Was/am professional activist organizer. Giving it up. Need help.
April 28, 2014 4:05 PM   Subscribe

For the last 7 years or so (since graduating from college), I've been a professional political organizer, essentially, working for progressive movement organizations doing primarily new media/online media/digital work, but also spending time on fundraising, action planning, communications, and a few other things as needed. After a lot of thought and consideration, I'm starting to suspect that I can no longer work as part of the left (or at least, my corner of the US left) and still be emotionally healthy with the stress I deal with all the time. I don't know what to do next.

No big political epiphany on my end, at least not one of the no-longer-a-leftist variety - though perhaps a few on how the left in the US eats itself, how non-profits can easily become a deeply self-destructive place to work, etc.

I'm happy to give details or answer questions on this if folks find it helpful, but I'm beginning to suspect that a. my issues with my workplace are issues I'd find at almost any movement-y organization, and b. that I'm emotionally just not well-suited for this kind of work, no matter how much I believe in it or not - that I'm a hyper-sensitive person who is tired of being beat up by the right (I was involved in a major top story on several major right-wing media outlets a few years ago) and the left (don't get me started) alike. I've spent much of the last seven years thinking I'm about to develop a thick skin for the thanklessness and constant questioning, but it just never ever actually happens.

I also frankly feel like I put in my time on trying to stop the strip-mining of this world - but I can't, in a day-in-day-out professional capacity, totally thanklessly sacrifice myself anymore and get attacked for it. As in, I am genuinely feeling myself burnt out at a profound level. I just can't and won't drive myself to an early grave, or a terminally unhealthy life at the conclusion of which I'll see a world only marginally improved for me having utterly given myself, 24-7, to my work, and not know why I spent my time as I did. (I'm a 29-year-old who has been dealing with more and more health problems in the last year.) I put in my time, and I'm not sure to whom I need to prove anything. I also frankly am having flashbacks to feelings I haven't felt since growing up in an emotionally abusive household. (This earlier question from me might be helpful background.)

But I weirdly feel like I just don't know what to do now.

I still have my current set-up, for the time being. (I need, in the short term, to be employed; I'm the only active wage-earner in a two-person household, where the other person is in the process of attaining an advanced degree so as to practice medicine.)

But I don't know what else to do: I sometimes suspect that my level of skill is sufficient only because of the relative scarcity of online talent in my corner of the US progressive movement. (I'm no coder, or designer, just someone that figured out social media and CRM email best practices for a mid-sized organization.)

I know that I've long wanted to do something creative; I've done improv comedy for fun in the past, and written a few published short stories. (The idea of writing non-fiction, in today's instant-reaction-sphere of social media abuse and a hyper-mean online conversation that never ends, makes my stomach contract and fill with acid.) For much of the last few years, I've worked in a distributed office, where my co-workers are at different places across the country and I only see all of them at once 1-2 times a year - I think that's led to a net negative and a lot of isolation overall.

I don't even know where to start. Even basic things like, I've known folks at the place I work for four years, and don't want to leave them in the lurch. How to combine that with searching for something new?

Or, what should that new thing be? I've fantasized in the past about a job as a barista or bookstore clerk, that I can do and not think about when I get home, that I can leave behind (sorta like this classic Onion article), something not in any explicit way political, but I'm not naive - the difficulty of getting a full-time job where bosses can't move your schedule around at will, ensure you work just under the hours needed to get benefits, the fact that I probably can't do that and be the sole wage-earner in my relationship right now, etc., make it just seem a non-starter. Another fantasy would be Social Media Person for a business/cultural-endeavor I like that is, again, not rife with the kind of emotional tumult of movement work: being Social Media Manager for something like a local movie theater chain or a magazine like Fangoria is an odd, probably totally-unrelated-to-reality fantasy I've had before. (I'm based in Brooklyn if this matters.)

