In addition to being a fitness icon and an award-winning actress, Jane Fonda has been a passionate political activist for decades. But as anyone who’s ever participated in activism efforts knows, fighting for causes you believe in can be both physically and emotionally consuming (hello, activist burnout). But rather than letting the enduring weight of climate change, racial injustice, and political turmoil deter her from her intentions to strike change, Fonda has adopted a mind-set regarding ongoing activism that’s decidedly hopeful.
I recently asked her about the biggest lesson she’s learned after years and years of advocating for others and for institutional change, and her answer moved me tears: “I’ve learned how profoundly people can change,” says Fonda. “Because I have profoundly changed. It can take a book, it can take a march, it can take a speech—it can be one thing, or a series of things. That image of George Floyd was a trigger for tens of thousands—or maybe more—of people. It was a tipping point. People can really change.”
Considering the uphill battle that many activists sign up to fight in order strike change, believing in the ability for meaningful growth is notable. And Fonda says it’s also important that no matter how hopeless you may feel at certain junctures, you shouldn’t write anyone off. “Very often, people who were in opposition to something can change quite rapidly. It keeps you from getting cynical when you realize the extent and profundity with which human beings are a particular species of animals that change so much,” she says.
“Very often, people who were in opposition to something can change quite rapidly. It keeps you from getting cynical.” —Jane Fonda
Besides acknowledging that even the most seemingly obstinate opposing forces can have a change of heart, Fonda stresses that having conversations in general can spark actual change. “You have to talk about [an issue],” she says. “Simply talking about things with your family or your colleagues, all of the time, is an act.” Another tip for activists? Start small and local. “The more local, the more impact [an official] has on your immediate life—it can make a huge difference,” says Fonda. “That’s why, while I work on cosmic, big issues like climate change and racial justice, I try to pay attention to local issues that involve the city council, and the sheriff. Figure out what’s happening all around you so that you can stay up to date and be involved.”
Of course, no matter how much time you’re spending on activist causes, Fonda has a reminder for everyone: Taking care of yourself first is essential. “I’ve learned a long time ago that if you’re an activist who isn’t taking care of yourself, you’ll pretty soon burn out,” she says. But, she adds, self care becomes easier when you know that you’re making a difference in the world. “All I can say is, from my advanced years, that you will sleep better and you will feel better when you come to the end of your life if you know, in some way, that you help make a difference.”