What to do when we ‘lose’

    Some important lessons on dealing with loss from a recent generation-defining struggle in New Zealand: the Save Happy Valley Campaign.
    In its first action, the Save Happy Valley Campaign released 150 inflatable Kiwi in a popular inner city park and acted out street theater. (Save Happy Valley Campaign/Timothy Bailey)
    In 2006, the Save Happy Valley Campaign released 150 inflatable Kiwi in a popular inner city park and acted out street theater. (Save Happy Valley Campaign/Timothy Bailey)

    We do our best to win campaigns, but what do we do when we lose? How do we recover, find footing and carry on? Some important lessons can be drawn from a recent generation-defining struggle in New Zealand: the Save Happy Valley Campaign.

    The campaign has been protecting Happy Valley from invasive coal mining since 2005, including the country’s longest running environmental occupation. Just a few weeks ago their campaign was dealt a major hit when Solid Energy bulldozed much of the targeted land to open up mining, despite the low price of coal and low return on investment. Destroyed in the untouched landscape were the homes of 30 threatened great spotted kiwi and land where a rare carnivorous snail and eleven other endangered species lived.

    Recently I had the chance to work with some of the activists in that campaign while leading a three-day training of trainers for climate change organizers in New Zealand. While its too early to say if the entire campaign has lost, my time with them gave me a chance to think about lessons on when we do experience loss.

    Big losses, big hearts

    We experience no real sense of loss without opening up our hearts to what we’re fighting for. The campaigners fell in love with the land at Happy Valley, a red-tussock wetland in the southern island, near the town of Westport. For many of them it was their home during the three-year site occupation, in which activists rotated through the role of occupier in the remote pristine landscape.

    So when activists emailed around images of the bulldozed land, reactions ranged from shock, sadness and white-hot anger, to a mix of despair and a desire to move into figuring out what to do next.

    The first morning of the workshop hardly any of the activists spoke about news from the campaign. “Seeing the pictures just felt overwhelming,” said Jojo McVeagh, one of the activists. “I don’t want to process it at all.” Other than seeing faces that look locked in a kind of grimace, I didn’t hear much about the campaign.

    Sharing what’s in our hearts

    During the evening session I saw some of the grief beginning to rise. A pair of activists began quietly talking to each other about some of the loss — the first time I had observed that in the workshop. The sharing was quick, almost surreptitious, as if by admitting it was real to each other it might cement the loss.

    I went quickly to them and shared some stories of my own loss and then challenged them to keep sharing. “Taking the time to share what’s in your heart is really important,” I told them. “Last week I met with an Aussie activist who confided in me that after a devastating loss she hadn’t really spent any time in grief. She realized one result was she wasn’t as effective a spokesperson in her current campaign. She wasn’t as present as before and instead of leading with her heart, which was effective and compelling as a speaker, she was more stiff and less effective.”

    Along with my attentive listening, the two began making space for each other to share more. As they talked, I was struck by how much had to do with all the other hard things surrounding the campaign — the movement’s internal struggles and conflicts. I found myself, even though I had nothing to do with the campaign, on the edge of tears as I was feeling all the pain from my own lost campaigns, missed opportunities and lost relationships.

    That’s another important dimension of the healing process — how one loss can trigger all the many senses of inadequacy we build up from our campaign. “Once I started opening up, it all hit me,” Tara shared with me. “All of the losses and how much we as a movement lose and how I can feel we’re all fucked anyways. I now have to confront all of that. I try compartmentalizing it as merely one campaign loss, but it’s all coming at me.”

    Tara told me she finds rereading Joanna Macy helpful — someone who encourages us to look at the despair in the world, rather than merely turn away. I shared with her about a group of women I know who hold a “grief circle” — reading the newspaper and feeling their feelings together. “It’s not something I think I can do,” I said, “but I’m really glad to know it’s possible. And it opens me up and reminds me that I get to have those feelings when I hear bad news, too.”

    Part of handling the loss is dealing with the pain that gets triggered as well. The more a movement can address despair along the way, the better shape we’ll be in if and when we lose.


    The next morning the work of the pair had inspired other pairs to share. I spent time with one of the pairs in the kitchen over breakfast. They were focused on how to help their people pivot to the next campaign. One openly worried about people staying stuck in emotions and grief and not moving to the next action.

