ChoiceWords Blog

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Pay Your Organizers Please

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February 26, 2019

For the past 2 weeks, I’ve been seeing an advertisement on Twitter for the same organizing fellowship. The organization promises to “empower young leaders” by teaching various skills, like planning events, building coalitions, and utilizing social media. By the time I got to the bottom of the page the first time, I was excited. The opportunity to make a difference in my community and learn how to be a better organizer is always exciting.

The disappointment came, as it always seems to, when I came to the bottom of the page and I realized that, of course, this is unpaid. The initial excitement about learning more, creating a change in my community, and becoming a better organizer was tamped out by the inability to sustain myself while doing that work. I tried to put it out of my mind,but my thoughts keep coming back to this fellowship, and everything that was wrong with it.

It’s amazing how many fellowships and internships you can find these days that want to teach young people how to do good things in our communities. They want to help us discover our passions, make a difference in our schools and neighborhoods, and develop the skills that will make us the best organizers we can be. What’s more amazing is how few of them recognize that this kind of work needs to be compensated. The changes being made in neighborhoods, college campuses, and even entire states across the nation is mind blowing, and there are unpaid young people leading the charge and getting things done everywhere we look.

I can’t count how many times I’ve been forwarded an application or looked up an amazing opportunity online only to discover that institutions and organizations are expecting me to change the world on zero dollars an hour. Despite how these opportunities may be pitched as learning opportunities or paths for growth and career development, the young people who follow through with them are pushing the agenda of the organization. The work that they’re doing and the organizing that they accomplished is associated with a brand, and it makes no sense to me that we shouldn’t be paid for that kind of work. Young people are worth the investment of not just skills, but resources as well.

This is especially true of marginalized young people like me, who are eager to do the work but can’t afford to do it without getting a paycheck. Organizations can’t call themselves proponents of reproductive justice, progressive, or even equitable if refuse to correctly compensate young people of color for the political and organizing work that we do. When every fellowship, internship, and opportunity is unpaid, the pool of who can actually afford to get involved becomes more and more privileged. In my eyes, it should be a given that doing work that changes the world for the better can at least help you pay the bills.

I hope that every organization which offers an unpaid position, fellowship, or internship is prepared to answer the question of why they think that’s acceptable. Forcing us to decide between learning how to be better organizers and putting food on the table isn’t an acceptable ultimatum. Claims about caring for the future fall flat when you follow the corporate route of paying people for their experience in an organizing setting. We cannot make the world a better place with no food in our mouths, no roof over our heads, and the threat of student loan debt looming too close for comfort.

On a local level, I can understand not being able to pay every student that gets involved in the work you do. There are fewer resources to go around, and money can be tight in a grassroots organization. But for state, national, and worldwide organizations, I have no patience for the unethical practice of withholding compensation that they can afford to provide.

How much is our work and organizing and potential really worth if you keep asking us to do it for free?

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