Activist or Professional? A Feminist Question

Features, News

By Bridget Harilaou

In the whirlwind sphere of the non-profit sector, where grants, competitive tender models and the government of the day dictate the capacities of community services, those seeking to support vulnerable people and engage in social change come to an important question: is paid professional work within the constraints of funding bodies and government agendas an effective and ethical strategy?

Work that serves marginalised communities is a political project, centred in the assertion of human rights and human dignity, whether people are homeless, survivors of domestic violence or in the criminal justice system. Yet what are the consequences of taking funding from state and federal governments, whose reach then extends to stipulating the scope, messaging and activities of community work? And what are the political implications of turning resistance into what Arundhati Roy calls ‘a well-mannered, reasonable, salaried, 9-to-5 job with a few perks thrown in’?

Competing against other community services for meagre packets of funding, reporting all activities to government departments and constantly keeping in mind future funding, creates a dynamic in which non-profit organisations are torn between the communities they work for and the agenda of the bodies that fund them. In this way, Roy explains that the true contribution of these organisations is to ‘defuse political anger and dole out as aid or benevolence what people ought to have by right’. Non-profits become services that cannot truly assert the rights of their clients, because their funding bodies force them into an apolitical and dependent relationship with the money that keeps their doors open.

Non-profits become services that cannot truly assert the rights of their clients, because their funding bodies force them into an apolitical and dependent relationship with the money that keeps their doors open.

Moreover, both the people who work in non-profits and the communities they serve lose their momentum as political actors. Everyone involved is pacified by the palatable service the NGO provides instead of fighting the root causes of oppression and political violence from governments, corporations and institutions.

Why, then, is this a feminist question?

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, women represent 84 per cent of workers in community services, which is a significant over-representation considering women make up 46.2 per cent of the total workforce and the underemployment rate for women is 3.9 per cent higher than it is for men. Additionally, the Australian Services Union reports that 75.7 per cent of ‘Interest Group’ workers are women. This clearly illustrates that organisations specifically designed to represent the interests of oppressed people and engage in activism, change-making and government lobbying, are overwhelmingly driven by women. The feminised labour of the non-profit sector brings the issue of the NGO-isation of resistance directly into the purview of the feminist movement.

Feminism, as a social justice ideology and mass social movement, must grapple with the political implications of this question. The tension between paid non-profit work and unpaid activist work does not have a simple solution. Add to this the increasing trend, particularly online, towards feminists requesting people ‘pay’ for the price of being educated and exasperation at demands upon their ‘emotional labour’ – the price of activism seems to be geared more and more towards monetary compensation.

Yes, ignorant people spouting bigotry are often not worth the time and resources needed to educate them or are not engaging in good faith. Yes, discussing capitalism, racism, sexism and oppression can be emotionally draining. This does not mean we should cultivate a culture of disdain for educating others or labour-intensive activist work. If we don’t do it, then who will?

The tension between paid non-profit work and unpaid activist work does not have a simple solution.

Can it really be a feminist position to believe that we require payment for standing up against injustice and doing the physical, emotional and organising work of community-building, anti-oppression education and political resistance?

We are all seeking ways to survive in a capitalist system, to pay our rent, bills and expenses, buy food and live a dignified and meaningful life, but as feminists our ethics must interrogate the ways in which we contribute to exploitation and whether our strategies are the most effective for social change. Individualising the problem of our limited resources or compassion fatigue, and drawing away from others, cannot be the answer.

Vikki Reynolds’ article Resisting Burnout with Justice-Doing puts forward collective ethics and solidarity as the most reliable ways to give us sustainability in care-work and activism: ‘Structuring our understandings of sustainability as a collective task invites us to move in towards other workers, to sustain and support them, to be in solidarity with them, and to lend them our hope for a just society. This is of course reciprocal as we will also be shored up by these others. Solidarity makes the project of our sustainability less daunting and more possible.’

None of this is to take away from community services that do valuable work supporting disadvantaged people and providing them with the vital and urgent needs they have right now. However, the state and federal governments, international organisations and corporations that fund non-profits, and the implicit power dynamic they create, cannot be ignored. The resultant restrictions on what non-profits can do and say without jeopardising their chances at the next round of funding applications, or even as requirements conditional to receiving the contract in the first place, must be confronted.

Can it really be a feminist position to believe that we require payment for standing up against injustice and doing the physical, emotional and organising work of community-building, anti-oppression education and political resistance?

Ultimately, there is no government department or corporation that will fund radical political organising, because organising builds power in community and removes power from authorities. Rallies, strikes, boycotts, grassroots political education, citizen journalism, unionisation, non-violent direct action and meetings to mobilise people into protesting the unjust systems that control our lives cannot be replaced by paid non-profit work.

This kind of politics historically receives violent crackdowns from the state – riot squads are deployed, defamation lawsuits filed, right-wing media frenzies concocted and activists arrested. This is not a coincidence. The stronger the political push for change, the more the establishment fears it.

Women have and continue to be at the forefront of many grassroots social movements, from Grandmothers Against Removals to Me Too, from Black Lives Matter to Palestinian liberation. We nurse the sick and care for the elderly, support survivors of violence and trauma, run refuges and shelters. We advocate for equality and do the work to get there. We are 84 per cent of the people who listen and support those most in need. It is clear that women are the bedrock of community care.

It is therefore our responsibility to ensure our allegiances lie with the people we claim to care for. We owe it to them to take seriously our commitment to social justice, self-critique, growth and effective strategies to community work. The model of paid non-profit work as a predominant approach to combating oppression only creates a toothless tiger, beholden to government restrictions, instead of genuine political resistance to poverty, oppression and capitalist systems that value profit over people.

In the words of Arundhati Roy, ‘Real resistance has real consequences. And no salary.’


Bridget Harilaou is a freelance writer and (conflicted) professional in the non-profit sector. She has a single-minded passion for intersectional social justice and trouble-making (aka activism), and writes extensively about politics and race. You can find more of her work published in The Guardian, Junkee and Djed Press.

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