Life in The Non-Profit Industrial Complex

I’m an organizer, but when you tell people that, they either think you’re a party hack or you re-arrange people’s closets. “Activist” is in most people’s vocabularies, so professional activist is an easy way to explain that on and off for the last six years my job has been to build a movement to the end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’ve organized protests, marches, sit-ins in Congress, dance riots in the streets, giant public art projects, speaking tours and student activist trainings. I’ve chained myself to an oil barrel, built a blockade out of school desks in an intersection in downtown DC, and danced in a war profiteer’s lobby with a few hundred other kids. Sometimes I was being paid, sometimes I wasn’t. This is my work, and most of the time it’s my job.

I always had an instinct that capitalism was a dirty word and that my destiny did not involve working for a corporation. All those downtown office buildings and people in suits completely motivated by profit seemed repulsive to me from a young age. Until I turned 20, I had only vague notions of activism and radical politics, I figured my choices after college would be to get some random office job for a corporation or small business, manage a doctor’s office like the two generations of women in my family before me, or become a lawyer and or teacher – I had ruled out anything involving too much math and science a long time ago. I didn’t know what non-profits were, and definitely did not know I could cause trouble for a living. Then I found a women’s anti-war organization with an office down the street from my college apartment, and the world of professional activism quickly opened my eyes.                                                 

To work for an activist non-profit, you have to be just idealistic enough to work way more than you’re being paid for, but not so idealistic that you’re not willing to constantly compromise for funders, the media, or because your boss wants to go to the President's fundraising dinner. Adaptability is also necessary – an activist's job shifts and changes along with the political landscape. You might organize a protest one day, meet with a Congressperson the next, and be running a Facebook petition campaign the next week. It also helps if you’re attractive, able to blend in a variety of settings, don’t mind making a complete fool out of yourself, and just generally doing things your mother likely told you were rude or unacceptable in civil society.

“Non-profit” is a big statutory umbrella that includes churches, arts organizations, corporate foundations, schools, unions, advocacy organizations, and a variety of other tax shelters. If advocacy organizations were a big happy family, activist non-profits would be that crazy aunt you feel a sad but abiding affection for, but also secretly hope gets too stoned to remember to show up for holiday dinner. Advocacy non-profits actively try to create social change. They do this in varying degrees of scale and effectiveness, using a large array of strategies and tactics. They also spend a great deal of energy scrutinizing their own and other’s scale, effectiveness, strategy, and tactics, which often results in lengthy articles, blogs, and internet flame-wars between people in these organizations who disagree with each other. Even when myopic, politics is never boring.

Advocacy non-profits and activist non-profits part ways at the border of “the system.”  Advocacy non-profits work inside the system, activist non-profits try to work both inside and outside of the system as it is. Activist non-profits essentially put a brand and a Tax ID number on social movements. For those of us who want to create radical change, like overthrowing capitalism and the State and creating autonomous communities based on mutual aid, this has a whole ton of horrible implications, all of which are well documented (for more on this, check out the excellent collection The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, by INCITE: Women of Color Against Violence). This story is about survival and compromise, the things I do sometimes for a paycheck, sometimes because I believe in them, and sometimes for a combination of the two.

Most professional activists, myself included, have organizing projects that we do in our free time as well, often a more radical version of the work we at our jobs. This is what keeps me and my friends in the same industry sane. The work I want to do and the work I get paid to do sometimes intersect, but if there’s a costume involved, it’s pretty safe to say that action is solidly in the “paid” category.

The following is a partial list of the costumes I’ve worn as part of my jobs or internships:

The Spirit of Justice
A statue in the Department of Justice building in DC that happened to depict the aforementioned spirit as a woman with one exposed breast, which John Ashcroft had covered when he became the Attorney General under President Bush. The costume involved a pink peace sign nipple pasty. This was also within the first month of my first internship.

Wolf in sheep’s clothing
This one involved an awful sort of headdress with a sheepskin headband and wolf ears outside of a very expensive fundraiser in Beverly Hills.

“Media whore”
There was a French maid sort-of lingerie thing along with fishnets, black spike heals, and the logos of major news corporations all over the exposed parts of my body.

“I Miss America”
Like Miss America, but with horrible messaging that implied there was a time when America was super-great and a pink sequin gown.

Pink policewoman
I don’t have an excuse for this, it’s just wrong under any circumstance.

Member of a pink religious choir
This was also in the halls of Congress.

Pregnant woman
I was trying to sneak helium balloons into a Congressional hearing. Let’s just say Capitol Police were not too happy about me walking in looking nine months pregnant and leaving with a reasonably flat stomach.

Cow
Actually, I was the lead cow in a small heard of cows in Congress harassing some jack-ass Senator after he made an extra-special comment about Social Security, tits, and milk cows.                                               

Sometimes I get sad when I think about all these costumes and all the ridiculous, downright counter-revolutionary shit I’ve done working for these organizations. I hate the police, why would I wear a pink police uniform? I pushed a bed in front of the Capitol and got a bunch of people to roll around in fake money while listening to Ol’ Dirty Bastard – it had something to do with government being in bed with the oil companies. Then I think about what most of my DC anarchist friends where doing, and (not that I’m judging), I am thankful that I’ve never done canvassing, dog walking, medical research studies, or Craigslist sex work. Sometimes I decide at least establishment activism is better than being totally complicit, but then I get sad again. Radicals go to the root of problems, and the root cause of every issue I’ve worked on is capitalism. Non-profits don’t go there. Sometimes they talk about “corporations,” but no one will name the problem, and no one will even go near trying to address it. Non-profits deal in reform because you can’t deliver revolutions in time for foundation funding cycles. The organizations that comprise the anti-war movement are an especially sad breed because they don’t have any sense of strategy. They all operate on the notion that if there are enough protests and media stories, politicians will feel pressured to end the wars. Successful activist non-profits, like many in the environmental movement, identify achievable goals, target power-holders, and develop strategies to win things that make a difference in people’s lives. After eight years of war in Iraq and almost ten in Afghanistan, the anti-war movement has just recently started to think about strategies and campaigns to actually end the wars.

