The Price of Unpaid Activism

The Price of Unpaid Activism

Have advocacy and organizing become careers for the well-educated?


EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was produced as part of The Puffin Nation Fund Fall Fellows Program. 

McKenna Dunbar typically starts her day at 5:30 am. While many of her classmates are still asleep, the University of Richmond junior has begun remote work for her full-time job as a community engagement coordinator at an environmental advocacy organization, the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club. By 8:45 am, she has logged off and is heading to four hours’ worth of back-to-back classes, followed by a quick lunch break. Then she drives to the Sierra Club office in downtown Richmond to work in person until 7:30 pm.

Long days filled with a swarm of activities are normal for the environmental studies and business administration major. As a financially independent student, she has been balancing classes with full-time work since starting college. Dunbar (who uses “she/her” and “they/them” pronouns) belongs to a small cohort of undergraduate students—roughly 10 percent in 2018—who work more than 35 hours a week on top of a standard college course load. Before the pandemic hit and forced universities to operate remotely, she held several part-time jobs, including doing research at the university herbarium lab, working as a bike mechanic, and assisting with communications and marketing tasks for various university departments. While all of these jobs have been rewarding in one way or another, Dunbar’s heart lies in the environmental advocacy space.

For the past couple of years, they have been attending protests, volunteering at the local greenhouse, doing unpaid internships for advocacy-based nonprofits, and leading an organization they founded called the Ecological Justice Initiative. But their new position at Sierra Club is different. For the first time, they are getting paid for their advocacy without relying on outside fellowships or financial awards.

The switch to full-time work with Sierra Club, as opposed to multiple part-time positions, has provided a sense of stability. “I’m definitely less stressed and I feel more secure in my life,” says Dunbar. “With part-time student work, you don’t get benefits, you don’t get sick days, you don’t get paid time off. [Now,] I have health insurance, dental insurance—all of those important things that should be a fundamental human right, but aren’t.”

Finding time for activism can be a challenge for students like Dunbar who are already saddled with academic and financial responsibilities. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Black and Hispanic students, as well as students from low-income families, are more likely to work during their time in college, and among working students put in more hours on average than their higher-income counterparts. “I do think that my experience compared to the average college student’s is unique,” she says. “I don’t know anyone else in the environmental activism sphere who’s working full-time and going to school full-time.”

Since the 1990s, the nonprofit sector has ballooned into a massive industry, now representing the third-largest employer in the US economy. For students and college graduates hoping to “do some good” while also getting paid and gaining important career skills, the allure of the nonprofit world is potent–especially today, when young Americans face unprecedented levels of debt and high living costs. Well-funded nonprofit organizations like the Sierra Club, which reported over $130 million in assets in 2019, offer paid opportunities to get involved in lobbying efforts and political organizing.

But the rise of the nonprofit industry has also been a source of criticism from activists who fear that the “NGO-ization” of social justice movements threatens to realign their goals to match the interests of the foundations that financially support them. In The Revolution Will Not be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, Andrea Smith discusses the tendency of private foundations to fund organizations that focus on policy and legal reform, which effectively incentivizes activists to redirect their efforts from “radical change to social reform.” Alongside the emergence of the nonprofit industry, the work of “activism” has been reconfigured as a career for the well-educated rather than a mass movement. “By trying to do grassroots organizing through this careerist model, we are essentially asking a few people to work more than full-time to make up for the work that needs to be done by millions,” writes Smith.

Having been involved in both grassroots organizing and nonprofit spaces, Dunbar knows that the two are not the same, especially when it comes to dealing with stakeholders in the environmental and energy industry. Regardless, she’s excited about having an impactful paid position. “I do think, just fundamentally, labor should be paid,” she says. But for many organizations, especially those that are “coalition building for marginalized, low-income areas,” there’s not enough funding to pay members, she acknowledges.

To some extent, activist work is meaningful precisely because of the fact that it is unpaid—because people have come together to rally behind a cause without any expectations of payment. But this also creates barriers to participation that some organizations are striving to eliminate. I spoke to a number of young people and community organizers about how the constraints of time and money affect their ability to get involved in the work of making the world a better place and to learn more about what organizations are doing to better support these individuals.

For Ilana Cohen, a junior at Harvard University, the question of whether activism should be paid is complicated. Cohen is a member of Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, a student-run environmental group, which gained international recognition two years ago for its staged protest at the famous Harvard-Yale football game. “Obviously, people deserve to be paid for their labor,” she says. However, she also notes that “there’s something inherently detractive about attaching capital to work that is about building better community life.”

During the campaign’s busiest times, Cohen often found herself putting student activism before other commitments, including classes and her social life. “It’s one of those things that completely consumes you day in and day out,” she recalls. She wants to help create an environment that is “regenerative,” where members feel like it is acceptable to take a step back when need be.

Others want to see activist organizations take greater initiative to compensate members. Mikayla Tillery, a freshman at Stanford University, is troubled by the vicious cycle that young activists repeatedly travel through that begins with a “honeymoon phase” of initial excitement and intense dedication, and follows with exhaustion and burnout. Once bright-eyed and bushy-tailed young people are leaving activist spaces temporarily, and sometimes permanently, only to be replaced by newer, younger, and more dedicated organizers. Social movements are reduced to sporadic, short-term protests and campaigns where low-income, Black activists are treated as if they’re disposable. “It’s really hard to have the same fervor for a movement when you feel unappreciated or underappreciated,” she says “It’s even harder for people to sustain their activism when they can’t pay their bills.”

