We were speaking with J. and M. from the working group making the workshops on sustainable activism, preventing burnout and dealing with trauma. We met them in Ljubljana, on 14th and 15th of February 2016. The Collective counts 5 people from Germany, Poland, Romania and Slovenia. They are currently on tour in Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia.

Q: Can you tell us more about your backgrounds, and of the group?

M: I’m from the/a trainer collective called Spina. We deliver workshops to grassroots groups. Another person from Germany presents the group Out of Action, another is more active in the group Climate Justice. We meet from time to time on different gatherings or workshops and facilitate together but in different constellations. We met in Poland – including the person from Slovenia – during one training, when we decided to do something on Balkans. The Initial idea came from the person from Slovenia.

J: We have met around the different gatherings that M. just mentioned, but basically there are different transnational, transeuropean networks of activist facilitators and trainers that meet while doing action trainings, such as supporting activist groups doing actions, gatherings about sustainable activism, how we can take care of each other – individually in terms of self-care and collectively in terms of collective care. So there are these different networks and somehow we are connected through these support activities. 


Q.: Can you tell us more about where the need for doing workshops on these specific topics (stress, trauma and burnout) came from?

M: As we do some workshops about collective and group processes we found out at some point, that there is a lack of workshops about sustainability, trauma and burnout, especially in Poland, because this is the context I know. We found out that in fact people have this knowledge it just may not be so structured. In terms of refugee or migrant support we thought that it may be most relevant here.

J: I think it came out from different reasons. One was that there were certainly so many of our friends going down to the Balkans to support the refugees and to support the local groups (cooking, or being at info-points, or whatever), so we saw our friends coming back and being totally devastated, totally exhausted. So, through supporting them we were thinking right, but what is happening to the local groups, who cannot just go home and be exhausted, but they stay in situation? By talking to E. on this training in Poland we thought maybe it make sense to go and support specifically refugees solidarity activists with our workshops and not only in our own context but actually as transnational activists and groups come here to the Balkan.

M: We also have this experience of coming to Spain for example for long term workshop we were doing some preparations and there we were also talking there about coming to certain places, not just to invite people and organize trainings or workshops somewhere in Europe, but is crucial to come to people and support them in the place where they actually work and live.


Q: Is there some specific methodology in the decision making process about where to go, who to support?

M: Generally we try to use our personal contacts to spread the call out, but in this particular case, we relied mostly on E., because she has more contacts. She is from here so she knows people and we prepared this call out in advance and tried to reach different collectives. The workshops are open for everyone and people could apply before coming to workshop in every city.

J: I guess one crucial thing is that we only go to the places we are invited. Secondly for this tour we decided to focus on doing workshops for people that are involved in refugees solidarity work, and I guess because all of us come from the anarchist grassroots background that is also something. Not being rigid or strict in terms “only anarchist are allowed to come” but specifically targeting and making this space where at least also anarchist feel comfortable coming and being open for other activists or refugees as well. 


Q: We didn’t touch concepts of stress, burnout and trauma yet. Now may be the time to present these concepts. Can you describe them briefly? 

J: I’ll just say few words about trauma. We take the concept from psychology and try to adopt it to activist circles or circumstances. What can happen at actions or just generally in life is, either at extreme events or just after a long time of high stress, the body decides this is a life threatening moment. There is something really bad and it doesn’t need to be from the outside, it can also be just a bodily response. The normal response from the body would be either to fight back or to run away. But it could be  that none of those two responses happen, and the adrenalin or the response to this life threatening situation get stuck in the body. What we then see are  symptoms quite extreme and different of our normal behaviour. Often they switched between three different responses: high alertness (talking constantly about the event, having flashbacks, nightmares, etc.), shutting down (not seeing people any more, staying in bed, not getting involved, dropping out), and what we call emotional numbing (not feeling much anymore – not feeling particularly happy but not sad, not feeling fear, nor pain). Sometimes what happens is that people are going continuously into action, into action without being connected to their feelings. Only one or some of these symptoms can appear. We see all this as a part of a very ordinary healing process. However if after four to six weeks roundabout the symptoms do not to start fade away it is time to either seek professional help or see how else in our collectives we can give special support. Furthermore, with the trauma, what we try to emphasize is what could be done before and after action to avoid these situations. So to actually prevent the stress, burnout, and trauma. 

