As Black Lives Matter protests spread during 2020, Dé Bryant knew one thing was coming: burnout.
“In the activist world, nobody talks about burnout. Clearly it happens, but no one talks about it,” said Bryant.
A longtime social justice advocate herself, Bryant is founder of the Social Action Project, a nonprofit organization focused on building social justice in neighborhoods in the U.S. and Africa. She is also a professor of psychology at Indiana University South Bend, where she teaches classes on social justice, human behavior, and social institutions, and is an advisory board member of IUSB’s Civil Rights Heritage Center.
“Living while African American in a country that attacks one’s personhood is a relentless burden,” said Bryant. “Among activists who face off against systemic racism, the emotional and physical drain can become crippling.”
In fall 2020, Bryant worked with the Black Lives Matter organization in South Bend to launch an Arts and Justice project designed to help racial justice activists find ways to sustain themselves and their work. The project was funded in part by IU’s Racial Justice Research Fund.
Bryant believes the arts are key to bringing about and sustaining racial justice.
“I’ve always believed that the arts are a very effective and universally impactful vehicle that allow people to address big issues that need to be on the table,” Bryant said. “It’s natural to me to think about the arts as a tool to look at issues related to race and racial justice.”
Bryant’s project centered around a series of podcast episodes, each of which “focused on an aspect of psychological development under threat as activists work on justice issues,” she explained. Those aspects included identity, power, belonging, loss, and more.
Participants who signed up for the series were asked in advance to create artistic responses to the episode topics (such as poetry or music) and upload them to a virtual gallery for sharing. Following each podcast, participants discussed the episode’s theme as well as the artistic contributions.
“The art encouraged expression and allowed everyone to delve more deeply,” Bryant said. “The project yielded really rich conversations about people’s experiences and stories.”
Building on the success of the first Arts and Justice series, which attracted hundreds of people, Bryant is now planning a new series that will run in spring 2021. With the inauguration of President Joseph Biden, Bryant wants to focus on “new realities”, she said, especially healing and progress.
“How do we focus on both at the same time, and not fall into an either/or trap of rolling over or going all in with fists flying?” Bryant said.
Ultimately, Bryant hopes to use findings and stories from the Arts and Justice series to build out a fledgling website she’s created called Rest for Our Weary. She intends the site to be a robust resource for visitors seeking to process trauma and pursue mental wellbeing.
“It’s human to grow tired,” Bryant said. “That in no way means someone is less committed or passionate about a cause. I want to offer tools to help sustain and strengthen them.”