I love my job as a political organizer, and with the 2012 election approaching I have many friends that are starting their careers as organizers. Here are the top 5 pieces of advice I can give to young people starting/pursuing a career in political organizing.
Boundaries are important.
One of my organizer friends said it best: “They come for the president, and stay for you.” This is so true. Volunteers come to your organization because they connect to your cause or candidate. People end up staying because they find community. As an organizer, you then begin to develop strong relationships with your volunteers. This can cause a huge strain on an organizer’s ability to achieve any normal amount of work-life balance.
You are asking them to wake up at four in the morning and drive across the state to listen to anti-choicers read bible quotes and compare abortion to the holocaust and slavery–you feel a need to reciprocate and answer all of their phone calls. Even the middle of the night calls. Oh, all of them have your cell phone number too of course. Because you have to be so available as an organizer, it can be easy to slip into a sense of guilt in trying to fulfill all of your volunteers’ needs. At the end of the day, your goal is to reach your deliverables, not to be best friends with all of your volunteers and answer their every call. On the other hand, some of my best friends have at some point been my volunteer coordinator or vice versa. Everyone has a different balance and boundaries–so work on finding what works for you.
I thought working as a political organizer was “glamorous” or “cool.” It isn’t.
Yes, there are some amazing perks, but the day to day is usually best described as a cluster-f or hot mess, as I like to say. I have had the pleasure to meet many of my icons and be engaged in historic events, but usually I am too busy worrying about where my volunteers are, getting my reporting done on time, and layering my clothes appropriately so I don’t sweat or freeze to death to ever appreciate it at the moment. While I get to do some pretty strange and interesting things as part of my job, at the end of the day it is a job.
Even when working at a mission-based organization, I still find myself in situations that challenge my professional ethics.
I guess this should be obvious, but for some reason I thought simply taking the “profit” piece out of your organization would fix all organizational challenges. Nope, instead you get a whole different set of organizational challenges. What works best for me is developing strong mentors and peers who I trust and respect and talking through the issues I face with them. If anything, the organizational or ethical problems I see in the nonprofit world motivate me to work harder. The work we are doing is so important to me–we need to strive to be better so we can do more good. Sometimes that means pointing out ethical and organizational failures of your own beloved organization.
Social justice work is a marathon, not a sprint.
This was the hardest pill for me to swallow. In our work everything feels, and truthfully is, urgent. Oh my god, if I don’t stay here 30 minutes more and write this email, no one in Ohio will ever be able to access abortion again. This is an actually thought I really had. The pace of political work makes me question my values, stamina, and commitment. The reality is, the well being of all people does not rely solely on me, and when I push myself too hard I end up crashing and getting burned out. While it is taking some time for me to live this principle, I constantly work to remind myself of it every day.
It is deeply rewarding
My proudest moments as an organizer have been seeing my former volunteers step up as leaders in other social justice fields. My former interns are now field organizers themselves supporting progressive issues, and working at public health organizations. Nothing is more special than seeing your friendship and guidance help expand our movement. I try to remind myself every day that it is a privilege to be able to live my values every day through my career. Some days are hard. Some days are really hard. Others are just, well, weird. All in all I wouldn’t have it any other way.