[This article was originally published in DIVA’s July 2017 issue. Read my latest column in DIVA, on sale now at divadigital.co.uk]
Each month, we DIVA columnists are given a topic which we can, if we’d like, use as a springboard idea for writing our piece. This issue it was ‘career’ – and I was stumped. I’ve never really had a career; my years have been filled with the types of paid jobs you take to tide you over until you earn enough to move on, you hope, to something more exciting and fulfilling. Certainly nothing I could class as a structured profession. Sorry, Mum.
Except… maybe I’m wrong about that. As an activist who has been campaigning for a decade or so now on LGBTQ+, mental health and gender equality issues, I often forget that just because activists and campaigners do what we do for a cause we believe in doesn’t mean we aren’t doing real work. Even if society often treats it as such.
Political activism, in all of its glorious grassroots forms, is frequently chalked up as a folly of youth to be ritually sacrificed at the bloody alter of corporate employment. We exist in an environment where ‘doing good’ is seen as its own reward, and as such asking for financial recompense for determinedly working towards meaningful societal progress is selfish. This pressure doesn’t just come from onlookers, either. Within activist circles, it’s common to equate for-profit campaigning with the dreaded ‘selling out’.
But the work activists do is real work, and were it done under any other label it would be acknowledged as such. A lot of the work I do, for example, comes down to education — on mental health stigma, LGBTQ+ rights, and on gender equality. This involves giving training sessions, producing original literature, promotion and marketing work, event organisation, volunteer management, and fundraising. And because of this involvement in the activist community, the expertise I have gained via campaigning, and my very personal experiences of the issues I campaign for, I am often asked to share my knowledge of the with those who may never have experienced such issues, but who hold more structural power in society than I do. Journalists, politicians, and executives alike.
Where else in society would you expect to be able to ask someone who has spent years building up and honing their skills to give up their time, share their knowledge and provide guidance and support at no cost? Imagine calling up your local plumber, and asking them to give you a pro bono lesson on how to do their job. Unlikely.
Yet I have it easy compared to countless activists who work tirelessly to campaign for a better future. Many endure a plethora of obstacles and oppressions due to their intersectional identities; whether it’s trans women fighting for equal treatment by the prison system, people of colour demanding justice for victims of police brutality, or those with disabilities protesting against cuts to vital accessibility services, marginalised people often suffer the brunt of society’s disregard for the value of activism.
Don’t get me wrong – activists aren’t asking to be paid for every single gruelling hour spent working for the cause. But when it becomes the job of those already at a disadvantage in society to educate everyone else, it’s important to consider where the line is between participation and unpaid labour. We should also be asking ourselves why we undervalue such work; is it simply because we can afford to, secure in the knowledge that activists and campaigners will continue to fight the good fight because they can’t risk not doing so?
Activism, and the hard-won progress gained thanks to it, will always be more important than it is popular. Perhaps the same can be said about activists themselves. But I want to do what I love, for the communities and causes I love. I also want to be able to pay my bills and buy my groceries. And yes, I even want to be able to pop out for the occasional glass of wine with my friends. I just wish it didn’t feel like an either/or choice.