by Cate Henning
When I was 15 I started my first “real” job restoring urban wilds in Boston. Beyond building trails, removing invasive species, and planting trees, the job incorporated environmental education. I learned that preserving Hyde Park’s tree canopy is critical for reducing urban heat island effect, I tested the pollution levels in the Neponset River, and I finally understood the connection between global greenhouse gas emissions and local sea level rise. Personal experiences like these transformed what had previously been an abstract scientific concept— climate change— into a recognition of life-threatening events occurring in my own neighborhood. I was scared.
In these environmental lessons, one leader’s presentation hit me hard in the gut. He asserted that addressing climate change must be every person’s priority, arguing that nothing else matters if the earth and all its inhabitants die. My fear and privilege allowed me to believe and internalize this message to an extreme degree, and I lived my life led by one mantra: first, stop climate change, then address all other injustices, and afterwards, rest and have fun. My mindset was naive, narrow, and privileged.
My decision to push joy and self-care to the back burner was not only the perfect path to burnout, it was also rooted in false and clouded beliefs. Growing up white and middle class allowed me to live without seeing that climate change is not distinct from “all other injustices,” addressing such complex and long-term problems cannot be done quickly or alone, and this work must incorporate joy and self-care. A wake-up call to the urgency of intersectionality and a reckoning with my whiteness and wealth helped me debunk my first two misunderstandings. It took organizing wins and losses to truly learn the latter lesson about the importance of happiness and rest.
Among the defeats that challenged my mindset was the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, which I experienced as a personal loss. I had been convinced that electing a candidate championing single-payer healthcare, environmental justice, and a substantial wealth tax would result in such things. Consequently, I spent about a year overworking myself with the hope of accomplishing these goals. After Biden secured the nomination, I was heartbroken over the loss and my recognition that I could not continue in the same exhausting manner.
But, I didn’t know an alternative to this all-or-nothing approach. I moved on to organize for Ed Markey, Michelle Wu, and local climate justice issues in Hyde Park. I celebrated wins. But still, of course, the threats associated with climate change persisted because the struggle for climate justice doesn’t end with a progressive mayor or an investment in a river clean-up project. Real change comes from sustained, ground-up power building.
These experiences clarified that I would have to make time for joy and self-care along the way, instead of tabling those necessities for a later date that would never come. Setting aside time and space for rest and making organizing work itself joyful has proved essential. The struggle for justice, including climate justice, is long-term, and there is no singular win worth sacrificing sustained engagement.
In the past year, I’ve focused on learning how to rest and find happiness within the work I do because I care about my organizing goals and myself. Within organizing spaces, I am prioritizing building community to create fun environments and to ensure there is support when people need breaks. I am also setting aside time to step away from work entirely, and as a result I feel more energized.
These changes have made me feel confident that I can do this work far into the future, which strengthens my hope in general. But, the effort is challenging and I am learning. My fear of existential threats and the everyday impacts of these threats can make it difficult to rationalize the importance of rest. Every moment feels critical when climate change becomes a present threat, not a future concern, to more and more people each day.
As much as possible, I must turn prioritizing self-care and joy into a conscious practice to help manage fear and devastation. People have engaged in this practice for decades, and as is the case with all other organizing skills, I am fortunate to learn from them.
—Cate Henning is a Northeastern student and a MAPA intern.