I just don't know. I realize how fraught/anxious/out-of-control this likely looks as a finished post. I'm very good at my job, especially under extremely difficult/constraining circumstances: this post is the release of a lot of longstanding tension and anxiety, and I'm not visibly a wreck at work or anything - but I'm starting to wear very thin.
posted by Ash3000 to Work & Money (17 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: To clarify, this is my question:

I need to move on from my current job/career. Based on the description above of my skills and needs (paying rent, not being stressed out all the time), and the fact that I don't feel capable of continuing on in a political activist job, what kinds of jobs should I look at? How do I find them? What about looking while continuing said job, and the etiquette/ethics around handling that correctly?
posted by Ash3000 at 4:12 PM on April 28, 2014

Do you know of anyone who has left your type of job - what did they do?

Given your background, have you thought of working in advancement/fundraising? Yes, there can be stress in this job, but, depending on the organization, it is much more manageable stress. It would definitely pull from your skill set of communicating with people, and being able to work around a cause. There are often opportunities to be creative, such as when designing campaigns.
Some schools/universities have communications offices that might be also a nice fit.
In my experience, there is constant demand for people who will work in advancement/fundraising capacities for organizations.

*NB I haven't personally worked in these types of jobs, but have friends who have. Take this all with a grain of salt and some informational interviews.

It sounds like you have been working really hard despite all of the challenges you've been dealing with. Best of luck with things.
posted by troytroy at 4:24 PM on April 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

hey! congratulations on coming to this realization. a totally less stressful life can be yours, and will be yours! that's the best. you don't need to work yourself to death to do good work in the world.

i found your question very difficult to read, because it is so filled with exhaustion and trauma. i am not trying to be critical, only to point out that the feelings of burnout and overwhelmedness that you are talking about might impair your ability to make an easy jump from professional activist to whatever-it-is that you will do next, because you might have problems communicating what you want and what you need to people. this is temporary, don't worry!

i did a job that left me feeling something very similar to how it seems like you are feeling. things that helped me were:

- a period of time where i did very little work and got lots of body work (try massage schools or acupuncture schools or whatever schools, they are cheaper). i totally hear you say you have to keep working. do you have emergency savings? this sounds very close to an emergency. take a month off? switch your stressful job for a paper route or working at a grocery store? barista is a good one. you can make decent money doing this - it isn't forever, just for a moment.

- interviewing with people i respected in a field i wanted to be in. NOT TO GET A JOB but to find out how they got to where they were in the world. it is going to be hard for you not to ask for a job, but truly, just get inspired about how someone else got where they are. it's totally a good thing and people are happy to tell you how they got to where they are, especially when there is no hidden ask. they might be willing to connect you with something useful. don't make them the gatekeeper.

- don't forget that you know how to make something out of nothing. activist-y jobs are full of multiple hat-wearing scenarios. you have more skills than you think.

- when i sat down to plan the rest of my life after that too-stressful job i had, i decided i wanted control over my schedule, not to be at a desk all day, to determine the conditions of my labour, to make enough per hour that i didn't have to work one million hours a week, and to make the world a better place. i am now an osteopath. this is the perfect job for me (but way too much school for most people). have you thought about body work of some sort? it is a helping profession, but the stress of the job is left behind at the end of the day, and when someone doesn't like you, they don't come back. DREAM JOB. have you thought about massage, or acupuncture or rolfing or bowen technique or alexander technique or something? on the one hand, yes, you'll have to go back to school. but on the other, if you pick your career right, you might only need to do a few month course. that's not forever. and then you can start your job right away. maybe this is the wrong job for you but think along the lines of "how do i want my life to be" and then find yourself a job like that. trades are often this kind of job - tiling, plumbing, esthetician, etc. short training, relaxing job.

good luck! you will make the change and you will be so happy that you did it.
posted by andreapandrea at 4:46 PM on April 28, 2014 [5 favorites]

Oh honey, I completely understand where you're coming from. I know lots of people who have reached a similar level of burnout at around the same age - myself included. Don't let anyone make you feel bad for getting out with your mental health still somewhat intact.

