Activist Burnout

First published in BCN issue 94, 2009.

Bi Burnout and How to Avoid It

Meg Barker

Is it just me or did 2008 seem to be the year of bi activist burnout? As I head into 2009 I find myself, for the first time since getting involved in bi activism, resolving to take a year off from it all. I know that other people in the community are backing off from bi activism altogether, or are still wondering what changes to make after an extremely challenging year.

For me quite a lot of this is about other commitments. I changed job in 2008 as well, and running events in the days preceding my interview and my first day at the new place was definitely not something I would have planned. However, there is definitely more to it than that. There is something about the way bi activists have been treating each other, about the way they’ve related to people in the community more widely, and about the way we’ve been treating ourselves. In response to this I thought I’d write a few personal reflections which may contain useful thoughts for others who find themselves involved on any side of these matters. If you want the quick version what it boils down to is ‘be kind to others and ourselves’. If you want the long version, which probably raises more questions than it does answers, then please read on…

How Bi Activists Treat Each Other

Generally bi activism is done by small groups of people, all of whom have other commitments and demands, who get together to organise events, conduct research, write letters, etc. in their spare time and often using their own resources (since there is very little funding available and obtaining any funding would involve more time that most of us don’t have).

In 2008 I really felt the squeeze on time has had a negative impact on groups. Several times people ended up feeling let down by others and conflicts occurred, generally because some people felt that they were carrying a heavier load than others. With one of the events I was involved with, the organisers never actually managed a face-to-face group meeting at any stage of the process, and most of us were unclear about who was even involved in this team. It is so easy for bad feeling to arise when people feel poorly treated by others and often there is a sense of being hard done by on all sides, as some feel they are doing way more than they signed up for, others feel that their role is going unrecognised, and others feel that they are being asked to do things that they never offered to do. Sadly, this often means that after the goal of the activism has been reached there is little celebration of each other but just acrimony, blame and raw feelings. No wonder people get put off.

So what might be some ways forward to try to avoid such a painful process? Here are some suggestions:

  • Start by being super-clear who the members of the team are and what their roles are going to be. It is worth putting together a team of people who you know can work together, but also being open to offers of involvement from new people, particularly if an existing team has diminished in size (could they have a minor role for now and potentially a more major role if it works well this time?)
  • Certainly a face-to-face meeting is useful near the start to clarify how involved people can be and what they want to take on.
  • If there aren’t enough people, or if those there are have very little time and energy, then it might be worth postponing rather than going ahead with something that is going to burn people out. This will not be the end of the world!
  • Make sure that the people who need the money (for booking and equipment) have easy access to it and that you keep clear accounts.
  • Answer emails and phonecalls from other team members as promptly as possible and let them know in advance when you are out of contact.
  • Reassure, congratulate and celebrate the people who have led an event or put the most work into a project. It can be a very nerve-wracking thing indeed to do and they are probably much less secure about it than they seem.

Relationships Between Activists and the Wider Community

Another major stressor in 2008 was in relations between activists and the wider community. What this seemed to boil down to was activists feeling criticised and unappreciated whilst many in the communities felt that their needs were being unrecognised and even marginalised.

Partly I think a lot of this is down to the minimal time, energy and resources available to the activists which I mentioned before. This meant that it was extremely hard to take account of everything. Of course this seemed a poor excuse to some who would have been happy to be more involved in helping. However, from an activist point of view it sometimes isn’t as easy as including everyone because it is important that teams all get along, and there have been problems in the past about people offering to do something and then not following through in the necessary time-frame. For those on the outside though, this can mean that teams appear cliquey and rigid. Clearly there is a need for some compromise and flexibility as well as understanding on all sides.

Also it is vital to remember that we can’t please all the people all the time. Some issues involve tough decisions and it is very hard to decide whether such calls are made on the principle of ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’ or of maximum inclusivity (even if being inclusive of one group means a lesser experience overall or means excluding another group – as could be the case, for example, if a wheelchair accessible venue is more expensive than the alternative, or if an explicitly sexual space is created at an event where children may be present).

Generally it is true that the bi community (as with many non-heterosexual communities) seems to attract people of a certain age, education, and cultural background. Whilst we often applaud the diversity and inclusivity of our events in terms of the number of people from different subcultural groups and gender/sexual identities who find them to be a ‘safe space’, we are historically not as good at being accessible to all physical abilities, or to attracting a wide range of cultures/classes/ages, or to managing the desire for both family-friendly and sexual spaces.

