Tuesday, April 12, 2011

More thoughts on the NPIC (and on "When the 'movement' disappoints")

Recently we hosted Steph's cross-post with Feministe (go read it there) about her weird experiences as a freelancer trying to find fulltime employment among, as she called them, the "big-girl organizations" of the reproductive health/rights/justice movement. It's well worth reading the thread there -- she got both support and pushback in the comments, and both provided some good points as well as some fodder for dismay.

While I was drafting a long follow-on post, a panel in New Hampshire was saying it all much better than I could. The very excellent @ClinicEscort livetweeted "Careers in the Movement," a session at Hampshire College's Civil Liberties and Public Policy conference on reproductive justice this weekend.

The words of Andrea Ritchie complicated the whole thing. In her activism to end violence against women and LGB&T people, she's worked within non-profits and outside of them, and her career is a good argument for being thoughtful and critical of the non-profit world we probably all picture when we think about a "Career in the Movement." (Let's bear in mind going forward that "the movement" is erroneously equated with the assortment of 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations that are its professionalized face.) From the livetweet: "Nonprofit-industrial complex is a subtle form of social control. Funders set agendas & can be driven by priorities outside the movement." "It's easy to find yourself doing work tailored to funder agenda & preferences, not the community the organization is meant to serve." 

Maybe this sounds super cynical or just far-fetched. The first time I heard such ideas, that's how they sounded to me. Non-profit employment was supposed to be a values-driven, agenda-free, "helping people and doing good" environment. But most 501(c)(3) orgs are grant-funded, and many of those grants come from foundations, and foundations have historically served as a tax shelter for the extra money of families who got very wealthy from owning a company. Say you run a reproductive health or rights organization and your operating funds come from a foundation like that. What are the chances you'll feel safe rocking the boat of capitalism by talking about how unjust labor practices affect reproductive health, or how even Democratic legislators would only vote for a Health Care Reform Act that preserved the role and profit of insurance companies because all legislators are owned by corporate donors? And so forth.

So maybe you don't want to hire anyone -- writers, activists, other freelancers -- who've ever had a public opinion on such topics; after all, guilt-by-association is a popular tactic in this country's informal politics. You might even shy away -- even if your whole mission is abortion-related -- from hiring someone who's written matter-of-factly about the existence of and need for second trimester abortion, as Steph has, because second-trimester abortion must be handled delicately lest someone out there twist it wrong (they always will) and must be discussed only 0.1% of the time since as we already know it only accounts for 10% of abortion procedures anyway. Maybe you'll ask prospective employees to give up writing, blogging, twitter-ing, and even volunteering for grassroots abortion organizations, just in case it makes them a liability in some nebulous way that you're reluctant to spell out up-front.

Steph reports that after blogging about her hiring misadventures, she received some personal communications from some big-girl orgs' reps intimating that she had "messed up" by talking about this publicly.

(O RLY? I didn't know you were reading blogs these days, big-girls! Maybe if you were reading them 6-12 months ago you'd have noticed the furor you ignited by claiming that young women just aren't interested in doing pro-choice activism? Maybe you wouldn't have even said that in the first place? Maybe you would have gone down to the intern pod where some eager young women were making your photocopies and your coffee and asked them what they thought of this hypothesis? But instead you talked shit about them to the media as if they weren't even there; and thank goodness there was no one to call you up and admonish you that you "messed up" for talking about this publicly.)

Here's the problem. Raising questions or criticism, even with the best of intentions, about a systemic issue within the field is so often written off as "infighting" and "distraction" because we "need to focus on the real problems" (or the enemy at the gates or what have you), etc. And yeah, we do have important work to be doing, and I'd love to get to it with 100% attention. But maybe if these conversations didn't devolve into defensiveness and secret phone calls over things that should've been out in the open in the first place, it wouldn't BE a waste of time and energy and a distraction, but an opportunity for progress and for strengthening our movement.

Because they overlook this opportunity, sometimes I really worry about the established orgs in the field: maybe they're so used to being on the defensive externally that the best they can do within the movement is defend their position as "leaders," and fight to keep the movement, and its unofficial hierarchies, just as they are. In a parallel way, the leaders of these orgs may falter in creativity and end up mostly working to keep their own positions as leaders. But in doing this, the professional organizations of our movement (and other movements, progressive and not) are replicating power structures that some of us thought we were aiming to undo. (More from Andrea Ritchie: "was a Greenpeace canvasser as first movement job; learned there that organizing a union at your nonprofit workplace will get you fired." Hell to the yes it will, and discovering that will fuck with your mind.)

I've said before that some older orgs seem to engage new technology only if they feel able to "manage" it, and so it is with web 2.0 platforms -- they tweet sanitized and non-conversational tweets, they publish "blog posts from the CEO" that are really just press releases written by the communications associate. And maybe in a similar way they only use new people if they feel they'll be able to "manage" us (does this mean use us as warm bodies and footsoldiers? mold us to their style of leading before allowing us any agency? what else?).

...These are some thoughts I keep coming back to over the years, and not intended as an exhaustive thesis. Which means I'll be back with more, soon enough. But I'd rather hear your thoughts on my thoughts -- those of you working inside and outside of nonprofitland -- and ideas on how we can push past this disappointing state of affairs: how activists can claim authentic leadership in our own movement; how we can maybe do meaningful work AND have a comfortable bed (I know, that's a whole can of worms). Anyone?

I owe all these thoughts to a lot of other activists and writers but most persistently to the INCITE! collective whom I always mention and to bfp, who discussed and argued with me over at Feministe but probably has no idea how much her writing has shaped my perspective and values since I first found her old blog (RIP) about five years ago. I'd be embarrassed to tell her directly.


  1. WOW - this post is so on point. I can definitely relate to the cynicism about nonprofits. It would be great if people were in it for the issues, but CEOs of nonprofits are in it as much for the reputation and back rubbing as anyone in the corporate realm. Salary ranges are the only difference.

  2. Serena - sorry I'm late, but THANKS for your comment! I try hard not to be cynical, just aware of certain realities, but I do feel that many orgs hire CEOs who are professional spokespeople, rather than activists or committed to a particular cause.... and that's how some of them end up going from one org to another and being spokespeople (sometimes very effective ones!) for causes that are not necessarily the same, or sometimes the principles they advocated for before are totally absent in their work practices at their new job...etc. I too was disappointed when I realized there are similarities to the corporate world, and not necessarily in the "good" ways at all.


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