Campaigning in 2021

As we enter the second year of the global covid pandemic, the political and economic context remains volatile and uncertain, and we’re all pretty exhausted.

Along with everyone else, change-makers are worn out. Campaign strategies and familiar political contexts have been thrown out of the window. Many of us are juggling childcare or other care work with campaigning and activism. We’re unable to gather outside of digital spaces, straining personal and established relationships while limiting new connections to build power and share inspiration.

In these difficult times, I wanted to share my ideas about how organisations and grassroots collectives can campaign in 2021 – it’s not a ‘normal’ year.

In the midst of the chaos, big wins are possible

The Tory government is getting increasingly hostile to charitable campaigning. But at the same time, campaigns have forced the government to u-turn so many times it appears they are turning in circles. Already in two weeks of 2021 we’ve seen:

The power of union organising
Unions forced the closure of schools across England as teachers and school staff refused to return to schools after Christmas in the midst of the pandemic’s second peak. In the midst of organising to oppose schools opening the NEU (National Education Union) recruited 21k new members in one week!

The value of Twitter-to-mainstream-media outrage
Johnson was forced to apologise for the woefully inadequate lunch boxes offered by privately contracted companies to children on free school meals, after this was exposed on Twitter. Footballer Marcus Rashford reported last week that the government & will revert to its voucher scheme – although a new fight is on to ensure this support continues through school holidays.

In these weirdest of times, it is possible to win substantial campaigns fast. But this absolutely doesn’t mean we should all be working around the clock to push our issues forwards.

It’s a little late for resolutions, but I prefer the flexibility of principles anyway – here are mine for campaigning this year.

Five principles I’m using to guide my campaigning work in 2021

1) Balance rest, reflection and action

Just like seasons in the natural world, the energy and outputs of humans, campaigns and organisations ebb and flow in cycles. Summer only lasts a few months – but many campaigns try to run as if continuous output, achievement and energy were possible all year round. This creates problems with burnout even in ‘normal’ years. Now we need to listen to our bodies, minds and hearts, and make space for rest more than ever before.

  • Employers and managers need to make space for staff to rest, and to reflect.
  • Collectives need to make space for each other to rest, and to reflect.
  • As this article outlines we don’t just need sleep; we need mental, sensory, creative, emotional, social and spiritual rest.

As well as resting, we need to make space to reflect. The volatility of this year and the avalanche of bad news can be overwhelming. Without time to reflect (personally as well as in social change work) we’re not going to be able to do the mental processing needed to take effective, considered action.

2) Centre care and steward trauma

Although most of us can’t be together physically, we’re dependent on networks of care for our well-being. Living through a pandemic is a huge challenge, we’re having emotional responses to match, and we need networks of care to help us process and hold our emotions. If we’re not able to be with and process emotions as they’re happening, these emotional responses can get trapped inside us as trauma, impacting on our mental and physical health.

Traumatic events bring many of us to campaigning in the first place; through our work we can transform our suffering into agency to prevent wider injustice. Reading terrible stories about poverty, racism, injustice, climate change, extinction etc everyday is also traumatising – add living through a pandemic to this and it’s no wonder we’re exhausted. I strongly recommend the book Trauma Stewardship for those interested in exploring how social change makers develop secondary trauma, and what we can do about it.

We need to take care of ourselves and each other, to stop us accumulating more trauma and to process what is already there.

  • In campaigning workplaces and collectives this means making space for emotions, understanding each other, and prioritising relationships.
  • We could usefully explore collective somatic approaches (such as those described in the book My Grandmother’s Hands).
  • I’ve found the book The Body Keeps the Score invaluable in understanding and working with trauma.

As highlighted above, we also need reflective space to process trauma and rest to recover from it.

3) Re-channel the energy of guilt

Those of us working in social change often feel very guilty – for instance, about participating in the economic system with deeply racist colonial roots which is causing the multiple crises we face (climate, race, inequality etc). But guilt takes a lot of energy, and it’s a dead end for that energy in terms of effecting change.

