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← How to recover from activism burnout

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Showing Revision 7 created 04/30/2019 by Oliver Friedman.

  1. In the summer of 2017,
  2. a woman was murdered
    by her partner in Sofia.
  3. The woman, let's call her "V,"
  4. was beaten for over 50 minutes
  5. before she died.
  6. The morning after,
  7. her neighbors told the press
    that they heard her screams,
  8. but they didn't intervene.
  9. You see, in Bulgaria
    and many other societies,
  10. domestic violence is typically seen
    as a private matter.
  11. Neighbors, however, are quick to react
    to any other kind of noise.
  12. We wanted to expose and affect
    the absurdity of this.

  13. So we designed an experiment.
  14. We rented the apartment
    just below V's for one night.
  15. And at 10pm,
  16. Maksim, the artist in our group,
  17. sat on the drum set
    we had assembled in the living room
  18. and started beating it.
  19. Ten seconds.
  20. Thirty seconds.
  21. Fifty seconds.
  22. A minute.
  23. A light came on in the hallway.
  24. One minute and 20 seconds.
  25. A man was standing at the door,
    hesitant to press the bell.
  26. One minute and 52 seconds.
  27. The doorbell rang,
  28. a ring that could have saved a life.
  29. "Beat." is our project exploring
    the ominous silence

  30. surrounding domestic violence.
  31. We filmed the experiment,
    and it became instantly viral.
  32. Our campaign amplified
    the voices of survivors
  33. who shared similar stories online.
  34. It equipped neighbors
    with specific advice,
  35. and many committed to taking action.
  36. In a country where every other week,
  37. the ground quietly embraces
    the body of a woman
  38. murdered by a partner or a relative,
  39. we were loud,
  40. and we were heard.
  41. I am an activist,

  42. passionate about human rights innovation.
  43. I lead a global organization
    for socially engaged creative solutions.
  44. In my work, I think about
    how to make people care and act.
  45. I am here to tell you
    that creative actions can save the world,
  46. creative actions and play.
  47. I know it is weird to talk about play
    and human rights in the same sentence,
  48. but here is why it's important.
  49. More and more, we fear
    that we can't win this.
  50. Campaigns feel dull,
  51. messages drown,
  52. people break.
  53. Numerous studies, including a recent one
    published by Columbia University,
  54. show that burnout and depression
    are widespread amongst activists.
  55. Years ago, I myself was burned out.
  56. In a world of endless ways forward,
    I felt at my final stop.
  57. So what melts fear or dullness or gloom?

  58. Play.
  59. From this very stage, psychiatrist
    and play researcher Dr. Stuart Brown
  60. said that nothing
    lights up the brain like play,
  61. and that the opposite of play is not work,
  62. it's depression.
  63. So to pull out of my own burnout,
  64. I decided to turn my activism
    into what I call today "play-tivism."
  65. (Laughter)

  66. When we play, others want to join.

  67. Today, my playground
    is filled with artists,
  68. techies and scientists.
  69. We fuse disciplines
    in radical collaboration.
  70. Together, we seek new ways
    to empower activism.
  71. Our outcomes are not meant to be playful,
  72. but our process is.
  73. To us, play is an act of resistance.
  74. For example, "Beat.,"
    the project I talked about earlier,
  75. is a concept developed by a drummer
    and a software engineer
  76. who didn't know each other
    two days before they pitched the idea.
  77. "Beat." is the first winner
    in our lab series
  78. where we pair artists and technologists
    to work on human rights issues.
  79. Other winning concepts
    include a pop-up bakery
  80. that teaches about fake news through
    beautiful but horrible-tasting cupcakes --
  81. (Laughter)

  82. or a board game that puts you
    in the shoes of a dictator

  83. so you get to really grasp the range
    of tools and tactics of oppression.
  84. We did our first lab
    just to test the idea,

  85. to see where it cracks
    and if we can make it better.
  86. Today, we are so in love with the format
    that we put it all online
  87. for anyone to implement.
  88. I cannot overstate the value
    of experimentation in activism.
  89. We can only win
    if we are not afraid to lose.
  90. When we play, we learn.

  91. A recent study published
    by Stanford University
  92. about the science
    of what makes people care
  93. reconfirms what we have
    been hearing for years:
  94. opinions are changed
    not from more information
  95. but through empathy-inducing experiences.
  96. So learning from science and art,
  97. we saw that we can talk about
    global armed conflict through light bulbs,
  98. or address racial inequality in the US
  99. through postcards,
  100. or tackle the lack of even
    one single monument of a woman in Sofia
  101. by flooding the city with them,
  102. and, with all these works,
  103. to trigger dialogue,
    understanding and direct action.
  104. Sometimes, when I talk about
    taking risks and trying and failing

  105. in the context of human rights,
  106. I meet raised eyebrows,
  107. eyebrows that say, "How irresponsible,"
  108. or, "How insensitive."
  109. People often mistake play for negligence.
  110. It is not.
  111. Play doesn't just grow our armies stronger
    or spark better ideas.
  112. In times of painful injustice,
  113. play brings the levity we need
    to be able to breathe.
  114. When we play, we live.
  115. I grew up in a time

  116. when all play was forbidden.
  117. My family's lives were crushed
    by a communist dictatorship.
  118. For my aunt, my grandfather, my father,
  119. we always held two funerals:
  120. one for their bodies,
  121. but, years before that,
  122. one for their dreams.
  123. Some of my biggest dreams are nightmares.
  124. I have a nightmare that one day
    all the past will be forgotten
  125. and new clothes will be dripping
    the blood of past mistakes.
  126. I have a nightmare
  127. that one day the lighthouses
    of our humanity will crumble,
  128. corroded by acid waves of hate.
  129. But way more than that,

  130. I have hope.
  131. In our fights for justice and freedom,
  132. I hope that we play,
  133. and that we see the joy
    and beauty of us playing together.
  134. That's how we win.
  135. Thank you.

  136. (Applause)