Here's the reality of the situation: I wound up caught in the young activist meat-grinder, one of many glowing and enthusiastic student activists who wound up working a shitty low-level canvassing job or some other shit job that helps make a nonprofit organization run.
Let me tell you a bit about this job, because it was a doozy:
- Eight hours of standing work begging people for money each work day.
- You were constantly worried about being fired if you didn't make a ridiculous quota every single one of those days, with long-term experienced employees often kicking in ten or fifteen bucks of their own money just to meet the quota and avoid getting canned.
- $6.25 an hour (at the time that was minimum wage, and they really tried hard to find excuses to pay less).
- There was "volunteer" work on weekends but if you weren't able to go people treated you like trash.
- People who quit due to the high-stress environment were just described by the managers as leaving because they just didn't care enough about "The Cause." In fact, pretty much every problem a person had on the job was attributed to them just not caring enough about "The Cause."
This is the kind of job that only feels reasonable long-term to ascetic activists--those who are so dedicated to "The Cause" (or who want to look like they are) that they willingly forgo not only enough money to survive, but most of their free time and a good chunk of their dignity as well as they grovel on the streets for money. I occasionally see them described as a "liberal sweatshop" in critiques of their methods, with the few overwhelmingly positive reviews of their workplace seemingly by the people I just mentioned who want the prestige of eating dry beans and rice for "The Cause,"with a few speckled throughout who just happened to be really damn good at getting people to donate.
I could have just switched gears and tried finding a better position, but I'll be honest: This experience disillusioned the fuck out of me and changed the entire way I view professional activism. I had all these idealistic beliefs coming out of college, all these experiences in campus activism, only to find that the only job available to me was this shit? And that if I did get a better job there would be a good chance it was being funded by stressed-out low-wage workers? Honestly I'm kind of surprised I didn't give up activism altogether. For all I know I could have been two steps away from reverting back to Libertarian Teen Me back in the nineties.
So yeah... I'm still an activist. I'm not as loud or flashy about it as I used to be and I definitely don't make money off of it.
One of the questions we were asked was how our careers facilitate our activism. The implication seemed very directed toward professional activists, but for me--the computer guy who gave up on trying to get an idealistic job--the answer is as follows: My career facilitates my activism because I cannot be an effective activist if I can't eat, pay my bills, and comfortably decompress. It facilitates my activism because without it I would not have enough money to purchase books to donate, to print out literature, to drive to events, to donate to peoples' fundraisers, to buy Internet service to keep abreast of all the things happening in the world. I don't need my job to be explicitly activist in order for it to facilitate my activism, and I encourage people who are interested in activism long-term but who may not have the personality to make it in the nonprofit sector (as I do not) to recognize that your activism is still valuable.
I do not, by the way, mean to disparage the work of organizations. Not all of them contract out to startlingly unethical fundraising businesses, and they do a great deal of important work. But there are many, many ways to be an activist.