Activism and running a non-profit organization are often confused. What is sad is when the precious and rare gems who are activists get sucked into the drama of movement organizations doing a bad job, and it becomes an end in itself. Eyes on the prize, my dear doves: Change society. Let those multitudes who are not activists focus on changing the organizations that make a brand out of change that needs to occur.
Activism is a difficult, though often enjoyable, state of motion. It is fueled by a strategic demand and employs a variety tactics to change a broader culture. Activism takes time, determination, persistence. It includes a willingness to make frowned-upon personal disclosures, examine one’s own actions critically and stand up for principles, even at great personal cost or risk. In popular culture, the snapshot of activism we most see is a photograph or quote in the news, or getting to talk on television, but the cold truth is that most activist work is not that glamourous and many (by no means all) of the people getting photographed and talking on television are people who stand nearby or support the work of activists, rather than serve as activists themselves.
Women’s suffrage champion Susan B. Anthony captured the spirit of activism in the following:
“Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about a reform. Those who are really in earnest must be willing to be anything or nothing in the world’s estimation.”
Let’s be honest. This profile does not fit most people. It doesn’t mean that most people are bad. Nor does it mean that those people are bad who offer support to a cause once it has been made palatable or popular by activists (for goodness sakes, the point of activism is not to create a righteous little club in a world of awful, but to change society — which includes building support from those who weren’t allies before).
Further, people can be activists in some life phases and not in others. This is reality. There is often, but not always, privilege supporting the ability to push boundaries. Likewise, that doesn’t mean the people pushing boundaries are bad, but it does mean that when people need to be able to afford to eat, which is always, they might not always be able to speak out on an issue at the present time, which is often.
By its nature, running a non-profit organization affiliated with a cause or movement is a radically different state of affairs than activism itself. You have funders. You have boards. You have bureaucracy. It’s not uncommon for non-profit organizations that started out as activist collectives to, over time, become institutionalized and spend increasing time focused on the maintenance of themselves. Sometimes, but not always, that includes developing a stake in the non-resolution of the issue that caused the non-profit to be founded in the first place. When times are bad, funders dump dollars. If the mission is accomplished, we have to go away. Type of thing. (Previous sentence is a verbal tic from a character in “The Pale King,” David Foster Wallace’s novel about employees in an IRS Regional Examination Center. Analogy purposeful and painfully apt.)
Which is not to say that you don’t have activists who work for non-profit organizations. But it is to say that it’s pretty hard to do both. There is a tension between maintaining institutions created because of the status quo, many of which will eventually outlive their relevance, and making change.
If you are an activist, recognize the non-profit industrial complex for what it is. You want a job in one? You want to volunteer for one? Go for it. Good for you. Service organizations do wonderful work to support individuals affected by an issue. Movement organizations often support activism and do wonderful work to help those making change on an issue, but no movement organization should be mistaken with the movement itself (while the media does this all the time, an activist should not bother). Political organizations help to change elections and the public policy making process, often leveraging activists, but no political organization should be mistaken with a social change movement.
Activists are rare indeed. If you are one, protect your activism fiercely to the extent you can. One of the best ways to do that is focus on changing the broader world, rather than changing a movement organization doing a bad job. It is sad to see how much time is wasted by those willing to be despised … trying to change a non-profit that is not advancing the issue they care about. If a movement organization is doing a bad job, acknowledge it and move on. Do not confuse changing it with changing society. Instead, be the change you wish to see. Think bigger, and create the conditions you believe are needed in the broader world from a space that is effective. Be awesome or don’t bother.
P.S. In a post like this, I would be remiss not to mention I’m giving an activism how-to workshop designed just for this year’s Visions in Feminism conference: Bringing Feminism to Un-Feminist Spaces. It takes place Saturday, April 6, in Washington, D.C. You’re invited!