It is fashionable, in feminist quarters, to bash the non-profit industrial complex. To imply that activist work done while receiving a paycheck is somehow less legitimate than a labor of love and only love.
There are a number of problems with this argument. Namely confusing the solution to movement organizations doing a bad job, which is creating and/or fostering movement organizations in a position to do a better job, with martyr-like personal sacrifice. However much your actions matter — and they do profoundly — personal solutions, especially ones that hurt you, will not resolve systemic problems.
Many feminists express justifiable anger with and avoidance of “feminist” organizations that purport to speak for all women while actually representing the needs of women who are and/or look like their leadership; or compromise to the point of becoming a partisan pom squad; or treat the women who work for them like shit. I agree with that. I’m there. But I want you to have your principles and be able to get paid. Here’s why.
First, “don’t get paid” feeds right into economic exploitation, particularly of younger people, that is already common practice at many non-profit women’s organizations. Unpaid internships to do clerical work? Sure, budgets are tight and maybe it’s not illegal, the way it is in for-profit business environments. It’s still highly unethical for the workers it displaces and the students who are often paying tuition for the privilege of answering phones and making copies. And don’t get me started on the low wages many junior staffers are paid, particularly when there’s enough money for others to pull decent salaries. It’s disgusting and a source for shame.
Second, the women’s movement is shifting and needs to keep shifting. #femfuture, a recent report created by online feminists in New York, named and began offering potential solutions to a problem that desperately needs to be resolved: The unsustainable nature of the unpaid work model for online feminism. I argue the concern needs to be extended to feminist activism in general, online and offline (we’re almost at the point where these distinctions shouldn’t be made anymore). We all need to be having #femfuture discussions of our own. There is a point, when people are working so hard to the point of exhaustion, that we need to say — you know what? The old model of feminist organizing, which was heavily dependent on volunteers who were — what do you know — white middle-class housewives, can’t be force-fit to women struggling to pay student loans and support families and “get it all done.” It’s impractical to the point of ridiculous to think that model can somehow be revised to fit the present-day, at least if success is the end goal. We need to figure out a way for more activists to get paid.
Finally, your activist work is not inherently more or less legitimate based on how much you are not or are getting paid for it. Period.
Now that I’ve said that, I’m going to give some advice and share an experience that are outside the realm of “go work for a feminist paycheck.” Because wanting non-profits to pay you for your work, if that’s what you want, and wanting the best for you are not perfectly overlapping circles.
Realistically you can make a lot more money working outside the women’s movement, and making money is not a bad thing. Practically you can make a huge difference in workplaces that aren’t primarily feminist spaces. We need feminists in every industry. If you can do that, and still want to do volunteer activism that speaks to your heart, great. Much of my career has gone this way.
These days I get paid for some of the feminist work I do, but certainly not all of it. It’s a newer situation. After leaving a movement job last year, I was not paid at all for the work I continued to do for some months on a self-directed basis, and I can honestly say what I’ve just described is one of the best things I’ve done for my feminism. Dreams and integrity are too precious to be outsourced to any non-profit organization, no matter what it purports to represent. But I also recognize that it’s not all lofty. I was in a situation at the time where I could afford to have my presence, including a lack thereof, match my values. Being able to afford time for unpaid activist work doesn’t make me any better than someone who can’t.
So in summary, is volunteer activism more legit? No, not inherently. More of this work needs to be paid, and there’s nothing wrong with insisting that you be paid fairly for it. At the same time, unpaid opportunities offer you chances to follow your heart that a check signer may never endorse. I know you’ll do what’s best for you.