Shut Out: How Community Organizing is Losing Young People

I originally wrote a completely different post that was my typical whining about why more young people don’t go into grassroots organizing.  I decided to scrap it and start over.  I often accuse my generation of wanting the immediate feel-good of direct service and charity, the socially-accepted professionalism of law and government, the comfortable removed intellectualism of academia and think tanks.  But after reflecting on it for a bit, I decided to set down my glass of haterade and re-examine the barriers within the nonprofit sector that actively keep young people from working as community organizers.  I think that’s a more constructive conversation to have.

I wanted to write about this because I’m becoming painfully aware of how much my employer struggles to fill organizing staff positions.  Yet at the same time I know so many unemployed and underemployed young people.  What’s the problem?  Wasn’t Obama supposed to inspire a whole generation of kids to become community organizers when they grew up or something?  Maybe it’s time for me to stop blaming my generation and start talking about the root of the problem and real solutions.

What’s the problem?

We’re reaching a dangerous time in America’s social movements.  The veterans who run many of our organizations cut their teeth as young people in the 60’s and 70’s at the height of progressive activism.  Today many of them are on the verge of retiring or already doing so.  To keep alive the organizations built by the blood, sweat and tears of those who came before us, we’re all going to have to step up.  Yet as we reach an era with perhaps more potential for progressive change than any other since the 60’s, opportunities for the next generation of movement leaders are limited.

More than anything, there’s a need for organizers on the ground.  No social movement has ever succeeded without organizing people.  You can have brilliantly crafted policy and flawless legal arguments but without heat in the streets, there is no movement.  Power responds only to power.  And without money power, people power is all we have.

So what would I do if I was a young person looking to get into this type of work?  Obviously go to Idealist.org, like any other do-gooder who doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing.  So I did that.  I searched for “organizer” and filtered by “Entry-level position” anywhere in the US.  I only came across 72 hits and after reading through them, almost none of them were what I would classify as organizing.  Most involved providing charitable services or doing administrative work.

Generally the vast majority of community organizer job postings I see require 2-3 years of experience.  But where we’re supposed to get those 2-3 years of experience I have no idea.

Why are so few organizer jobs entry-level? 

Most community organizing nonprofits, like mine, are relatively small local groups in a particular city or region.  They don’t really have the capacity to train people who don’t already know what they’re doing.  There’s no Human Resources department, no instruction manual, no large cohort of new employees fresh out of school you can train all at once every year.  And in a tough field like grassroots organizing where people often work for a year or two before realizing they can’t make the cut, nobody wants to take risks on people.  Even worse, when an organizer leaves the job, it severs many of the relationships they built in the community, and some members/leaders leave with them.

Unlike for-profit corporations, nonprofits can’t raise money by selling stock to investors who want to take a risk with the promise of future gains.  It’s hard for nonprofits to take the long view and investing in young talent just isn’t worth it in the short-run.  And as much as we like to think we operate as broader social movements, we really operate as individual organizations out for ourselves.  Why pay to train someone who’s probably going to be working for some other organization five years from now?

What’s out there for a young aspiring organizer?

Opportunities for people who want to start organizing usually lie with large national groups that have the scale necessary to train lots of new staff.  For example larger unions like SEIU and AFSCME, faith-based community organizing networks like PICO and DART, or the PIRGs and their broader Public Interest Network.  At one point ACORN was probably the biggest trainer of new organizers, but they’re gone now.  And unfortunately, labor unions, faith-based community organizing groups, and the PIRGs are all shrinking.  Some important training programs like the Center for Third World Organizing (CTWO) have also shrunk significantly from their former reach.

The other option that fills job postings for people looking to enter social movement work is as a canvasser doing grassroots fundraising.  Of course they’re willing to take a risk on us when our job description includes raising our own salary.  What is there to lose?  Although canvass offices provide a point of entry for countless young people into activist work, they have high turnover since many people find the work somewhat unpleasant.  Canvassing also teaches a limited skill set: canvassers get great at making initial contact with other people and getting them involved at a basic level, but never learn how to build relationships, develop leaders and deepen their commitment.

Of course the biggest advocacy groups in the country really do have the money to invest in young people if they wanted to.  (Think the Sierra Club, ACLU, Planned Parenthood, the Human Rights Campaign, etc.).  But they typically don’t do much grassroots organizing or hire significant amounts of organizing staff.  They prefer to contract with canvass offices to build their membership.

