15. More Career Advice

Here are some more tips. . . .

4. If You Don’t Want to Be a Full-Time or even a Part-Time Activist Then Don’t!

If you can’t, or won’t, be a full-time activist, don’t worry about it. I only ask that you not drop out of activism entirely. A few hours of hands-on activism a month, even if it’s “just” writing letters, is good for the planet and good for you. But if you can’t even spare those few hours, then it’s perfectly OK just to write checks. Some people might judge you for that, but I sure wouldn’t; money is necessary to the success of every activist venture.

There is no one right way to be an activist, and anyone who tries to tell you there is, or who calls you a sell-out, is not only wrong, but probably speaking out of their own confusion, conflict and unhappiness. The truth is, we need progressive values represented everywhere: in every segment of society, every geographic region, every industry and every government organization. Someone who works daily to promote progressive values in a non-activist milieu might even wind up having a bigger impact than someone who works full-time as an activist. As I write this, in summer 2005, a big news story is winding down about Microsoft Corporation, which had caved to pressure from the Christian Right and reneged on its longstanding support for a bill under consideration in the Washington state legislature banning discrimination against gays and lesbians in housing, employment and insurance. Internal activists (employees), as well as outside ones, applied weeks of pressure, and Microsoft eventually returned to its former stance in support of the bill.

Microsoft is a hugely influential company—a bellwether, really—and I predict that, in the fight against bigotry in America and elsewhere, this victory will one day be considered pivotal. Microsoft’s gay employees and allies, simply by being located within Microsoft and being willing to take a brave public stand for their values, played a key role in that victory. Who can say that their time would have been better spent working full-time for an activist organization?

If you do decide to pursue a non-activist career, do it without guilt or shame, and go after success aggressively. I hope you will make a lot of money that you can use to live a life congruent with your values, and donate generously to progressive causes. I also hope you will be an effective ambassador for progressive values in whatever milieu you find yourself in. In the end, your donations and “diplomacy” could yield as great, or greater, a result than any full-time activism you might have done.

5. When Looking for Non-Activist Work, Don’t Undersell Yourself

In Why Are Artists Poor?, Abbing points out that many artists continue to struggle to have a professional art career long after they are burned out on art. They do that, he says, because they don’t know what else to do with themselves—or, more precisely, because they don’t think they are fit to do anything other than art.

Many of the activists I talk to feel the same way. They have been immersed in activism for so long that they have no idea what else they could do, and are too intimidated to even try to apply for a serious non-activist job. And so, they grind along with their activism—often in a half-hearted, burned-out, ineffectual way—getting more and more miserable.

These activists, in my view, are selling themselves short. Activists in general tend to be the kinds of informed, clever, creative and self-motivated people that many employers like to hire. Many activists, in fact, have technical and interpersonal experience and skills that make them desirable candidates for a wide range of jobs. So, if you are sick of activist work, but don’t know what else to do with yourself, consult some of the career-related resources mentioned in number 2 in the previous chapter, and don’t be afraid to push the envelope and see where, outside of activism, your skills and talents can take you.

6. Whether Your Career is in Activism or Some Other Field, Move as Far Up the Hierarchy as Possible

Aim high.

The reasons are simple: the higher you go, the better off both you and your movement will be. At a higher level, you will get paid more and have more interesting and fun work. You will also have more of an opportunity to influence others.

Aiming high means planning high. It generally begins with getting the highest level of education you can. Don’t stop at a B.A. when you can get an M.S.W., M.Ed., M.B.A., M.P.A. or law degree. Don’t stop at those degrees if you can get a marketable doctorate. Try not to take too big a break, or any break at all, in between these steps; statistically, many people who take long breaks from school wind up never returning. (If you absolutely hate the idea of going to graduate school, then feel free to ignore this advice, since there’s no point in going to school if you’re not going to be motivated.)

The question naturally arises: how do you pay for this expensive degree? Assuming your family can’t or won’t help out, there are more options than you might think:

• Go part-time. All around you, people are working their way through graduate school a course or two at a time. Most would probably prefer to attend full-time, but they recognize that attending even part-time is way better than not getting the advanced degree at all.

• Attend a community college or other inexpensive college. While prestige degrees undoubtedly open many doors, just having a degree from an accredited school, even if it’s not in the Ivy League, is often enough to help you move up the hierarchy.

• Work for a university. They usually aren’t the highest-paying employers, but they often offer free or discounted classes to their employees. Even many non-university employers offer a tuition reimbursement benefit, so seek out one who does.

• Take out a loan. Most student loans offer a very low rate of interest, and financial advisors therefore tend to see them as a good strategy. If you’re going to go into debt, however, be sure to have a concrete career goal in mind that will allow you to both live comfortably and pay back the debt.

Once you’re out of school and working, take your career advancement seriously. Figure out which leadership role you want—it doesn’t have to be at the very top of the organization, but it should be at a level where you get to interact with, and influence, many people within and outside your organization, and where you have control over at least some money and other resources. Next, figure out how you are going to get there. And next, work on getting there. Throughout your professional life, continue to educate yourself; consult mentors and others who can advise and support you; and work assiduously to overcome any personal or professional barriers to your success.

Of course, whether you work for a progressive organization or not, moving up the ladder inevitably involves ethical and other compromises. In his classic activist text Rules for Radicals (see Bibliography), Saul Alinsky tells how, for many years, the graduating class at a local seminary used to visit him to ask his advice. One year, the class asked him how they could maintain their progressive values while operating within the conservative culture of the Catholic Church. Alinsky writes: “That was easy. I answered, ‘When you go out that door, just make your own personal decision about whether you want to be a bishop or a priest, and everything else will follow.’”

