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Calling Activists to a Higher Standard
[Editor's Note: Is it possible to lead a financially comfortable, healthy and happy life, and be an effective activist working for social justice at the same time? Gavin Leonard and Adrienne Maree Brown are both accomplished young organizers who have different views on what it really means to strike a balance and how it affects the long-term plan for transforming politics. Gavin Leonard, 25, volunteers as director of Elementz, a hip hop youth arts center, and works at an affordable housing agency. Adrienne Maree Brown, 27, is the director of communications at the League of Young Voters and a board member of the Ruckus Society.]
Point: Calling to a Higher Standard By Gavin Leonard
Over a period of about a month this summer, I watched every episode of the West Wing available on DVD. I work for a nonprofit community development corporation from 9 to 5, and as the director of a nonprofit hip hop-based youth arts center on the side. I'd say I work about 100 hours a week, and I still seem to find plenty of time to watch TV. And I like it. But I'm also becoming increasingly disappointed and impatient: I can count on one hand the number of people I know personally who work more and harder than I do.
I know there are more than a handful of people -- who I don't know personally -- that work harder than I do. For instance, I listen to a lot of sports-talk radio while I'm working during the day. Every time I listen to the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals give a press conference, I can't help but think that he works much harder at making a football team go than I do at trying to make the world a better place. It's really quite amazing how much energy is spent fine-tuning athletics -- amazing to the point of really bothering me. How is it that in the grand scheme of things such trivial pursuits occupy so much of peoples' time, money and energy?
The concept of working hard inevitably gets me thinking about the fact that, in my generation of activists, there is an overwhelming desire to "be sustainable." There is a growing tendency to take care of oneself, to successfully balance personal health, happiness and comfort with active work toward progressive social change. I want to be clear: I'm not against any of those things. But I'm really concerned about how well this strategy is going to work out for us.
I've watched more than a few active, engaged young people stop or greatly decrease their work on social justice issues to pursue "a more sustainable lifestyle." The implied assumption is that this new lifestyle will include work on issues, but they put a greater emphasis on staying healthy and happy. The problem is, I've seen a whole lot of people that end up focusing nearly exclusively on themselves -- leaving the movement one more person behind in an already uphill battle.
Fine Line between Sustainability and Selfishness
There's a very fine line between somebody ending up in their own world that's positive and ending up in their own world that's selfish, but I think it's a line worth discussing. For illustration, consider the choice to pursue a good relationship, have a child, and then spend a lot less time working and a lot more time raising that child -- a good choice, in my opinion. Put that decision somewhere on the same spectrum as the decision to take a corporate job to make more money -- a decision I'd guess most of us have watched someone make, and then we never quite see that same old friend again.
It seems pretty well agreed upon that we live in a self-centered society, and that seems to scare the hell out of people and truly bother the very people that are working to "be sustainable." But the whole concept of change has been slowed down dramatically by the selfishness of society, and activists and progressives are actually perpetuating their very own kind of bling bling while denouncing rappers and their cars.
I know it eats at me. I own what I consider to be a nice house with a deck and a hot tub. I have the hot tub so that I can be comfortable at the end of a long day of hard work. Same with my nice stereo and no longer new couches. If I at 18 could confront myself today at 25, I'm quite certain I'd end up with a black eye -- or at least a severely bruised conscience.
And that's exactly it. I am meeting me, and I've got a bruised conscience. I know I spend entirely too much money on things I don't really need. I know that with nothing more than a stronger will I could be a part of setting the even higher standard that I believe needs to be set. But every time I've ever tried to beat myself up, somebody's told me not to because it's "unhealthy and unsustainable." I'm scared to death that I'll never meet somebody who will give me a downright ass whipping, and at this point, I'd settle for someone that would just let me do it myself. I feel like we keep lowering the bar when a long, earnest look at the big picture should actually have us raising it.
