Anton Moore dreams about the dead.
At a news conference where the state controller announced the results of a study on the economic impact of gun violence, Shira Goodman, executive director of CeaseFirePA, said she was tired — and not just because after she stood by the controller, she led a call to action against violence at her own rally.
Tragedy and trauma take a toll far beyond shattered families and loved ones, but we cede the work of improving our world to a handful of activists. We tell ourselves that we don’t have the time, but they do. In the end, they become our proxies. And they are suffering because of it.
How could they not? As of Nov. 4, 298 people have been murdered this year in Philadelphia.
When Moore, an on-the-ground Southwest Philly community activist, talked about seeing dead young men in his dreams — men whose families he’s sat and cried with — I copped, embarrassing as it was, to tearing up at a local coffee shop recently when I saw a little girl who bore a resemblance to the 2-year-old who had been murdered in her mother’s arms.
But I know my own fatigue is just a drop of theirs. And that worries me. If the people we’ve come to count on tap out, then what?
There is no lack of experts or articles exploring what people should do when they find themselves burned out, including from the demoralizing exhaustion of life under Trump. We all need self-care: Eat healthier, exercise, take a step back, take a break, especially from the news.
Those are all fine suggestions, but that still puts the onus on the doers to do more, even if it’s to do for themselves.
It won’t work, said Paul Gorski, coordinator of the Equity Literacy Institute, which offers equity training and assistance for schools and other educational organizations.
“Those things are just addressing the symptoms of the burnout, not the causes of the burnout," he said. In two papers, one he coauthored in 2015 as a fellow at George Mason University’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being, Gorski found that activists often have to leave their movement, and many don’t come back.
“Some of the burnout comes from tensions and disagreements among activists, or they come from expectations that are put onto activists that they are just going to tirelessly be involved in every action and every protest and every everything, and it just gets to be too much,” Gorski said. A lot of the fatigue also comes from the emotional investment that first drew them to the cause.
Yet we routinely expect those who have been through the worst to do the most.
“Of course people are burned out,” said Nelba Márquez-Greene, whose daughter, Ana-Grace, was murdered in the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn. “People have confused activism with grief.”
She worries about people who go back to their lives after a tragedy and don’t get support. But she also worries about “the grievers who go into the activism space who decide this is all they are going to do, this is what they are going to hook their self-worth on, and then they realize that it’s not going to change right away, and they get burned out and tired because systemically, this is toxic and it’s not fair.”
So, what should the rest of us do?
I asked experts, but I also asked activists who are running on fumes. And it says something — none of it good — that several told me they wouldn’t even know what to suggest. They’ve grown accustomed to not being able to count on others.
Moore, for one, has tried to limit the number of funerals he attends.
There is one thing we can do right now: Digital activism has its place, but hashtags can’t replace actually showing up for those who consistently fight for causes that affect us all.
“It’s about more people getting involved, about being supportive of each other,” Gorski said. “But it’s also about building emotional supports within movements.”
In fact, one activist said, it would be great if therapists hosted support groups for those in the trenches.
The other day, while Moore was sending an email to an employer about job opportunities for some young guys he’s trying to get off the streets, a neighbor called out to him.
One of his childhood friends who lived around the corner had been shot and killed.