Don’t my endless hours of activism in college count for anything?

Often when young activists finish school, we find the social justice organizations we want to work for don’t take our student activism seriously as real work experience.  It’s devastating to those of us who poured our hearts into this work, while struggling to balance our activism with paid jobs and studying.  But it might be justified.  Most campuses have little to no opportunities to work with well-organized groups that have experienced organizing staff who can serve as mentors.  Many of the best and brightest young activists are sucked into the black hole of student government.  Student activists often graduate with lots of experience planning workshops and movie nights and speaker panels but few of the tangible skills required to win a real issue campaign.

At best, many organizations that claim to do campus organizing will have one staff person assigned to tons of campuses across a whole region, so they spend little time on the ground building relationships, developing leaders, and investing in their skills.  Movement organizations aren’t willing to seriously invest in students while they’re in school, so young people don’t gain the skills they want.  Then young people don’t have the skills they want, so they’re not willing to take the risk to hire them.

So after graduation, many student activists end up unemployed or underemployed.  Maybe we do Peace Corps or Teach for America because even though those organizations are deeply flawed, at least they want us, and kind of stalk us a little bit, which is nice I guess.  Or we end up working in government or charity nonprofits or going back to grad school.  Or slaving away at some dead-end low-wage job just like the people who write all those obnoxious articles scoffing at humanities majors said we would.  Or with a sigh we acknowledge that our parents were right all along and that our pipe dreams of fighting for justice and equality were unrealistic, and we should just settle down and work as a desk-monkey at some faceless corporation and one day buy a house with a white picket fence and a golden retriever.  Either way, a critical opportunity to become an organizer has been missed.

Is there a solution?

Here’s the point I’m trying to make:  We need more young people to become organizers.  But a lack of young people wanting to be organizers isn’t the problem.  (At least not the whole problem.)  There are tons of young people already out there with the right personality type and natural talent who would be willing to give this work a shot and might become badass organizers if seriously given the opportunity.  Here are my recommendations on how to provide those opportunities:

1.  Invest in on-the-ground organizers who spend quality time at high schools, community colleges, and universities.  Tap into the young activists who want to contribute to your work, help them develop tangible skills, and build relationships with the youth you’ll need to staff up your organization someday.  Sure, not all organizations have interest or expertise in youth organizing.  But then why not give some funding to a local organization that does directly work with youth to plug their members into your campaigns? (Side note: Someone should start a nonprofit that specializes in student organizing and contracts with all the big progressive advocacy groups in the country to organize student activists around their issues.)

2.  If you have interns, give them real responsibilities that are the type of things you expect incoming junior staff to already know how to do.  Think: if I hired this person in two years, what skills would I need them to have?  Yes, sometimes you just need help databasing sign-in sheets from your events.  And yes, sometimes it takes longer to train someone how to do something and clean up the mess when they fuck up than to just do it yourself.  But if you view interns as long-term investments in future staff rather than short-term exploited labor who you’ll never see again, you might find that the benefits eventually outweigh the costs.

3.  Link temporary training opportunities to permanent job opportunities.  Develop organizer-in-training programs that allow you to both train and assess people, reducing the risk of hiring entry-level staff.  But make sure those programs have the possibility of a real job at the end of them.  This is probably the most difficult one to implement:  Where’s the budget to pay these people?  Who’s going to supervise them?  In large cities, community organizations and unions could pool resources and hire someone to run an organizer-in-training program that plugs a cohort of students into local campaigns every summer and then pipelines them into whatever job openings are in the area when they graduate.  In a less urbanized environment like where I work, there might not be enough organizations to do that, but on the flip side, if we train local organizers, we directly reap most of the benefits because they don’t have many other places to work except for us.

This might all seem like a lot of money to spend on a bunch of wayward millenials who might quickly change their minds and decide they don’t want to work for you after all.  But that’s the nature of investing in the future.  Sometimes it pays off, sometimes it doesn’t.  Here’s one way to make it more likely to pay off:  If you’re spending all the time and money to grow your own staff, don’t be afraid to recruit them aggressively.  Big corporations give out free Chipotle burritos at their info sessions at college campuses.  Teach for America literally hires student interns whose job is to recruit other students.  But if you’ve been intentionally working with young people, you don’t need any of that—you have direct relationships—take them out to lunch and say “Hey, what do you think about working for us when you graduate?”  The reality is, most young people don’t know what the fuck we’re doing with our lives and could probably use the help thinking it through.