Not to be overly dramatic, but Fidel and Che probably also struggled with similarly bruised consciences (both having middle-class backgrounds and education). Something also tells me that Huey and Bobby wouldn't hesitate to call me out on my contradictions. And I know from watching that the West Wing's Josh Lyman and Toby Ziegler would kick my ass all up and down the street.
It bothers me that I'm afraid of the characters on the West Wing. I can't help but think of the White House today, and that the people inside are working so hard to maintain the status quo. If I want to see what happens in that building change so much, but am not willing to put in the extra effort to make it so, then what am I really doing?
My questions and concerns are not haphazardly aimed at anyone whose politics are progressive or who would like to see the world changed. I'd like that to be the case, and in an ideal world I'd like to see us all actively engaged in our communities. But on a real, deeper level I understand that this is a conversation for people who identify themselves as activists and organizers.
Of course I give a special shout out to the privileged people in the house -- white folks, folks with good resumes and noteworthy college degrees, and generally people who have the ability to decide to "be sustainable."
Most people are hustling all day to feed their families, holding down two jobs, and generally unable to find the time they'd like to learn and love and do the things that make life beautiful. I'm not talking to y'all. I'm talking to people who have time and energy and resources, and could be doing better things with all three. And I'm talking to those who identify as activists or organizers, who have made some type of commitment to this work, but due to lack of accountability and responsibility, often coupled with a need for direction, don't use their time well.
Do We Have What It Takes?
A friend of mine recently wrote an email to a group of people, who were working on the progressive side of the 2004 election. She noted that she didn't see in us what she'd seen in the people who protested in Birmingham, and beyond, during the Civil Rights Movement.
"Whatever that was, that belief in the possibility of something better and the worth of sacrificing toward that something better, most of us don't have it today. I think what most of us are lacking is a sense of wholeness that allows us to see beyond what we're fed by our culture of consumption," she wrote. "I'm not an ideal community organizer. The true work of making this city a just place to live belongs to those who are committed to making this city their home now and into the future," she added.
While I can't seem to put my finger on the "it" that is in question here -- that difference between the Civil Rights Movement folks and the activist generations of today -- I know it has something to do with faith, conviction and passion coupled with a permanence of geographic place and local focus on building power and resources.
I don't see "it" either. And while there's certainly nothing healthy about marching from Selma to just about anywhere that's past the border of Selma in the summer heat, somebody needs to be willing to do it anyway. I'm not advocating for big marches or protests in the Civil Rights Movement style, as I think those tactics generally don't work anymore (mostly due to a mass media that pays little, even when tens of thousands gather in the streets).
What I'm looking for is more of that energy that appeared to be behind the marchers and protesters of the '60s and '70s. In those years, a small group of thoughtful, concerned citizens mobilized and got into the hearts and minds and living rooms of nearly everyone in the United States. We can do that now, and it seems evident that it's needed now as much as ever.
I suppose what I'm really calling for is a new and higher standard for activists and organizers. It's my belief that there are a lot of people working awfully hard to maintain and increase levels of oppression, and if that's to change, we've got to match that work.
Then, of course, we need more people to become activists and organizers. And while some may argue that what I'm suggesting will turn people away and make it harder to do the work, I would say the opposite. I think that the reason so few people get involved is because it's so hard to see change from our work. If we work harder and with more clarity to our anger, we can win.
People like to be on the winning team, and right now, we're losing. We've got to work harder. And for a lot of people, working harder will simply mean working more efficiently -- with more clearly defined strategy that has more tangible targets, better use of available resources to maximize effectiveness and positive communication to avoid doubling of work unnecessarily.
I'm not saying we should all be sleeping at our offices. But I for one often don't sleep well because of all the things I feel like need to happen before I can feel good about, for instance, wanting to bring a child into the world.
Let's set a higher standard. Let's get more done. Let's show the next generation that real sustainability is in a truly better world where we're getting closer to our goals, not further away from them.
Counterpoint: From Celebrities to Leaders By Adrienne Maree Brown
When Gavin first asked me to read his opinion piece, I couldn't wait to respond to the idea of how we work as activists, and whether we are working hard enough.
