set of people loved me that way — in my personal life and in movement. They were patient with me often because someone was patient with them. When I organized in spaces where people had no love for the movement itself, each other, and the communities they were working in, my low morale turned into full-blown failure to thrive. I assert that inside this definition of love, love and morale are connected.
Since I have been working for Standing on the Side of Love (a campaign of the Unitarian Universalist Association) one of the questions I have often been asked is: “What is the role of progressive faith communities in social movements in this time?” This is a big question with many answers. But one answer that has been in my heart the last few months is that faith communities are called to love the movements themselves, fortify them, and steadily show up for them. Many faith communities claim that we are groups of people who are wrestling with ourselves to bring more love and less ego to our lives and our communities. Within the Unitarian Universalist communities we work many say we are about ‘deeds not creeds’. If that is true then shouldn’t most of our social justice work be to just show up for those leading social justice movements with what is asked and needed? Not a lot of shine or glory in that job, but we said we are not in it for that anyway.
This past Spring, I spent some time in Minneapolis helping out a great Black Lives Matter organizer named Lena K. Gardner who is also a Unitarian Universalist. The Rev. Osagyefo Sekou and Jay-Marie Hill were there for the same reason: they wanted to see her and her budding work succeed. They wanted to see work for Black lives in Minneapolis succeed. One night Sekou and I were outside in the cold streets smoking the cigarettes I was supposed to have totally quit, and talking about how much morale and love go hand in hand. We talked (as two people who had both been in organizing work a pretty long time) about how funders often want to send national operatives to local communities to push a new ‘cookie cutter’ campaign, framework, etc. We talked about how much movements were suffering from not enough support on the ground for new organizers, too much turf fighting, and too few people showing up for leaders (politically and spiritually) with no secret agendas. He said that the band he and Jay-Marie had started (Rev. Sekou and the Holy Ghost) aimed to make music that healed and sustained movement leaders and new activists of many backgrounds and that they had been searching for organizer partners to create a tour with.
Many conversations with many different groups later (key among them Black Lives of UU) we decided to create the Revive Love Tour this Fall — providing music, ‘walk-in clinics’ for organizers, and ‘Fortify the Movement’ reflection tools for local communities struggling to keep up the morale necessary to stay in the work. Partnering with local UU communities also gives us a chance to talk to these congregations about ways that they can be a steady hand of support to movements. Our congregations can send the message: we support the Movement for Black Lives and other movements of people of Color fighting for their lives and dignity. We support them when it is popular to do so. We support them when it is not. We support them when we agree with every tactic or media quote representing those movements. We support them when we do not. We are unwavering in that support because we believe in the vision of oppressed people transforming their own lives. Period.
Since we launched the press about the tour, some people have asked why they should support a tour not currently coming to their town, often supporting activists they do not know, who do not look like them, work like them or even show up like them in this work. This critique has come mostly from middle class, white activists. My answer to this is that our collective fate is not determined by us alone, or people we see as like us, who live near us. As I write this piece, an unprecedented gathering of native protectors are fighting not just for ‘their water’ but for all of our water, for all of our Mother Earth, awakening thousands of us to the next chapter of the fight for Earth and people over profit and greed. They are doing work that white people are not doing en masse. But our larger destiny is connected to their success. They are doing work that I do not have the history, the positioning, the courage, or the ancestral mandate to launch. I believe the same is true for the Movement for Black Lives. But that does not mean I get to sit back and watch.
‘Getting in where we fit in’ and doing what is being asked of us in this movement moment is an act of love and a strike against ego. The morale of our organizers is precious. Help us show up for them and join the fight for their morale by supporting and following the Revive Love Tour this fall in Knoxville, Nashville, Atlanta, St. Louis, and New Orleans. #ReviveLove Tour
In coming months, we’ll have a number of opportunities to engage these questions about how we sustain movements, fortify organizers and #ReviveLove within our work. Join us for a #ReviveLove Twitter Chat on Thursday, September 8 at 2pm ET/11am PT. Follow @sideoflove and #ReviveLove on Twitter for more information and to join the conversation.