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Wednesday, May 05, 2021
A graphic depicted an exhausted woman holding up a sign that says "Can you just like, stop hating already?"

Burnt Out: Madison’s student activists prioritize the community’s needs over their own

Fifty minutes. That’s the amount of time that Sam Jorudd spent of his brief spring break in a meeting with the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s administration. As the Chair of ASM’s Grants Allocation Committee and a junior at UW, Jorudd had been working to ensure that the University properly allocated emergency relief grants to students. He and the UW BIPOC noticed that the University had received these funds, but not dispersed them. 

Jorudd has tried to meet with Laurent Heller, the Vice Chancellor for Finance and Administration, for the past two semesters, but says Heller consistently refuses. 

“Everyone who was there wasn't able to provide us with any information we didn't already know. The student portion of the federal funding that's already been spent — it's gone,” Jorudd said. “I guess we didn't really discover that; we had an inkling already. I actually had that meeting during the time that I would have class today. That meeting went longer than class did. I spent my only 50 minutes off in a meeting with [the] administration.”

UW-Madison student advocates, organizers and activists like Jorudd are balancing classwork, jobs and preparation for graduation on top of fighting for social justice and basic student needs. This often takes the form of attending meetings that run until 3 a.m., attending and organizing marches, researching complex legislation and battling pushback from powerful figures like University administrators and city staff. They have to burn the candle at every end, but their wicks are getting dangerously short.

The COVID-19 pandemic added to this stress with online classes, social isolation, financial insecurity and limited job prospects for graduates. On top of that, UW-Madison opted for a reduced spring break by canceling classes from Friday, April 2, to Sunday, April 4, to discourage students from traveling. However, UW-Madison failed to account for the students who use spring break as a time to rest and recharge

“The unfortunate truth for me is that I want good grades, money, no racism, no prejudice within the university, money for students who need it and the list goes on and on,” Jorudd said. “For me, it's more stressful standing by and being complacent when noticing racism, prejudice, inequities and hate as a whole. Now, I have to sit here trying to be like, ‘well, do I fight racism today? Or do I fight admin?’”

Student activists have more on their plates than the average student, especially during a semester defined by a pandemic. That can corrode mental and physical health while rippling out to color every aspect of someone’s life. This can lead to burnout, a severe stress condition identified by exhaustion, isolation and irritability. Burnout is common in people with high-stress jobs and environments, and it not only affects people’s mental health, but can have detrimental effects on physical health too from headaches to loss of sleep. 

A study done in 2020 by Paul Gorski of George Mason University examined the main causes of burnout among racial justice activists. He identified four major causes for burnout in activists of diverse age, gender and race: structural, emotional-dispositional, backlash and in-movement causes. 

Structural challenges

The structure of American political and legal systems can make activism, especially for racial justice, a Sisyphean challenge. Madison’s activists feel that changing an oppressive system from within is not only exhausting, but almost impossible. 

“It's running into the same goddamn wall over and over and over again, just to get something through or an idea through,” said Elena Haasl, a UW-Madison student and Dane County’s District 5 Supervisor.

Haasl is the only student on the Board of Supervisors. Their colleagues are at least twice their age, and some have been on the board since the 1980s. According to Haasl, the Board is unreceptive to the urgent concerns of younger generations, leaving them as the sole advocate for students in the Madison area.

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“I think about the carceral system — the entire system of policing, affordable housing, food insecurity, homelessness,” Haasl said. “It's not going to go away within one term, but if we're not actively making decisions now to direct where we want to go with society or democracy in general, then it needs to come from the younger generations.”

Haasl’s ideas often get dismissed as “idealistic” or “unrealistic,” but they believe that the Board of Supervisors has the power to enact change that reflects the concerns and serves the well-being of Dane County. They are currently advocating for stopping the construction of Dane County’s new jail project. Haasl and some other supervisors believe that the time, money and energy spent on incarceration would be better spent on meeting community needs like education and food insecurity, especially for newly-released prisoners.

“What if we just didn't build it?” Haasl said. “We can still turn this ship around, if there's people willing to recognize that and empathize with that and get out of the mindset that it's just not possible.” 

These structural barriers to change have left Haasl frustrated and burnt-out, though they still feel that their electoral and advocacy work is worth the stress. 

“There's a lot of things that just make it worth it, like being able to build relationships with people, being able to work with community members and really getting them involved and excited about the process,” Haasl said. “In my class, I brought up the jail project and I had people messaging me asking ‘Wait, how can I get involved in this?’ It's rewarding to see people recognize the work and recognize that they have a part in it too. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.” 

Emotional toll

Emotional attachment to a cause can drive an activist’s passion to create change, but it can also foster feelings of exhaustion and burnout among activists. According to Gorki’s study, when focusing on racial justice movements, activists of color often deal with more of this kind of burnout because they have to deal with the added stress of both living with and fighting white supremacy. 

BIPOC Coalition co-founder and District 8 Alder-elect Juliana Bennett has strong personal ties to her activism and political involvement. The Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 sparked her desire to make Madison a more equitable and welcoming space for everyone — especially Black and Indigenous people of color. 

“[Police brutality] scares the living shit out of me. When I see George Floyd, I see my dad. When I see Breonna Taylor, I see myself. I see my cousins,” Bennett said. “The things that we take on, they're really heavy issues. There's a lot riding on it and if you don't do it, who else is going to do it?”

