Monday, July 9, 2012

On Doing "Good Work": Take-Aways from Feminist Brunch

Last weekend, my friends, Lucy and Carolyn, organized a small "feminist brunch" for a few of us politically minded women in our mid-twenties.  The agenda of the morning was clear: eat delicious assorted breakfast foods, drink mimosas, and talk social justice shop.  

We arrived early on Saturday morning, passions and appetites ablaze.  Over the next 3 hours, the four of us talked about everything from national news to trashy literature to community development.   If I had to summarize our unwieldy conversation--- which, oddly enough, never really landed on anything explicitly feminist-- I would say it revolved around what it takes to do "good work" in the world, and the specific personal and organizational challenges to pursuing this work {NOTE: I broadly define “good work,” as any related to social services, non-profits, research used for social benefit, urban planning, socially progressive policy/politics, etc.}

Before I begin, I must note that my friends and I are blessed to have options that are not available to everyone, and certainly were not available to women of previous generations.  However, we do face obstacles to doing the work for which we are passionate and must develop specific responses to address them.  This is what I write about today.

With that said, I want to present some take-aways from the morning:

1.) Mid-Twenties "Having it All" Syndrome

There's a myth that somehow in your twenties, you are supposed to figure it all out.  Out of college for a few years, you try out a few jobs only to discover your true passion which you pursue for the rest of your days-- which, incidentally, earns you tons of money.  You meet the love of your life and discuss your white picket fence futures together.  You take your first steps on the road to Happily Ever After.

Reality is a little different.

2.) The Challenges to Doing “Good Work”

For social justice advocates, that confrontation with reality is jarring in a unique way.  In college, it's easy to dream of dedicating your life to promoting justice, equality, and positive change in the world (in non-culturally pejorative ways, of course).  In doing so, you presume that your work will be your life and your passion.  In reality, the fields of nonprofit work, research, advocacy, and social service are subject to the same constraints of capital, labor, supply and demand, economic trends, leadership, and funding as any other industry.  

My friends and I discussed the following challenges:

A.) Labor Market

Our generation faces historically high levels of unemployment, with so much competition that hiring decisions often seem arbitrary.  It no longer is enough to have a passion, or even extensive experience in a particular field.  And it can be particularly crushing to find that "perfect job" only to discover you are not the "perfect candidate."

In this environment, the four of us have all had the misfortune of taking jobs that were far less than ideal-- whether due to a disorganized work environment, unrealistic expectations, or abusive employers-- with no ability to advocate for ourselves.  In this employee-saturated market, we are keenly aware that we are easily replaceable if we express dissatisfaction.

B.) Organizational Issues

We also discussed the organization and leadership problems of the non-profit realm.  First of all, non-profits are subject to the constantly-changing funding streams.  It is impossible to strategically plan when each year the organization is subject to fluctuations in public and private funding availability.  

Secondly, where funding is available, it is extremely limited and also contributes to labor problems.  There is often more work than full-time staff paid to do it.  Consequently, social services and non-profit workers are over-burdened, over-worked, and stressed out.  The burnout level is extremely high.

In an environment where job security is incredibly unstable, yet the work itself is overwhelming, one can easily understand why staff turnover in these fields is high.  This turnover fosters much of the organizational inefficiencies for which the non-profit field is known.

Third, leadership in many non-profit organizations is lacking.  Most often this is because leaders are passionate about their cause without having any practical knowledge of how to run an organization, motivate employees, and achieve organizational success.  And people who would be good leaders are disincentivized from entering the field because of the above-mentioned issues.

C.) Oh yeah, MONEY

Further disincentivizing "good work" is the fact that social justice fields are not known for their high-earning potential.  To anyone who enters these fields, this is no surprise.  And to the four of us, it was pretty much an expectation that we would never grow beyond our meager subsistence if we wanted to dedicate our lives to good work.  

In the immediate years after college, this didn't seem like a big issue.  All four of us shared that we had either grown up or grown accustomed to living on tight budgets.  We've all eaten our fair share of ramen noodles.  But now that we are getting older, we've had to acknowledge that money is a concern-- even for do-gooders.  

We're starting to plan for the practicalities of our futures, and not just the dreams.  Living out of shoeboxes and apartment-hopping across the nation are no longer sustainable options.  One day, it would be nice to have an apartment with real furniture (not that IKEA hasn't gotten us through some rough times) and non-hand-me-down decorations (what Lucy calls "emergency art"). On a more serious note, we would like to one-day have children and provide for their health, education, and well-being.  And some day in the far- future, it would be nice to retire.

Money is perhaps not the most important challenge we face to doing what we love.  It is indicative, however, of the changing priorities we’ve acknowledged as we grow older and wiser.

3.) The Need to Re-Evaluate

So then we all decided to give up.  Half of us decided to join Corporate America, and the other half to pursue careers as trophy wives.

Just kidding.

While this all sounds depressing, our conversation wasn’t.  Mostly, we recognized that, as we grow older, we need to re-evaluate the “having it all” myth and the subsequent pressures and unrealistic expectations we are placing on ourselves.

Here are the lessons we walked away with:

A) Balance and Choice Are a Part of Life

“Having it all” is a myth.  Part of being an adult is realizing that life is full of choices and tradeoffs.  The best we can do is to honestly evaluate our options and make well-reasoned decisions based on the information.  Sometimes we will choose family, sometimes location, sometimes money, sometimes love, and sometimes passion.    

My friend Jacob, the other day, mentioned a piece of career advice that his father imparted to him: You can do what you love, you can do what you’re good at, or you can make money.  If you hit two out of three, you’re doing pretty good.  I think that’s good advice.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t fight to create a society where one does not have to make such constrained choices, but we must also not be so naive as to despair at the thought of prioritizing.  To have choices in the first place is a beautiful thing.

2.) The Opportunities for Good Work are Limitless

We can do good work in various capacities, for various causes, in all aspects of our lives.  If what you thought you would do in college (or as a child, for those Type A’ers  out there) does not come to fruition, it is not a reason to give up.

And good work doesn’t need to be confined to the world of wage-labor.  Volunteering, community organizing, writing, creating art, teaching, and raising conscious-children are all ways to positively contribute to society.  Our lives are more than the 9-5 and we can find personal satisfaction both inside and outside those hours.

3.) It’s Important to Be Flexible

Related, we do not need to have it all figured out right now.  We need to be flexible, take opportunities as they come, be comfortable with personal and circumstantial change, and live life.  

I breathed easier after our morning’s conversation.  Well, not literally-- I was very full from all the delicious food.  But it was comforting to know that I was not the only woman in my mid-twenties trying to “figure it all out.”

What I personally took away from this time is that we cannot underestimate the importance of community in the life-long endeavour to “figure it all out.”  Our brunch was an example of such community-- a place where like-minded individuals could honestly discuss hopes, dreams, anxieties, and fears in a place of safety, love, and intellectual engagement (.... and eggs and sausage and fruit and mimosas).  I encourage everyone to find this kind of community where they can.  

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