What advice do you have for aspiring activists?

As a young activist in my early 20’s, I’ve stressed over where I want to take my life time and again. I even wrote about this issue my senior year of college. This stress comes in ebbs and flows with moments of epiphany screaming “Oh my god, You are ONLY 23! Chill out!” and other moments screaming “You’re 23 and only getting older! Time is ticking!” Graduating from a top U.S. university comes with many privileges. But as someone who spent most of her time community organizing in college, the question of career becomes tricky. Social justice can be found in many realms: do I want to be a full-time writer, youth worker, artist, teacher, political organizer or maybe even legislative work with a progressive politician? Thus, in many of my Feministing Five interviews I can’t help but ask: How do you make a career out of activism sustainable and what advice do you have for young people that want to go down that road?

Kenyon Farrow, my interview from last week, answered this way:

I would say read, read, read. There’s too much anti-intellectualism on the left. I hear a lot of people critiquing people they see as academics or not doing “real work in the world” and it’s dangerous. It’s important that people engage ideas. If you consider yourself an organizer there’s no way you shouldn’t be reading Huey Newton’s “Revolutionary Suicide” or Elaine Brown’s “Taste of Power.” You should also read people who challenge you. Sometimes, I read shit that’s too complicated for me and I end up reading it two or three times!

Not exactly a step-by-step manual on what to do next (and, really, the answers to that question never are), but a very interesting response nonetheless. He brings up a couple points here. One being the idea that we should continually sharpen our minds by reading. This is great advice especially for people like myself who enjoy writing and consider making it a career.

We should be reading a lot to not only understand issues better and improve our writing, but we should also know who people in the industry are that are making waves. Another point he brings up is this idea of organizers dismissing academic work as not truly from “the community” and the seemingly hypocritical nature of such a belief. Farrow again:

It’s important to engage rather than dismiss people’s work we consider academic or not based in the community and, quite frankly, that’s a classist argument. People say, “The community doesn’t relate to this.” However, a lot of people in my family don’t have college degrees and I talk to them the same way I’m talking to you. I’m often bothered by people claiming what they think the community is ready or not ready for. My life is testament to people who don’t have degrees, but who read and can engage in really intellectually rigorous conversations.

What do you all think? What advice do you have for young activists who want to make a career out of their activism? And what are your thoughts on engaging theory with action? Is there a divide among “ivory tower” intellectuals and the “real” work on the ground (all in quotes because these terms are hard to define) and, if so, how do we bridge that divide?

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  • nyah17

    Hi Anna,

    I’m sure you are probably already looking into non-profit jobs in organizations you support but I just wanted to recommend to you to not to cross of the private sector from your job search, even though you think it may not be relevant to what you want to do.

    Here is why: there is actually a lot of cross-over from the private sector to the public one, in terms of talent, skills, and resources. And I believe the private sector is a great way to start your career into the non-profit world.

    I graduated from a top university in the U.S. and like you, I felt a bit conflicted on my career path. I am interested in global public health systems and social enterprise (so a bit different from your interests) but in the end I decided to take a position with a prestigious consulting firm. I know this seems totally irrelevant to my interests but I learned so much and very quickly and intensively – about developing business strategies, financial analysis, analyzing markets, determining growth, etc. In my free time, I volunteered at a local reproductive rights advocacy organization. I did consulting a few years until I thought I had learned the most from it. Now I work at a non-profit US hospital doing strategic planning and am learning the non-profit world of healthcare. Soon, I will apply to fellowships abroad in health care systems. The amount I have learned and the connections I’ve made in the past 4 years in both these positions are enormous,

    My main point is, always remember that you want to add tools to your toolbox – this will help you in whatever career path you choose. Continue to learn, from all different sides of the market. To be able to contribute the most in your career, I believe you need to understand it from all sides and work at it from all sides. If I look at global health organizations that I respect, most (if not all) of the top, successful people have had private sector experience. And always remember, that you can do activism on the side/volunteering while you are doing any job – you don’t have to make it your career right off the bat.

    Anyways, just my two cents. Good luck!

  • http://feministing.com/members/azure156/ Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

    “I hear a lot of people critiquing people they see as academics or not doing “real work in the world” and it’s dangerous.”

    As someone who genuinely does feel this way , I find this statement overly simplistic and reductive. People absolutely should be reading the books Farrow mentioned, along with many others, but this learning should COMPLEMENT the learning gained through real life experiences, meeting different kinds of people, doing hands on activist work, visiting different communities. The idea that education through books and real life experience are an either-or option is in itself absurd. You say Huey Newton? In college he read the works of numerous activists and ideologues yet he ALSO was out in the community, breakfast programs for children and other things. Sadly I’ve met too many “academic theoretician only” types who never actually been around the various types of people they claim to speak for. THAT would be my advice to young activists, to both read and acquire as much knowledge as you can, AND ALSO get out and experience the world as much as you can.

    I have to also say I agree with Farrow’s assessment that it’s either-or, or that academic learning is unavailable to the lower classes, as having an element of classism to it. Knowledge is not only available to those who can afford college. As a teen runaway, my husband was taught of these authors and activists by older mentors he encountered. I too sought out what I could based on writings in zines, references elsewhere, things explained to me by older relatives, etc. Those things in themselves illustrate the importance of being in a community, of pointing younger people in the direction of the books that contain what they want to know, and also the importance of community lending libraries, both governmental AND grassroots. Even a few tables filled with donated and passed along books, as they have set up at OWS, can be a valuable resource.

  • http://feministing.com/members/amck/ AMM

    I’d throw in: get to know as many kinds of people as you can. It’s the best cure for those caricatures and stereotypes that every one of us carries around, no matter how hard we try to get rid of them. For instance, I’m not much of an activist, but I’ve volunteered occasionally at homeless shelters and food runs, and I’m always surprised at how different so many are from my internal ideas about Teh Homeless. I sometimes think that the educational effect on us more privileged folks is probably a bigger benefit of these service programs to society than the concrete help that they provide to the ostensible beneficiaries.

    I’d also suggest not restricting yourself to just the usual disadvantaged groups (however defined.) We carry around as many stereotypes about privileged and powerful people (e.g., Republicans, or evangelical Christians) as we do about poor and disadvantaged people. IMHO, real change only happens through changing hearts and minds, including those of the privileged and powerful. This is best done by dealing with people based on they are, not based on their category.

    Even if you don’t become a professional activist, you can still work to change hearts and minds wherever you are.