This personal tie led Bennett and other UW-Madison students to found the BIPOC Coalition. The BIPOC Coalition collaborates with other identity-based student and city groups to uplift racially diverse voices and advocate for actionable change towards a more inclusive campus. Since its founding this past fall, the BIPOC Coalition has organized marches and events, worked with the Associated Students of Madison to improve the University’s COVID response and coordinated donations and supply drives for community organizations. 

Bennett has been so involved with ASM, the BIPOC Coalition and her recent campaign for District 8 Alder that she feels it has bled into every aspect of her life. She often has to prioritize her activist work over her education. 

“Sometimes it does feel like school is an extracurricular activity. It's tough when you know that what you're doing is making real-world, actual change,” Bennett said. “This year between the involvement with the campaign, with the BIPOC Coalition, I actually had to take a step back. I'm here for an education, but also it's really impactful to know what you're doing is making a difference.” 

Bennett feels fatigued from her full plate, but not burnt out quite yet. She finds joy and support in the community of activists she has helped to create within the BIPOC Coalition and her campaign team. 

Backlash

ASM Chair Matthew Mitnick has worked closely with Bennett and the BIPOC Coalition, and his activist interpretation of his role has sparked controversy. Mitnick faced backlash from the university administration in meetings and on social media, which is another leading cause of activist burnout. 

Although he admits this year has been challenging, Mitnick remains stoic and tries to keep his emotions separate from his work. 

“I voluntarily went into this role,” Mitnick said. “I think a lot [about what] stress, anxiety and targeting the administration has done towards myself and others. Going into this role, I kind of knew this is what was going to happen and  just had to accept it.”

In light of student organizations coming together against the UWPD last year, Mitnick announced via Twitter on Oct. 12 that he, too, personally supported abolishing the department. The official campus police account responded, stating that Mitnick was sending them “#mixed messages” by saying he was in favor of abolishing UWPD while also being a part of ASM’s reform efforts.

Mitnick saw this as a personal attack from an administrative body towards a student and found it unacceptable. 

“By [writing] that tweet, they made it about me, which then put us in a pretty bad position because they completely distracted everybody,” Mitnick said. “I mean, that was intentional. I remember I saw the tweet and I [was] confused why a university official account is tweeting at individual students and referencing things from meetings.” 

When Mitnick brought his concerns to other administrators, he felt no support. According to Mitnick, UW System President Tommy Thompson did not know how to respond; the Vice Chancellor for Finance and Administration, Laurent Heller, refused to address it. Christina Olstad, the Dean of Students, even sent Mitnick a list of mental health resources. 

“That's when it [became clear] to me that these people really will do anything to suppress any sort of student advocacy,” Mitnick recalled. “They make you feel like you're the issue.”

Mitnick, Bennett and other student activists have found a recent group therapy session with University Health Services to be cathartic and helpful. It started as a conversation with UHS about crisis response teams, but when Mitnick mentioned how Olstad referred mental health resources to him, UHS offered to hold a group therapy session for them. The activists opened up to one another and discussed their self-care strategies, or lack thereof. 

Madison’s activist communities look out for each other. According to Bennett, the BIPOC Coalition members always check in with each other to make sure their colleagues are fed, hydrated and rested, but are less consistent in checking in with themselves. 

Many of Madison’s student activists cited both accomplishing change and building a supportive community with other activists as reasons why they continue to do this stressful, exhausting work. 

In-movement causes

Gorki’s final cause for activist burnout comes from within activist groups. Egos clash and energy gets directed towards competition and in-fighting rather than the cause at hand. Jorudd, Bennett, Hassl and Mitnick all acknowledged that even the healthiest activist groups can run into “drama,” but they seem to have an overwhelmingly positive relationship with one another. The BIPOC Coalition checks in with each other to make sure that everyone has what they need. They accept each other’s non-traditional coping mechanisms, from spontaneous bang trims to tattoos. 

Ultimately, activist work has brought Madison’s student activists sleep deprivation, eye strain and tense muscles, but it has also created a community of people who genuinely care about each other and their causes.

As Bennett is sworn in on April 20, she will be promising to serve as the Dis. 8 Alder for the next two years — something the past three alders to represent the UW campus have not done. 

Avra Reddy stepped down in 2019 after serving six months, citing a family illness, and Sally Rohrer served as the interim Dis. 8 Alder for five months until an April election could be held. Max Prestigiacomo ran uncontested, and while he initially stated that he planned to run again, he made the ultimate decision to move on from the Common Council after his special one-year term was completed. 

Prestigiacomo cited burnout and a desire to be more involved with community organizing as his reasoning for doing so. He also wanted to step aside to make space for more BIPOC representation in government.

Prestigiacomo noted that it was uncomfortable to be vulnerable as a politician; setting boundaries is difficult when he gets phone calls at 10 p.m. from Common Council members. Talking candidly about his mental health opened Prestigiacomo up for criticism and manipulation rather than support. 

Still, Prestigiacomo feels optimistic that the next generation of alders, especially Bennett, can begin to normalize self-care and community needs in local government and activist work, changing the system for the better. 

“The advice I'm going to be giving to my successor is that I've started to feel how being vulnerable and just acknowledging those feelings [is important], and also having friends to talk with about it who are, to be frank, also involved in politics,” said Prestigiacomo. “I don't think I could talk to some of my friends that aren't going to every council meeting about what I'm feeling. Maybe I could, but I think there are others that could help relate more.” 

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