Relational Activism

In recent years, I have observed a development in the activist field that seems interesting and significant to me. A number of activists are self-critically reflecting on the premises of their own actions. They ask themselves to what extent their conventional strategies are ineffective or even counterproductive. They discuss among themselves what more effective activism might look like. In this blogpost, I would like to describe some of these discussions against the background of my own experiences at the intersection of outer transformation and inner work.

joana breidenbach
26 min readOct 25, 2023
Image generated with Midjourney

Part 1: The self-reflexive turn

I first describe some of the reasons behind the self-reflexive turn. Then I outline one of these critiques in detail; Anthea Lawson’s thesis of Entangled Activism. From there, I draw on contemporary trauma research and my own experience in a training for Collective Trauma Facilitation to explore the ways in which trauma shapes and limits the range of our actions as activists. Following these analyses, I describe the foundations of a “relational activism” that is lovingly aware of its own entanglement in the polycrises it seeks to resolve. I outline the work of some trauma-sensitive NGOs and outline which inner competencies may help to develop new, effective attitudes and strategies.

I am writing these reflections in an attempt to situate myself and involve others, especially you as a reader, in the process of discovery. In the coming months, I and my colleagues at the betterplace lab and will have various opportunities — from lectures to workshops to a research group lasting several months — to delve deeper into the topic of “relational activism” and hope to contribute more than this first sketch can.

To begin with, although these articles question some established activist approaches, I am also deeply convinced of the necessity of activist work and value many organisations and actors as essential components of our societies so heavily dominated by economic and political forces. Likewise, I have come to believe that organised civil society needs an update in order to find and implement truly adequate, innovative responses to the pressing issues of our time. Otherwise, it will continue to contribute to fragmentation and polarisation, and thus unconsciously to a deepening of the polycrises. I offer the ideas and answers outlined here as part of such an update.

Three reasons behind the critical self-exploration

Since its emergence in the 1970s, there have been significant periodic waves of self-criticism and reflection in the international NGO and activism scene. I am interested here in the voices that have been questioning their own work in recent years. The motivations for this current self-analysis are complex, but three factors stand out to me:

First, many activists see that their work is not producing the desired impact. In the face of worsening meta-crises in key areas of life such as climate, democracy, mental health and surveillance capitalism, activists are admitting to themselves that they are failing to achieve their goals, and indeed that the world is moving further away than ever from their vision. For example, human rights activists are speaking out openly that with the EU’s tightening migration policies, their work of the past decades has failed. Outstanding environmental activists, including the spokesperson of Extinction Rebellion UK, publicly state that their actions are scaring more people away instead of winning them over to the environmental movement. In the same vein, one of the founders of Occupy writes that the 99% are now further away than ever from changing power relations in a sustainable way. The gap between activist tactics and the power of extractive capitalism and fracturing democratic structures seems unbridgeable and one’s own failure almost inevitable.

Secondly, many activist, civil society organisations are currently going through internal crises themselves. Teams explode because diverse staff members clash over central issues, such as questions about power, identity, privileges and discrimination. The heated atmosphere can partly be seen as an outlet for larger frustrations: those who feel powerless in the socio-political arena of Trumpisation become all the stricter guardians of morality in their own more manageable private and professional arenas. At the same time, however, these conflicts are not always compensatory actions. Instead organisations that have set out to combat central pathologies in society such as racism or polarisation are naturally confronted with the same dynamics within their teams. But because these issues are complex and deep-seated, those involved often rightly feel overwhelmed and lack the competencies to work through them effectively in a constructive way.

And thirdly, more and more activists and campaigners are admitting to the high personal price they pay for their work. They feel overwhelmed, desperate and burnt out; their livelihoods are often precarious and insecure. One figure can illustrate this: In a survey of young social entrepreneurs and activists in the ChangemakerxChange network, 59% of all respondents reported experiencing burnout and only 9% were able to fully support themselves with their work (2022).

Entangled Activism

In all these cases, it is easy to blame external factors: regressive, populist politicians, narrow-minded staff, insufficient resources for common good-oriented work. And although such external factors play an important role, the activists I am interested in here not only externalise these problems but also turn inward. They reflect on the extent to which they themselves are entangled with the problems they are trying to solve. They question how their own attitudes and needs, behaviours and activities contribute to the systemic gridlock and may even exacerbate it.

