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Don’t get burned out: Future proofing civil society and our institutions

Today, on International Workers’ Day, 1 May, we share the full text of a speech by Fanny Hidvegi, our European Policy Manager, delivered on 27 April at Personal Democracy Forum CEE 2018  in Gdansk, Poland. It’s a personal story about the connection between avoiding “burnout” as a human rights activist and shoring up the resilience of European institutions in crisis. She asks, How do we become more resilient — more “future proof” — in our lives, our work, and our democracies?

Hello everyone, my name is Fanny. I’m a human rights lawyer originally from Hungary and I am on the most typical and perfect path leading to a burnout. I’ve been working for Access Now as European Policy Manager for a few years now which means that I advocate for EU laws and policies to respect and promote human rights online. In other words I’m a lobbyist for a good cause in Brussels, in an EU environment which is in crisis, or is on the verge of burnout, if you will.  

Today, I will tell you a story of how we can make sure that both our democratic institutions and we ourselves are resilient and future proof.

The story starts with the T-shirt I’m wearing. It says “SZABAD,” which is Hungarian for free. As in a free person, somebody with freedoms and liberties. The T-shirt wasn’t for free. It costs around 16 euros and the money supports the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, the leading human rights NGO in Hungary where I started my human rights career. And where, more importantly, I found my calling and mission as a lawyer which, believe me, was not an easy process. I don’t know how many lawyers are in the room but I’m sure most of them can relate to that self loathing that I felt during law school.

When I joined the HCLU in 2012 they asked me to write a bio for the website, one that is more than just a list of educational and professional interests but which also includes some personal reasons why I chose this job. After some soul searching, I wrote that I grew up as a child of the ‘90s in Central Eastern Europe, in a country with full of flaws but also with hopes for a democratic future. Growing up, I constantly heard from adults that my generation is too privileged and we had nothing to fight for.

Even then I always felt that it’s a false characterization and there are many marginalized and vulnerable people and communities who should be protected and empowered against the abuse of the state, and I wanted to dedicate my professional life to fighting for them.

In 2012 when I wrote that bio — already under the current Fidesz power  — I still felt that my generation has something to prove or to make up for that relative privilege we had. Well, I should have been more careful what I wished for. Freedoms, liberties, democracy, and the rule of law quickly became a dream that we have to fight to regain in Hungary, and beyond the country.

Human rights work is largely about power dynamics, and to protect individuals and communities from actors in power. Originally, that power stemmed from the government, or more broadly the state, but this axiom has changed, in particular in the digital field.

There is a cliche about the difference between Western and Eastern Europe on the basis that citizens of former socialist countries tend to distrust the state and trust the private sector more, and vice versa. In the era of digitization, big data, algorithms, and artificial intelligence, this distinction and characterization is very misleading. Both on the societal and individual level, the internet has brought fundamental changes to these power dynamics.

Private companies have become the center or intermediary for human rights enforcement. The state is constantly pushing more and more power and responsibility on these platforms, which has brought about the era of privatized enforcement instead of rule of law. From an extreme perspective, that impacts even the monopoly of violence. Sure, Facebook, Twitter, or Google cannot and will not arrest you. But the police might, based on what you search for on Google and write in your emails, what you share with your friends and private messages, or what opinion you express on Twitter. Law enforcement no longer needs to collect information; they just need to have access to it.

The change of power dynamics has also changed how we fight for the rule of law and democracy, and we have to make sure that there are adequate safeguards in place, for both the public and the private sector to respect human rights.

The only way to achieve or even to have a chance to achieve those goals is for human rights activists and civil society in general to be at the absolute top of their game. But we’re usually not. Svetlana Zakharova in her opening talk yesterday talked about the reasons and symptoms of burnout among human rights activists so I’m just gonna quickly name a few signs without going into details:

  • constant fear of losing and pursuit of funding,
  • working 24/7, seven days a week,
  • no breaks, no proper downtime, no sleep, no vacation,
  • constant urge to feel irreplaceable,
  • in some places, being under economic or even physical threat; and
  • on top of all these, we are usually pretty proud of these challenges and even bragging how busy we are.

As an unavoidable consequence, we’re losing efficiency and motivation, showing bad modeling behavior, our friends and families are complaining, and evidently our productivity is undermined, and we become unhappy and depressed.  

And what does that process look like for democratic institutions and in particular for the European Union? Without the goal of giving a comprehensive overview of the EU project and its alleged crisis, there are a few phenomena that when working in the Brussels bubble, you can’t go without noticing:

On the structural level:

  • There’s a tangible political  capture of the EU institutions, member states’ interest manifested even in the work of a now political Commission which should be completely free of that.
  • Second, the well-known blaming of “Brussels” for failures but claiming credit for all victories by member state governments.
  • Lack of political accountability for action on the EU level — will not impact the career of politicians and officials when they go back to their home country.
  • Finally, as a society we must stand up against politicians constantly exploiting our worst fears and lack of knowledge to bend the rules for their personal interest above those of society.  Laws are no longer thought to deliver long term stability, security, and freedoms but to ensure short term reelections.

