The NIPS Climate Peer Support Group
From long experience in many social change movements, we know how important social support is. It is simply hard to try and change the society. It takes a long time and not everything we try and do works. Therefore, it is frustrating. It takes time and energy away from our family or work and they sometimes complain. Sometimes we are flat-out attacked for what we say or do. There is an unfortunate history in this and other countries for harming, even killing people who stand up for change.
Climate change adds a whole additional source of stress. Every day we talk about, read about or watch stories about impending doom. Grief, anger and fear are appropriate responses. Psychiatrist Lisa Van Susteren from our NIPS Advisory Committee refers to it as “Climate Advocacy Trauma.”
The result of this stress is that many of us drop out and stop doing the work that needs to be done. Others of us adopt unproductive attitudes. We get urgent and demand that others work as hard as we do. We get irritable. Others loose ourselves in reading and analysis and go numb. We can get over-inflated egos. We think that we know all there is to know on a subject—and that everybody else wants to hear what we have to say. Some of us just get hopeless.
None of these responses are out fault. We are simply doing the best we can under sometimes difficult circumstances. However, we also know that these responses undermine the effectiveness of our work and drive people away from us.
The only attitude that ever makes sense towards another person, be they another activist or some potential recruit, is interest in that person, in what they have to say, showing that you like them. Indeed, that even makes sense when dealing with a politician who opposes us or a corporate executive who insists on polluting. We may have to insist that they change their vote or we may decide to sit in their office. In the Gandhian tradition, however, we are always reaching out to the better part of each other human being, all the time.
So, most activists find ways of dealing with these stresses. Often, we resort to habitual overwork. Some of us turn to addictions, eating or drinking too much, chain-drinking caffeinated beverages, whatever. Some of our lives are nearly in ruins because of our neglect of our jobs, families and health. Many of us use meetings of our groups to get social support in unaware ways, hanging out together often instead of reaching out to new people or doing the actual work. Again, it is not our fault. Instinctively, we know that there is something we need from other people to deal with these stresses.
That is where peer support comes in. Literally millions of people in thousands of groups have found it helpful to set aside some time explicitly to come together in groups whose purpose is to help us deal with the stress in our lives, usually a group of people who are dealing with a similar source of stress—an illness, an addiction or a life condition. Other people just get together in general support groups.
NIPS seeks to make that very well developed tool available to the Climate Action community.
The purpose of these groups is to think better, not just to feel better. We know from long experience that activists will be more effective in our work and more satisfied with our lives in general if we take some time to be explicit about our need for social support. There is something that happens when we talk and somebody really listens. We think better about that topic later, especially if we deal with the feelings associated with that topic. It is also useful for us to learn to take our mind of our concerns, about what we want to tell the other person and listen. It is especially helpful if the other person is an activist also. We learn that we are not the only one who thinks, feels or acts in occasionally odd ways. Indeed, we begin to recognize that this is what we have been trying to get from the people in our too-frequent and too-long meetings.
The key element in most other peer support communities is a face-to-face group in a local community. The goal of NIPS is to have many such groups for Climate Activists in every city and town in the U.S. and in many locations around the world so that each and every one of us can find a group of other Climate Activists to talk with on a regular basis or when we need to.
We know the power of such face-to-face groups from the long experience of many other peer support networks, as well as the long history documenting the power of small groups in many other settings, from building strong organizations to getting work done.
These groups are more powerful as the similarity of the members increases. If you attend a NIPS Weekend Workshop for Climate Activists, you will see that we often form smaller support groups out of the larger group attending a workshop weekend based on additional commonalities. The smaller group is often formed based on additional things we have in common like female activists or those who do nonviolent direct action. The “sub-groups” will meet three times during the weekend. Having these additional things in common creates additional psychological safety, plus members of these sub-groups are often apt to keep in touch after the weekend even if they live in different places. Some of the smaller constituencies can set up conference call numbers where they hold a telephone Support Groups meeting each week, month or as needed. These telephone groups have proved very effective in other constituencies besides Climate Activists as we continue to try to set up local groups in our home areas. At this stage, it would be great to have folks step forward to set up telephone or internet based support groups for women climate activists or those of us who are young adults, etc. These smaller groups function like a family, allowing the members to trust one another even more deeply and, at the weekend workshops, in particular, we progress and thus deal with deeper feelings. It is also as a way to keep track of each other in a relatively large gathering. Please check out our website to see if there is a phone or chat group meeting of activists like you, e.g. women, non-violent direct action folks.