2021 saw the publication of The Entangled Activist by British activist and campaigner Anthea Lawson, a book that openly explores how activism is entangled in the very problems it seeks to resolve. The author looks back on a long NGO career during which she helped plug tax holes, expose corruption and ban cluster bombs, among other things. In The Entangled Activist, she describes her own journey of discovery. “After years of thinking that her task was to ‘get the bastards,’ Lawson came to see that activism often emerges from the same troubles it is trying to fix, and that its demons, including righteousness, saviourism, burnout and treating other people badly, can be a gateway to understanding the depth of what really needs to change”.

Among the thought patterns and actions that have led to the polycrises in the areas of climate, democracy or surveillance capitalism, among others, is our hyper-individualistic view of humans, which assumes that we are the crowning glory of creation and can order the world according to our own needs. The same conviction is held by many activists, social entrepreneurs and other committed people. Only now they no longer want to exploit the world, but to heal and restore it.

In a recent article political scientist Hanno Burmester describes this rescue thinking as follows:

Since modern times, we in the West have seen ourselves as individuals who order and shape the world through our actions. Where we have hitherto decided to conquer, plunder and exploit, we now want to make amends, give back, heal. I prefer the latter to the former. But it remains the case that in our self-image it is we who order. That we recognise nature as an object, not as a multiplicity of co-actors.
This hubris, cultivated over centuries, makes us forget that it is not we who create order. Nor is it we who heal. The fragile order of the ecosystem creates itself in the interplay of all life. At best, we contribute a small part to supporting this movement in a healing way.

The separation between humans and nature is mirrored on a smaller scale in the separation that many activists perceive between themselves and the world. According to Lawson, they see a twisted, false world “out there” and their task is to change it. Knowing themselves to be more knowledgeable than others, more altruistic and valuable than the dull majority population or the evil perpetrators, it is easy to feel arrogant and “better” and to be correspondingly opinionated towards others.

Activist strategies build pressure. Some use “blame and shame” tactics that are blatantly contrary to their own principles, for example when human rights activists deny their opponents any inherent humanity. It is particularly critical when one’s own position is not only seen as “right” but also as morally superior and the opponent as “evil”. These patterns are further reinforced by the fact that we are in an existentially dangerous situation and the inner pressure and fear of many activists is enormous. Thus, the problem-based rhetoric of many activists contributes to an increasing climate of fear and insecurity.

It is hardly suprising that these waves of pressure meet with resistance, not only among the group of direct antagonists, but also among the broader population. For pressure creates counter-pressure. The directly or indirectly addressed target groups feel misunderstood, accused and persecuted. Thus, in the broader public, fewer and fewer people identify with activists, but reject them as aggressive and know-it-all, even though they themselves are concerned about the state of the world and want alternatives.

Can we acknowledge that we are part of the problem? And thus in the best position to become part of the solution?

Campaigners and activists who are good at identifying enemies on the outside tend to conduct internal conflicts along the same lines. In recent months, I have spoken to several organisations working within the area of diversity and solidarity who face heated discussions within their own teams around racism and structural discrimination. A similar situation is known from US NGOs where Black women employees, empowered by the Black Lives Matter movement, spoke out for the first time about their experiences of discrimination in the workplace and new fronts between white and Black colleagues, people with and without disabilities, or other subgroups became highly visible and contested. In recent years, blatant abusive practices and discrimination have come to light in numerous NGOs around the world, the very forms of toxic dominance hierarchies that these organisations want to combat. (I will go into more detail about the role of identity politics in activism in a later blogpost).

Now it is not surprising that organisations working on systemic grievances are also confronted with these internally. This starts with the founding impulse of many activist organisations: Often people choose a particular grievance and social issue because they themselves are closely connected to it and want to transform it. On the basis of this starting point, activists then try to work with each other, but since racism and structural discrimination, disinformation and radicalisation are not surface phenomena that we can eliminate with a few structural measures, they inevitably erupt within the organisations themselves. Dealing with them then requires not only an intellectual strategy, but a deep inner transformation. It requires intrinsic motivation, vulnerability and adequate resources on the part of those involved to metabolize the challenge itself. Yet these conditions necessary for effective self-exploration are lacking in many organisations.