Zach Banks, a senior at New York University, worked as a legislative affairs intern for Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.)—an opportunity made possible by the fact that Sanders, unlike some of his Senate colleagues, pays interns $15 an hour. Banks was frustrated by the fact that other lawmakers, such as Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), still offer unpaid internships. According to her website, Senator Gillibrand is committed to “standing up for workers” and “helping students,” but what about those who are both?

Unpaid activism blossomed during the pandemic, as community members sought ways to help one another in areas where the public and private sectors fell short. In the United States, over a thousand new mutual aid groups emerged in 2020 to provide basic necessities and other goods and services to their local communities. But they’re intended to last longer than the lifespan of the pandemic. As Amanda Arnold wrote for The Cut, “While many neighborhood networks cropped up in response to the pandemic, mutual aid is not just a response to a crisis, but instead, a more permanent alliance between people united against a common struggle.” Still, despite the initial surges of support they received in 2020, some mutual aid groups have since struggled to maintain funding and volunteers in 2021.

For Maurice Cook, paying members for their contributions to his Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit, Serve Your City, is essential to building a long-term, community-based movement that is inclusive to the city’s working-class residents. Raised in Maryland and D.C., Cook founded Serve Your City in 2009 to address structural inequalities facing the city’s Black and brown residents by offering myriad services and resources, including free tutoring, school supplies, and computer services. In 2020, at the outbreak of the pandemic, Serve Your City also began running a mutual aid network to distribute masks, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, groceries, and other goods to Ward 6 community members. Additional funding allowed Cook to start paying members between $1,000 and $3,000 a month. By paying members for their contributions, Cook says, some community members were now able to participate when they weren’t previously. “That’s how you make this work sustainable. We have to take care of each other in order to take care of people who need our support,” he says.

Unpaid labor is often distributed along highly racialized and gendered lines, and unpaid activist work is no exception. In the late 1980s, sociologist Arlie Hochschild coined the term “the second shift” to describe the unpaid housework that mothers often do on top of their paid jobs. Today, economist and president of the National Economic Association Nina Banks is bringing attention to a third shift—the unpaid and often unnoticed labor that Black women, and other women of color, have been doing for their communities since the early 20th century. “We need to recognize that racialized women are performing non-market work in response to racial disparities,” says Banks. “We need to do something about the racial disparities, because this is an additional burden of work that is affecting Black women.”

Unpaid labor that occurs outside of the market is rarely viewed as legitimate work. During our conversation, Banks highlights a particular example from a few years ago in Delaware, when a group of mostly Black mothers organized in response to their school district’s segregated school system, which relegated over 1,000 Black boys into a separate special education school over a 20-year period. Banks recalls reading an article about the pro-bono lawyers who brought the lawsuit against the school district, which included a calculation for the monetary value of the unpaid work done by the attorneys on the case. Yet, there was almost no mention of the women who inspired the lawsuit in the first place—the women “who had been collectively organizing for years to document what was happening to children within their community, to bring awareness to it,” she notes.

Understanding the historical and continued role that marginalized groups have played in the success of community activism is an important piece of the conversation surrounding paid organizing. “The assumption that black people should work for free because it’s something that is needed in our world to demonstrate humanity to one another is elitist,” says Cook.

Meanwhile, David Camfield, a professor of labor studies and sociology at the University of Manitoba, is concerned about the emergence of what he describes as a “culture of paid activism” that is appearing in some union and activist groups. According to Camfield, who has been involved in organizing since his high school days, a growing number of people are expecting to be paid for doing the regular work of an activist organization, such as leafleting or speaking at a political forum. But such expectations run counter to the type of solidarity movement that the left should be cultivating, he says.

Camfield points to the sit-down strikes of the 1930s, the gay liberation movement of the 1960s and ’70s, and the short-lived but significant anti-war protests that took place in response to the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan as examples of effective organizing in the United States that depended largely on the unpaid work of everyday people.

He’s attuned to the challenges that come with unpaid organizing, especially during the pandemic, when everyday life has been harder for more people. “It’s hard, and there’s no doubt about it,” he says. “Attrition is real among people doing unpaid organizing work. And there are things that we can do to help people stay in the struggle for the long haul.” According to Camfield, those things include helping cover out-of-pocket costs incurred from participating in activism such as transportation, in addition to other important services like providing child care for members.

As described in her chapter from The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, Native American organizer Madonna Thunder Hawk has watched the nonprofit sector transform the culture of activism in the United States. When she started organizing with Women of All Red Nations in the 1970s, very little attention was paid to fundraising efforts. In contrast, “organizations today often have to spend so much time raising money for salaries, sending in reports, and schmoozing with funders that they spend more time on fundraising and administration than they do on organizing,” she writes. Effective organizing, according to Thunder Hawk, requires real sacrifice on the part of volunteers. “Activism is tough; it is not for people interested in building a career.”

For organizers like Cook, people like Thunder Hawk and Camfield are promoting an ideal vision for community organizing, but perhaps not a practical one. “Principles are beautiful,” he says. “But they don’t fill the belly.”

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