12 January 2011

Notes from a Recovering Organizer

I am a recovering community organizer.  My decades-long experience in non-profit, social justice work has left me in need of a 12-step program. I know I'm not alone when I say that a serious examination of what is happening within the walls of non-profits is critical. There exist structures and practices that create uncomfortable and unhealthy spaces for the mine workers (yes, we're in the trenches) of organizing and advocacy. And this is unfortunate because there are some amazing, committed folks doing some remarkable work out there. We come to this work respectfully, with a sense of solidarity and dedication to justice on all fronts. We also expect to be treated in a manner that shows dignity and respect for the work that we do and the time that we give to this fight for our lives.

Part of my recovery requires that I take steps to sweeten the sour taste in my mouth.  It demands that I let go, but that I first face and express that thing that has caused that bitterness. Although I have not had trouble giving voice to my grievances about doing social justice work inside an industry that pays organizers to advocate and mobilize, I believe I've also been punished for it by employers who hired me to use my voice to right wrongs.

What has been unfortunate for me and many others is that we continue to lack safe spaces for such candor.  I understand and respect that some of you reading this post are still not in a good space to make righteous claims towards righteous ends. Let’s all hope that this kind of censorship, with its threat of retribution, will change. But for all intents and purposes, I am claiming this blog as a safe space for outspoken and righteous anger; it is atmospherically a great piece of real estate to house and entertain my thoughts and desires.

In past years, this field of work has been dubbed the non-profit industrial complex (NPIC), an industry that espouses to advocate for the best interest of underserved community, while in reality it only serves to appease the status quo and removes the mechanisms through which real grassroots organizing can function. The NPIC has successfully co-opted genuine and organic grassroots activities, de-radicalizing the role of the organizer (and ultimately the community) as they "manage" those paid to do their organizing work. It also means that our work within these confines suffer. It suffers in ways that create tensions and unhealthy dynamics between staff and management. Creativity and innovation is stifled. Voices are muted. Hard work becomes even harder.  Our demands are watered down. Funding is privatized. The ability to do our job becomes fleeting as the pressure to produce rapid and unrealistic results grows untenable.

Within the NPIC one would not be "down for the cause" if they didn't work like a mule and manufacture faster than cans on an assembly line. Respect for human value disappears. It taints the outcome. The industry standard is that we achieve a quantitative outcome over a qualitative one. Often we're bullied, guilt-tripped into performing all-too ambitious tasks or projects impossible to carry out in the short window of time given--for the good of the organization, not necessarily for the good of our constituents.


This industry has the ability to leave us feeling begrudged; it depletes us can and leave the work we have done and are committed to doing in diminished capacity.

Below is a list of the personal and collective experiences of comrades still engaged in community organizing work within the NPIC:

• Unhealthy
• Underpaid
• Social justice achieved by slave labor
• Clueless (as in we often don't know what the hell we're doing and why we're doing it)
• Dysfunctional
• Unpredictable
• Destructive
• Authoritarian
• Top-down
• Micro-managing
• Repressive
• VengefulWhite Executive Directors that are not connected to the community
• Non-nurturing
• Oxymoron
• Unrealistic expectations from me and my work from Employers who don't have a clue about the operations of the organization but will blame you (for your lack of knowing) rather than gracefully accept the fact that they have no idea what the hell is going on
• Draining
• (Upper management) removed from the needs of its workers
• Wacky
• Sick
• Well-intentioned (but...)
• Disproportionately white (especially in management)
• Grants are sought before programs are developed
• Lack of respect for people of color, people who are not college educated
• Non-profit industrial complex
• Exploitation of workers and community members
• Gatekeeper to underserved communities
• Breeding grounds for political opportunists
• Stagnant growth for employees
• Abusive
• Rigid (not as flexible as could be)
• Reactionary
• Two-sided (organizations put on the face that they are open to and willing to hear other ideas, POV’s, etc., when in reality they often are not)
• Good side: (usually the view at the start—incl. hopeful, intriguing, opportunity, “for the people”)
• Bad side: (often the view when inside after a while)
• Traumatic or traumatizing
• Verbally abusive employers who don't handle constructive criticism well
• Unauthentic transparency
• Imbalance
• Overworked
• Non-reflective white woman doing diversity work while shamelessly displaying her entitlement and privilege
• Running on fumes
• Greed
• Privilege
• Corruption
• Impunity
• Stroking entitled egos for pennies
• Passionate (organizers were all passionate about the work, living and breathing it, which in turn contributed to an unhealthy imbalance; the personal and professional were totally combined [lines crossed])
• Single-minded, vindictive employers
• It’s not grassroots if it doesn’t grow organically, if it doesn’t’ come from, and is owned by the people affected (by the issues).
• A just (transparent) description a non-profit job position should read something like this:
"The ideal candidate must be able to do the work of three persons on a single salary--exploitation without compensation. Must be willing to be micro-managed at the employer's discretion.  Demonstrate initiative without showing up your employer.  Must be open to verbal degradation without apology or accountability. Available during your personal time. Able to perform your duties while sick unless you're dying (but this will be our call).  Must be able to read your employer's mind and not question their directives at any time.  Allow yourself to be responsible for your employer's feelings while denying your own. Accept that your employer may not be an effective leader and can talk from both sides of his or her mouth without clarity. Must be willing to accept responsibility for things you cannot control..."

This list demonstrates how organizers and staffers of the non-profit variety are experiencing insuperable amounts of work and little time, resources, and human power to complete it. We often take on more work than a new mom with quintuplets. We sacrifice relationships and family.  Life and work boundaries are often blurred. Quoting a former colleague who says:
“Non-profits working to promote public welfare very often have more work needing to get done than they have staff or resources to get it done. In order to avoid premature burn-out and loss of valued and valuable staff members, an organization should ensure that staff has an opportunity to have an outside life.” 
This is quite a familiar refrain. But I also think this is intentional because then any success at dismantling the status quo becomes far and few between. On paper it may look like we're winning but if you really take a good look around, shit is still pretty damn funky and that funk is saturated growing out of control like black mold. Sure, the NPIC has created jobs, but it has also created a culture that is rife with problems that erode the efforts of the folks who truly want to make a difference--the organizers and those who support them.

The non-profit industrial complex has not been the best vehicle for creating the change we want to see in the world. I don't think it can drive us there because it wasn't built to withstand the journey in the first damn place, and it ain't trying to afford us the money to repair the damage 'cause they don't really give a damn that the shit is broke down with an engine that won't start. We stuck and stranded.

This industry disguises itself as a harbinger of change, but has been more about being a vessel of exploitation that has worked hard (and quite successfully, I might add) at maintaining the status quo of all the fucked up isms out there that assholes want to keep perpetuating. 

1 comment:

Nguyen Louie said...


What an amazing peace of soul work! You put it out there, drew the line. Bless you. The part I love the most is the (transparent) job description. It made me laugh out loud in that sardonic way, because it resonates with pain. What your piece (peace) says to me is that people are crying out and someone is listening, someone is feeling, someone is healing. It is a call to arms. Forgive me for using a battle cry, but so it is a struggle. I hope that we can overcome. Thank you,