    I shared with her, “One thing I’ve learned is the importance of normalizing people’s reactions, rather than trying to force them into the next thing. In a way, losses like this are traumatizing — and each person reacts in different ways. Our reactions are normal reactions to abnormal circumstances.”

    I told her a story of a time I worked with a group who experienced a half-loss, half-win. I was asked to lead a strategy retreat afterwards and started by asking them what they were feeling. “Sadness.” “Anger.” “Concern about what’s next.”

    I diligently wrote all the responses on newsprint for everyone to see. Then, after exhausting the range of emotions in the room, I announced I wanted to share with them a theory about what movements do when they experience a half-loss, half-win. The group waited with baited breath, pens in hand.

    With a twinkle in my eye, I read them back their list, sharing a few stories as examples along the way. My goal here is normalizing — to affirm to people that their reactions are normal, and rather than fighting inside themselves to “shape up and be the right kind of activist” — one who goes right back to the battlefield or who does some kind of magical clean crying — for each person to be comfortable with their own set of reactions, open to their own genuine way of handling the challenge in front of them.

    The activist sipped from her coffee. “But what about people who feel too traumatized to even process? Who don’t want to join a debrief call?”

    “Normalize even that reaction,” I said. “It’s a natural desire, especially I find for the leaders and folks most involved to need to step away to process — it’s hard to process when you feel the expectation of others looking to you to come up with what’s next. If you mean it, tell them there’s always availability for talking about the campaign, but let them know it’s okay with you if they need some time away. The guilt we activists throw on ourselves is hard enough, but that can be nothing compared to the sense of shame we feel in the face of our colleagues’ pressure — real or imagined — to get right back into the fight.”

    Shame doesn’t inspire us back to action. Or, if it does, it is a nonrenewable fuel for action. People need spaces to heal — and initiatives must be taken to help design those spaces.

    Collective debriefing

    Ahead of the mid-morning break, activist Emily Bailey raised her hand and said, “Anyone interested in debriefing the Happy Valley campaign, join us for a tea break conversation.” A third of the group — some involved and some only peripherally involved — head off with her.

    I couldn’t be more delighted. The group is moving from very private reflections to larger, more public reflections. This is an important phase. Movements cannot move through grief without individuals doing reflective grief work. At the same time, individuals doing that work need to have spaces to share those reflections back with the larger world.

    I sat in for a few minutes to observe. I saw laughter and tears, physical affection and an airing of grief. Those who’ve been sharing in pairs appeared to be leading the way; they’d already worked through some of the grief and were efficient at sharing. The isolation that trauma had created melted away and community bonds were strengthened.

    The creation of space for handling grief is needed: Whether through community rituals (Save Happy Valley Campaign once created a whole ritual to honor the death of a particularly important tree), or through group humor (one activist tells me they used to play a game called “isn’t that terrible?” where people would share their woes and the activists would affirm them by saying, “yes, isn’t that terrible!?”).

    Framing our ‘loss’

    At the end of the workshop, the group of activists had developed a plan to support each other and debrief, including organizing a movement-wide debrief, split into two parts: “space for us to regroup and share some of our feelings and make sense of what happened” and a “brainstorming and planning session.” People were invited to come to either part, or both.

    At this stage of healing the activists were ready to take the feedback of all the many things the movement had won. Younger activists shared how this campaign was the campaign that inspired them into action. Older activists shared how this campaign kept them motivated and encouraged them to become more radical. The activists were able to hear it and take it in.

    Even through the loss, they began to paint a bigger picture: Not everything in Happy Valley was destroyed and in fact the company has only started mining a small section of the land. There are still forests left to protect. In the broad sweep of the climate change movement, this may become a turning point for other wins down the road. Many movement leaders are now skilled up to move on to other campaigns. Other leaders were burned out by the campaign, a testament to the need for increased group support, which was a lesson the younger activists took to heart.

    Their process mirrored that of many campaigns who suffer loss: doing healing individually and through small groups, then through larger groups, and eventually feeding back into the larger movement. It reflects the need for active creation of processes and structures to help people move forward through their grief, even while mirroring the psychological stages associated with handling grief: shock, anger, disorganization and eventually regrouping and innovation.

    At the end of the workshop, Jojo shared part of their reflection, “At the end, we realized our loss wasn’t because we failed. We did the right thing and we did our parts. It’s the government and corporations that failed us, that failed to protect the land and failed to live up to their values. We have to keep doing the right things.”

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