Recently, I graduated from college and have been reflecting on my experience of balancing classes and my eagerness to fight for social-justice issues. I have participated in organizing community events around campaigns for the last four years on various issues including women’s rights, migrant rights, and labor issues. I am not sure if I was able to perfectly balance work, school, and all of the volunteering I was doing. However, I do feel that organizations were able to take advantage of my passion for social justice, not to mention how naïve I was.
Nonprofit organizations and national campaigns rely on volunteers to create successful movements. Most radical left-wing organizations do not have enough funding to pay for each person’s time to the movement. They usually hire a few individuals to take care of core work positions while relying on volunteers to act as concerned community members and reaching out to other folks. Some of the reasons volunteers are needed in any campaign include creating a good public image, small budgets, and scaring the pants off of key power players who can make the changes we are looking for. It is pretty obvious that the larger the movement is, the more successful it will be.
Most volunteers have lives outside of their organization of choice. Volunteers are real people who have family, work, and school commitments. They also have commitments to self-care. This can look like making sure they get eight hours of sleep or making sure to read a book on their time off. It is the responsibility of the organization to be considerate of time and life commitments the volunteers already have.
During my junior year of college, I decided to work with a labor union in my city. They have created amazing change with workers, however I felt I was bullied into over-committing to the organization. Each volunteer has an organizer they work with directly. The organizer is responsible for keeping the volunteer accountable to the time they have committed. In this structure, volunteers have to verbally discuss how much time they can commit to each week. Many times I struggled with balancing school, work, and the volunteering I was doing. As I struggled with the balance and confided in my organizer, he would tell me I was slacking and needed to commit more time to the cause. If I didn’t achieve the goals or would complain about time, the organizers would tell me I wasn’t committed enough to the issue. I ended up doing terribly that semester.
It is definitely the responsibility of the volunteer to understand what commitments they have and if they can do each one well. The worst thing a young millennial can do is over-commit. For those of you familiar with burnouts, that is exactly what can happen. Burnouts cause young activists and organizers to take long breaks after an intense campaign. After a year with the organization, I burned out for well over a semester. While my experience does not reflect every person’s experience, it is a lesson I learned about being vocal about my needs.
This is my advice to all millennials in search of work experience and movements to be involved in: Volunteering is detrimental to those committed to change in the United States. However, there are ways to do it that respect each person’s life commitments. Before committing to an organization, take a look at the current responsibilities you have and how much time they take. When the organization begins to demand more from you, be realistic and vocal about what you can do. Changing the world can happen but it takes strong and healthy people to make it happen. Do what you need to do to be healthy and strong first. And always remember the Audre Lorde quote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”