How Activists Of Colour Prioritize Joy In Organizing

Black women are at the forefront of "pleasure activism."
Tamy Emma Pepin (left) and Tanya Hayles are two of several activists who shared their strategies for maximizing joy in their work.
Tamy Emma Pepin (left) and Tanya Hayles are two of several activists who shared their strategies for maximizing joy in their work.

Dismantle white supremacy, abolish police brutality, and end systemic racism. All this, on top of the COVID-19 pandemic and battling countless other oppressive issues affecting Canadians.

No pressure, right?

Actively taking a role in shaping social change is of greater interest than ever to many, especially in the aftermath of a summer of ongoing anti-Black violence. Much has been written about the current pervasiveness of social media activism, which has made political engagement more accessible than ever.

But with this increased engagement comes the risk of losing momentum, due to people getting overwhelmed by the constant urgency; as Bustle notes, people who are new to the “current scale” of involvement with activism may feel like fighting for social justice is bad for their mental health and lose interest or the ability to keep going.

“Activist burnout” is a familiar problem for many long-time organizers. The toll can be especially hard on Black, Indigenous, people of colour (BIPOC), who are often at the heart of Canadian social movements: A 2019 study found that racialized activists may experience additional burnout caused by white activists who belittle or take undeserved credit, causing BIPOC organizers to step away from movements they built and love.

For this, Black women and queer people are trailblazers in inquiries on making activism a pleasure to take part in, as well as a restorative experience.

Author and editor adrienne maree brown wrote on this in Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, a best-selling book that draws on the perspectives of Black women and feminist theorists like Joan Morgan, Ingrid LaFleur, and Audre Lorde — who authored seminal texts like Uses of the Erotic — to explore what it looks like to make social justice work a joy to do.

“Stop equating suffering with a part of how we do our justice work, which it feels like we do now — it’s like you have to be suffering all the time — and that’s actually not a good long-term survival strategy,” brown said in a interview for Man Repeller.

brown breaks it down further in the book’s foreword. She re-defines pleasure as something contrary to excess; it’s a sense of happiness and satisfaction that should be seen as naturally part of efforts towards justice.

“There’s this concept of suffering central to so many of us as whatever, activists, organizers, anyone trying to change the world … so much of how we get pulled into community and kept in community is a solidarity built around our suffering,” brown said in a later excerpt, in conversation with Cara Page, the former executive director of the Audre Lorde project. “Which is not liberatory. That’s just not it.”

The Nap Ministry, founded by Tricia Hersey, has made a name for itself online for its restorative approach to social change; Hersey frames rest as critical to movements like Black liberation and the answer to capitalistic grind culture.

So how does joy and pleasure in organizing work look like in practice? To find out what can everyday Canadians can learn from these frameworks, HuffPost Canada spoke to five long-time activists of colour. From grassroots organizers to non-profit workers, they all shared how they build joy into their work, in order to fight off burnout and make their commitment to change sustainable:

Use tools that spark joy and normalize time off

Tanya Hayles typically spends 20 to 30 hours per week supporting Black mothers. What started as a small online support group in 2016 quickly became a community of more than 16,000 mothers, all of whom Hayles decided to further empower by founding the Canadian non-profit Black Moms Connection. In doing so, the single mom from Toronto is able to create opportunities and provide financial assistance to moms in need.

“Are we buying them Amazon cards? Are we paying their rent? This could easily be a full-time job, if I let it,” she said.

Key word is let it; Hayles has learned to protect her time as much as possible. This looks like normalizing stepping away from social media for her small, but mighty team. For one week a month, they let their community know that they all are offline in order to care for themselves.

“You can not be all things to all people. You cannot pour from an empty cup,” Hayles quoted, borrowing from a popular idiom.

Black Moms Connection founder Tanya Hayles and other activists of colour shared their thoughts on joy and organizing.
Black Moms Connection founder Tanya Hayles and other activists of colour shared their thoughts on joy and organizing.

Like many organizers, Hayles didn’t set out to front a movement; she wanted a safe space for Black moms like herself to talk to each other. But her role often demands high workloads of administrative tasks, grant-applying, and talks with government agencies, all the while trying to make sure she and her son aren’t traumatized by visuals of Black deaths online. Neither of them need to see men getting shot in order to care about police violence, she noted.

“It really is hour-by-hour. Sometimes I wake up feeling I’m going to conquer my to-do list, there’s lots to celebrate ... [and] there are days where showering and eating is all I’ve got,” she said.

In order to centre happiness in her work during challenging periods, Hayles makes sure her tools spark joy: Calendars she can customize to her liking and Dollarama notebooks help her stay on-task and feel inspired.

“I’ll take stickers and put them in my planner. It seems juvenile, but it’s also brightening up my day,” she said. “Stickers have made me happy since I was seven.”

Figure out what energizes you. Make friends.

From a young age, Cicely Belle Blain has seen the strength of political actions; Attending a protest while perched on their grandmother’s shoulders is one of their earliest childhood memories. The Vancouver-based Black queer activist, writer of “Burning Sugar” and anti-racism consultant went on to co-found Black Lives Matter Vancouver in 2016.

“I often get asked why I’m grinning in a lot of protest or demonstration photos — it’s because I can’t help it. In a city with a small Black population, it’s so energizing to see my people gathering and feeling connected,” Blain said over email.