M: Preventing burnout is the concept known among people working, usually full time, in order make them more productive. But when it comes to activist scene or activist life it is something similar, but circumstances are slightly different. On the one hand we don’t have special structures to deal with burn out. People either do nothing or think that it should be done by specialists, for instance in conventional therapy. The second important thing is that we should face that we live, work and are active in a very hostile circumstances. The society outside is punishing and we don’t celebrate our activities, we don’t appreciate ourselves, we even don’t say thanks from time to time, so this unfriendly environment is very difficult to deal with, because we want social change but at the same time we cannot go out of the system. All these factors are causing burnout. On the other hand, we have this activist culture which pushes us to be very strong, and often there is no space for emotions, there is no space for feeling sick, no space being retired, having kids, people to take care of and so on. In this ideal scenario everyone is equally involved in activities, but people are not like that, so we started to talk about burnout – that is possible in fact to be active on different levels and what can we do to have people with us as long as possible. 

J: Burnout may seem to be an end state or something, however working as activists on social movement, on high stress levels for a long time also individually does us harm physically and emotionally, but also our groups and our movements and for the revolution or radical social change. It is really hindering or stopping us because it interferes with group dynamics, it interferes in our collectives. This is why it is really important to take care or talk about our feelings, emotions and look after each other and take care of each other in terms of stress. 


Q: Can you tell us more about prevention or successful handling of stress factors and posttraumatic syndrome? 

J: I think that what we are trying with these workshops is to avoid going into “this is the receipt and this is what you have to do”, but actually asking the people: what do you do to feel good, what do you do if you are not feeling good, what do you need from other people, what can you do yourself? Basically what our assumption is, is that people know themselves and what is best for them. However what we then see in the answers is often a couple of reoccurring things For example taking good care of basic needs (enough sleep, good food, enough physical exercise, being on the fresh air, drinking enough, being careful with drug use or alcohol use) and of course having people that are close to you. It doesn’t need to be always your activist friends, your collective, your affinity group, it can also be friends from the outside, those who can support you when you are going through a tough time. So these are couple of answers and you can add some.

M: An additional perspective that tells us that we can also accept the situation we are in. We are not going to be a perfect people, always healthy, always very active and always very efficient, so also this radical acceptance that we can afford ourselves a break, for being unproductive, for doing nothing, for a taking rest and so on. This is quite uncommon. 


Q: What are the aims of the workshop and who are you directly addressing?

M: We already mentioned people being involved in the refugee struggle, for example.What is for me important is that if these people are from grassroots movements, usually they don’t have access for professional support or paid workshops, like people from NGO’s and people working somewhere. People on our workshop don’t need to identify themselves for instance as anarchists, but it is good if we are sharing the same values in terms of being antiracist, antisexist, antiauthoritarian or against the system, for example.

J: I guess that in the broader sense the aim is to strengthen radical social movements for radical social change, for revolution. Often what produces trauma and burnout is just  living in this system of capitalism, being forced to work and earn money, patriarchy, all this systems of power, oppression – from homophobia to racism and so on. Our broader aim is to support ourselves, our groups and our movements to find ways to deal with this and get tools. I guess that one of the things that we are not really used to is, when we fight for other people, when we support other people, specifically in refugee solidarity or prison solidarity, to also take care of ourselves and take time for ourselves. In terms of radical acceptance it would be also supporting groups, supporting social movements to radically take time for themselves and look after themselves and make space for emotions and feelings. I think there is something around that, that for some reason got shut away, or we don’t take this space anymore. So that is what we want to encourage by making space in these workshops: to talk about feelings and emotions. Then of course an aim is to tell people that they already have the tools and knowledge they need, and just encourage them to use it. 

M: For example, sometimes these kind of workshops are a first opportunity for people or for the groups to talk about some things. What we do is that we try to bring some proposals for discussion or some ideas and then we hope that people will continue it – with their groups, with their friends. We also try to share as many tools as possible to encourage people to do similar workshops for their different collectives, different groups so it is not like this hierarchical process that we know something and we want just to pass it, but we rather open space to share and we really wish that people will continue this afterwards. 


Q: European public discourse is more or less overwhelmed with the topics of migration, maybe even more than two years ago. Can you share some of your views on this really big movement? How do you see it? How it affects you?

