Many national and state legislators in the USA are reporting record attendance at their public meetings, and their phone lines are constantly busy and voice mail accounts are constantly full, as constituents call in record numbers. The largest series of protest marches that have ever occurred in the USA in one day happened on January 21, 2017, the Women’s March, and there has been a range of protests, big and small, ever since. People are holding legislative and editorial letter-writing parties at their house, for attendees to pressure legislators and the media regarding various issues. VolunteerMatch is reporting a record number of people visiting its web site and signing up to volunteer – according to an article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy (it’s behind a paywall – can be seen by subscribers only), VolunteerMatch set a single-day record with more than 72,355 unique visitors on January 24, four days after the new president was inaugurated. VolunteerMatch’s second busiest day was November 10, two days after the election, with 69,318 visitors. January 25 and November 15 ranked third and fourth in web traffic.
The amount of civic participation in the USA right now is staggering. But it’s also unsustainable. People will need a break. They will also need to be re-inspired at some point. Those are critical points that those supporting and managing these activists and volunteers need to keep in mind.
I’ve been more politically active since November than I’ve been in more than 20 years, and I’m exhausted. So, a week ago, I wrote on Facebook “Sometimes, you have to cash in some privilege and go to the beach….” and posted photos of me, my husband and our dog at a beach. One of my Facebook friends got upset, affirming that just because you can go to the beach, you aren’t privileged, that lots of people of various ethnicities go to the beach, etc.
In my computer’s dictionary, the word privilege is defined as a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people. And, therefore, being able to go to the beach amid green cards getting canceled, families and children living in terror for fear of some members being deported, millions of people realizing they won’t have health insurance after 2017, women’s health care choices being restricted, people’s water supplies threatened by pipelines and dangerous amounts of lead and an upswing in racially-charged language, is, indeed, a privilege.
My colleague and friend, Erin Barnhart, was one of the people organizing the Oregon members of the January 21 March for Women in Washington, DC. I’ve no doubt her fellow organizers were so thankful for her extensive volunteer management knowledge and highly sensitive nature, especially her incredible sensitivity to difference. I also know that she’s exhausted and needs a break! She wrote the following on her Facebook page and, with her permission, I’m sharing it here:
There’s a concept in volunteer management that I and others like to call “stepping forward, stepping back.” Here’s how it works: volunteers collaborate as a team and, as life obligations interfere or energy is depleted, people are able to step back from the work for a time while others step forward to carry the load. When they return to the team, they then make it easier for others to temporarily step back from the circle. It’s a great way to keep projects going while also making appropriate space for people’s needs. This model is on my mind today.
Specifically, I’m aware of my privilege as I post photos of a sunny vacation while, around the country, people are still protesting, filing legal briefs, fighting for their and other’s civil rights with everything they’ve got. While I enjoyed a walk by the beach, camps were being cleared at Standing Rock. The fight continues and the work hasn’t stopped. Indeed, in many ways, it’s only just begun.
My goal this week is to enjoy time with my mom and to engage in some much needed self care. There’s a long battle ahead and I intend to be in it. That said, as I step back knowing that others have stepped forward, I will also do my best to stay aware and engaged, bearing witness and signal boosting where and when I can.
The takeaway from this self-aware post is, I hope, this: Step back as needed, folks. Take care of yourselves if and how you can. You are needed and valued and we will step forward to cover you. Thank you to everyone doing the hard work this week so that I can step back myself.
Remember that your volunteers and activists need to step back and take care of themselves sometimes. They may need a break. And you, the lead volunteer or lead manager of volunteers, may need to tell them that, explicitly. And you may need a break yourself! Don’t feel guilty; refresh, reboot, recharge.
You also need to help re-inspire your volunteers and activists. Don’t just focus in your messages to them on things they need to be doing to support a cause – give them reasons to celebrate sometimes. You might need volunteers who are focused specifically on identifying the impact of activists’ efforts.
See you out there – or at the beach.