I've been a feminist since my mother left her copy of the Feminist Mystique where I could find it when I was twelve years old. I've been a civil rights and gay rights ally since I was old enough to understand the idea of privilege and the idea that I got advantages just because of my skin color and gender presentation in my early twenties. I've been a social justice advocate since my first encounters with the homeless people of Kansas City in the 1990s.
And since I first started waking up, back in the 1980s, I have been under siege. We all have, those of us who advocate for social justice, civil rights, women's rights, worker rights – you know, liberals. It's exhausting.
We're in a marathon, not a sprint. My particular marathon has lasted now for over three decades. There are some things we need to do to keep ourselves going.
1. To begin, honor your limits on a day to day basis. Some days you're fierce like a wolverine, others you're fierce like a kitten. That's okay. Take days off from activism. There were activists before you and will be activists after you are gone. You are neither invincible nor irreplaceable.
2. Know your allies. When you need a pep talk, keep that short list handy and make that phone call or send that text. And, of course, return the favor when your friends need it.
3. Take social media and electronic breaks. Sometimes its important to live the life your activism is designed to build. Build blanket forts with your kids. Go to the lake. Take in a street festival (without handing out fliers).
4. Before engaging in debate, ask yourself who your audience is. Are you trying to change the mind of the person you're debating, or are you using the debate to make a point to those who are observing the debate, whether online or in person? Tailor your debate to this answer and don't let yourself get hung up in pointless argument.
5. Accept that you're going to be disappointed. Politicians you support turn out to have feet of clay, or don't get elected. Legislation you fight for gets defeated. Volunteers don't show up, or fundraisers fall short. You might even disappoint yourself on occasion. Take whatever break you need to recharge, pick yourself up, and start again.
6. Don't let others dictate to you what your position 'should' be, or engage you in the 'tone' argument, or deny you your lived experience. When someone starts arguing against the way you argue rather than the argument itself, often its because they can't attack the argument head on, or else they're trying to distract you because you're making them uncomfortable.
7. Have a life outside of your activism. Burnout is a very real threat for activists, and those of us who care the most are the ones most likely to be affected by it. Cultivate friends and activities that have nothing to do with your activism, that you enjoy for reasons completely unrelated to your activism.
8. When it is important to be 'fierce' and ready to fight on a given day, and you are struggling, fake it until you make it. Be your own mentor and remember the arguments you have given other people when they have days they can't get to the fight.
9. Periodically go back and review who you are participating in activism for, and why. Your renewed sense purpose can recharge you and lead to you re-engaging in a more complete way.
10. Study the history of your movement. Look at both successes and failures, and most importantly, compare the current situation of those you advocate for with the situation a year ago, decade ago, or a generation ago. Where have things gotten better? Where have they gotten worse? What can you appreciate? What do you need to work harder at?
11. Spend some time with pen and paper pretending to be the opposition for your activism. Write down the most common objections to your cause. Get “inside the head” of the person making those objections. What might convince you to change your mind? Why?
12. Spend a day or a week or a month simply listening. Listen to those within your movement and those opposed to it and those who have no interest in it. Find out what their concerns are. Discover what their hopes and fears are. Adjust your activism to better respond.
13. Examine your fears carefully. Are you afraid of the limelight, or of obscurity? Do you censor yourself at times because you are awed by another activist's reputation or personality? Are you worried about what family or friends or opponents or other activists might thinks. How can you address your fears and improve your activism?
14. Accept that there will be periods in your life when activism is front and center, and other times when other things in your life are more important – and that this is okay. I wasn't very activist when my sons were toddlers. When I worked for a company that was very intrusive about my online activities (and I needed that job) my activism was also curtailed. When my husband had several surgeries and over a year of severe physical pain, my activism went on the back burner. You get the idea. Activism is part of a life, not the sum and total of life.
“Fierceness” in activism means that you will stand up for perceived injustices when you can, march or petition or work phone banks when you can, engage in thought leadership and support when you can. It does not mean that every moment of every day has to be devoted to some sort of Platonic ideal of activism.
As a feminist, I can enjoy non-feminist and even anti-feminist pieces of art, books, movies, and television, while still reserving the ability to critique the issues that you find problematic. (For instance, I love Big Bang Theory, while being vocal about issues with regard to that show's treatment of female characters, especially in the early years).
We are all works in progress, as are our various activisms. Understanding this about ourselves and each other will strengthen our alliances and our causes and help us to achieve much more than rigidity and judgmentalism. Keep the end in mind, and do what you can today. That's the best any of us can do.