Have you looked into doing social media or communications for a non-profit that operates in a less antagonistic environment? Of course you can find controversy anywhere if you look hard enough, but there are still some organisations - particularly within the health field - where the message is quite simple and there is no significant opposition to the cause. In many disease-specific charities, for example, the message is basically, "Hey, this disease is crappy, so please give us money for research and treatment. Also, here are some people we helped; we're all really grateful for your support". This isn't the case for all diseases, of course - people will argue to the death about how best to treat or prevent HIV and cancer - but there isn't say, a Pro Spina Bifida Lobby, or an Against Treatment for Childhood Leukaemia Foundation. Also, many health charities do the bulk of their policy-related campaigning at a national level, while state and regional organisations mostly work on fundraising and service delivery. If you can find a role at a state or regional organisation, you may be able to focus on fundraising events and good news stories while your national colleagues handle all the pointy advocacy issues like drug development or government funding.

Also, why not pitch your skills to the movie theatre chain and other local businesses that you feel your values align well with? They might not need someone full-time, but if you could pick up a couple of regular freelance gigs, you might be able to support yourself while also having a bit of time to decompress and start enjoying life again.

Hang in there. I can vouch for the fact that life is much, much better on the other side of burnout :)
posted by embrangled at 4:54 PM on April 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

This is an extremely common situation. Activist jobs burn through people very fast. The people who stick around are often kind of disfunctional from years of being underpaid and seeing their movements go nowhere.

After many years at non-profits, I did what a lot of former non-profit workers and activists do: I got into a service profession. I'm a nurse, but teacher, academic, therapist, and other "helping" professions are common among those of us who want to make the world a better place but also would like to receive health benefits.

It sounds like you're drawn to creative work, which is also common, but hard to make a living at. Consider making creativity your hobby and not your income. Or, you could go to the dark side and get into advertising.
posted by latkes at 5:11 PM on April 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I know someone who is ED of a green space non-profit, would something like that appeal to you? My husband has also worked for non-profits that promote the arts (his personal interest). One year, he got to put on a concert with a musician celebrity.

Have you thought of going into those sorts of organizations, the sort of, yes, things need to be done and we're doing them in an uplifting way types?

Think there are some green space groups in NYC, as this person was employed over there before he went to another city.

I did political volunteering for a while, and I agree, it's brutal. Not for me (I was a theater person in college, and a musician before that). But I really find groups that do positive endeavors to be uplifting and refreshing, arts, gardening and green space, theater, as you mentioned. My husband was working for a music lending library, and he had regular office hours, and only had to do events a few times per year. It was really well run, with a great director and assistant director, a slew of volunteers, and very low key (in fact, all the little old ladies loved him).

In regards to social media: look at industry organizations that appeal to you. I know a lady who promotes cheese, for example. Surely there must be CSA's or other groups that might need social media experts. There is a group for every thing that is produced.

I'm sure there are so many places who would love to have your skills and sensitivity, and not tear you down every day. Activism is so, so hard, I agree. If you can find something you would be willing to promote that wouldn't clash with your personal ideals, maybe you could find peace and happiness doing that.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 5:20 PM on April 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh, God, no advice, but I coulda written this question… I'm fine with activism, I could just use a place that has the resources and management structure to not be a constant stress ball.

What I've been playing with is just getting better at learning java and javascript, and after that probably learning a bit more about database administration. At least if I keep learning things, I don't feel like I'm as stuck.
posted by klangklangston at 5:28 PM on April 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

run for office? your experience already makes you as qualified as the average state legislator. i'd say law school, but you know what that market is like, and at least if you jump into a cesspit instead, it doesn't take you three years to get out.
posted by bruce at 6:15 PM on April 28, 2014

I've had a number of Save The World jobs over the years. I could only do them for so long before I burned out. The toxic culture that sometimes develops in cause-based organisations doesn't help either. My strategy now is to give myself breaks in between periods of saving the world, and it sounds like you might need to do the same.

So my advice would be [threefold]

Part 1: give yourself a break by spending 6 months doing a job that you don't care about and where work stays at work. That job is just to pay the rent and feed yourself while you recover, get some perspective, and move into a mental space where you can think more about what you do next.

Part 2: write yourself a list of all the things that your ideal job would have. Don't name the job, just characterise it. For example, it might be one that involves working with people, has a positive workplace culture, involves creative problem-solving and isn't too far from home. Making this list will open your eyes up to jobs you might not have thought about, when they come along.

