Psychosocial resilience: sustainable activism and building resilience

In May, I took part in a 10-day training up the Pyrenees Mountains in Catalonia. The training was called ‘Regenerative Activism.’ A new partner of Comhlámh called Ulex ran it. Ulex is the Latin for gorse. A thorny evergreen shrub that is extremely adaptive and resilient. It cannot only survive in harsh conditions; it also pulls nitrogen from the air and puts it into the soil. This improves the soil and fertility around it. It improves the living conditions in the area.

This is the inspiration for this organisation and this training. The course explored effective strategies for ‘psychosocial resilience’ or skills and tools for effective and sustainable activism. The course took a 3-prong approach to this work and building resilience.

1) Personal/individual 2) Organisational and teams 3) Wider socio-political structures


How can we sustain ourselves avoid burn out work with stress and traumas. How to we work we stress, grief our loss’s celebrate our victories?

We explored different factors that can lead to burnout; such things as interpersonal groups and relationships, social structures/cultures, personal practical and material needs personal psychological and emotional needs, personal behaviours and personal views and beliefs.

Personal habits such as taking on too much, not honouring my feelings and emotions and thinking too much into the past or future have all negatively affected me. By reflecting on a time we felt burned out and discussing the above factors supports us to develop self-awareness and emotional awareness. This supports us to continue in our work. I have found that if I can stay more mindful then I am better able to meet what is going on in the moment.

A lot of resilience training’s stop there. ‘How I can be more resilient’.  However, it is not enough to stop there. It is not good enough to be resilient in a dysfunctional system. To stop there would mean to be resilient; while we recreate the power structures at the expense of people and the planet.

Organisational and teams-

The second perspective looks at the role of   organisations and groups. And how teams operate or create unhelpful cultures and the power dynamics that lead to burn out. If we want to create regenerative cultures then we may need to transform our groups.

In the training we explored rank. This is the power that we have relative to others in our relationships, groups and communities. Privilege refers to the benefits and advantages that comes from ones rank.

Are we aware of our socio-economic positions, our gender, race, age, class, passport, language, religion and the unjustified/ unearned privilege this can give us.? How do we bring our own conditioning into our groups? Do we use our power constructively or destructively? Do we use it to control or collaborate?

These negative structures can either knowingly but more often unknowingly shape how we engage with the world. They have created privileges both obvious and subtle. They are structures that are a legacy of colonialism, of neo-liberalism, or patriarchy. They are a coincidence of where we are born. They are not inherent or earned. Our body, family, region, the socio-economic background that one is born into; all dictates our rank. I say this as a white, middle class, heterosexual European male. The system is literally built for me.

Exploring these topics in a training with 14 people, many from an LGBTQ background and/or different ethnicities was very powerful. Hearing about the ‘micro-aggressions’ that  some people face on a daily basis is a stark view of the reality of these systems of oppression.

Wider socio-political structures

The third and final prong is the wider socio-political system in which we live and which can be characterised as unequal, unfair and inherently destructive. This is why development education plays such a key role. We need to explore the roots and drivers of these structures and work to transform them.

The Irish health care system is one such system. Front line staff is put under enormous pressure. In April of this year figures released by the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation showed 10,000 admitted patients were forced to wait on trolleys and chairs; 106 children were among those waiting without a bed. In 2016 the EU ruled that Apple had received unfair tax incentives from the Irish government. They ruled that Apple owes the Irish government, so the Irish people €14bn disputed taxes and interest. Both the Irish government and Apple have appealed this decision. The guardian reported in 2018 that the “14.3bn would be enough to fund the country’s health service for a year”

This is just one example that illustrated how the rules are set up to work for big business and that if we want resilience we need to fight against these corporate structures that allows the rich to accumulate mass amount of wealth other wise we have a situation where the worlds 26 riches people own the same wealth as the poorest 50%. 

The Irish Health Service executive offer there staff resilience training. From a development education point of view it would be better to ask questions about income distribution and inequality. To redirect some of the mass amount of wealth from the few. To ensure companies pay fair tax bills. To put some of this money into the health service and the health of its people. To look after and support our nurses and health care workers rather then teaching mindfulness to nurses.

Bringing the 3 elements of resilience together

Of course each of these are interconnected. It is not about only looking at or working on one. We need to work on each of them. If we only look to challenge these big structures and don’t take the time to nurture our bodies, our minds and our relationships then we risk recreating the capitalist productivity paradigm in our activism and our daily life’s. We judge our value by how much we do.

If we only nurture our body, our minds and our relationships and don’t engage with the wider issues of society; take a critical look at the structures and the systems that are so damaging to people and the planet then we are complicit in the system.

In our families, groups and teams; It is sometime easy to talk about solidarity with the people of Palestine, with tribes of the Amazon, communities effected by extractivism and then forget to treat our family and friends, our colleagues, or the stranger on the street with respect, dignity love and compassion.

That said I would like to end with a quote “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Audre Lorde

Gareth Conlon has been involved in development education for over a decade and is our volunteer engagement project officer

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