However, we are only just launching this NIPS peer support community for Climate Activists, therefore it is not easy to find other activists familiar with our model. The simplest thing to go to our website and call into a national or international telephone support group. You can also call our National Office and get in touch with our staff or some another activist to do a one on one listening turn.
There is nothing complicated about basic peer support. It simply requires two or more people with something in common (or for that matter two or more human beings!) who are interested in this format and willing to follow a few simple guidelines. The only trick is to follow these simple guidelines strictly. If you have somebody or a few somebodies who are willing to try this out with you, then just follow this Script. All over the country in other peer support networks, people walk into a room, pick up a Script similar to this one and hold peer support meetings and get the benefits of peer support. Why shouldn’t people who are doing some of the most important (and frustrating) work on the planet?
Climate Activists’ Support Group Leader’s Guide
A Project of the National Institute for Peer Support (NIPS,501(c)(3)
1300 “N” Street, NW, Suite 114, Washington, DC 20005
Hi, my name is ____________ and I am the leader for this meeting.
This is a Climate Activists’ Support Group meeting organized by the National Institute for Peer Support (N. I. P. S.) We are a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to giving climate activists an opportunity to provide one another with peer support.
It is important that people know what to expect in one of our peer support groups. Therefore, we begin each meeting with a set of assumptions we ask everyone to follow, at least during our meetings.
First assumption, people are good. We believe that all activists are good people doing the best we can at each moment. We also know that each of us has the potential to be way more effective than we already are.
Second, people get hurt. We know that doing this work can be very frustrating and we can get discouraged, angry or just plain scared. As a result, we sometimes behave badly, even to one another! We also know that many of our current feelings can be rooted in things that happened to us long ago.
Third, people can get over these hurts if we get a chance to express our feelings about them. Too often, our non-activist family and friends are just not able to listen to stories about our work and our worries. Here, some of us may cry, laugh, tremble or get angry. We will be able to deal with the things we are talking about better afterwards.
Fourth, taking timed, uninterrupted turns listening to each other helps. Here are our ground rules.
We will set a timer so that everyone gets an equal time to speak.
We do not interrupt each other or comment on each others’ stories. However well-intended, such interruptions or advice-giving is often hurtful or interferes with the person’s sharing. We also do not refer specifically to each others’ stories, not even to the person who told the story unless we first ask their permission.
If this is a face-to-face meeting, we try to maintain eye contact with the person sharing and also keep a relaxed, pleased expression on our face. It is not helpful to someone to feel that they have upset us or have to entertain us with their sharing. On the phone, we pay close, but quiet attention.
When out time is up, we stop focusing on our own feelings. We take a moment to notice something pleasant in our surroundings or something we are looking forward to as a way of making the transition to the next person.
As your leader for today, I will be the only one saying anything during someone’s listening turn if it seems helpful. For example, with your permission, I may encourage you to stick with feelings which you bring up and then change the subject. Or I may say something to remind you that this is now a safe place.
If this is a telephone or internet-based group, please give me your email and phone number when you take your turn.
If it is face-to-face, an Activist Support List is circulating with the names of other climate activists who are willing to take your calls. Peer support is most effective if we make a quick call to one another at times when we are having strong feelings–or to process something for a longer time.
If you are willing to take calls, please put down your name, phone number, email and best times to call. The list will circulate twice, once to list your name and once for you to copy down any contacts you are interested in.
If you are willing to do short Listening Turns with other climate activists, please say so at the start of your turn and I will send you the contact list of others so interested.
In face-to-face groups, are there any climate activists here today who are familiar with NIPS peer support and who would be available to meet here with newcomers immediately after the meeting?
Just for the record, are there any other climate activists here today?
