Well as I suspected, there are lots and lots of ways to make an “honest living.” At this point 83 folks have taken the survey and you can still respond, too if you want to! If you want to see more on the demographics of who responded, check out my previous post.
I roughly categorized people into nine different kinds of jobs/survival situations: day job, self-employed, students, social justice non-profit, union/labor organizing, unemployed, non-political helping profession, non-job income, academia, plus people who mentioned reducing their expenses through living collectively or something else. There was alot of overlap, so this is approximate. About 5 people didn’t give me enough information to really tell what kind of work they were doing. Somehow my numbers aren’t adding up to 83 – – perhaps a few people skipped the questions on current employment.
For each category (below) I put a couple quotes. All the quotes are listed anonymously and I tried to check in with everyone who asked to be checked in with before using quotes, but if you see a quote of yours up here that you want removed (or edited to make it more anonymous) please e-mail email@example.com and I’ll take it down or change it right away.
It was really interesting that not a single person who responded said they were organizing their fellow workers in a workplace. This is probably partly because of who was responding, based on the networks the survey got out to, but I also think its because particularly these days, and in the generation of folks who mostly responded (24-35), that’s not a common practice. Check out my earlier post on “factory invasions” and organizing from within, which was a lot more common in the 1970s and early 1980s. I’m definitely going to try to do an interview and find out how folks feel about having done that, and why they think less folks are doing that now.
So here it goes…
Day Jobs (Or Night Jobs) (5 folks)
These are folks who work a job that doesn’t have anything to do with the community issues they care about, then do the work they really care about “on the side” as a volunteer. The responses from folks who were doing this brought up a lot about class and about what meaning jobs have for our identities and lives. Several folks talked about doing work they don’t care about because they haven’t had access to education or job networks that would allow them to do other kinds of work they might prefer. Other folks (including some of the same people) had a strong belief that they wanted their money-making life to be separate from their life as an activist.
(From someone waiting tables) It’s not satisfying, but it’s purpose to me isn’t to satisfy any of these things [personal satisfaction, income, and making a difference in the world]. Its role is merely to financially sustain me. The wages are unsatisfying/unjust, the work is personally unsatisfying/alienating, and I don’t think it makes a difference in changing power relations. But it pays the bills and has a good deal of flexibility in time so it works well to subsidize my movement work. My financial stability has never been connected to satisfying work. Full-time employment has always been unsatisfying and disconnected from movement work. So I don’t look for satisfaction through paid work. If movement work and employment happen to coincide I see that as temporary. The mvt work I’ve been paid for has been part-time and supplemental income for me, not about financial stability.
I type legal depositions from 6-9 a.m. every morning, and then watch the baby all day. My partner watches the baby every morning while I work. He works doing odd home improvement jobs from 9am to 6:00pm every day. Then we try to have family/friend time in the evenings. I supplement my income with food stamps and Medicaid for the children. I’m physically unable to type for more than three hours a day. It’s extremely strenuous upper body work. It pays enough to cover my monthly expenses, and also frees up my days to raise my children. It’s flexible on time since I’m able to work from home, and I can turn work down or accept more as-needed. Being able to meet my financial obligations without having to work 40 hours a week frees my time up to build relationships and engage in different community efforts. [In past jobs,] I was consistently exhausted, unhealthy, angry, and resentful that I was working so hard and had nothing left over, had no time for my family, and felt as if I was being taken advantage of by employers. I didn’t have the time or energy to make a difference.
Self-employed/Freelance (10 folks)
A lot of folks found a way to piece together income from various freelance work like consulting, interpreting, and journalism or other media projects. In general folks enjoyed having more flexibility, control over their time, and autonomy, but worried about having less of a safety net, and sometimes struggling to make ends meet. Several folks doing freelance work also had another part-time job, support from a partner, some kind of inherited income, or were living in a group or collective situation that made expenses lower.
I’ve been working as a tattoo artist for ten years. For the last few years I’ve been able to work part-time or for chunks of time and live off the savings. I also inherited some money that gives me a cushion/insurance policy in case something goes wrong. Working with [a collective arts project], I’ve had some of my food and housing covered through the collective or else I’ve had cheap or free rent from folks sympathetic to our work. Otherwise I’m covering my costs by working part time or out of my savings.