Part 3: do some thinking about your values. What matters to you? A job or workplace where you have a values mismatch isn't going to work out. Write yourself a values statement and put it with the list from part 2.

Once you've done those three things, you're better placed to go looking for your next long-term career move.

If you still feel the pull of the US left but don't want to work in the sorts of organisations you're in now, one option might be to think about the things that the US left does badly and set yourself up as a small business or as part of an existing business to help them get better at those (for example, is their social media terrible? Are their press releases poor? Are their media presentation skills appalling? Are they hopeless at playing a long-term game?). You already have the contacts and the know-how.
posted by girlgenius at 6:58 PM on April 28, 2014 [5 favorites]

This is the progression as I understand it. As organizers burn out, they step up a level and manage a small team of organizers for a larger organization (or otherwise become manager-level staff). As these managers burn out, they take their campaign strategy and prioritization skills over to foundations to help them effectively spend their funds.

I hear that you want to get out entirely, and I totally understand that. But consider if you don't just need to get off the front lines. These managers and foundation staff tend to work 40 hour weeks. (And, having now read your last question, consider if you don't want to work on an issue you don't care as much about.)

Another option is to work for consulting companies. There are firms who specialize in campaign communications, and I'm sure your social media skill would be welcome there. But my perception is that the hours and pace can be more intense.
posted by slidell at 9:34 PM on April 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

From above, fundraising and social media for NGOs working in less contentious environments are both also good ideas.
posted by slidell at 9:38 PM on April 28, 2014

Response by poster: Just want to say how much I appreciate the enormous amount of wisdom and compassion being sent my way in this thread. I sort of wrote the original post at an emotional breaking point, shortly (i.e. a few minutes) after I realized a. I need to do something different and b. I have no idea what to do with that realization. Thank you.

All the advice and links thus far are great. One thing I'm thinking about in particular that I perhaps should have written more about in my post: the ethics/practical considerations of looking for a new job while trying to keep the old one, for a well-intentioned group of people you've worked closely with for a while? I guess to a certain extent there's no way to paper over that a. I don't want an employment gap, and b. that means just plain leaving at some point, albeit maybe with 2-4 weeks notice. (I guess?)

But any thoughts on how to juggle that would be great - along with all the already incoming good thoughts on what to do next, how to find it, how to take care of myself in this context, etc. etc.
posted by Ash3000 at 8:22 AM on April 29, 2014

One thing I'm thinking about in particular that I perhaps should have written more about in my post: the ethics/practical considerations of looking for a new job while trying to keep the old one

There are no ethical issues with interviewing for other jobs while keeping your current one. Possibly leaving people in the lurch right before a major deadline would be a poor move, but these situations are rare. Even in the midst of a major political campaign, a couple people I knew got fired about a month before the election, and if the campaign was able to handle things without them around, clearly they could have handled someone quitting around the same time. In any case, assuming you will give 2 weeks notice, there is likely little that you can't transition to your coworkers within that framework to assure a smooth transition.

As a practical consideration, try to schedule interviews on Fridays or Mondays to make it look like you're taking 3-day weekends. Times you can schedule leaving early or coming in late while talking with other employers helps, too. Take a late/early "lunch" to step out of the office to do your phone interviews.
posted by deanc at 8:36 AM on April 29, 2014

Social media marketing or online marketing for a for-profit company.

Customer engagement or online engagement manager for a for-profit company or non-profit company.
posted by amaire at 9:04 AM on April 29, 2014

I am completely, completely you. Please feel free to memail.

What I've found is that transitioning from political activist to social service nonprofits can be quite rewarding - and also shocking in how much you are a) skilled, and b) healthier. The dynamics are so much better all around.

Start looking now, and offer to assist on a volunteer basis with brief emergencies for a short time after your two weeks if you want to not burn them, but otherwise, just look for you.
posted by corb at 10:10 AM on April 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

You mention social media work for cultural orgs. I've helped with social media for artists and arts orgs and oh man they could use the help. Pretty chill environment. Check them out and ask :)
posted by divabat at 2:58 PM on April 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Just spotted this job listing: Sierra Club online organizer
posted by slidell at 11:54 AM on May 1, 2014

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