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July/August 2001
Problem Solver and Seed Sower

The Satya Interview with Sarah Seeds


Sarah Seeds has been a political dissident since 1986. She has worked on many diverse campaigns including the anti-nuclear and environmental movements. She has worked for the past six years with the Ruckus Society as a trainer and practitioner of nonviolent direct action citizenship skills. The Ruckus Society is a volunteer organization that provides free training in the skills of nonviolent civil disobedience to help environmental and human rights organizations achieve their goals. Sarah talked to Samantha Knowlden about how she helps individual activists and groups deal with burnout.

What do you do with the Ruckus Society?
I’m a trainer, concentrating largely on teaching nonviolent methods of resistance and mentoring with groups and individuals who come through the Ruckus Society, as well as some legal work. I have found it to be one of the most encouraging environments I’ve ever worked in because the people are so committed to social change work and they continuously challenge us trainers to look at what we do and how we do it. They follow up on their trainings and we see the results of the work they do; it’s very encouraging.

What do you do with groups during trainings and facilitations?
A lot of it is mentoring, just eliciting the questions or being the excuse. I’ve worked with groups that have wanted to look at their process and deal with their internal stuff for months but they’re always too busy. There’s always another crisis and there’s somehow this guilty feeling that doing this internal work means that the real work isn’t getting done. When I’m in town they often use that as an excuse to stop and work on these issues.

A lot of the work I do is with groups who are stuck. They’re using consensus process and they’re following their agendas but things are not going well. Usually it’s just a matter of looking at how their community is treating itself and what things they can do to feel better about each other. Often, it’s just giving them a forum where there’s somebody in the room who is not part of the group itself, and who is not going to judge their behavior or their group based on the problems they’re having. That way they can free themselves up a little bit and talk about what’s going on in a safe and confidential space and ask questions. Most of what group trainers or facilitators do is direct traffic—ask a question that sparks a brainstorm and then sit back and let them go with it.

Often I will take the time to work on compassionate communication models because it is how we keep the problems from turning ugly and how we continue to communicate with each other during difficult situations. It can be applied to many different situations—during meetings or in affinity groups, liaising with cops, working with attorneys or being caught up in the legal system. It’s a nice respectful way of acknowledging that we may not all be on the same page at the same time. The compassionate communication model often gives groups the confidence to face each other about uncomfortable things without having it turn into something really ugly or scary.

What is your ultimate goal in doing this type of work?
I am one of those “nonviolence as a way of life” people and I truly believe that most of the problems that beset us and most of the issues we are working on are, if not stemming directly from, are certainly exacerbated by a lack of respect—whether it’s respect for one another, for divergent opinions, the planet, or respect for the past. One of my goals is to work with people to heighten their awareness of issues of respect; to give people tools to help them develop their own analysis of power dynamics; learning how to feel and intellectually identify the difference between “power with” and “power over.” “Power with” is emblematic of nonviolent approaches and respect; whereas “power over” represents violent and disrespectful approaches. For me it’s about giving people tools that will make them happier with themselves and less internally destructive and will allow them a better chance of getting along well with people that they have to interact with in their lives and tools to use in their relationships with those they love.

It’s hard to talk about your goals in work like this without sounding smarmy. I truly believe in the work of affinity groups [small, tight-knit, trust-based, non-hierarchical groups of activists who work together on direct action campaigns]. I believe in the effectiveness of affinity groups not only in direct action but also in keeping us sane and whole and healthy. If you have worked in affinity groups then you have people you can turn to who share your language and values.

People that I’ve trained or who have trained me often end up being affinity group members of mine—people that I stand side-by-side with at the barricades. They are people that I can turn to when I have something that I need to work out. It’s how I find my peers and it’s how I find my teachers and the people who I want to stay in touch with in my life—my family and my community.

Do you ever feel burned out doing this line of work and do you have ways of dealing with that?
I have often felt like I was fizzling out. When I first started doing this work I developed a stress addiction pretty quickly. One of the big keys to getting out of the red zone was when I figured out that the administrative work that I had been doing for years was not for me. We got a computer and that freed me up to figure out what kind of work I wanted to do. When I first had the opportunity to start doing nonviolence trainings, I didn’t think the work was for me because I had a bad temper and was very judgemental. I knew that non-judgmentalism and nonviolence was where I wanted to go but I didn’t make real progress until I began to teach it and to actually put it into practice. So getting out of the wrong job was a big help.

I have also learned that I need to do a daily workout where nobody bothers me and I don’t take calls during that time. One of the things I discovered is that sometimes thoughts about work or other problems creep into my workout and that’s when I know I am getting into a stress zone that I don’t want to be in. It acts as a flag for me to say, “Stop and deal.”