In the digital field, the most worrying trend has been the handing over of responsibilities and powers to private sector, as I said earlier. One example for this is the political pressure to “do something” about “fake news” without defining what fake news is, or what the problem is. On this one, my first piece of advice is to completely refrain from using that term. Policymakers should move away from generic and misleading actions under that false umbrella term. Access Now urges all actors to adopt, strengthen, and respect enforceable privacy rules around online tracking which can address challenges in the information ecosystem, including the spreading of misinformation and profiling of users. We cannot accept surveillance capitalism as a business model.

This event has put a great emphasis on a positive vision about the future. So let’s stop with the challenges and focus on answers. I’ve got to admit, this was the most challenging part of the preparation for today, to put myself in a positive mindset.

What I’m going to talk about is to outline what resilience could look like for our democratic institutions and civil society. The way I use “resilience,” the term means the ability to return to the center after an extreme shock, or loss, or pressure, when we’re out of balance. For activists it means the ability to continue fighting and for institutions to continue functioning properly by fulfilling their role as checks and balances.

So how can EU institutions become more resilient in the future?

  • On the process level they need to be transparent, inclusive, and diverse. Participation should go beyond slogans about multistakeholderism. One small but super important example that needs to be improved is the composition of meetings. In the EU the way civil society engagement is defined means that civil society not only includes NGOs, but also professional associations and trade or industry associations, academia, and the press. The limited opportunities that civil society gets to input into EU policy-making should not be taken up by industry associations representing tech companies, including American tech giants.
  • On the substance level, tools for resilience are already embedded and coded in legal obligations on the one hand, and rights on the other. Rule of law and human rights are enshrined in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. What’s missing is political willingness for enforcement. The courts have been slowly but surely backing us up in particular in the privacy and data protection field. It’s time for the Commission now to truly become the guardian of the treaties.

And what does resilience against burnout mean for the activists, on the personal and organizational level? The goal is to stay effective, motivated, achieving, and happy. But how? I’ll give you a few tips and ask you about them.

  • You don’t have headspace to think about deeper strategic question? Take one minute for meditation even during a meeting; it will help you put your focus where it needs to be, and nobody will notice. More elaborate: mindfulness meditation.
  • How many of you have proper lunch breaks and leave your desks? Do that more often.
  • Turn off push notifications, not just on your phone, but on your computer too. Don’t read emails while you are working on something else. Multitasking is distraction and single tasking is the new multitasking in 2018. Don’t multitask, there are studies that show that our brain cannot effectively multitask. Anybody care to guess how much time it takes for the brain to resume after being interrupted?  Statistics show that it takes an average of 25 minutes.
  • Professional supervision or coaching.
  • Anti-burnout sessions and workshops at conferences. Who shows up? Usually the people who have gone through burnout or feel that they are getting closer to it. Kudos to the organizers for making that a central topic of this conference, instead of hiding it in smaller workshops.

I saved my favorite for the last one. Are you also podcast fans? Well, I am, and one of my favorites is called Note to Self. It’s a tech show about being human by Manoush Zomorodi. She wrote a book titled Bored and Brilliant, on the basis of a project she did on the podcast. Through an experiment with the audience, she came up with a few easy steps to challenge yourself to become less addicted to your phone, or at least to reduce the useless time you spend with it.

Back in 2015, Manoush wondered if being plugged in all the time to a constant stream of entertainment and information actually made our lives worse. She noticed that we’re never bored—and she wondered, what is that lack of boredom doing to us? Manoush led her listeners through an experiment to help them unplug, and it was a huge success. After taking part in the experiment, listeners reported feeling more creative and productive, and more satisfied with their lives.

So here are the steps of the Bored and Brilliant challenge:

    • In your pocket: on the train, bus, sidewalk, or passenger seat, keep your phone in your pocket. Or — bonus points — in your bag.
    • Photo free day: We take 10 billion (yes, that’s a “b”) photos per month, mostly on our phones. Today, we want you to start seeing the world through your eyes, not your screen.
    • Delete that app.
    • Fake OOO: Craft an away-message. Put it up for an hour, an afternoon, or the whole day. It will make you more productive at things that matter.
    • One small observation: For today’s challenge, we want you to take note of one person, object, or interesting, uninventable detail you would have missed if your nose were glued to your phone.
    • I keep the last one as a secret so you all go listen to it.

And finally, as a closing, there’s a tip for true resilience beyond avoiding burnout. Access Now operates a 24/7 Digital Security Helpline to support activists, journalists, users at risk. You can reach out if you’d like to learn how to use encrypted messages. If you’re already under attack, we provide rapid-response emergency assistance. Languages: English, Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, Tagalog, and Arabic.

Svetlana warned us yesterday that nobody else will do any of these things for us and we have to take care of ourselves. I agree that we have to take action ourselves. But I also want you to embrace that as NGO or community leaders, employers, head of a project etc. many of you have responsibilities for modeling behavior.

So the message I’d like all of you to leave this room is to commit to at least one action for self-care, whether it’s going to be deleting an app from your phone, setting a boundary that you don’t read emails after 8pm, not cancelling gym regardless of how much work is left, an hour in a week to discuss with your colleagues your challenges to feel successful in this difficult environment, or ultimately a budget line that fits your organization’s priorities dedicated solely on well-being to be more resilient, and to be able to come here next year as well. I hope to see you then.  

Thank you!