The Ebb and Flow of Working for Change


Image  /      FRANK HURLEY

Rach is an environmental scientist with a fascination for understanding ecosystems and human beings. She is an ambitious, yet imperfect activist and pilates practitioner, and believes the foundations of sustainable change-making are built upon a strong core, time spent in nature, connecting with others, and trusting in the old adage, “you never know unless you try”. 

We’ve all been there, 

The social media spiral.

Images and images of the refugee crisis and war in Ukraine, two devastating floods in the Northern Rivers, another mass bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef, another fossil fuel project approved, another outrageous comment from our politicians…Scroll, scroll, scroll. 

Suddenly it’s midnight, and you have inadvertently been on a journey through sadness, anger, frustration, anxiety, overwhelm and finally paralysis. A cycle from stimulation to desperation to exhaustion.  

The next morning you get up, fatigued, and are immediately absorbed by your work, to-do lists, checking in with a friend who’s just been through a breakup, remembering to call your Mum, and other, more immediate concerns. 

In our busy lives, where our energy is constantly being pulled in many different directions, it is so challenging to have any fuel left over to give to the causes we care about. All of us have a desire to create positive change, to create ripple effects beyond our own personal lives that build a fairer world. Whether we agree with the label or not, we are all engaged in ‘activism’. 

The state of overwhelm we find ourselves in after a late-night ‘doom-scrolling’ can completely extinguish any passionate fire in our belly and research shows that exposing ourselves to a constant stream of bad news can compromise the creative, problem-solving centers in our brain. We end up feeling helpless, guilty, unmotivated and completely unsure of where to begin. 

The solution to global issues like climate change can feel so far out of our personal power, but we each have many tools at our disposal for creating incremental change: our voice, our vote, our time, our talents, our wallet, our networks and our story. As activist and academic, Joycelyn Longdon (@climateincolour) puts it, “Our best work happens when it is rooted in who we already are… the climate movement must focus on transformative collective action that celebrates people’s varied interests, capabilities, relationships, commitments and strengths”.  

Not sure where to begin when it comes to creating change? Start here - via Dr Ayana Elizabeth Johnston (@ayanaelizabeth)


The challenge is harnessing these tools in a way that is sustainable, so that we can keep giving without burning out, keep navigating what often feels like a torrent of disappointments, and keep pushing for transformation. Recently, I was listening to a podcast by Brene Brown (a significant guiding light in my life), where she interviewed her friend and author Karen Walrond about working for change without losing joy. Karen spoke about activism as being about ‘ebb and flow’ - or as I like to see it -  a cycle of building, amplifying, channeling and recharging our energy:

Activism, in order to have longevity in the work, has to have a rhythm to it…there’s an ebb and there’s a flow… sometimes you go in hard and you fight, sometimes you have to stop. We inhale and exhale. Everything has a rhythm. Everything has a rhythm.

Karen Walrond

The critical element here is that we need a way to channel and address the uncomfortable, painful emotions that inevitably arise when confronted with injustice. We need a tangible, practical means to direct this energy, because as uncomfortable as they are, emotions like anger, outrage and empathy are precious fuel for action. However, it’s not possible to “maintain the rage” forever and this is where the ‘ebb’ of the cycle - ‘recharging’ or ‘restoring’ our energy - taking care of ourselves - is critical. It’s also important to acknowledge that being able to do this is a privilege, as for many marginalized groups whose very existence is politicized, taking a break from activism is not an option. This makes our sustained engagement with change all the more critical. 

I’d like to walk you through some ideas of how to direct and regenerate your change-making energy. 

