Often short of breath with the whirlwind my life has become, I haven't had too many opportunities to stop and reflect. I can list off the adventures I've been on, the various campaign metrics the Sierra Club has put before me, the personal triumphs and defeats I have borne. Yet, despite this, for the longest time I haven't felt any sense of accomplishment or momentum in my life. For quite a while I've found myself describing the place I'm in as being stuck and lost. I articulate with close friends the feeling of not being able to be myself. I'm too bogged down into the day-by-day to feel relaxed in my own skin.
I'm reacting from crisis to crisis, occasionally taking a side step out with a hike or weekend adventure with a friend, to step right back into the chaos. I put my all into resolving those crises to find myself locking into this prolonged burnout. After over seven years of various organizing, at age 25, I know I will become re-empowered eventually. But what I have been enduring is different as something deeper has been weighing on to me for several years.
If I were to wager a guess, the fact my life dramatically changed after graduating college is the biggest factor of this. Not only did my close friends in college go to various stretches of the globe, but my idea of the comfort of home disappeared with the death of my father in mid-2011 as my mother moved halfway across the country from the home I grew up in. I then relocated to Denver not knowing a soul, which I have no regrets about and thoroughly enjoy the culture and location, but haven't quite found the personal balance I desire.
Yet, I think that's beginning to change...
Yesterday, I found out a woman I had only met once during a relaxing summer afternoon gathering of friends committed suicide. When I met her I could tell she had a big heart and fun personality, but at the same time something was off, perhaps even vulnerable about her. Being sensitive from my own struggles with anxiety, I could tell she had underlying insecurities she was working hard not to show. I just didn't know how deep they truly were.
My unsettled friend who invited me for the gathering earlier this year, who is her immediate neighbor, told me the night before died she was trying to give away her cat and was mentioning something about needing a good criminal attorney. My friend said he hugged her to try to make her feel better, and he realizes he was likely her last physical contact. He is considering moving now since just a wall separated him from what happened, and I certainly can't blame him.
While I'm sure details of her reasoning to ending her life are to come, I hold the fact she obviously felt like she was stuck and had no other option close to my heart. I've dealt with several suicidal people before, including my own struggles with suicidal thoughts over a decade ago, and it is tragic to know people fundamentally see no other way out. I've come across this issue often enough in my work while doing volunteer outreach, and even in some personal relationships, I recently signed up for a suicide awareness course a local college is putting on. I sadly have experienced the need to call the police or hunt down someone's doctor several times to assess if the people I'm hearing from are a risk to themselves or even others.
I understand the feeling of being stuck, and being lured to find an immediate end. These suicidal people which I've come across are the extreme examples in comparison, but I'm going to make a cautionary transition to relate this to general burnout -- so bare with me.
Burnout is the idea one's ability to cope with certain challenges is burned up and you find yourself out of energy to deal with those challenges. I use challenge loosely to leave up for interpretation. Some may find going outside or picking up a phone as an enormous challenge, as I once did many years ago. To compare, I now consider planning events, recruiting dozens of people, and media outreach around major federal hearings on carbon pollution standards while working with a variety of diverse partners a challenge which at times can be hard to deal with. Either way, burnout or the cycle of burnout can make one feel stuck and aimless, which is where I have been, and several recent events including the suicide have made me reflect upon this.
Ever since I started organizing in my early years of college, I realized I was unique in my personal inspiration for raising awareness of issues of environmental sustainability. I would find myself after major events I coordinated with an enduring bittersweet mix of accomplishment and complete burnout. What would inspire me and help me move beyond the burnout was working to empower others to take action, be leaders, and find their passions in the quest for a better, more environmentally sustainable future. It sounds corny, but out of hundreds and hundreds of students I helped outreach and recruit, I know a solid dozen individuals who have become amazing leaders in their own ways. They work on issues from coal mining to organic farming to police department accountability and many others in communities all over. When I think of their stories, it re-ignites my internal fire to help 'plant the seed of sustainability,' as I like to call it, for others. (I guess one could say my definition of the 'seed of sustainability' can be compared to general progressivism, but I like to keep it an environmental focus).
The dozen people I refer to seem to be rare exceptions, as in comparison so many others who get deeply interested in issues of sustainability experience their first or second major burnout, get stuck within it, and step back to a place where they don't have to worry about the challenges we face in our society and world today. I always respect when someone realizes they need to step back, and at times become even envious. For some reason I haven't found that luxury of stepping back because it has become engrained within my soul to pay attention to the issues we face and fight for a better community.
Not being able to step out from fighting for a better community is something which I feel makes me on the more rare side of people I meet, and is something I am working to understand. I burnout, but always find myself coming back. Why? How do I get unstuck? How can I get others unstuck?