This in turn is also connected to the organisational culture itself. For in this area, too, activists and changemakers are ominously entangled with the structures they/we ourselves want to change. Many NGOs deplore the capitalist mania for growth and the fake ethos of the meritocracy. At the same time, we ourselves create an uncanny pressure to perform. Our schedules are bursting, we are extremely output-oriented and try to scale our offerings worldwide. We compete with other organisations for funding opportunities. This prevents not only self-critical reflection, but also meaningful collaborations between organisations that are actually pursuing the same goal.

Socialised into a society that values hard results, numbers and facts more highly than the subjective and qualitative facets of life, it is not surprising that the activist world is also out of balance. In many aspects, except for the salary, working in a transnational NGO differs little from working in a transnational corporation. A Carnegie Trust report on the climate in civil society organisations states that “kindness, emotions and human relationships are blind spots.”” No wonder that the quality of life of many activists is poor, replete with burnout, anxiety, aggression and depression.

However, more and more civically engaged people are becoming aware that they only show certain “professional” facets of their personality in their organisations and that their tender, soft and deeper parts are stunted in the process. At the same time, they see that this hiding and managing of their own needs and interests has a direct impact on their work, their strategies, their rhetoric and their behaviour. In concrete terms: people who are alienated from central aspects of their own lives cannot initiate holistic change processes on the outside.

Part 2: Trauma, fragmentation and relationality

For some years now, I have been working intensively on collective trauma together with my friends and colleagues from, Bettina Rollow, Anjet Sekkat and Jana Schmitz. Within the framework of a Collective Trauma Facilitation Training, initiated by Thomas Hübl, we are exploring in a group of one hundred participants from all over the world how collective transgressions and wounds continue to have an effect into the present. These include profoundly violent events and dynamics such as slavery, colonialism and the Holocaust, but also patriarchal structures or homophobia.

Trauma and the Story of Separation

One of the core theses of collective trauma work is that overwhelming events and violent structures of dominance limit the ability to feel not only of individuals but of entire groups. Thomas Hübl describes how in trauma the world splits into I and The Other: In order to protect their own core, the overwhelmed person turns away from many parts of reality. In the course of this exclusion, they no longer relate to central aspects of themselves and their environment. On this distorted perception, whole groups of similarly injured people build collective structures, values and norms, institutions and lifestyles, which are in turn permeated by pathological patterns.

As newborns, we come into this supposedly “normal” but deeply distorted reality, adapt to it, but also continually chafe at the dissonances that inevitably arise when trauma-generated structures meet sentient and clear-thinking people.

Collective trauma causes us to feel like separate beings. In healthy relationships, another person emerges fully within me, i.e. I can map him or her in my own nervous system. But trauma blocks this process so that a counterpart can only partially emerge in me. This is the origin of “othering”. Charles Eisenstein calls this incomplete perception the “Story of Separation” and contrasts it with Thich Nhat Hanh’s concept of “Interbeing”, the perfect connectedness and continuity of all organic and inorganic entities. Interbeing means that we as human beings do not actively need to establish relationships with each other, with nature or with the cosmos, because everything is already interrelated anyway.

But born into seperation and fragmentation, we perpetuate it continuously: everything we cannot relate to appears “foreign” or “strange” to us. We create a world in which we only feel connected to ever smaller niches and bubbles of reality and devalue other perspectives, ways of being and behaving as “different and wrong”. By explicitly speaking AGAINST the status quo, certain social groups and beliefs, activist voices are in danger of producing more enemy images, thereby solidifying polarisation.

Yet to find adequate answers to the enormous challenges surrounding us, we need more people than ever to come together and work out solutions. Fragmentation prevents us to gain a common orientation and intention on how to deal with the climate catastrophe, the growing gap between rich and poor, the opportunities and risks of artificial intelligence or authoritarian rulers in such a way that planet Earth is worth living for as many people as possible.

The question this raises for activists is this: How can we develop strategies and solutions that are less fragmented and instead incorporate more reality?

The antidote to exclusion is a deeper understanding of seperation

During the Collective Trauma Training I learned that this question is premature. If we are deeply entangled in traumatic structures, we need to first recognise them more fully in ourselves, our culture and our institutions. Thus, the antidote to exclusion is not inclusion but (first of all) a deeper recognition of exclusion. Exclusion is so deeply rooted in our (mainstream) identity that we confuse it with “normality”. We are like fish in water who do not realise that water is a very special substance. That’s why in our training we mainly explored which “water” we live in and how exclusion works in us. What is my current experience of me, you and the world? What can I relate to and what do I need to exclude (because it threatens my sense of security/identity)? What do I need to keep at a distance by judging it negatively? Where am I part of the existing system and prolonging it through my beliefs and actions?

