How to be an activist without burning out : Life Kit Activism can look like big gestures of protest, but it can also look like baking cupcakes for a charity bake sale or reading at an after school program. These tips will help you find joy in activism while avoiding burnout.

How to find joy in activism

How to find joy in activism

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Kristen Uroda for NPR
Illustration of three people sort of floating in space reaching up and holding out sparkler-type lights together over their heads. The lights come together in a star and from that, emanate colorful streams of light around them.
Kristen Uroda for NPR

There is no one way to change the world. That's what Karen Walrond realized when she wrote a book about the relationship between joy and activism.

Throughout her life, Walrond has marched in parades, given motivational speeches to thousands and gone on humanitarian trips for efforts against HIV and AIDS. "But in my mind, activism was something that you did and got arrested for, it was something that you did and got tear gassed."

It's true, activism can look big, like organizing a march for racial justice or occupying a pump station to protest a pipeline. But after reflecting on interviews and research for The Lightmaker's Manifesto: How to Work for Change Without Losing Your Joy, Walrond realized it was time to expand her definition of activism.

"Any time you are led by your values to do purposeful action in the hopes of making the world brighter for other people," you're participating in activism, says Walrond. She calls it "lightmaking."

Lightmaking can look like speaking up for a teammate at a work meeting, donating your time to read with kids at a local after school program, translating your passion for baking for a charity bake sale or using your social media reach to raise the profile of a cause.

To become a lightmaker, you can approach the process like you would build a campfire.

Make a clearing

Illustration of a person looking onto a clearing they found, where they intend to start a fire. A rainbow crosses a dark sky in the background.
Kristen Uroda for NPR

The first step to finding your personal expression of activism is to clear your mind of all the things you think you should do, and instead find a safe and authentic space for the work you want to do, says Walrond.

That means doing away with all your notions of what activism or activists "should" look like, or what causes you "should" care about most. With so many campaigns and hashtags and GoFundMe pages constantly shouting for your attention on social media, it can be hard not to feel pressured toward a cause, and harder still to know what you actually feel called to do.

Understand the limitations of the space you have to give – that can help cut through some of the noise and find your calling, says Walrond. Can you really offer 20 hours of volunteer time a week? Does a recurring donation fit into your current budget? Do you have time or energy to fact-check social media posts before re-sharing them, or do you risk spreading misinformation about a cause?

Gather your tinder

Illustration of a person picking up sticks for kindling that they can use to start a fire.
Kristen Uroda for NPR

Once you've identified the space in your life for change-making, evaluate what skills, gifts and interests you have to contribute. That's what Walrond calls your "tinder" – the small bits of service that can catch flame quickly and grow into a fire.

Gathering your tinder is "doing the inventory in your own life about the things that you already love to do – that you would do anyway – and [then] figuring out, 'How can I use that to be of service?'" she says.

Marching, petitions, demonstrations, megaphones – those are all great. But change doesn't have to start or stop along those well-tread paths, says Walrond.

Think about your talents and what really lights you up: your penchant for baking cupcakes, your speed-reading skills, your eye for interior design, your Rubik's cube mastery – any skill can be used for service!

"We're all different people and we have different ways that we can hook into activism in a way that really enriches us," she says.

Find your spark

Illustration of a close-up of hands creating a spark with flint to start a fire. Colorful sparks emanate from the source.
Kristen Uroda for NPR

Think about the causes and beliefs that most light you up and move you to action. "What are the causes that incite passion?" Walrond asks. Identify the things "that make us angry or that break our hearts or really just make us think this can't be the way it is, that something has to change."

That will be where you find your spark.

It might be hard to find a singular focus, but it's important to be deliberate in how you channel your energy.

"There are as many different causes out there as there are people in the world," Walrond says. "At some point, you're just going to have to trust that some of those other causes are being handled by other people." Choose the cause that you are really called to work on.

Walrond suggests creating a "spark statement" you can return to in times of stress or uncertainty. Ask yourself: "What is it I want to do and how do I want to move through the world? What is it I want to stand for?"

These statements are to remind yourself how you want to show up. They can be any length and speak to any part of your vision for your activism. For some, that may look like a mantra or favorite movie phrase.

Here are some of Walrond's spark statements:

  • I believe in the interconnectedness of all who inhabit our planet.
  • I engage in the relentless pursuit of real, uncontrived beauty, in every form.
  • I provide hard, irrefutable evidence that there is good in the world, and I am fiercely dedicated to showing how beautiful our planet really is, one image at a time.

You can find other spark statements here.

Tend to the flames

Illustration of two people keeping a campfire going. One person blows on the flames and another watches it, ready to add a stick.
Kristen Uroda for NPR

An important part of activism is finding ways to keep your passion ignited while avoiding burnout from the process. That's not always easy.

"Let's face it, we don't get into activism because things are great. We're usually angry or upset or sad about something," says Walrond, "So how do you tend to that soul fire? When is it time to take a break and let somebody else take the reins for a little bit?"

The first thing to remember is that rest and joy are integral parts of the process. Just as the seasons ebb and flow, so too should your activism work. Be intentional about making room for joy.

"Joy is how we gather the energy to go back in, to do the work. Joy is how we remind ourselves what we're fighting for," says Walrond.

The other way to maintain your fire is to focus on the longevity of the work, not the finish line. Think of it as a relay race, not a sprint.

"Our job is to take the baton from the people who came before us and then pass it along to the next people," says Walrond. "And the way that we do that is we focus on the progress as opposed to the focus on actual eradication or complete success."

This perspective can help remove the intimidation factor from your activism.

"It doesn't have to be this huge thing," says Walrond. Donate that impactful book to your local library, start an employee resource group at the office or plant some flowers in your community garden.

At the end of the day, she says, "All activism is good activism."


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The audio portion of this episode was produced by Mansee Khurana. We'd love to hear from you! Email us at or send a voice note to LifeKit@npr.org.