M: It is really difficult question for me. I decided not to be involved in any group doing things in terms of refugee solidarity because I’m quite involved and occupied with different things and different groups. What I personally can do is use my skills to support people that are doing direct support for refugees and migrants. On the other hand I’m quite familiar with the Polish situation, which is really fucked up. What affects me personally is a realistic fear when I am outside on the streets. All this nationalistic ideas are very common and very threatening now. I don’t know if you know but Poland agreed to accept 100 refugees now. They are still talking in the future terms, at the same time we have a lot of migrants from Ukraine and Belarus. I know people who are working with migrants but I’m not personally very involved because of my capacities. These are some struggles that are happening in Warsaw but not similar as on Balkans for example. 

J: I would say by coming and living in Germany and looking with a German perspective: it is just fucked up! You’ve probably all heard of burning asylum homes, and PEGIDA nazi demonstrations now being exported to all others European countries? So there was this one moment where refugees were allowed to come in and there was this big media hype around welcoming culture and so on, however it is really scary to see how quickly that shifts again; how now everything is about the new law, that regardless where refugees are from, they can be deported quicker either under “Dublin” to the other European countries, or also back to the countries of origin. They are now talking about making Tunisia, Algeria and Libya safe countries to be sent back to, regardless of possible prosecutions, torture, imprisonment or death of people being deported back and that is really, really scary. Then also seeing what the fucked up German government is playing at by securing and trying to make European borders in countries outside the fortress. At the moment Turkey is being paid billions of euros to keep Syrian refugees and other refugees. They are kind of extending European borders and that is really, really scary. That is on a political level, and on the personal level I’m really affected by living in the countryside, in a community, growing vegetables and being surrounded with very political people. Last year they were quite often going down, doing direct support in the Balkans, and doing cooking I attended the “vegetable back office”, staying in Germany. If anything had happened, we could do press work and we could do legal support aid. Somehow doing back office and then seeing people coming back and trying to support them, when they came back with all the impressions. At the same time in the region where I live (where about 50. 000 people live) we tired to have this big campaign to get 50.000 refugees moved in. So I guess this is on a daily basis and at the same tame from the German perspective, being quite overwhelmed or in a certain sense also helpless with how to deal with the certain switch from this big welcoming culture to now closing the doors and making, in the media also and on the streets, so much space for nationalists, fascists and racists. 


Q: Your final thoughts on the people who came to the workshops? We think that it’s a pattern that those people who are going to your workshops are the people who recognise them as important. It is something that they want to work on. There are on the other hand many other people involved in to collective who push this away. Maybe intentionally, maybe not. You can finish with some hints how to bring those topics higher on the agenda of our collectives? 

M: It is quite a difficult task I would say. But I personally can come to people and talk in person, just by chance and being Empathetic and sensitive, and use all the social opportunities to talk to someone about some things. Sometimes it is good to frame it as political as well, because there might be this tendency to think that maybe it is too “hippie” to talk about emotions or burnout or trauma. If you frame it and present it as a concept just like other concepts that can be reclaimed and also ruled under our rules it is catchier. So starting private conversation is for sure one hint. The second that I have in mind now is printing materials and delivering flyers and publishing stuff because sometimes people are just bored, so they can take a look at this topic. If someone is not convinced or is not open enough to talk, me personally I don’t have energy to force someone or to push someone to work on emotions or with trauma, but with small drops, dropping from time to time, it might be helpful. 

J: I would like to tell a little story. Less than 15 years ago in Germany a weird structure called Out of Action and Emotional first Aid was formed. So there were these groups in a couple of cities and at camps or big actions, and they would have a tent and they would offer you trauma support. If you had a trauma you could go there and drink a cup of tea and it was all a bit weird. What I can see and what other people would also say is that even in these 15 years (which on one hand may seem really long, but on the other it is not much time in terms of social movements and radical social change) just by having people who provides a structure of a tent and a cup of tea, and having some space for a time out, and from time-to-time delivering workshops, printing materials, etc., somehow the group culture started to change between affinity groups, between wider networks. Now for example the question of “let’s do a check in before we start the meeting” and “let’s just check how we are feeling today” is something that is not weird anymore. It still is for some groups but it is becoming much more common. So I guess seeing that example and having it in my own activist life, experiencing this change, I guess these are baby steps and at some points really frustrating, but still the group culture in our movements is changing  So I think on a positive note, by having these workshops, by seeing people who are coming to the workshops willing and eager to continue and bring out these topics, not hide them away, and translating the materials, those are already steps towards a direction of totally transforming the way we are doing activism and how we are in our collectives and groups. 

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