Another thing is, I have realized what my idea of a vacation is. At one point, I was on the road for 96 out of 104 weeks and I was living out of suitcases. I realized that my idea of a vacation is three days in a space that I control where all my things are organized and I don’t have to paw through stuff; where I have a really compatible space for working out; where I can take nice walks; and where I have people that I can choose to be with or not, without ruffling feathers. I realized this was my ideal vacation and I began to look at how I could build some of these vacation elements into my everyday life. One day, I got a wonderful bit of encouragement from a long-time activist whom I really admire when she said, “I really appreciate the way you set your boundaries.” And I thought, “Oh, these are boundaries? I thought I was just being selfish and taking advantage of my privilege!” But her point was that I was clear about the conditions I needed to help me work well, and the ones that I could get, I took, unapologetically. The ones I couldn’t get, I either tried to find ways to get every once in a while, gave up on completely, or simply said in some situations, “I don’t think I’ll be healthy in this particular situation. I don’t think this is the best job for me, let me suggest someone else who might be able to do it.” Those are things that I do for myself and that I recommend for people to look at.

What do you recommend for activist groups to avoid burnout?
When I’ve done conflict resolution work with groups, I’ve noticed that a lot of times when things are really messed up, people just need one of those sessions where everyone sits down and says, “Okay, I screwed up this way.” And pretty soon everybody’s acknowledging what they need to hear from each other: we share the blame, we share the responsibility. When we do a little deeper work, we find out that in almost every case, people have crossed their own boundaries. They’ve done things that they didn’t feel comfortable with, they’ve given someone in the group more authority than they wanted to give, or they haven’t spoken up about something that’s been upsetting them. That’s one way people begin to lose it. They start giving up on the stuff that’s really important to them or do not allow themselves to speak up when they need to.

The other interesting issue that usually comes out of these sessions is: what are you not doing in your life that you need to be doing to stay balanced and to give yourself the relaxing, relieving break you need to get your mind off this stuff for a little while? What I’ve found is that you’ve got a couple in the group whose only time together has been spent on the issue. You find out somebody’s not salsa dancing. You find out somebody’s not eating the right food or they’re not getting their food at the right time and their bio-clock is off. You find out all kinds of things and you begin to realize that we’re not taking care of ourselves.

What are some tips for how activists can help each other?
What I think really helps is to understand that we can’t go out there as people who don’t believe in double standards and agitate for sustainable environments, ecologies, and interpersonal relationships unless we are willing to do sustainable activism and take better care of ourselves. One of the things that we could be looking at is how we build that kind of sustainability, not only into our personal lives but into our group life, so that at some point, when you notice someone is stressed or you realize there is a voice you’re not hearing any more or you sense a problem, you can actually go up and say, “Hey, did you salsa dance this week?” Whatever it is, it is important to check in with one another and know what people want. We don’t do it often enough and we don’t always know how.

If you’re worrying about your weight or your skin problems and someone sees that you’re depressed and hands you chocolate, that’s not going to make you happy. So I recommend “10 Cheap and Easy Ways to Spoil Me” where everyone in the group writes down ten cheap and easy things that will help them when they’re having a bad day. For the system to work, everybody has to participate because it makes it easier for people who have a hard time stating their needs. You can write down anything: get me an interesting juice; check in with me and give me a shoulder massage; get me away from the computer and outside for a walk; or remind me that I’m not practicing yoga enough and go over some poses with me. That way everybody knows what everybody needs and you can work on your little stash of treats and walk up to a person and just ask, “Is this a good time to work on your shoulders?” or whatever. It helps us nurture each other. It allows us to ask for what we want and it keeps us from inadvertently doing the wrong thing. It’s those kinds of awarenesses that are necessary.

If you have trouble taking care of yourself or letting go of things, you can use deadlines to protect yourself. And they can be personal or organizational. For example, if I’m working with a group with a lot of conflict and they keep putting off an important process-related agenda item, I have a calendar in my head that says, at the third meeting, if it’s not covered, leave. If you stay with a group and you don’t have those kinds of reassurances built into the process you’re going to end up being frustrated and angry. If you’re somebody who needs to go out dancing regularly, put a note on your calendar reminding yourself to set up a night out. Do this until you get to a place where you can do it for yourself without help. You’re really looking to build what you need into your life and, for a while, if you need to make notes to remind yourself or if you need to have your friends check in with you, then do that.

The other concept I ask people to consider is that your blood moving through your veins and arteries is what keeps your body healthy and alive. If your blood gets stopped up in any one place, the very thing that feeds your life can kill you. If you think of your emotions as that kind of system, as your psychological bloodstream, any emotion that you dam up becomes like a blood clot. An emotional clot can congeal into a hard core of bitterness and resentment and, emotionally and psychologically, that will kill you. It’s better to be angry and keep that emotion cycling until you’ve worked with it and turned it into something else or worked it through the system so many times that it’s just washed out and lost its strength. You’ve got to keep those things moving. That means you’ve got to be able to acknowledge what’s going on inside you; maybe you can work it out yourself or maybe you have to talk to someone else and be willing to trust them with that information. Again, it goes back to affinity groups and buddies.

To learn more about the Ruckus Society see or call 510-848-9565.


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