On September 9th I was biking down a hill to catch a green light in a shared bike / car lane when a car sped out of a blind alleyway. The driver stopped directly in front of me and I slammed into the side of her bumper, flipped over the hood, and landed flat on the pavement. My clothing-filled backpack cushioned my fall, but I ended up with multiple bruises, likely a small hairline fracture in my elbow, and an upslip in my pelvis which I only found out about six weeks later. My bike was deemed a loss. (expect another blog post on this soon)
If I hadn't been wearing the backpack; if I hadn't been wearing a helmet; if I had been going slightly faster--- I would have been in the hospital or worse. This was a major wake-up call for me and I soon texted several friends to let them know I love them.
The bike crash underlined the fact I've felt stuck, or burned out, in varying degrees for a couple years now. I realized just how much my life has rushed by lately. I realized I let my work with the Sierra Club, or as a board member with my neighborhood association, I've neglected the things which make me feel like me. I've neglected my family life as medical issues and conflicts weigh a heavy burden on our relationships, I've neglected MY health as I only recently went to the dentist and eye doctor for the first time in years, I've neglected my professional development as my resume and LinkedIn account remain not updated for over two years, and I've neglected my creativity in writing and enjoyment of reading among countless other things.
The bike crash made me realize anew I have been burned out. Every new crisis in my life was a heavier weight to bare. How do I rebound from this long-term burnout?
A week after my crash on my bike, Colorado experienced between a 500 and 1,000 year flood (I suspect this is likely becoming a once in a decade flood). Hundreds of bridges were washed out, over 200 square miles of land flooded, and over 20,000 homes were damaged or destroyed.
While this was happening I was being asked by the Sierra Club to organize around new Environmental Protection Agency carbon pollution rules, holding a supportive rally in a few weeks. A two week timeline is admittedly pretty strict in the organizing world and certainly encourages organizer burnout. With a sigh I began to line up the organizational logistics with reserving the grounds at the capitol building, when several conversations came up with friends in other organizations about an opportunity for the environmental community to respond to the flooding disaster.
A light went off above my head.
On-the-ground community organizing empowers volunteers and re-ignites my fire. Here is an opportunity to apply the advocacy of supporting federal pollution standards while providing much needed relief for the community. After all, it's just as important to pick up a shovel to help dig out neighbors as showing your support for strong EPA carbon protections to prevent worsening climate disruption.
I realized it would be helpful to line up several volunteer opportunities across the region during one weekend to support recovery efforts. I based this idea off of my days at Virginia Tech with “The Big Event” where thousands of students sign up to support various community service projects across the region over one weekend.
I knew from my continuing coalition work in Colorado we are able to jointly outreach to 100,000+ folks in the environmental community alone. I figured a positive recovery effort such as this could garner at least 100 community members to volunteer. To wrap up the weekend, I put together an appreciation event to have speakers talk about the need to act on carbon pollution. I ended up calling the weekend “Colorado Flood Recovery Weekend” and the wrap-up event “Celebrating Community Resilience.”
The first realization I had was just how uncoordinated the recovery process was at three weeks after the flooding occurred. One of the first groups I called was the Red Cross to find they only provide food and shelter, not recovery support. The state set up a website for volunteers interested in recovery efforts to sign-up, but I never got an official response from them.
I heard Habitat for Humanity was involved with some of the clean-up efforts and gave them a call. They were not prepared and told me they are referring all of their volunteers to Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian relief organization which coordinate daily clean-ups and they were happy to plug us into a few of their events. Soon I reached out to my contacts in the city of Boulder and eventually was referred to the city attorney who became an default recovery coordinator for the region. Boulder, along with feedback from some cold-calls to the city of Longmont, were working through FEMA to determine what could be safe to work on. Thanks partly to my continued persistence over a week, both Boulder and Longmont were able to pull together opportunities for us to plug into.
I learned a independent group of climbing friends created a group called Mudslingers in the region to coordinate volunteers to dig out homes. They networked with organizers from Boulder Flood Relief, a group started from Occupy Sandy. Quickly I found myself constantly on the phone coordinating between various partners for opportunities and was able to pull together six different times and locations for volunteers to support both home cleanups and public lands from the Boulder Reservoir to a Longmont park.
Once I had several events confirmed, I began reaching out to coalition partners for their support in getting volunteers for the weekend. In a very short amount of time I was able to pull together a dozen groups who were committed to e-mailing their members our e-mail alert. Once the e-mails started going out, the numbers increased fairly quickly and within just a couple days together we were able to recruit over 100 folks-- reaching the goal I threw together.
Some of the six events had more respondents than others, but nearly all of them had at least a handful of participants. When word got out, I also began receiving messages from other municipalities and counties asking for our support. It was difficult to get a message from the Incident Commander for a hard-hit city expressing disappointment for not being included in our volunteer efforts. A career in FEMA beckoned as I politely offered the least I could do which is to share our lists of volunteers interested in continued cleanup efforts.