Unfortunately the problem is compounded because whenever special efforts are made for new inclusivity the results are not seen immediately, perhaps because people in those groups are used to staying away, or because it is very hard to publicise bi events, spaces and activities to people who have not previously accessed them or who may not see ‘bisexual’ as a label that applies to them (as is the case with some cultural and age groups). Such issues are going to continue to be difficult, but vital, to address.

There is also a problem here that it is often much easier to critique or deconstruct than it is to say how it could be done better or to offer something different. It is important for criticisms to be made as constructively as possible and for those on the receiving end to try to hear them as suggestions for improvement rather than as personal attacks. If they come along with practical advice and/or offers of specific help that is also useful. And if people really don’t like the way that something is done then it would be great to have more events, more research, and more publications displaying different ways of doing things.

Some further suggestions for activists:

  • Be as transparent as possible. People get more upset when it seems like there’s something you could obviously be doing better and there’s no reason given why you aren’t.
  • Let people know who the team is and who to contact from early on.
  • Respond politely to suggestions and complaints, but know what the limitations are and express those clearly but firmly (having a named person who is responsible for this is a good plan).
  • Ask for help. There’s usually plenty of people around who’re very willing and able to offer it.

Some further suggestions for people in the wider community:

  • Remember the constraints that activists are probably under.
  • Offer to help in any way (if you don’t hear back from your offers then the person you contacted is probably so busy with organisation that even answering your email is too much. Try someone else on the team or just turn up if it is an event you want to help at)
  • Tell the team what they are doing well at any point before, during and after. It makes such a difference to feel appreciated.
  • Try not to complain about anything in the week leading up to an event. This is the time when organisation is frantic and it is very unlikely that major changes can be made. Wait until after and then say it (in feedback questionnaires if those are available and/or to team members for next year directly).
  • Also try not to complain to guest speakers or entertainers about the organisation – it could mean they won’t want to come back again. Speak to the organisers directly.
  • Don’t belittle the work that people have put in or compare it unfavorably against previous events or activities.

How We Treat Ourselves as Activists

Finally when I was reflecting on my burnout I realised that it was vital to take a long, hard look at myself, and some of this might well apply to other people who get involved in activism. What are my motivations for being involved? Why had I taken on so much? Why was I taking criticisms so personally and finding them so difficult?

I guess a lot of us involved in voluntary work of any kind might like to think that we are doing it for purely altruistic reasons. However, my reflections forced me to realise that it is often more complex than that. I had to admit that I did feel a real glow when a ‘newbie’ at BiFest spoke about how important it had been for her the year that I led the team, and it made me really happy when I saw the piece I wrote about bisexuality on the Stonewall website. Similarly when criticisms were made about some activism I’d been part of I felt angry at the people who had said it and found myself projecting that anger onto everyone: people I hadn’t spoken to directly, and people who hadn’t even made criticisms themselves, and sometimes just about everybody who’d been involved at all.

I had to think about my own investment in all this and I realised that I have a pretty large desire to be seen as a ‘good person’ which positive activist experiences feeds nicely but which negative ones really threaten. There is a danger here that if we are so invested in being seen as perfect altruistic activists, if criticised we may not hear the genuine points being made, we may withdraw and stop doing things altogether, or we may help the conflict to escalate by responding defensively.

I’m not saying that all people are involved in activism because they want to be seen as a ‘good person’. There are many other possible reasons, and most of us probably have several of them. We might have a message we really want to be heard, we might want the sense of belonging of being part of a team doing something, we might want to prove that we’re capable of creating something. But whatever our reasons, if we are unaware of them and, at the same time, grasp hold of them too tightly then we may find it very difficult to take on board any alternative perspectives or to change when change is required.

The other danger in being too wedded to some kind of ‘activist identity’ is that we may take on too much in order to keep shoring it up, and end up not doing any of it very well. I was certainly reminded of this danger when I had to drop out of the last of the events I had offered to be involved with last year.

Some further suggestions then, for activists’ treatment of themselves:

  • Think very carefully about what you can offer right at the beginning, and what your limitations are.
  • Tell the rest of the team as early as possible if you are going to have to pull out (either completely, or from your role) ideally find someone who can take over for you who is reliable.
  • Try to avoid taking on a role that you know is likely to be very hard for you – better to stick to the areas you feel confident and skilled in.
  • Take breaks from activism when you’re starting to feel the danger of burnout. That way you are more likely to have the desire and energy to get back into it at a later date.


At least the last suggestion does work. My new year’s resolution was to take a break from activism, and two days later I was motivated to sit down and write this article for BCN!


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