My immediate reaction to Gavin's ideas -- of working harder and working more -- is to ask where working efficiently comes into play. I also like to watch TV while working a job that has me traveling half the year as a trainer, and balancing many different roles. I work in communications, alliances and training for the League of Young Voters, am the board chair of the Ruckus Society, and consult on organizational development for a few side projects that are close to my heart. On a good day, I write a few songs and sing them, go for a walk, am a good friend, daughter and sister.
I have been lucky as a worker, because I have figured out my working style and I revel in it. I am constantly reassessing my role in our work and trying to fall into a space where there is total flow between my skills, interests and what's needed. I like to do a lot of work quickly, and I like to work on deadline. I need a long to-do list to inspire me to knock the work out, and I need to know there is a good purpose to the work.
I know a lot of people who work more than me, but I know very few people who get more done, especially in the same amount of time. I also know a lot of people who waste working time with inefficiency and with low-quality work because they are burnt-out and in denial about it.
Now, to be honest, I have learned to work efficiently, which changed me from a burn-out-for-cool-revolutionary-points-type worker into a hard worker whose name may never be known in the history books. Bit by bit, I am releasing my organizer ego, and it really helps me in determining how I work.
Sometimes I lapse, and I can immediately tell and start making an exit plan, but in general the Cool-Revolutionary-Hard-Worker phase of my life is behind me because it was exhausting and inefficient. I didn't sleep much. It was important that everyone around me knew how hard I was working, and that I was so righteous for the movement. Looking back, evidence of burnout was rampant. I was producing lower quality writing, thinking, training and relationship building.
I actually didn't notice this low quality in myself until I noticed it in those around me. I was surrounded by people who were burning candles on both ends in both hands. I noticed the shallow depth of content from speakers who didn't have enough sleep. In meetings, I became aware of the weak and unoriginal strategies that came from folks who had lost perspective. They were so busy working for the people that they didn't leave time to talk to the people.
The result of this approach to organizing -- as far as I've seen it and been guilty of it myself -- is the phenomenon we call celebrity organizers. Everyone knows their names -- they exist in every community. They are amazing and articulate and energetic and inspirational. But more often than not, folks don't have the skills they need to develop true leadership in others. And when they go, there is no one to continue and sustain the work. We have to get real about the fact that the crisis is constant -- every single day the shit is hitting the fan, and as long as we act as a one-person cleanup team, we'll always be more funky than functional.
And why? A major negative side effect of our overwork is that we do not allow space and time for learning and empowering those we want by our sides. Others cannot do the work that we drive with our egos, rather than with an eye towards what the people need the most.
I know, I've done my stint in that world. Amy Goodman has a quote I love that says, "Pundits are people who know very little about a lot of things." I think we as organizers can fall into this too, so that before we know it, we are filling all 20 positions in our work and filling them all in a state of exhaustion and inexperience.
Bring the Work, but Keep the Martyr Badges
So I reached the point of burnout, and I started thinking about my own work. How could I ensure that I was proud of what was coming out? How could I isolate my periods of high stress so that they didn't conquer my life? I don't want to be unrealistic: If you're working right, there will be periods of high stress. But how to make sure that isn't the constant state of the work?
One of the main areas of stress in my work -- even today -- is knowing that I am overworked and underpaid. A lot of the examples Gavin gives of folks who are working hard are people who are getting paid really well to work that hard. The paycheck for the head coach of the Bengals is much more inspirational than, say, mine or Gavin's.
The sad reality is, when you aren't getting paid what you're worth, you don't have the money for hot tubs, gym memberships, saunas, or even just a basic vacation. I've reworked my tiny budget to prioritize these little indulgences, because they make it possible for me to work 20 hours some days and not complain. And not that I'm doing it for the money, but I feel like most of the activists I know consider their mission to do "it" against the money.