Buddhism teaches that guilt is unskillful precisely because it is an energetic dead end that doesn’t lead to transformation. Instead, Buddhism encourages cultivation of remorse, which means acknowledging ethically unskillful behaviour / mental states, and committing to transform these into positive action. In my Buddhist tradition, commitments to transformation are made in small community groups, to foster accountability and to support each other.

With the serious racial injustices highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement, along with the inequalities being deepened by this pandemic, I see a lot of guilt being expressed by those working for social change. It’s great to acknowledge problematic systems and our role in perpetuating and benefiting from them, but simply beating ourselves up about them is wasting valuable energy we could more usefully give to changing things.

  • Cultivating some form of mindful practice, in meditation or through movement, is foundational to notice what is going on inside our minds.
  • When we’re able to notice the self berating loops that come from guilt, we can start taking steps towards liberating the energy into action.
  • Social change collectives and workplaces can support this work by making space for mindfulness and reflection, and offering collective accountability for action.
4) Believe winning is possible

“The future must enter into you a long time before it happens” Rilke

I know the future is looking bleak. We’re plugged into an avalanche of terrible news, and here in the UK the Government is further to the right and less competent than any other in my lifetime. It’s hard to believe that radical causes will win and turn around the multiple crises we face.

But if we don’t believe we can win, we won’t, because we’re less likely to run effective campaigns. Of course we need to make space to grieve & be realistic about what’s happening. We don’t have to be convinced we are going to win, just that it is possible. I’ve seen so much cynicism from professional campaigners and grassroots activists, and I’ve been there myself. This cynicism can damage our movements. Driving action just because ‘something needs to be done’ isn’t strategic and won’t have impact.

  • A positive vision of the future we’re working towards helps give focus to transformational change work – see my piece on uncertain times and movement moments for some visioning exercise ideas.
  • Reading speculative science fiction really helps me imagine possible worlds – I especially love the utopia envisaged in Woman on the Edge of Time and the descriptions of revolution and re-imagining in The Mars Trilogy.
  • Connecting with inspiring folks, and reading stories of historical and recent victory can help.
  • If your friends / colleagues are feeling consistently hopeless about change happening, the approaches suggested above around trauma, mindfulness, somatics and care might be helpful.
  • It’s important to step away from social change work for a break semi-regularly to find the energy to keep going – retreats, sabbaticals, holidays and changes of focus all help.

We need to remember that systems appear fixed and insurmountable when we’re inside them, but that massive transformational change is possible. It’s happened again and again throughout history and conditions are particularly ripe for it now, despite how things appear.

“The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you can alter, even by a millimetre, the way people look at reality, then you can change the world.”  James Baldwin

5) Be like water

It’s volatile and uncertain out there. That means it’s hard to navigate and plan, but big changes are possible. If you have a solid vision & some long term goals, anchoring work in a particular direction, wins can come from freeing up capacity to react and make use of opportunities. Long term fixed strategy is unlikely to be effective for some time. This gives a natural advantage to collectives and organisations that can work more flexibly and take decisions quickly.

I’m really interested in how social change makers are managing strategy and planning in this moment – if you have something to share please get in touch.

Thank you for all that you do

I wanted to finish with the quote below from the incredible adrienne maree brown – a radical gratitude spell to cast upon meeting a stranger, comrade or friend working for social and/or environmental justice and liberation:

you are a miracle walking
i greet you with wonder
in a world which seeks to own
your joy and your imagination
you have chosen to be free,
every day, as a practice.
i can never know
the struggles you went through to get here,
but i know you have swum upstream
and at times it has been lonely

i want you to know
i honor the choices you made in solitude
and i honor the work you have done to belong
i honor your commitment to that which is larger than yourself
and your journey
to love the particular container of life
that is you

you are enough
your work is enough
you are needed
your work is sacred
you are here
and i am grateful

Take care out there.

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