The worldwide rise of resistances draws significant media and public attention these days. In the United States, we’ve seen growing labor union movements within companies like Starbucks, Amazon, Trader Joe’s, and, more recently, the Writers Guild of America (WGA). Globally, we’ve seen similar public demonstrations, like the people of France protesting the French government’s pension-age raise, or the strikes against jeepney modernization in the Philippines. This is only the beginning: Expect more mobilizing for social change in the times ahead.
As an organizer and mental health practitioner, I naturally wonder about sustainability within our movements, given our human limitations. What are the potential practices, or reminders, that keep good trouble going? I use “good trouble” here as a term conceptualized by John Lewis, who, working alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., established a legacy of public defiance.
How can we cultivate good care for good trouble?
While there are existing prompts and tips on how to practice community care in a myriad of places and platforms, the following will be specific to organizers, unionizers, and the everyday people who resist alongside them. My hope is that these practical invitations for good care will help sustain those of us in the struggle, fighting the good fight.
Bring Good Humor and Play
We do not talk enough about the power of laughter and mischief in the revolution. To bring jokes and good humor into organizing spaces does not necessarily mean dismissing the seriousness of our work. Instead, we work from the understanding that, as humans, it is natural to feel fear in these spaces. Humor and play have the power to de-escalate that fear, which can embolden us to take higher risks, make more creative decisions, and deepen our trust in our team players and fellow organizers.
Revolution consultant Srđa Popović advocates for the power of jokes in the revolution. In his Ted Talk, “The Power of Laughtivism,” he explains the reasons why humor is an important weapon in serious, large-scale resistances (even to the extent of toppling dictators): “Humor melts fear. … Fear is the air dictators breathe. They cannot survive without fear. … Nothing breaks fear faster than a joke.”
When it comes to assessing the injustices perpetuated by political leaders and regimes, there are times when satire is useful to appropriately expose the absurdity of corrupt governance. A perfect example is Top Goon, a web series created by anonymous creators in Syria and beyond, practicing “peaceful and nonviolent activism” to address the Syrian government’s inhumane violence against civilians. Not only is the web series an act of creative defiance that undermines state power, but it also has become a beacon that preserves and lifts the Syrian people’s spirit in the face of unimaginable suffering.
On a smaller scale, incorporating play and laughter in our movements might mean scheduling a night or weekend of bowling or video games, or going to a comedy show with fellow organizers. These occasional gatherings of play can strengthen bonds and access the joy and rest we need as human beings.
Revisit Revolution Stories
Strikes, protests, and other forms of resistance take time, determination, and the ongoing fortification of one’s hope. As much as there is an appeal to public demonstrations, especially since the 2020 uprisings, the efforts and responsibilities behind the curtain involve endless spreadsheets and phone calls, late-night strategy meetings, the completion of tedious tasks, and days of discouragement from what feels like a lack of progress. When the going gets tough or when the collective energy dampens, we can increase our vitality by revisiting stories of revolution—from the past, present, or those imagined.
Stories of past revolutions help us learn or rediscover ideas and tactics that once worked—which offer a reliable foundation to build from—and revitalize our motivation or sense of purpose. Remembering these stories is also a way of listening to the elders of our political lineage. Resistances are built on these stories.
One night, I sat down with friends and climate activists Maria Veloso and Yanna Mallari. We talked about the revolution stories that keep us going amid incessant systemic oppression. Mallari, a youth climate and human rights activist with Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines, shared that her favorite revolution story was that of Gloria Capitan, a grandmother and leader of the Coal-Free Bataan Movement. This fierce elder led this grassroots organization against the expansion of coal plants that caused harm to her people and their environment. She was later killed for pioneering such efforts. Mallari believes that the anger and grief from this atrocious loss and injustice fueled the community’s drive to persist in the struggle for environmental change.
Veloso, a climate justice writer and founder of the youth organization Green Dreams of a Generation, transcends the stories of our time and place as she seeks utopian hope in the world of fiction. Although the Avatar: The Last Airbender series is categorized as a kids’ show, Maria finds deep truths in it. She recounts that the narrative portrays a multitude of heroes: The protagonists need the help and skills of the people they encounter on their journey to fight the Fire Nation, the metaphorized representation of the oppressor in the series.
We can expand beyond our reality, finding inspiration in the stories of imagined worlds, such as the incomparable Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, or more modernized stories such as the subliminally anarchist Andor.
We can also seek stories and processes of other justice-oriented communities within and beyond our local vicinity. Creating synergy among these communities can strengthen our movements by increasing our access to allies, resources, and tactical knowledge, or drawing our attention to important details that we might have overlooked.
We are not alone in the struggle. There is something about this awareness that brings comfort to our nervous systems—knowing we have the collective power to reach the change we want, and we can do so in a broader ecosystem of solidarity.
Reclaim the Commons
Beautiful Solutions describes the commons as “the source of sustenance for most people,” who use their own resources and skills to sustain themselves and their neighbors. An example would be the emergence of mutual-aid networks since the pandemic. More than the organizers and activists, everyday people participated in these networks by collecting food, drinking water, clothing, toiletries, and other basic necessities to provide for families, students, and especially the poor and houseless during the COVID-19 crisis.
When I was in labor union movements, I learned that workers frequently hesitate to join strikes because participation feels like a threat to their livelihood. Even though they have the right to unionize, they do not want to jeopardize their jobs and inevitably the well-being of their families and loved ones. When this fear gets in the way, reclaiming the commons can build the sense of security needed for our movements.
The concept of time banking can be applied here. Time banking is “a system that lets people swap time and skill instead of money,” according to lawyer and educator Edgar Cahn. In his work, Cahn refers to the rise of unemployment and the need to expand our ideas on how to use our skills and talents. With time banking, we establish a reciprocity of providing to and accessing skills and resources from our neighbors, such as child- and eldercare, community gardening, carpools. This is a system that strengthens our alliances and our reliance on each other to meet basic needs—and lessens our dependence on monetary resources, and, ultimately, the state. Cahn notes:
“Over the years, I’ve watched time banking go through phases—but it has always been about empowerment. The first phase was about neighbor-to-neighbor skill sharing. Too often, we live close together, but as strangers. We don’t know what our neighbors can do; we don’t know whom we can trust. Time banking provides the vehicle to discover the vast wealth of capacity that surrounds us—and it makes trust possible because every action creates a track record known to others.”
Moreover, basic needs include emotional and relational needs as well. In Commoning in a Pandemic, Marina Sitrin tells the story of teachers in Mendoza, Argentina, who organized to provide support and care for their neighbors, above and beyond traditional ideas of basic needs that merely involve food, water, shelter, etc. The teachers organized with artists who provided songs, lullabies, and art to families, which the collective considered “the other fundamental aspect of sustenance.” They knew the necessity of feeding the soul as well as the body.
There is no perfect or standardized way to access care. But we do what we can to access it as sustainably as possible. Just as the honorable Toni Morrison says on the power of storytelling, myths, and songs, “It’s not possible to constantly hold onto crisis. You have to have the love, and you have to have the magic. That’s also life.”
It is possible and necessary that care intersects with our organizing efforts and social change movements. How can you be an accomplice of defiant fun? What stories of liberation can you hold onto to fortify your hope in mobilizing and organizing? What passions, talents, skill sets, and knowledge can you offer to reclaim the commons in your community?
Good trouble calls for good, thoughtful care.
Gabes Torres is a psychotherapist, organizer, and artist. Her work focuses on anti-colonial approaches and practices within the mental health field. She also focuses on abolitionist organizing on a global scale. You can find most of her work on her official website, www.gabestorres.com, and social media platforms, including Instagram.