This exploration requires great courage, because we have not excluded large parts of reality because they are so beautiful and pleasant, but because they are full of suffering and pain.

For me personally, this exploration also meant parting with cherished self-images. As a social entrepreneur, I had the feeling that I already embodied holistic values such as an orientation towards potentiality and social progress. Wasn’t I already on the “good side of history”? From this lofty pedestal, it was easy to look down on for-profit entrepreneurs who were “still” stuck in the old system and only cared for their profit margins. Today, I am more aware of how much I devalue and “other” certain attitudes and forms of behaviour and strengthen certain divisions accordingly.

My learning process is to observe carefully how I relate to people with other value systems. Can I really engage with my counterpart? Can I create an open relational space where I feel myself, feel my counterpart and feel that he or she feels me? (Thomas Hübl’s definition of the relational space). The question I ask myself is this: Does the other person show up in my own backyard, or do I see them on the other side of the garden fence? In the latter case, I might hear acoustically what he or she has to say to me, but I do not feel a deeper human connection. I don’t fully host my counterpart in my own nervous system, but only partially relate to them as a mental construct, a template that I can easily devalue.

Relational capacity and multi-perspectivity

For some years now, I have been exploring this area of contact between myself and other people more and more deeply. Thus, I find it difficult to relate to people whose worldviews diametrically contradict my, more scientific-rational worldview. In the Corona pandemic, I was able to experience directly how much people who rejected scientific knowledge about the virus triggered me. In a workshop with Thomas Hübl, which I describe in more detail in this (German language) podcast, I became aware of how much my own psychological security depends on my counterpart sharing my rational worldview. The roots of this lie in my childhood: I was born into an emotionally volatile family and books and knowledge were vital stabilisers for me. They shaped my identity so decisively that today, as an adult, I still find it threatening when this foundation is called into question.

What is important about this learning process is that expanding my ability to relate does not mean that I agree with other people. I always find it a milestone in my personal development when I manage to engage more deeply with other perspectives and at the same time see clearly, and say so, that I do not share a certain view, find it dangerous or off-putting. But this “related boundary setting” that comes out of connection has a very different quality than a boundary setting and judgement that is based on separation.

As I learn to see myself more clearly, I also become aware of how little I can grasp the world “out there” in its diversity. I look at the world and see my own desires, projections, stereotypes, evaluations. In the collective trauma training, we participants were able to explore how our imprinting structures our perception. In the course of our socialisation we have developed a certain inner architecture that sees some ideas and facets as “good and normal” and devalues others as “wrong and inferior”.

The processes involved are not so easy to grasp. At first glance, it seems as if my counterpart triggers me or someone else is “difficult”. However, when viewed at a higher resolution, something actually happens that Bettina Rollow described very vividly in one of our webinars: When I meet someone else whom I perceive as “difficult” and “wrong”, I perceive this by an unpleasant sensation arising in my body to which I cannot relate. Thus, it’s less the case of my counterpart “creating something in me”, but me witnessing an interruption in my authentic self-contact. If I no longer feel “normal” and cannot hold what arises within me — I cannot build a relationship with this aspect in me — then this unsettles me and leads to an unpleasant, negative, triggered sense of self. In order to get rid of this, I interrupt the contact with my counterpart and automatically devalue him or her. In other words, when I am triggered and cannot relate to a part in myself, I have to externalise it and look for an external culprit. This is the opposite of multiperspectivity. Because multiperspectivity would mean that I recognise myself in the other and am able to host a much wider range of attitudes and behaviours.

At first glance, this may seem absurd: Why should I, a generous and kind person, be able to perceive aspects like greed or violence in myself? But the deeper I explored myself, the more I was able to contact my own greed or potential for violence. I had to come to the humbling realisation that I too carry these facets within me.

In the course of our work with collective trauma fields, we participants had to admit to ourselves again and again how many aspects of reality we excluded and were unable to feel. But it was precisely this not feeling that turned out to be important information. I began to deal with my numbness. In numerous group processes and discussions, I was mentally aware of other voices, but couldn’t connect to them emotionally. I also knew this numbness in relation to some social issues. I could be loudly outraged about homelessness or child poverty in rich countries, but emotionally I remained strangely untouched. It was only when I saw other participants in our training, especially members of the Indian and South American upper classes, reacting petrified to highly emotional narratives of their less privileged, compatriots with often darker skin, that I understood the connection between my own social position and numbness.