My money comes from a range of sources. Basically, I do work I believe in, and sometimes I get paid. I get paid some when my articles are published, some for speaking engagements, and some for producing video news segments. I also survive because I have worked as a union organizer, got paid a ton for that, and saved that money.
Social Justice Non-Profit Work (13 folks)
Some of the things that came up for folks working for social justice non-profits was often feeling politically really good about what they are doing, but also dealing with stress on the job, dynamics between board and staff, and burn out. A couple worried that if they have kids later on, or have to take care of older relatives, they might not be making enough. Several folks talked about having partners or other means of support that allow them to make it on a fairly modest salary.
I feel like I’m very lucky to be able to be a “professional activist.” I’ve been able to make a living doing jobs that are making a difference since 2001. it’s a huge change from working in the for-profit world, where I made more money, but didn’t feel like my work made a contribution to anything larger than the company. My class has definitely made a difference in how I feel about these issues. If I was struggling financially, I wouldn’t be able to afford to take lower-paying nonprofit jobs. I have a partner with an income that could support both of us, and that has given me the financial “safety net” to pursue fulfilling work. Additionally, I’m able to do extra volunteer work rather than having a second job, and I can afford to attend conferences and that type of thing.
I am a paid staff member at a left social justice organization that organizes low-income Latino and Black women around practical issues with a counter-hegemonic lens focused on fighting racism, capitalism, and gender oppression. I don’t get paid enough for the amount of work I do and am expected to do, yet this is the most money I have ever made. Working for and as a part of an organization I do have less personal freedom. Doing construction I could just take off for a few weeks (unpaid) when I wanted, that was the nature of the work. Now, that is not possible. I do feel like I am having a greater impact in the world because I am working on social change full time and developing skills that can advance the fight for social justice. But I am tired.
Union/Labor/Worker Organizing (6 folks)
Most people doing union organizing reported feeling less worried about their salaries than folks who worked for non-profits. Some felt really politically good about the work they were doing, others questioned if they were making the kind of difference they wanted to be making. A lot of folks talked about long hours, burnout and job stress.
my job as a union organizer supports me. I make good money. The job is very satisfying. Although it’s very stressful. I feel that I am making a major impact in the world by taking on hard fights that challenge the core values of our society. Fighting against poverty, fighting to value workers and community. Fighting privatization and the corporatization of public institutions. All this is important work. The only thing I worry about is having the strength to stick with the movement. I want to make sure I don’t burn out. I find myself getting cynical and frustrated with people who are lazy. But I feel that this is my calling and I don’t really worry about my future direction. Labor organizing is different from community organizing in that there is stable jobs so I don’t worry about making enough money to live on. I think the labor movement is a difficult place for organizers of color. It’s difficult to be taken seriously and treated with respect unless you learn how to communicate within white dominated institutions. I feel that my union is different in a lot of ways, but still the same. Being a man gives me a lot of advantage in the labor movement – I see how women are not treated with the same respect and don’t get front and center positions usually. Class is a double edged sword. I see that people who came out of the rank and file tend to last a lot longer than college-educated yuppy organizers like myself. I think the struggle is something that one can’t escape when you are working poor. Those with upward mobility can usually more easily choose another path that causes less stress. But I have also seen working class organizers burn out because the work is too personal. I can distance myself from the work and create mental boundaries. Others may not be able to do that.
I work as a union representative (internal organizer). Personal satisfaction- I love my work. I work too much. I am learning a lot from amazing mentors who have been doing this for years. Income- The union pays me very well. It is nice to not be poor and to be able to help out my family. Making a difference- I feel I train many workers the skills to fight back, at work and in their lives. I bring up the living situations of many people and protect public services. There are unions where I could work with more exploited workers doing more. But I picked a union where I could be sane, the hours weren’t too crazy (40-55 a week) I could be near home and get support while doing good work.