Also media picked up interest and we had a few shout-outs from community radio station KGNU 88.5 FM and the Boulder Weekly who followed up from a recent story on the carbon standards I was earlier interviewed for . These initial stories helped with our recruitment efforts while getting our FAR climate messaging out there. We were even able to get on channel four at the end of the day.
As the weekend got going I was able to take a lot of videos and photos and applied my media skills to create a YouTube video with a call to action:
I hadn't done any video work in a while, so it was good to know I still have some skills and embrace some long underused creativity.
The next day we were at a farmhouse and I ended up being the coordination lead for the day by default. It had been a long while since I was in charge of coordinating a group of people, and ultimately was a lot of fun while doing a lot of shared hard work.
Shortly, though, from all of the hard work I put into the weekend I found myself again in a deep burnout.
As I alluded to earlier, event planning is bittersweet. You get a sense of accomplishment while at the same time you feel exhausted as the next round of work starts. After the weekend suddenly I faced building a new Sierra Club campaign for Colorado, supporting an important EPA hearing, and hold the responsibility for being lead on several elements with my neighborhood organization. There wasn't much of a break and the day I had scheduled to take off had to be scratched because so much was going on. I started to drag and become easily frustrated at various coordination issues, symptoms of the all-too-familiar burnout.
Hearing of the suicide yesterday still echos in my mind. It is a wake-up call to me. I figure I've met or known a few dozen people who have died in my life now, some were mere acquaintances who were murdered during the shooting at Virginia Tech, others died of old age, my father had a second heart attack, a distant friend with an overflowing passion died in a car crash in Los Angeles... Life is precious, and in an instant it can be gone.
To become so overwhelmed and hopeless one takes their life is a heavy toll, in part a reflection of the hyper-individualistic isolated society we live in. Depression can be a symptom of being burned out, and depression is an obsessive mental sickness which blinds and consumes, eroding the ability to cope. But what does the opposite of this?
A strong community helps you cope. A community provides reflection and support. Community provides a mirror to reflect upon, to take pause and ask "Am I in a place I should be now? What support do I have to get unstuck?"
The tagline for Blacksburg, Virginia, the town where Virginia Tech is located, is 'a special place.' After traveling across the country I have to agree, because the strong value of community is what I feel makes it unique. Virginia Tech and Blacksburg are somewhat of an islanded community in Southwest Virginia, and makes the positive impact various organizations can have all the more powerful. Things are so close and so walkable, community interactions are constant. How does one value the ability to stop while biking down the street to say hi to a friend you recognize, verses being isolated in a car passing by? How often do you run into a town councilor at the farmers market?
I didn't have a frat I belonged to in college, but instead was a leader with the Environmental Coalition at Virginia Tech. We outreached and educated on important issues, we did research and pushed the administration to embrace a sustainability plan, we recruited and empowered countless youth across the state. I made extremely close friends with a variety of talents there, and frankly we got sh*t done. It was empowering on so many levels, and my heart was fulfilled.
I won't go into the issues of sprawl or lack of community-oriented developments and values, as they are each a thesis within themselves. But what I will say is anyone feeling stuck will find themselves quickly unstuck if they are in a supportive community which works to do accomplish good, like the Environmental Coalition. Anyone finding themselves depressed would find a friend there to support them. If the group was burned out, a camping trip would be planned to reset. And how wouldn't you feel motivated when you actually create change as you work-- whether by lobbying the campus president or a state senator on an issue you care about? It embraces the idea our society is a democracy and we have a responsibility to be active in citizen engagement. It fulfills a purpose.
I haven't found a group like the Environmental Coalition in Denver. So I guess I'm going to have to form one.
In recent weeks I've met a few people who are interested in bringing together a new group of citizens interested in pursuing sustainability ideas in Denver. They include volunteers young and old, friends in coalition groups, and a couple city councilors so far. I feel like things are on the verge of something great, and I want to grab a strong hold of it.
I'll give details later, but I'm working to see if a new law can be implemented to improve bike safety, and paired with my work in the Sierra Club and Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods hope to create as much overlap with my work as possible. With some help, I hope to start putting together a networked community of newly engaged activists who plant and grow the seeds of sustainability within each other. I can see the endless potential of our community barely tapped, with too many feeling stuck behind high walls. I plan to break down those walls.
Through all this, if I can empower just one person to step out from being stuck and see their potential to do good in our community, perhaps that's one more Bryce Carter in the world. Perhaps that's a food activist to come. Perhaps someone who will achieve world peace. Perhaps it's one less suicide in the world.
Seeing this vision of growing a community for sustainability, I already feel my burnout dissipating.
I realize I'm not stuck-- I'm exactly where I need to be.