[I]f you want your activists front and center out there doing the work to combat the Forces of Intolerance and create a better liberal-progressive world, the reality is we need to get paid so we can comfortably live our lives and fight for you full time. ““ Monica, TransGriot
There’s been some controversy over a letter that “disappointed” college student Nonnie Ouch sent to the Dallas Voice about activist Dan Choi’s speaking fee. (The letter is addressed to Choi.)
Since [the National Equality March], I began the arduous journey to get you to speak at my school, Texas Tech University”¦ To me, the mere hope of reaching out to those who meet my words with deaf ears was worth putting up with your agent and the exorbitant amount of $10,000 to get you out here. I never for a moment questioned why it was that much, or why you were charging anything at all.
“¦About a month ago, after nine months of dealing with your agent, I received an e-mail directly from you. In short, you basically said that the only way I could get you to speak is if I raised enough money to bring you to Tech. No deals, no compromises, end of story.
“¦I’ve lost all respect for you as a gay- and human-rights activist”¦You, sir, have lost sight in one of those many $10,000 checks written to you, of why you came out and became an activist in the first place.
ZackFord at Pam’s House Blend and Monica of TransGriot have great posts addressing why this criticism of Choi is unfair, and why we need to support activists getting paid. As a feminist writer/activist who makes the majority of my income from speaking (in fact, sometimes it’s my sole source), I wanted to weigh in. Because this is an issue that goes beyond individual activists’ fees or income sources – it’s about the way we value (or don’t value) activist work. And it’s a problem I’ve seen time and time again within the feminist movement: We’re expected to do the work for free, because if we were really committed, it wouldn’t be about the money. So here are some reasons why we all should support paid activist work…
We don’t want to limit who can speak for our movements: Ouch mentions speakers who travel to events with “their own money.” Zack rightly asks, “Where does that money come from? It seems to me there is an incredible assumption of socioeconomic privilege in that statement. There’s just this expectation that people should have money (from where?) and all the activism should be on them.” If we rely only on speakers that have enough money to pay for their own travel and lodging and those who can take the substantial amount of travel time off to work for free – the only people speaking for social justice will be those with money.
Not all activists are rich: Pam, in Zack’s comments section, mentions the common assumption that well-known activists already have money. In my own case, people sometimes think that because I’ve had books published, I must be rolling in it. For serious, feminist book writing does not make you money. The advances are generally very small, the royalties mostly nonexistent, and you can spend up to two years writing, editing and promoting a book that brings you less than a living wage. All of the authors I know hustle for their income through consulting, freelancing, speaking, and other gigs; the same is true of bloggers, even those of us at highly trafficked sites. For many activists, speaking is our bread and butter: it’s what allows us to blog every day for free, to write books and articles for little to no money, and to tirelessly organize and speak out.
Since Ouch is primarily offended with the fact that Choi’s fee is 10k, I also think it’s worth mentioning that the money is most likely not all going in Choi’s pocket. An agent can take anywhere from 20-30% of that fee, travel and lodging is often deducted, as are taxes. And I’m betting that Choi, like myself and most of the activists I know, also does some events for free.
Our time and labor is worth money: Ouch writes to Choi, “Think about those in Lubbock, Texas, and other cities who couldn’t ‘afford’ you and how you could have changed their lives.” The notion that activists should work for free because we owe it to the movement is common, especially in feminism. (After all, women’s work is often undervalued – by others and by ourselves.) While I understand the frustration students like Ouch must feel when they can’t raise the funds to bring in a speaker who would make a difference in their community, the assumption that activists must forgo payment is simply unfair and unrealistic.
And beyond the basic fact that activists need income too, it’s also important to recognize that this work is hard. Even the speaking is difficult – it’s not glamorous jet-setting. A normal week for me this past Spring involved speaking at two or three schools, taking at least four flights (because there’s no direct flights to smaller towns) in small, uncomfortable propeller planes that – in my first trimester of pregnancy – meant I was throwing up constantly. You don’t stay in shmancy hotels or eat dope, or even good, meals (believe me). And the job is not just about speaking for an hour. You’re doing afternoon workshops, hobnobbing with students and teachers, and just being generally available to your sponsors for the day and most of the evening. Now, these aren’t complaints – speaking on college campuses is my absolute favorite part of the work I do. I get to connect – in real life! – with amazing young activists, see what’s going on with feminism in different parts of the country, and get energized by the work that so many amazing college organizers are doing. But it is still work – hard work – and it is still valuable.
Our activists are not public property: While the vast majority of experiences I’ve had as a public feminist have been amazing – I thank my stars every day that I get to do this work – there are troubling expectations put on well-known activists. We are expected to do things for the “good of the movement” to the detriment of our own personal lives, boundaries, finances and more. We’re expected to write or speak about whatever issue people demand of us at any particular moment (for me, it’s suddenly being expected to talk about motherhood). We’re expected to be constantly accessible by email, Twitter, and Facebook. I just had someone send me a nasty Facebook message, for example, when I suggested they “friend” me at a public fan page rather than my personal account. Again, this work is rewarding and wonderful – and being a professional activist is a privilege in and of itself. But activists like Choi are people – they’re not owned by the movement and they don’t owe us anything.
This is a movement-wide problem: Expecting activists and feminists to work for little to no money isn’t limited to speaking. Anyone who has ever worked in feminist nonprofits knows that the pay is minimal; this is especially true if you’re a younger person or in an entry-level position. Now, low pay for nonprofit work is to be somewhat expected. A lot of organizations, especially smaller ones, don’t have large budgets and struggle for funding. But there are a lot of bigger, mainstream feminist orgs that do have money. And I heard the argument from higher-ups more than once ““ particularly when people were asking for raises ““ that this was about the work, not the money, and that working for peanuts was just “doing your part” for the movement. (Never mind that many high-level employees at these organizations had trust funds and/or rich partners that allowed them to work for the sheer joy of it.) It’s the same argument I hear from feminist orgs and publications that expect bloggers (again, mostly young women) to write for free – that we should be happy to be associated with the movement, and to have access to an audience and to this very important work. The feminist movement’s work is done on the backs of unpaid and underpaid young people, volunteers and interns – and it’s not right.
At the end of the day, it’s about how much feminism is worth to you, and not just in the financial sense. Do we really want to support a system that only allows a privileged few to speak for our movements? Do we want a model of activism that devalues feminist labor, or one that takes it seriously – ideologically and economically? The truth is, if we want a movement whose internal workings mirror our external values, then we need to do everything in our power to ensure that feminist work is valued and that activists’ work is sustainable.