Reducing Expenses/Collective Living (4 folks)
I think partly because of how I phrased the questions, not as many people talked about how they make ends meet through reducing expenses, so they’ll have more time for social justice work. I know I see a lot of folks doing that here in Greensboro. Of the folks who did mention it a couple talked about living with roommates to share expenses, a couple talked about intentional collective living, and one person talked about squatting/rent striking. I definitely want to do some interviews with folks who are finding innovative ways to share resources and reduce expenses.
I am self-employed and make money in lots of different ways. I live in a collective household of four adults, two young people, cat, dog and gecko. We share most costs.
i live in a collective house with 5 other young folx (i’m the oldest by almost 10 years). i love it!!! my homies are all wonderful, the house is beautiful, and my rent is cheap!
Non-Politicized Helping Profession (13 folks)
As the librarian points out below and several folks also echoed, it’s hard to be the lone radical in a job that’s not meant to be radical. This relates to the little bit I wrote about radical teachers in LA at the end of my post on factory invasions and organizing from within. [Added 5/7: A friend wrote a comment about this on Facebook and pointed out that this is a pretty simplistic way to divide jobs (social justice vs. non-politicized). I think its much more of a continuum and much more complicated than that. See the comments below!]
My job is in tobacco awareness in priority populations. I make okay money but honestly I hate it cause really…there are so many other health issues that I care more about (HIV primarily which is still killing queers off by the bushels…lets not even talk about how race and class play into this too cause whoa we’d be talking all night). I think in terms of why I feel this way, tobacco work is important, but there are farmers and factory workers that aren’t even factored into the work about anti-tobacco issues. Plus, most of the work is done by white folks, most of whom have lots of money (Dr’s mostly), which is so not how I’m used to working. Plus we operate in a way that is very appealing to mainstream gay and lesbian work that doesn’t often make space for folks who are always left out.
employed part-time by the New York Public Library @ a small branch as a Librarian Trainee. NYPL is funding my MLS; when I finish I will be a Senior Librarian (will probably have to be full-time, but don’t want to be). I am supporting my partner on $1000/month. We have no children yet. I really enjoy being a radical librarian, but, as with any profession, it can be exhausting to be the lone radical in an institution of very nice, but very by-the-books folks. Librarians tend to be the liberal-hardcore-freedom-of-speech types, which is tiresome. I definitely don’t make enough money to live comfortably in NYC, but am financially better off than some because I share an apartment with five other people. Reconciling my heady, theoretical grad school work with the concrete, action-oriented change I want to see can be difficult. I would probably not do this work if I didn’t have to work to make a living; but, at the same time, I do enjoy this better than any other type of formal work environment I’ve experienced. I do not ever wish to work full-time, though I know that I will be pressured by administration to do so after I get my MLS.
Having Non-Work Income (4 folks)
A couple folks (including some quoted above) mentioned getting partial support from partners, in at least one case to raise kids. A few people mentioned partly have some inherited or trust fund money from their families. Almost all of these spoke about their conflicted and guilty feelings about having class privilege, trying to figure out what if any to use for themselves and what to give away, yet how when they chose to partly live on the money, it enabled them to do what they really wanted to do without worrying about money so much. Resource Generation is a great group that works with radical/progressive young people with wealth, and the Enough blog frequently talks about inherited wealth, too.
freelance writing and editing, plus some inheritance income (living expenses paid out of earned income; inherited income is divided into giving and savings – redistributed mostly as donations to grassroots groups, saved in community banks, and occasionally used as a buffer when earned income is short of expenses or for emergencies)
Academia (10 folks)
I decided to include grad students here since most were on their ways to academic job, and sense most grad students do labor for the university. There were also a couple folks with PhDs who were teaching or doing research. Like people working in non-politicized “helping” professions, several folks mentioned how hard it is to be the lone person trying to do the work in a radical way. A couple grad students on their way to becoming professors talked about how they are half way in between being students and workers, a situation some universities exploit.
I feel very lucky to have access to almost all of my time and to use it service of my community and my creative vision. However I feel that the university structure, which supports me, is not accountable to my vision. I love what I am able to do but I crave a source of income that is not so treacherous.
