Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Why I Didn't Become A Professional Activist

So a while ago I went to a banquet as a university alumnus to be a keynote panel speaker on the subject of campus activism and how it affected my life and future activism.  There I was--a person who attempted to become a professional activist and wound up switching to a career where I have practically no opportunity to do any sort of wide-reaching activism at all--surrounded by people who are either professional activists or who had careers that were very focused on things like community betterment (things like running homeless shelters and LGBT youth programs, programs for uplifting people of color, abortion funds, etc.).  Most of us were contemporaries at said university, and after the program I mentioned I felt a little-out-of-place, like I was just some random computer guy stuck in the middle.  The reality is that I was extremely active on campus as an activist when I went there, and so it made perfect sense for them to invite me back.  I had a good time, but I do regret not elaborating perhaps a bit more about why I wound up not becoming a professional activist or at least something that would allow me more opportunity to better the world.

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:
  1. Eight hours of standing work begging people for money each work day.
  2. 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.
  3. $6.25 an hour (at the time that was minimum wage, and they really tried hard to find excuses to pay less).
  4. There was "volunteer" work on weekends but if you weren't able to go people treated you like trash.
  5. 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."
I quit this job very rapidly and could not get hold of them to even ask about my final paycheck afterward (when I initially applied for the job they called me back within literally thirty seconds, but never got back to me about owed wages no matter how I tried contacting them).  I found out that this organization has a very deep history of chewing up enthusiastic activists and spitting them out shortly afterward, especially those who were in the same position as me, without the experience or skillset to get a more involved and better paying position among those few jobs available to aspiring professional activists.  They flood job boards oriented toward idealists, boasting that you can make money working "for progress."

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.