The organizing world right now is caught up in a dialogue between the desire for a higher quality of life by those who come from the most impacted communities, and the internal struggle of people of privilege who choose to be organizers between their quality of life and their guilt. There's a certain sick pride I see in the eyes of organizers from privileged backgrounds as they compare their struggles.
Economically poor people logically choose to struggle for a higher standard of living for themselves and their families. Folks who grew up with a lot and then became aware of the real impacts of privilege often want to assuage their guilt. That price is often offered in the form of working really hard for very little money, achieving a nearly monastic work existence. Please bring the work, but keep the martyr badges. That way of working is outdated, romanticized, idealistic and, ultimately, selfish.
Working Better, not Longer
Gavin calls sustainability a strategy. To me it's not a strategy -- it's a necessity. If you want to become a healthy person, you don't stop eating and start running 10 miles a day -- that will shock your body and the results won't last. I think it's an antiquated vision of activism -- the idea that you have to sacrifice sleep, private time and years of your life in order to be a "proper" activist.
My reason for attempting to "be sustainable, take care of myself and be happy and comfortable" is because I work better under those conditions. My goal as an organizer is to make sure that my most valuable contribution to the movement, my brain, is not putting out a half-ass product because I have gone so many days not sleeping that I start to see Che in my cereal saying "Good job." I've seen the results of that type of sleepless, burnt-out work, and it's sub-par.
It is selfish to work this way. You are denying the movement the best you have to offer, in exchange for the most you have to offer. Quality is as important as quantity in organizing.
It's about balance, not going too far in either direction. I feel Gavin on the fact that as the level of average affluence rises in this country, you see more self-described activists and organizers with their houses, hot tubs, vacation homes, Lexus hybrids and part-time hours.
At the same time, there didn't used to be an option to do this work and get paid and have health care. Now that is an option. The challenge is to hold yourself and your co-workers accountable to a higher internal standard. Work better, not longer. Work more efficiently, rather than just unstoppably.
In terms of holding folks accountable, I try to do this in my work now, and let folks do it to me. When I see that a co-worker is too tired to do quality work, I call them on it. When I see that a co-worker is on the edge of a burnout, I call them on it.
Lead and Live by Example
As for the larger picture of the movement and the concern over the missing people who are willing to walk -- I think right now we aren't missing walkers, and we definitely aren't missing talkers. Even hard workers -- we're not missing the hours. What's missing now is hope that we can achieve what we set out to do, and a willingness to step up to the plate as a leader.
If we collectively set the standard of organizing as overworked, underpaid underdogs, we will perpetuate an environment most people don't want to live in and that has no continuity. On the other hand, if we collectively decide we want to lay back in a pro-capitalist nonprofit movement where folks are living large and living lazy, we will fail our ancestors, our children and ourselves.
But to me the line is clear -- what is the standard of living we want for everyone? It's not excess, and it's not martyrdom. We must perpetuate a new vision for a lifestyle of plenty -- taking care of ourselves and our communities, giving adequate attention to our health and our children, living according to the values we are fighting for every day. That means sleeping well, eating right, understanding your piece of the work and working it.
Adrienne Maree Brown, 27, a writer, singer, trainer and the Director of Communications at the League of Young Voters, is producing a documentary on youth and HIV in New York. She is also a board member of The Ruckus Society.
Gavin Leonard, 25, is director of Cincinnati-based Elementz, a hip hop youth arts center, works at an affordable housing agency, the Over-the-Rhine Housing Network, and serves as the board chair of the League of Young Voters Education Fund.
Also in Building a Movement
- Top Youth Activism Victories of 2008 by Jamilah King, Kristina Rizga, Tomas Palermo
- Best WireTap Stories of 2008 by The Editors
- (Podcast) When We're Not Working by Gavin Leonard, Matt Ryan
- When We're Not Working: On Awkward Family Conversations by Matt Ryan, Gavin Leonard
- He Absolutely Had To Be A "Community Organizer" by Hakim Bellamy