Is Volunteer Activism More Legit?

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.

Shulamith Firestone, Sheryl Sandberg And #femfuture (Oh My)

“Sisterhood is powerful. It kills. Mostly sisters.”  – Ti-Grace Atkinson

Ti-Grace Atkinson

Madness, rivalry, wobbling (and ultimately collapsing) on two legs alone — reading Susan Faludi on the life and death of radical feminist Shulamith Firestone is no trip to the Thomas Kinkade kiosk. One theme I’d like to unpack, which is oddly prescient, has to do with fighting feminists, a topic that gets a lot of attention and little resolution.

There’s actually a simple solution. Ready?

Don’t be an asshole.

No really, don’t be an asshole.

I consider myself to be a cultural feminist, by which I mean that practicing feminist values is an inextricable ingredient of my fight for political and social equality and justice for women and girls. By practicing feminist values, I refer to an orientation to elevate the softer voices in a room, to treat others with accommodation and inclusion and respect, not a “dos and don’ts feminism” that focuses on feminism as a means of correcting the behavior of feminists and/or women. Dos and don’ts feminism, I believe, suggests that we can choose our way out of systematic discrimination against women, if only by not wearing that slutty thing or taking his last name or, if you’ve been listening to the gun lobby, buying a gun. This, in my opinion, leads to judgement and stigma and is the antithesis of inclusive feminism.

A feminist framework of power must in my opinion be culturally feminist, built upon principles of inclusion — let’s empower everyone — rather than dominance, or an approach that says let’s have the loudest voice and shout the others down. At its core, being an asshole is a particularly disagreeable way of exerting dominance over others. And, disgustingly, it happens within the women’s movement all the time. Oftentimes this takes the form of attacking feminist women who in good faith try something new with the goal of helping women advance, like Sheryl Sandberg and the authors of #femfuture, a new report with ideas about how to make online feminism more sustainable.

Do Sheryl Sandberg or the authors of #femfuture perfectly represent my views? No, they don’t. I’m sure they don’t represent yours perfectly, either. And I’m also pretty damn sure that insisting they do or you’ll shout them down in a sea accusations about why they personally are “problematic” in lieu of offering additional perspectives about the problem they attempt to tackle is not productive. In a movement built upon inclusion, everything is a starting point. (I don’t mean to minimize some good concerns that inclusion could be increased — in both works it could, which would improve them very much — but am calling for feminists with additional perspectives to proactively add their voices to the topics at hand rather than declaring the intentions of the speakers to exclude them.)

Within the feminist community, please, let’s not let problematic be the enemy of progress. And let’s focus on the progress.

Faludi’s piece references Trashing: The Dark Side of Sisterhood, a piece by Jo Freeman that I have read and reread several times over the years.  One of the best conclusions is:

Isn’t it time we stopped looking for enemies within and began to attack the real enemy without?