“Build” - Get informed and inspired

HOUSE OF SCULPT love talking about building heat in their classes, and this is the first step to building your internal activism flame. With the election coming up, it’s time to harness one of your changemaking tools: your vote. Engaging with politics in Australia can be super off putting and confusing, but it’s really important that we know who we are elevating to positions of power. To get informed, listen to this Left Right Out episode explaining Australia’s voting system, how preferencing works and the two houses of Parliament; head to Vote Earth Now for a climate scorecard for each party and They Vote For You to see how your local Member has voted on key issues in the past; and follow Greens senator @larissawaters who often releases a ‘how your senators voted this week' post on Instagram. 

To get inspired, listen to 100 Climate Conversations, a Powerhouse Museum project interviewing visionary Australians working for change on climate or How To Save a Planet, stories about the mess we're in and how we can get ourselves out of it. On Instagram, follow filmmaker @damon.gameau (and watch his films ‘2040’ and ‘Regenerating Australia’) for a vision of a greener, fairer Australia and for stories from inspiring activists, resources, actions and explainers. Read this ‘Systems Change’ issue of Dumbo Feather magazine and ‘All We Can Save”, an anthology of writings by 60 women at the forefront of the climate movement. Finally, if I haven’t fangirled her enough, listen to Brene Brown’s podcasts where she interviews people who are challenging social norms and culture around emotions, courage, success, leadership, belonging and work culture. 

“Channel” - Take action

Once you have built momentum, it’s critical to channel or direct this energy into an action, otherwise you end up in the ‘anger-fear-anxiety-overwhelm-exhaustion spiral’. If you have signed up to the mailing lists of change-making organizations or advocacy groups, they will often send you specific calls to action such as signing open letters, making submissions or making a donation. They have already done all of the research for you and it takes a lot of the decision-fatigue out of taking action. Stop scrolling, click the ‘link in bio’ and follow through with your energy. Try to engage with at least one of these a week. 

Our engagement as a citizen doesn’t just end with our three-yearly vote. At any time, you can contact your local Member, government minister, or a company/brand that you think could be doing better. If there’s an issue you really care about, use your Voice and your Story,  write an email or call the relevant Minister expressing your concerns, what you would like to see changed and ask them what they plan to do to address the issue. Just like in any relationship, communication and feedback are key, and it’s important to call out unacceptable actions, and let decision-makers (or companies) know what we expect from them. Your channel for action could also be in your workplace - how can you offer feedback, insights or ideas to make your workplace culture safer, more accessible, more sustainable and inclusive in ways that are not just performative.

“Amplify” - Connect with community 

Tap into your Networks and your Talents, find your people, like minded friends or colleagues at work, engage with community groups (or start one) and have conversations on issues you care deeply about. Look to organizations aligned to your values and get behind their calls to action. 

You never know what incredible ideas, or initiatives you might cook up with like-minded people - this is where the ‘joy’ of activism can live. Recently, a friend of mine brought together a group of women for a life-drawing night where we spoke a lot about bodies and perfectionism and shame. Since then, we’ve been using a Whatsapp chat to share events, plan hikes and Women’s circles, attend protests together and are discussing hosting a community film screening. Find your people and the energy will grow.

“Recharge” - Connect with joy, stillness, ritual

Recharge, restore, reconnect. You can’t give from an empty cup and so engage in the practices and rituals that allow you to be your best self. Breathing through a pilates class in the early morning, having your friends over for dinner and laughing til your belly hurts, dancing to your favourite band, diving into the sea, noticing little details on a sunset stroll, journalling or seeing a therapist. To quote the ever-wise Karen Walrond again: “Stopping and accessing joy and accessing gratitude is what reminds us what we’re fighting for, it reminds us what we want for the rest of the world”. For me, I find trail-running or walking in a nearby National Park is my restorative practice - like nature therapy. Suddenly I leave the overwhelming world behind and it’s just me and the trees. It’s bliss. I also love doing Nic and Sash’s classes because they make me feel strong, they challenge me, and I get to swear a bit when the burn kicks in (an important outlet for stress). 

Find your ebb and flow, your balance, and your why. Engaging with and bearing witness to social and political change is never easy, but is always worth it. 

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