Friday, 10 February 2006

Community activism and burn out As the pressures build up on community activists, so the chances increase of their becoming ill from exhaustion. I've commented on this before, within the context of neighbourhood governance. Working with Partners in Change, my good friend Bev Carter has been developing a 3-day course on activist burnout which has been fully subscribed - she emerged the other day from the first running, herself both exhausted and elated from the stories of commitment, frustration, lack of recognition, breakdown and resilience. The course runs again in March - details here. Bev tells me that much of what she heard from participants echoed an important recent report for Renew North West by community psychologist Carolyn Kagan at Manchester Metropolitan University, called Making a difference: participation and wellbeing. As Carolyn notes - "bottom-up, active participation and collective action is exhausting. It takes time, energy and perseverance. Not everyone who opts to take part is strong and resilient. They may have been struggling with hardship all their lives. Community leaders and other activists are under relentless pressure. They have no supervision, despite working in complex human systems, often with people with extensive personal difficulties. They have no colleagues to share the load when the going gets tough, no working hours, time off or holidays and no development activities built into the role. Also they do not get paid." It's hard to find on the Renew site, but here's the link.
Connections and interruptions You're in a restaurant, sharing a meal with someone, when a call comes in on their mobile. Unknown caller. Your companion answers, leaving you with an unfinished sentence, staring at your plate or across the room. Perhaps you're annoyed. You feel your attention has been jettisoned without justification. There's a code of unbroken attention, which we agree to whenever we do something like have lunch with someone, don't we? How could your companion know if the incoming call could be more important (however we measure that) than what you were about to say? Well, supposing you're on the phone to someone in their home, maybe a chat with a friend or relative in the evening. Suddenly they say, hang on, there's someone at the door - and you're on hold. Are you annoyed? Most people probably are less annoyed, regarding a visitor at the door as a legitimate reason for the call to be interrupted. Maybe the code is not the same - neither of you has, quite, committed to undivided attention just by having a phone call, is that the difference? Is it just that face-to-face takes priority? At a low level, we can handle a mixture of communication but we have difficulty splitting our attention. I think it's quite common to be tinkering at emails and conducting sign language with a colleague across the room, while having a phone conversation; but interrupting it is something else. I think the interesting point is that there is a clash between content and the opportunity for connection. If a conversation is going on, it means that connection has been established and we're focusing on content. An interruption (the mobile call, the knock at the door) means another opportunity for connection, giving rise to the question 'can I have a new connection without losing the one I have?' For many people, that possibility of a new connection, not knowing what it brings but being willing to suspend and even risk losing the one that is established, seems irresistible. (Or is this just a typically masculine approach to relationships? - please leave a message). Perhaps there's nothing new here other than the heightened frequency with which these clashes occur. But I suspect our attitudes towards occasions like lunches or meetings, as watertight contexts for undivided attention, are changing. It's not as if interruptibility is a new characteristic of social relations, is it?

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