NOT TO BE READ UNLESS THERE ARE ANY NON-CLIMATE ACTIVISTS PRESENT ( Are the activists willing to let the non-activists (such as friends and/or family members, supportive politicians, psychological professionals or the media) stay and participate. If any activist objects, I will thank the others for their support and ask them to leave. If there are enough non-activists, they could have their own separate support group meeting and come back at the end.)
As a group, we do not take any specific advocacy position on any issue. We do not recruit supporters for our particular positions at these support groups although we certainly free to talk about our own positions. We leave time for announcements at the end of the meeting. We are open to anyone who is concerned about Global Warming and is already or considering taking action in any way.
We do insist on non-violence. We do not support or discuss actions which cause damage to human beings or property.
We do urge everyone here to get involved on this general topic in any way that makes sense to you. In peer support, we periodically get together in a larger group across organizational boundaries as a Workshop or Topic and Action Groups Meeting to figure out how which specific ways individuals can take action on climate change. In this geographical area, the next one of these larger meetings is scheduled for (date, time, and place–if none is scheduled locally, ask for volunteers to help set one up and contact the national office for assistance.)
A list of the various local and national groups working on climate change is available on the NIPS website. They speak for themselves and do not represent us. We urge you to confine your comments at this meeting to your personal concerns and leave the differences between these groups to other conversations.
We always begin our meetings by going around and telling each other our names and what the nature of our climate activism is or was. In these introductions, we always include one thing that is new and good in our lives or that we like about taking action on climate. This helps us focus our attention on the meeting and not on whatever else might be on our mind.
Let’s go around now.
(After everyone has introduced themselves to the extent they want to)
Now let’s each take a turn. When it is our turn, it can often be useful to talk for at least a little while about what has been good about our climate activism. Then, we can talk about what is hard about it.
NOT TO BE READ OUT LOUD: (To the leader: to calculate the time available for each person, divide the number of minutes remaining in the meeting–two hours is best for the whole meeting—by the number of people in the group and set the cooking timer for at least one minute less to allow for transitions—always subtracting five minutes for the closing. For example, if the meeting is for two hours and the introductions and the leader’s comments have taken 20 minutes, just subtract 5 from the 100 minutes remaining. If you have six people, divide 95 by 6 which is close to 16, but take off that one minute for transitions. That would give everyone 15 minutes of uninterrupted time to tell their stories.)
Now let’s begin taking turns. Everyone will have ____ minutes to share their stories (the number of minutes you just calculated).
We pick numbers to decide on a speaking order. It is a good idea for the leader to go first to model the process.
Who would like to go first?
Has everyone picked a number?
After each person’s time runs out, I will say “that is time”, but give you a chance to finish your thought (a minute or so if needed.) Then, I will ask you to tell one thing that gets your attention away from your story and back on present time, e.g. what are you looking forward to? What do you like about this room?
(After the last person is finished taking his or her turn, remind people)
Remember everything you hear here is confidential. What you hear here, let it stay here. If someone has asked for logistical help during their turn and you feel you can help, after the meeting, first ask them if it is alright to talk about the subject they mentioned. This makes it much safer for people.
Our next NIPS Climate Activists Support Group like this is (time, date, and place.)
One last thing. In NIPS, we try and develop everyone to be a leader. Therefore, we always ask each of you to tell me one specific thing you liked about me as the leader of tonight’s group. At the same time, please tell the person on their right if in person (or East based on a map in national groups) one thing you really like about them. This helps us build a stronger group.
When we are done, will you please help me put the room back in order?
Are there any brief, no more than one-minute, climate or sustainability announcements? (If there are, give the following NIPS ground-rules for discussing business or other topics. Remember not to interrupt each other and to not let everyone else speak twice before everyone has spoken once.) Thank you for letting me lead this meeting.
AFTER THE MEETING: Without listing anyone’s name or identifying characteristics, it would help our work if the leader would make a few notes about the kinds of issues participants talked about and anything they did or said which seemed helpful to the person talking. Please send these notes to our office.
RESOURCES: On-line description of a Climate Activists Support Group and this Leader’s Guide can be found at: http://nipspeersupport.org/?page_id=108, along with lots more about peer support including a support group organized in a police van after the large DC, Tar Sands arrests.