I saw that my privileged background and social position were linked to my inability to emphatically feel certain facets of life. My privileges, the basis of my psychological security, are inextricably linked to discrimination against other people, and to really let the latter get close to me emotionally would mean giving up a significant part of my identity, my autonomy and my standard of living. Because as an emotionally permeable person, I would have to adjust my identity and lifestyle in some fundamental aspects.

The more facets we can feel within ourselves instead of suppressing or externalising them, the more holistically we can relate to reality. Inner Work is essential for these processes. Our bodies and their sense organs are the only instruments we have to grasp the outer world. Consequently, we can only recognise on the outside what is accessible to us on the inside. If parts of me are numb, or if I reject certain facets, emotions, perspectives because they are too uncomfortable or painful for myself, then my ability to resonate with the world is limited in these areas. The more I am in contact with many facets of myself, even contradictory ones, and able to accept aspects of myself that contradict my cognitive view of the world, the less I have to fight off otherness on the outside. Then I can also relate to negative feelings and behaviours which contradict my ethical compass — such as cruelty, greed, dishonesty or hatred — as I know that I, under certain circumstance, may be capable of similar feelings or actions. I can acknowledge that these dark sides are also part of life. If I can relate to more reality in myself, I help to reunite the world and thus heal it. If I can map more reality inside myself, I help to reunite the world and thus heal it.

Conversely, the smaller my range of emotions and expressions, the more I have to fight them off on the outside and contribute to polarisation, fragmentation and the “story of separation”.

Ideal visions divide reality

Activists who talk about how there is “still” domestic violence, human rights violations or cluster bombs, who get upset about the arms industry and imagine how peaceful a world without weapons would be, exemplify fragmentation and division. Thomas Hübl talks about how our fixation on how the world “should” be is a symptom of how unable we are to relate to the real present. But this flight from presence massively limits our effectiveness. Because by connecting to an ideal image, a part of me detaches from the present and lives in a non-existent future. If, on the other hand, I relate completely to the present, I see that the present state corresponds exactly to our state of development as humanity. Instead of “thinking the future”, a process that inevitably involves many projections and wishful thinking, I let “future unfold”, and follow my intuition for the next right step. Only on this basis can I then develop effective responses.

For example, in our Collective Trauma Facilitation training we explored school shootings in America. The moment we get upset about the gun lobby, e.g. the NRA (National Rifle Association), we split off a part of reality and create polarisation. Instead of stigmatising individual groups, we could engage with a broader spectrum of the unfathomable suffering caused by these horrific acts. No one would deny the perpetrator his responsibility. Likewise, we feel deeply connected to the victims and grieve with them. At the same time, we can try to widen our empathy radius to include the larger socio-cultural matrix that led to the terrible crime. In what social fabric are perpetrators and victims embedded? What dynamics led to a young person committing such a murder? When I can relate to a crime in such a multi-layered way, I see not only the symptoms but also the more hidden systemic patterns. And with that, I realise that I am also part of these patterns and maintain them in my own way.

In this perspective, the world as it is right now, with all its polycrises and pathologies, but also connections and innovations, is not “wrong” but the authentic mirror and imprint of humanity in the first half of the 21st century. We are born into the midst of fragmentation and division, and through our likes and dislikes we also contribute to fragmentation. And just as our economic, political and social structures and values reflect our humanity, our activism is a child of division and fragmentation. But it is obvious that solutions that come from the same fragmentation as the problems they seek to address are bound to fail.

Effective solutions would have to come from a level that incorporates more reality, diversity and perspectives.

Part 3: Foundations of Relational Activism

In the two previous blogposts, I put forward two central theses:

2 theses on relational activism

1. we (activists, social entrepreneurs etc.) are part of the problem and that is a good thing

Activist strategies are only effective if we understand that we are part of the problems we are trying to work on. But what seems at first glance to be an obstacle is at second glance a basic requirement for effective action. Because the starting point for the most effective social change, according to this understanding, is not “the world out there”, but myself as an activist. If I assume that parts of me are inextricably entangled with the world as it is right now, then (part of) my path is to understand and transform these patterns within me as fully as possible. The more authentically I embody these new, holistic aspects myself, the more effectively they can spread from there into the world, changing my environment and informing my major social projects. This humble acknowledgement that I myself am part of a damaged world is the opposite of the widespread hubris that assumes that “we know exactly where things are going” and “we are saving the world”.

