Six Tips For the Tired Activist

By Jael Richardson

Photo Credit: Arden Wray/Quill & Quire

Earlier this year, Quill & Quire referred to me as an activist on the cover of their February 2016 issue. I felt flattered, invigorated. I felt motivated by the call and the work. Today, just nine months later, I feel a bit tired, and I find myself wondering how long I can keep this up.

Since I started a not-for-profit organization – since running it and funding it became a significant part of my day’s work, panicked questions regularly cross my mind: Why am I doing this? Is this really important? Should I be more responsible -- devoting my time to a job with benefits, to my family? I often wonder how long people will believe in this cause and stay faithful to it. I wonder if I will I always be begging for money, pleading my case, swallowing that bitter pill of rejection over and over.

This is the unique cause of the artist, of workers in the not-for-profit/charitable sector. These kinds of questions exist on permanent repeat with few definitive answers. They invite doubt from those who love us most – why are you doing this if it causes you so much stress? Because we have to we say, to which many only partly understand, if at all.

So during this month of November, when we activists are encouraged (or pressured) to tap into the year-end generosity of partners and donors, I wanted to give my fellow artists and activists in the publishing industry and beyond a few tips that can sustain us through those grey days.


  1. Press Pause – Pray or Meditate. As activists, we spend so much of our days reminding people of the past and working towards the future – future events, future ideals. We’re out in front, pulling others to come along with us. Prayer or meditation forces us to stop pushing and pulling and be present. To slow down. To hit the pause button. If you’re doing the work of inspiring and you do not have a source of inspiration - a bigger-than-you kind of force that’s summoning you to the call - this calling you’ve taken up will fall by the wayside when the times get too rough for too long. So think about this source of inspiration. Do it for 5 minutes a day – more if you can spare it. Notice the seasons changing, take in the smell of rain on concrete, hear the sound of your own heart beating slowly. Be in the moment.
  2. Manage the Machine – Take Care of Your Body. Your body is your vehicle not your cause (although admittedly, for some, it can be both – which makes taking care of it even more critical). Figure out a way to eat, sleep and exercise that fuels and strengthens you. Exercise may mean a walk or a workout or time under the care of a health professional; it may mean sex, yoga, tai chi, or stretching. Whatever the form, make it a priority. Get your body warm with the primary objective of enjoyment. Your body is the vehicle where you carry out your work, and if it is beaten and battered from neglect, it will impact your work. It will shut down on you. If your body is ailing, failing, or wailing, reduce or limit accordingly. This may mean being particularly disciplined with the scheduling and appointments that keep you well. Body care is critical, and for some this may mean dialling down the action you were once accustomed to, cooling down instead of warming up those joints and muscles.
  3. Don’t Do It Alone: Find Your Tribe. Everyone needs a team of allies and fellow warriors – people who get it, not people you need to convince to believe in the work you are doing. These are the people that will show up at your events and volunteer when you ask. These are people that share in the specifics of your work. They may or may not be your closest friends or partners. They may not be the people you expected, but these are the people who are fighting with you, and they are critical. Go to them when it’s hard. Go to them when it’s good. Accept gifts from them and learn what gifts they love in return.
  4. Give Back: Support Others. If your cause is all you’ve got and all you do is work at it, you’ll not only get tired, you’ll get jaded. Jaded about the world, humanity, and politics. Find something that’s important outside of your work and volunteer or give back there. Pack books. Help out at a homeless shelter. Support a protest online or in person. Keep it short term or flexible so that when times get busy you do not get overwhelmed with guilt. If you would rather give money than time, do that. Understand what makes you give – especially when your own funds are limited. It will help you in your own work as well.
  5. Delegate: Find Skill Savers. The thing that’s most tiring about the work of activists are the essential tasks that are not your passion or forte – especially when they are repetitive or time-consuming (grant writing, designing, accounting, etc.). Consider what jobs are most draining for you and work to develop new ways of managing them. Figure out how a freelance worker, full-time worker, part-time worker, or volunteer could assist you and make a long-term plan to get you there. Those tasks will not pull you down or drain you if you can share the load with a person who’s keen about it.
  6. Expand Your World: Keep Reading. Reading is a private act, a restful one like prayer and meditation, a task that requires calm and focus. But reading gives you something tangible in return – words, ideas, people, places. If you’re a big book lover this will be easy, fun even. If you’ve been away from the book for a long time, it will take some training of the mind since you’ve probably gotten used to reading only 140 characters at a time. But it’s this training of the mind, this slowing down and filling up that provides important fuel that can help you keep going.

The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Jael Richardson is the author of The Stone Thrower: A Daughter's Lessons, a Father's Life, a memoir based on her relationship with her father, CFL quarterback Chuck Ealey. The book received a CBC Bookie Award and earned Richardson an Acclaim Award and a My People Award as an Emerging Artist. A children's book called The Stone Thrower came out with Groundwood Books in 2016. Her essay "Conception" is part of Room's first Women of Colour edition, and excerpts from her first play, my upside down black face, are published in the anthology T-Dot Griots: An Anthology of Toronto's Black Storytellers. Richardson has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph, and she lives in Brampton, Ontario where she serves as the Artistic Director for the Festival of Literary Diversity (The FOLD).