So, let me modify my advice: move as far up the ladder as you can without unacceptably compromising your values. But be very clear what your values are and what constitutes “compromise.” Sticking to a low-level position out of laziness or obstinacy does neither you nor your movement any good.

7. Don’t Start a Business Simply as a Way of Earning a Living

Some activists, and especially those with art, construction, programming and other skills, think they can beat the system by starting a small or freelance business. The thinking, which is shared by many non-activists, is that they’ll be able to earn money doing the work they want to do and doing it on their own terms: flexible hours, no boss, no long commute, etc. And think how much time there’ll be left over for activism!

As someone who has coached hundreds of people in entrepreneurship, I can assure you that it usually doesn’t work that way. Business is way harder than it looks, and it is way harder than most jobs. If your business is like most, you will wind up working fifty or more hours a week, mostly on marketing, sales, bookkeeping and management. And for all of this work and stress, your take-home pay will likely be minimal and/or erratic, at least for the first few years.

If business were your priority, then it might make sense to make these kinds of sacrifices. But if activism is your priority, then what’s the point? Far better to get a job with a fixed salary and benefits, and leave the management headaches and long workweeks to your boss.

There are two exceptions to this rule:

• If you happen to be the kind of talented and lucky graphic designer, construction worker, etc., (a) whose skills are in constant demand, (b) who can command a lot of money for those skills, and (c) is a disciplined time and money manager, then you might, just might, be able to pull off entrepreneurship. If not—if you are constantly scrounging and scraping for work, not to mention begging people to pay you for work you’ve already done, or if you can’t seem to manage your time or money well—then I think you should give entrepreneurship a pass and go out and get a job. Many of my students took this advice after years of struggling as a freelancer and were much happier as a result.

• If you want to build a business based on progressive values, such as a green, organic or fair-trade business, that’s terrific. Just be sure you understand the degree of hard work required for such a venture to succeed. Also remember that, even in a progressive business, profit must rank very high among your priorities, a reality that often mandates difficult compromises.

For more clarity on this issue, discuss your entrepreneurial plan with mentors who have built businesses themselves. They should help you understand the pros and cons of entrepreneurship, and whether you are suited to it.

8. Don’t Start a Nonprofit Organization Unless It’s a Necessary Strategy for Advancing Your Cause

Often, when doing activism, you want to call yourself by an organizational name just so you look more serious and professional. Three activists who decide to call themselves The Downtown Centerville Fair Housing Coalition, for instance, are likely to be taken far more seriously than if they had just presented themselves as three concerned individuals.

But should the activists choose to legally incorporate and register as a 501(c)(3) charitable organization (a.k.a. nonprofit corporation)? That’s a tougher call. The minute you legally incorporate, you add a lot of paperwork and management chores to your workload, including complex tax filings and mandatory board meetings. (And the incorporation and nonprofit status application processes themselves are a pain.) Sure, you gain fundraising advantages, and possibly some personal financial protection in the event that you get sued because of your activism, but for many activists these advantages won’t be worth the extra time, expense and hassle of legally incorporating. This is especially true because activists can often arrange to do their fundraising and other work under the “fiscal sponsorship” of an existing 501(c)(3) organization that assumes much of the administrative burden.

For more clarity on this complex issue, talk with mentors who have built nonprofit organizations themselves, as well as lawyers and accountants who specialize in helping nonprofits. Foundation officers and other donors are also good people to consult. If you have a donor willing to back your fledgling organization with a grant, that’s a very positive sign, since it means the donor not only has faith in what you are doing, but in you as a manager. If, however, you have no strong connections to the funding community, that’s a strong sign that your professional network is not yet developed enough for you to start your own organization. Use your time as an employee to make some contacts, and also to learn what it really takes to build and run an activist organization.

9. Remember: Your Career Should Be Fun

With everything else we’ve discussed, it is easy to forget one crucial fact: your career should be fun. It’s something you’re going to be devoting a large part of your waking hours to, and so it should be a positive experience.

I’m not saying it should be an ongoing series of parties or laugh-riots; that’s setting the bar too high. I’m only saying that the individual jobs you take should be interesting and pleasant, and the people you work with should also be interesting and pleasant. Otherwise, you’re paying too high a price for your career.

One aspect of this, obviously, is choosing the right career and jobs. But another is cultivating your ability to derive satisfaction from a wide range of circumstances. If you’re the kind of person who has to have a great many needs met before she can feel happy or at ease, then that rigidity is going to cause you problems, not just at work, but in your activism and elsewhere. Far better to be laid-back and adaptable, with the ability to derive happiness from a wide range of circumstances.

This adaptability will open up a much wider range of jobs to you. It will also make building your career, and the rest of your life, much easier.


Referring back to your Money Goals List, plan a career that will fund the lifestyle you outlined in that document. Always keep in mind, when evaluating career options, that there are probably a lot more out there than you are aware of. Don’t be too rigid or narrowly focused! You should also consult a wide range of people, including career counselors, teachers, mentors and family members, for career advice. If you’ve been out of the job market for a while, start preparing yourself for reentry. Put together a good resume and an interview wardrobe. Then go out and interview for a few jobs, just for the practice. Do your best to prepare, but don’t worry if you don’t do well; that’s what practice is for! The goal is to be well prepared for when a position that you really do want opens up.

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