I once found myself at an event were then-Senator Hillary Clinton was speaking to a room of college feminists on Capitol Hill, hosted by the National Organization of Women (NOW). I was working for a certain women’s peace organization at the time, and knew that my boss was hosting a fundraiser for NOW at her house in LA later that week. I was also familiar with Senator Clinton’s voting record, one of the most conservative Senate Democrats who frequently voted in favor of the war in Iraq and parental consent for abortion (both of which NOW was opposed to, at least according to their website). The number of contradictions in the room was already enough to make my head explode, and then Clinton proceeded to give a speech about all the wonderful things the U.S. was doing for the women of Afghanistan. And then, in this miserable, moment, the stars aligned: I turned on my video camera and stood in a doorway leading to a small foyer to the right of the stage, easily convinced a security person I was one of NOW’s interns, and, as Clinton ended her speech to a flurry of applause, she was lead off stage with a small gaggle of women into the very doorway where I was standing.

I was suddenly in a small room with Hillary Clinton, the president of NOW, a few other important ladies in pant-suits, and no security. No one had noticed me, and I was still filming in the corner of the room. I couldn’t just stand there and do nothing, that would go completely against what I had been taught in my previous two years as an activist, so as they were posing for pictures, I saw my opportunity. I loudly blurted out something about how they should all my ashamed of themselves because Hillary Clinton is a warmonger and is doing nothing for the women of Iraq except voting to keep bombing their homes. Not my most eloquent moment, but it got their attention. Clinton quickly exited the room as the president of NOW and a very indignant woman with a lot of blond hair confronted me. We had a heated exchange in which I berated the women for supporting Clinton and her policies, and said they should be ashamed to call themselves feminists. They told me I should be ashamed of myself, which is when I thought it was a good idea to start dropping my boss's name. The incident ended shortly thereafter, and I went back to my office to regroup, call my boss before someone else did, and watch the footage. My boss was semi-horrified, but not totally upset, and I didn’t get fired or anything. A few days later, Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy for President, NOW quickly endorsed, my boss held a lovely fundraiser for NOW which included a polite critique of Clinton’s policies, and a few of us started scheming about running a spoof Presidential campaign for Condolleeza Rice.

During the Bush years, liberals were throwing money around left and right to support action organizing. It was relatively easy to get jobs or short-term contract gigs organizing random protests, street theaters, and arrestable actions – especially if you were in DC. The best job I ever had was organizing a day of coordinated direct actions in DC on the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. This was the only time I was paid to do work I completely believed in – I spent three months organizing logistics, outreach, resources, and action plans, coordinating with around 20 different organizations to pull off a dozen distinct actions in Downtown DC. We were modeling horizontal organizing structures, solidarity across tactical divides, and a creative vision of what protests can look like beyond a boring rally and permitted march. Politically, we were offering a holistic analysis of the pillars that uphold the military-industrial complex, military recruiters, taxes, oil companies and other war profiteering corporations, lobbyists, Congress, the media, and the security state. But that was early 2008, a few months before the Democratic & Republican National Conventions and subsequent protests that summer. The DNC and RNC in 2008 were the last hurrah of a fading national anti-war movement, with the onset of Obama-mania and the recession, the national coalitions fell apart and regrouped under weaker banners. The organizations with the largest bases suffered rapid attrition and lost funding, and three years later we’re still trying to figure out what happened and how to fix it.

Ever since Obama’s presidential campaign, progressives and left-leaning folks are even more divided, many of them still making excuses for the President and the Democrats and refusing to oppose them in any way. These days, I find myself spending much more time behind a computer than in the streets. Like most of my peers, I’ve found employment in communications and social media. Now I run websites and databases instead of organizing actions. When there’s no funding for organizing, everyone still needs a website, and can trick their funders into believing that online activism is a reasonable replacement for physical work. Instead of sit-ins in Congress, I create “online actions” where people can click a few buttons and email their Representatives. I hated wearing pink police uniforms, but I hate exclusively online activism even more. However ridiculous we were, being face-to-face with Karl Rove and trying to arrest him has to be better than bombarding his office with emails. Facebook and Twitter do not make revolutions; they are tools. They mean nothing without the people using them, and no matter how many friends or followers an organization has, the non-profit communications professionals of this country are not going to create an American Tahrir Square.

All this being said, I still think professional activism is a lot better than any of the alternatives I’ve tried. Capitalism is an awful, oppressive, broken system we are forced to exist in, and until I decide to completely drop out and start an anarchist collective permaculture farm off the grid somewhere, I have to work. Now I work with veterans and military families trying to end the wars. I make a living wage plus benefits and I choose my own hours. I generally believe in the work I’m doing, and even when I don’t, at least I never have to do anything I think is completely awful. It may not be the revolution, but it’ll do until we make that happen.

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This essay appear in Shareable's paperback Share or Die published by New Society, available from Amazon. Share or Die is also available for Kindle, iPad, and other e-readers. For the next article in Share or Die, Sarah Idzik's "Unprepared", click here.

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