Thursday, August 05, 2010

Confessions of a Retired Professional Feminist

Or, Why I left the non-profit world and learned to love corporate life
This is a movement-wide problem: Expecting activists and feminists to work for little to no money isn’t limited to speaking. Anyone who has ever worked in feminist nonprofits knows that the pay is minimal; this is especially true if you’re a younger person or in an entry-level position. Now, low pay for nonprofit work is to be somewhat expected. A lot of organizations, especially smaller ones, don’t have large budgets and struggle for funding. But there are a lot of bigger, mainstream feminist orgs that do have money. And I heard the argument from higher-ups more than once – particularly when people were asking for raises – that this was about the work, not the money, and that working for peanuts was just “doing your part” for the movement. (Never mind that many high-level employees at these organizations had trust funds and/or rich partners that allowed them to work for the sheer joy of it.) It’s the same argument I hear from feminist orgs and publications that expect bloggers (again, mostly young women) to write for free – that we should be happy to be associated with the movement, and to have access to an audience and to this very important work. The feminist movement’s work is done on the backs of unpaid and underpaid young people, volunteers and interns – and it’s not right.

I will never forget the first time I was introduced as, "My friend, Elizabeth - a former professional feminist." Because, well, I laughed. In many ways, the statement was true. I had opted out of the non-profit world for stock options and a rung on the corporate career ladder (privilege alert!). At the same time, I was a professional and a feminist. As the bemused new acquaintance I was being introduced to wondered, "How does one become a former professional feminist?" Hmm. Not former - just retired.

In my case, Jessica Valenti's post regarding a recent debate about activists' speaker fees pretty much sums up what I learned in my (short) time in the feminist non-profit sector:
The feminist movement’s work is done on the backs of unpaid and underpaid young people, volunteers and interns...
Which is not to say that the work that these individuals do is not important and courageous. Or to say that the organizations doing this work are not important and courageous. It just points out a systematic problem - idealist young folk provide powerful fuel to the activist/non-profit communities...and they burn out quickly.

Or, at least I did.

Let's talk generally about the (note my experience is in the feminist) non-profit world: Unglamorous pay (this happens when your org - with fundraising as its main stream of income - is forced to precariously balance accomplishing goals and operating costs). Limited benefits (this happens when your org has a limited number of employees and/or a limited number of resources). Long hours (this happens when your org lacks the budget to hire more employees and individuals are carrying the workload of 2-3 full-time jobs). Limited resources and lack of infrastructure (this happens funds when are already strained and the computer from 1998 still works, mostly...sort of). Frequent fire fighting compromising the advancement of strategic goals (this happens because, let's face it, the computer from 1998 is struggling). Limited access to career advancement (this happens when orgs are small, budget limits head count, there are a limited number of organizations, there is low turnover in non-entry level positions, etc). Limited access to career development and training (this happens when funds are limited). Office - and external - politics (this happens because people care deeply about their causes and cannot always come to consensus). Lack of recognition (this happens because many orgs lack the resources to be successful PR machines in the current sound bite news cycle and because not all social justice activism is noticed or popularly supported). To be sure, the combination of these factors make for workplace.

And I'm not talking trash about the awesome orgs I had the opportunity with which to work. I want to raise awareness about the reality of the non-profit workplace - and the challenges the brave folks slugging it out in this field face.

The solution?

For me, the answer was to find a for-profit company whose politics aligned with mine. I was lucky to land a gig where I am working on a project that I believe adds to a larger cultural legacy and at a company that cares deeply about the greater good (again, privilege, like - WHOA!). Doing so has given me access to so much - professional training (from education reimbursement to internal courses), career development (so many opportunities to move up or over), financial stability (401K! dental *and* vision! privilege!), and - for me, most importantly, PEACE of mind (I will make rent! I can make change - socially or monetarily!).

I love going to work each day. I feel like I make a difference (even if I still cringe at bizspeak and the use of the non-word "impactful"). I participate in company-sponsored volunteer days (privilege alert! I get *paid* to participate!) and I am involved in employee resource groups that work on social justice-y issues both internally and externally. (I'm putting my extreme privilege to good work - I hope.)

At the right company, going corporate isn't at odds at being a feminist. Or an activist. Or passionate about social justice. It actually gives me a lot of leverage to contribute to the causes I care about. For example, I can afford to make donations to my favorite orgs and my company has a donation matching program ( bleeds from me, yes). Or, I can take the skills I've gained through the myriad of training opportunities offered to me and share them with activists I support. And, maybe, in the future, I can bring my knowledge and network back to the non-profit sector full-time (should my career take me there...which would not be a bad thing, one day). I have the bandwidth and resources to give back.

So, a short summary of my career aspirations and trajectory:

When I was a little kid, I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. In college, I quickly learned that I am not brave enough to live in the world without guaranteed (ie, employer provided) health insurance. The writer's lifestyle is precarious and I am risk averse.

When I was in undergrad, I wanted to be a professor when I grew up. In grad school, I learned that academia moved at a slower pace than my idealism/activism demanded.

When I was in grad school, I wanted to make social change at a non-profit. In my non-profit life, I learned that the personal cost of such a career is quite high...and it often feels like trying to move the seashore with toy sand shovels.

When I left the non-profit sector, I wanted to find work-life balance, gain financial stability, and still contribute to the causes I care about. I am beyond lucky - this dream came true.

Maybe I don't always have as much time to blog as I would like. Maybe it will take me a bit longer to write a book. Maybe I wrestle with my privilege and spend some time trying to sort out my subsequent guilt.


I am a professional. I am a feminist.

(And I am grateful to those who are working - full-time - for social justice movements. YOU ROCK!)

Dedicated to ABK, who encouraged me to take the leap.

Please note that as my M.A. thesis project is complete, the George Washington University is no longer overseeing research conducted in conjunction with this blog (effective June 2007 to present). The Informed Consent Materials created while this blog was under GWU's IRB oversight are still available for your information and the principles outlined in them are still being used as a general guide for my continued work.