I’ll admit I understand the problem more than I understand the solution.  What I do know is this:  If our movements are going to survive, our organizations will need to take the long view and intentionally invest in a comprehensive pipeline that provides meaningful roles in our movements for young people.

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9 comments

  1. cofairshare

    You pose some good, thought-provoking questions that I, as a 24 year old organizer, have often asked myself. I agree with you that we need more young people to get into organizing, but you’re wrong in thinking that there aren’t good, entry-level organizing jobs out there. I am working right now to recruit the 2014 inaugural class for Change Corps, a one-year intensive, dive-in and learn-by-doing academy for young people looking to get into organizing! Check it out and spread the word http://changecorps.org/

  2. Justin

    Great post, and lots of great questions. You highlight an important gap in the road to professional organizing, and I’d say an important gap in organizing in general. Lots of groups (especially in the climate movement, which is home base for me) focus on *mobilizing* and *event organizing* and miss the value of building relationships and training members.

    Justin

  3. Jason Fedorow

    The job postings requiring experience are posted by managers that do not know what they are doing. An organization that is reaching its potential works with in its community. Managers/ executives practice directing work to staff and volunteers from the community. Practicing work develops credibility and loyalty within the community. Identifying other communities with common interests, practicing sharing work, develops credibility and loyalty in a region…. A person with years of experience in a different community will need years to build connections in the new community… Your managers are the barrier… they are practicing a model that has been failing for 30 years.

  4. Ex PIRGER

    Having worked at CALPIRG as a campus organizer I’ve got to say I don’t think there’s anything more detrimental to getting youth involved in politics than the sort of actions I saw at the PIRGS. Absolutely no investment in their employees/interns – bully and push them along and get the next one when the last one’s spent. They’re burning out a generation of people who want to make a difference and they leave disgusted. The PIRGS acted like they were the be-all-and-end-all in activism. They have a huge presence. And they’re jokes.

    • Current PIRGer, 10 years strong, started as an intern in college

      Case in point – ” And in a tough field like grassroots organizing where people often work for a year or two before realizing they can’t make the cut, nobody wants to take risks on people. ” That’s cool, it’s not for everyone.

      On the contrary, PIRG alum are some of the most active members of this generation – from the writer of the blog you’re commenting on (also a CALPIRG alum) to the President. From the NYT –

      “Gene Karpinski, then executive director of U.S. PIRG, a federation of state watchdog groups, met Mr. Obama in Boston. It was at the time of the 2004 Democratic convention, when Mr. Obama delivered the speech that made him a party luminary. Mr. Karpinski introduced himself. And, he recalled, Mr. Obama told him: “I used to be a PIRG guy. You guys trained me well.””

      http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/30/us/politics/30obama.html?pagewanted=print&_r=0

  5. Jordan Romanus

    ACORN is still around, they just don’t run as a national nonprofit. Action United (Pittsburgh & Philly) and Action Now (Chicago) to give you just a few examples. There are around ten post-ACORN groups still around – mostly in the big cities. They still do a lot of training too.

  6. Monica Christoffels

    Great post – captured a lot of how I’m feeling right now with various nonprofits I’ve been involved with (and just the nonprofit sector in general). I would also offer that organizations should also look to youth who may already be organizers but who aren’t in the “traditional” college/professional arena – to go beyond their established member base and seek out communities they’ve historically counted out (or just haven’t reached out to yet).

  7. willgflo

    Please oh please check out http://www.CDtech.org. there are 2 programs that help people go through this career path. ComPlan or community planning is one of them. This one actually helps you get an AA from LATTC in community planning. Most programs are for the bachelor degree level but this is a different alternative. The other program is called LACOA Los Angeles Community Organizing Academy. This program goes through CDTech directly but you take classes at CDTech. This is a one semester cohort program that might lead into internship opportunities. We also help people stay up to date with employment opportunities by being added to our list serve and network. I had no idea this org existed before but it has been evolving and blossoming. Check them out and tell me what you think. We are also on face book. CDTech 🙂

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