From experience, they caution younger organizers on operating in a vacuum or internalizing hateful messages received in-person or online.

“You have to make friends/family in this work, otherwise it can become isolating. It’s also tempting to think just because you’re fighting for the community, the whole community will love and applaud you; unfortunately you can’t please everyone, but if your intentions are good and just, that’s what matters the most.”

Eventually, Blain decided to search for what energizes them: Work where people feel seen and heard, pride in the accomplishments of their kin, and entertaining downtime, like great movies that are Black-centred.

Travelling prior to the pandemic also help remind Blain of the world’s natural beauty. For Blain, all these aspects of their life are acts of reclamation.

“I wholeheartedly believe that Black joy is an act of resistance because we live in a world that thrives off of Black pain or exploitation. It’s something that as Black folks, we need to find a way to reclaim. It’s not something that will ever be given freely to us,” they remarked, adding that it “inspires me as an activist and organizer to keep creating joy for my friends, family and community - even if it’s just a bad Twitter joke.”

Know what kind of role works best for you authentically

At the heart of Sebastián Mendoza-Price’s joy in activism are the relationships she builds with others. Whether it’s helping single moms fight for their rights as tenants in Toronto’s St. James Town neighbourhood or volunteering with the Latin American and Caribbean Solidarity Network, the queer Latinx organizer from Ottawa has found she’s best-suited to activism that involves direct conversations with those affected.

“I’ve been part of large actions that involve media spectacles, but I’m most proud of the small stuff,” she said. “Like, helping a senior resident locked out by her landlord. That’s the work I’m grateful for and solidifies why I do it.”

Sebastián Mendoza-Price is currently working with the St. James Town Tenant Network to help tenants know their rights and organize with each other.
Sebastián Mendoza-Price is currently working with the St. James Town Tenant Network to help tenants know their rights and organize with each other.

Understanding that there are different roles in organizing for different people has helped Mendoza-Price figure her out she doesn’t find joy in positions that involve a lot of leadership or organizational management.

“What’s burned me and others out has been internal strife. It’s really important in my case to work directly with the community,” she said.

Building happiness breaks into her daily life is important, as chronic fatigue affects her energy levels.

“We think of joy and activism as separate entities, whereas I’m the kind of person who falls deep into these things. ... I’ve always had an issue detaching myself from the work, little vacations stress me out,” she confessed. “I try to take little breaks to myself... I’ll go on Netflix. I never do work when I’m eating.”

Work with people who care about you

“So dismayed, burned out, and tired,” is how Toronto-based freelancer and consultant Chi Nguyen remembers her feminist activism work during former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s criticized tenure. Even her hobbies were work-focused, as she spent her free time sitting on non-profit and charity boards.

Nowadays, Nguyen is particular about how she engages. Even if a project is really exciting, Nguyen said she doesn’t sign up unless she knows what sort of people she’ll be working with and how they treat others.

“Something I wish young activists would remember is there will always be someone to step into your shoes. And those shoes are as important as your own,” she said. “If it doesn’t feel right, if it feels like it’s draining, it’s OK to say no.”

Nguyen wanted a “dose of the inspirational” in her life. While the Governor General awardee has helped pushed the way forward for policy-making, youth issues, and maternity leave, she’s found her joy in exploring organizing where fun fuels everyone. “How do we build beautiful things so that everyone has an invitation to participate and wants to feel safe there?” she wondered.

As the child of Vietnamese immigrant parents who is now a mother herself, Chi Nguyen hopes the delight people find in their public spaces is nurtured.
As the child of Vietnamese immigrant parents who is now a mother herself, Chi Nguyen hopes the delight people find in their public spaces is nurtured.

She found her answer by getting involved in initiatives like Jane’s Walk, which encourages residents around the world to learn about their neighbourhoods on guided walks in order to encourage civic participation.

Pay attention to your body

Much of Tamy Emma Pepin’s activism has taken place online; last year, she went viral for elevating women in STEM after seeing Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield crediting Einstein for the first photo taken of a black hole.

“[Einstein] didn’t take the photo, so I made a direct call of action to say her name,” Pepin said, referencing scientist Katie Bouman, the woman who made the photo happen thanks to an algorithm she created. (Full disclosure: Pepin is a former HuffPost Québec editor.)

With one tweet, she was able to shift the narrative to highlight a woman who may have not been recognized without it. Given her background in media, Pepin has found her joy in using digital storytelling to elevate causes she cares about.

“I really think that storytelling shapes our world and the stories that we tell really contribute to the world that we ended up living in,” she said.

This also takes the form of her daily work as the CEO of a creative firm, where she helps people tell stories from their diverse communities.

Un Peu Plus Loin is a Quebec-based communications firm headed by Pepin. 
Un Peu Plus Loin is a Quebec-based communications firm headed by Pepin. 

Given the rapid pace of social media and the lessons she learned from burning out in the past, Pepin tries to prioritize where her devotion should go; for her, having autonomy over her own wellbeing is essential.

“Are you sweating the small stuff, that aren’t necessarily the most beneficial thing for you or the community?” she asked. “If people are unwell and suffering through this work, that’s not good. You need to be conscious of your body and what it’s telling you. It’s easy to forget yourself in the process.”

To help facilitate that, Pepin is a big fan of meditation and healthy routines: Plenty of sleep and putting a lid on absent-minded phone usage.

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