2. we can only change the things we have a relationship with

Relational activism assumes that we can most effectively change the things we can relate to. Only when we connect more deeply with the problem, perceive it as realistically as possible and understand it more deeply in its dynamics, can we develop effective strategies to overcome it. Otherwise, we run the risk of struggling not with reality but with our own projections. In these cases, our counterparts, the “opponents”, will understandably resist the pressure and create counter-pressure in their turn. After all, who will change their point of view and behaviour if they do not feel seen and taken seriously?

Examples of relational activism

My research so far has shown that the English term “relational activism” was first used in 2010. This describes a type of changemaking based on personal 1:1 relationships that attempts to circumvent the increasing polarisation, especially since 2016 (Brexit, Trump election), in relation to large, complex social issues through interpersonal qualities like
empathy and active listening.

If one googles (in October 2023) the translated German term “Bezogener Aktivismus”, the six hits do not match the approaches I have described here. And the examples of “relational activism”, which mostly come from the Anglo-Saxon world, also have a different focus. For example, in the practice of “deep canvassing”, election workers try to change citizens’ beliefs through long, empathetic conversations. Restorative justice also seeks to bridge the gap between perpetrator and victim by helping them get to know each other better and understand their respective perspectives. These approaches are about empathy and relationships between individuals, but not about a comprehensive ability to relate to oneself, the target group and the world.

However, since I started writing this series of articles, I have come across more and more examples of organisations that are pursuing, or striving to lay the foundations of, relational activism as we understand it here.

Let me start with my own environment. In the betterplace lab, we have been following a (self-organised) leadership style based on the expansion of our inner competences for 10 years (New Work needs Inner Work, 2019). Based on our own experience with Inner Work, my colleagues design a whole range of programmes for socially engaged people, NGOs, activists and social enterprises, where relational skills and multiperspectivity are important core competences.

For example, we are currently exploring with a number of NGOs from different thematic areas where their own strategies and dynamics emerge from, or transcend, separation. Starting from the premise that we can only shape a new common whole if we can relate to more than just our own perspective, we ask them which parts of the world they can relate to and which others they must exclude and devalue? We do this in concentric circles: we explore the participants’ relationship to themselves, in their organisations and the part of the world they are trying to change. What aspects of themselves do they involve in the workplace? Where do they unconsciously reproduce in their organisations the same patterns they are trying to overcome (see Anthea Lawson’s examples of self-exploitation and dominance structures in NGOs cited above). What are their relationships to the social or ecological dynamics they want to change and how do they relate to the people they want to mobilise to action? Do they see them as equals, or do they feel morally superior? Can they listen openly to people with different opinions, or do they inevitably anticipate their response? (see the TEDx Talk Meeting the Enemy).

A very different, very impressive example of the healing power of relationships is the work of the Norwegian documentary filmmaker Deeyah Khan, who deliberately engages with people with extremist attitudes in her films. In conversations with jihadists and neo-Nazis, she does not try to change them, but to explore their common humanity. In an interview with Thomas Hübl that is well worth hearing, Deeyah Khan describes these unusual encounters as “love in action”. She says: “If I deny someone their humanity, I lose my humanity myself and contribute to fragmentation and darkness in the world.” Recruiters of extremist organisations know the importance of security and recognition; they recruit new members specifically by caring for them emotionally and valuing them. Mainstream society, on the other hand, does just the opposite and cuts off ties with them. This perpetuates the vicious cycle of separation and violence.

A very similar stance is taken by US activists such as the author, activist and comedian Baratunde Thurston or Valarie Kaur, a well-known Sikh activist, filmmaker and civil rights lawyer. Baratunde Thurston sees his role as “digesting” difficult realities about race and discrimination in himself and in his work in order to transform them and offer new responses. In contrast to both polarising and hyper-reactive Critical Race Theory approaches, and a defensive need for harmony that cements the status quo, he advocates accepting the present for what it is: complex and messy. “The whole is messy and to accept that is love”. For the next step in the heatedly polarised struggle for racism and social justice, he stresses the importance of restoration and healing. Only when we acknowledge the historical and present injustices and connect deeply with the harm that white people have done to black people can society heal and develop its collective power. Through this process, both the oppressor and the oppressed are liberated. With How to Citizen, Thurston transforms “citizen” into an active verb and describes the role of relationality, multiperspectivity and power consciousness for this collective process.