I work at a state university as a researcher. I am an out queer. I volunteer doing scientific outreach for K-12. I am serious about my research with the hope of starting a lab of my own back in XX or XX. I love the science. I do not like living in XX, I want to move home. I am not making a significant difference in the world through this job. Apart from mentoring summer high school students and undergrads in the lab (how I spend a small percentage of my time), my work will only benefit society if the government puts tighter regulations on the chemicals that I study. This is unlikely but I do sincerely hope that this job will enable me to make a difference when I have a lab of my own. I have spent a long time in school. It is really important to my parents and larger family that I graduated- I am the first family member to get a doctorate degree. To my parents, who sacrificed so, so much for the three of us, my “success” supports their sacrifices. Because of this, I feel a whole lot of pressure to use my degree. I am extremely worried about what to do after this training period ends. I will most likely take another postdoc somewhere closer to one of my homes and then take stock of my life and decide what to do next. I am scared that in order to have a lab, do good research and mentor kids, I will have to sacrifice the majority of my time and energy. When it comes right down to it, I know that if I were doing organizing full time, I would bring about change in a more real way. I spend a lot of time thinking about this.
Students (5 folks)
Several folks had decided to attend undergraduate school (in some cases going back after a break, in some cases for the first time) and were currently supporting themselves off some combination of college loans, scholarships, campus jobs and help from family. Many people were going back to get a job for a specific career, like nursing or social work, in many cases after having been disappointed by the financial insecurity and emotional toll of non-profit work.
I decided last year that I must transition back to school in order to have more stability. I am currently a student preparing for nursing school. My parents have supported me for this year until I am accepted into a nursing program. I have worked on a project as an interpreter and other temp jobs, but mostly I volunteer to help with campaigns or to interpret. I don’t feel too great about my situation. I understood that my decision to work in the community would be hard to sustain for myself and my family. The strain is more palpable and real with my parents getting older and needing my help. I also am not sure that working in non-profit has been the change that I want to work for. The change in leadership is constant. I felt I was always maintaining our programs through transitions of leadership, on a tight budget. A lot of work is funded by government so the work is sometimes too focused on meeting service goals rather than education and organizing.
Unemployed (4 folks)
Some folks were making a job transition and were unemployed by choice though slightly worried, other folks were unemployed not by choice and really stressed out and worried. A couple folks talked about how their upbringing, particularly class, effects how they feel about being unemployed.
currently unemployed and seeking full-time, part-time or contract work. i’m going through my savings and may need to borrow until i can get a job. i’m positive about my life, but i’m in a depressing situation. i’m running out of money and i don’t have a job. the only thing keeping me happy and stable is the support from my family and friends. i get down on myself and feel guilty about my lack of activism, especially when so many people and places need more help than i do. i know my beliefs have reached many people, but i wish that i could make a bigger difference.
until later this week as a FT staff of a non-profit SJ org. i have not secured anything permanent yet so will be hustling from freelance work (training and consulting). my hopes are to hopefully have something secure by fall at the latest. i have a complicated relationship with money as someone who grew up without it but whose experience was shaped by immigrant parents, grandparents, aunts/uncles who all moved to this country to “make it” and “better ourselves”. two dynamics in particular: – everything was about work. the biggest sin you could commit in my family (even more than being queer) was being “lazy.” everyone in my family on my mom’s side has and have always had two jobs. a FT and a PT minimum (tho many of the men have two FT). i have always had a FT and PT. – our generation was expected to move beyond factory and housekeeping work. we were to do well in school and get jobs as attys, bankers, teachers, etc. because of this i am in constant conversation with my family about the work that i do. “you’re so smart – why are doing this kind of work” “you should go back to school and become a professional” “these people you work ‘for’ don’t care about you and your good work. you need to look out for yourself.” “let me tell you about another asshole that wanted to help people – they nailed his ass to the cross” partly bcz of this socialization around work (and people’s values vis-a-vis work) i am getting ready to have a major freak out about not having steady income. i have been working since i was 12 and have been employed since i was 15. i have never transitioned from a job without having another one to go to. so the questions for me now are – how can i continue to do this work and pay my bills? take a part time at some corporate job to pay the bills and do this on my own time? i have familial economic responsibilities that inform my income level. i accept and resent these responsibilities. without them, i could have more personal options as to work and how much i have to make.
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