Sikh activist Valarie Kaur takes a similar line with her book See No Stranger. For Kaur, “revolutionary love”, the call of our time (…), is a radical, joyful practice that extends in three directions: to others, to our opponents and to ourselves. It asks us not to see a stranger, but to look at the other and say: you are a part of me that I do not yet know.”

The attitude of referred activism is, in my opinion, reflected as much in the racism-critical work of Tupoka Ogette as in the trauma-sensitive projects of Mehr Demokratie e.V.. (More on both in a later blogpost in which I will shed light on the different ways NGOs deal with group identities).

The importance of Wellbeing for Welldoing

The global Wellbeing Project shares the conviction that inner clarity, relational skills and multi-perspectivity of changemakers are the basis of effective work in the social sector. Following the motto “Wellbeing inspires Welldoing”, this project has laid the foundation for a new culture of self-care and self-reflection within community-based organisations worldwide over the past seven years. In an NGO landscape marked by self-exploitation and trauma, the message that mental health and growth are not luxury items but the indispensable basis for responsible social action and activism is enormously important. The term wellbeing does not refer to hyper-individualistic, escapist wellness. Rather, wellbeing describes an orientation, a goal towards which individuals, social structures and the planet as such can move. Wellbeing of people, society and planet replaces gross national product as a yardstick, constant growth, extraction and exclusion as acceptable practices. Even though wellbeing is a comprehensive concept, it starts with the individual.

In a recent article on the importance of Inner Work in the midst of stacking crises, I pointed to a group of NGOs that are very consciously addressing trauma and healing:

Thousands of civil society organisations around the world, from NGOs like Black Lives Matter to social enterprise networks like Ashoka, have turned to their own life ground in recent years. They have explored the place within themselves from which they engage in activism and social entrepreneurship. In doing so, they have found that many of their strategies and beliefs are based on their own individual and collective traumas. For if one’s own personality is wounded and one has built up a hard armour to protect oneself, then one will not face the world in an open and related way. Then one has to create enemy images and enter into an interplay of pressure and counter-pressure, which does not improve the world but further fragments and destroys it.

Based on this realisation, these organisations started to work on self-healing. since trauma and injuries are also primarily located in the body and nervous system, organisations like Black Lives Matter started to work intensively on somatic therapies and the interplay of structural racism, body and emotions and to make this new knowledge and practices accessible to their members.

Since trauma directly affects the nervous system, Black activists like Prentis Hemphill have consciously turned to somatic therapies like Somatic Experiencing and integrated them into their social movements. This is not about using therapies and self-awareness as “coping strategies” to make the collectively caused suffering bearable on an individual level. Rather, the representatives of relational activism are aware that their own healing and new, psychologically safe forms of community are the transmission belts for overall social change. As they expand their personal patterns and enter into new relationships, they metabolise and actualise the larger structures of which we are all a part.

Relational activism is not a cuddly course

The form of relational activism I am writing about here is not a disguised ideology of harmony. It is possible to have very different views and still recognise the other person in his/her humanity and be in touch in a feeling way. We can relate to each other when we have internalised the complexity of the world to the extent that we know that no one and nothing is exclusively bad or good. As Baratunde Thurston says, “The whole is messy and to accept that is love.”

Relationship is the carrier wave and the space in which all kinds of different movements can then take place, many of which are not harmonious, nice and easy. That is precisely why we want to take care of them. In the relational space we acquire a deeper understanding of the status quo, become aware of conscious and unconscious transgressions and violations, exchange sometimes diametrically opposed perspectives, needs and interests. Relationality and multiperspectivity are not strategies in themselves, but attitudes and competences on the basis of which we can develop a wide range of activities, from confrontational formats such as strategic litigation and demonstrations, to civil disobedience and boycotts, to awareness campaigns and open dialogues.

As described at the beginning, I also use this blogpost for my own understanding and self-exploration. In subsequent articles I would like to explore, for example, the role of group identities in activist attitudes and strategies.

I look forward to your thoughts and feedback on these topics.
Stay tuned!

Thanks to Bettina Rollow and Barbara Djassi for insightful comments of an earlier version of this text.

The translation from the original German article was done with DeepL You can find the original German texts here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.



joana breidenbach

anthropologist, author, social entrepreneur, co-founder of and betterplace lab, more recently New Work needs Inner Work