Activism As A Career? Yes, You Can!

August 12, 2015  |  

You find yourself concerned about the course of society, about social issues that plague the community, about making global change. Well, a career in activism could be the direction you might consider. And it’s never too late to enter the field.

In fact, you can study social activism as an undergraduate degree or a masters program. “The key to creating a career in activism is to find ways to bring your beliefs and values into your work,” reports Amherst College, which offers a social activism degree. Their site goes on to say “Just about any career choice can incorporate an element of activism if you are working towards societal change. Combining activism with your career choice may require creativity and resourcefulness on your part. For example, you could be a teacher contributing to activism by teaching your students about environmental, human rights and global issues. As a doctor you could dedicate your career to offering medical services to children in impoverished areas. Or as the director of an employment agency, you might hear your organization’s efforts towards helping homeless people find work.”

There are several other career options that involve  social activism as well, such as law and public policy, social work, and environmental and community organizing.

According to Rashad Robinson, Executive Director of ColorOfChange.org, activism can be a full-time job. But you not only have to have passion for social change, you must be able to fighting multiple battles at a time, be able to recognize trends, be organized and able to organize others, be able to see the bigger picture and plan your battles strategize, be willing to be on call 24 hours a day (social justice never sleeps), and have leadership qualities.

“There are moments that happen in our lives every single day that make us feel angry or sad or happy, and those are organizing moments. They give us the opportunity, if we respond fast enough, to add more people to the movement. We can give people actionable things to do in that moment. Often times those moments are really about cultural presence. They create a presence in our lives and if we don’t pay attention, that’s all they’ll do is create awareness,” Robinson told Levo.

Felicia Davis, who directs the Building Green Initiative at Clark Atlanta University and is founder of HBCU Green Fund, got bit by the activist bug as a young girl. Fighting for social justice ran in her family. “One of my earliest recollections in the public sphere was as a four-year-old marching with my mother in Englewood, NJ, protesting public school segregation,” recalls Davis in an interview with us. “At 13 my very first campaign was an effort to raise funds to support drug treatment then unavailable at our local hospital.  The action was inspired by my grandmother’s work with the Friends of Dr. Willoughby Auxiliary honoring our town’s first Black doctor and the premature death of a high school basketball star that died from a heroin overdose.  Today, I’m working to combat climate change by creating the HBCU Green Fund to upgrade aging campus infrastructures.  My father taught me African history, my mother taught me that we have healing power, and my grandmother taught me that we each have a duty to serve.”

As she matured, Davis says it wasn’t really a conscious decision to enter activism; it was a path she followed while even in school at Howard University and she’s found activism to be an open career field. “Activists can work in virtually any field, some work within advocacy organizations or even establish organizations, and some of the most impactful activism takes place within mainstream organizations of all types, including corporations,” she says. “Many hires, advancement and progressive change is the result of activists working from the inside out.”

And when it comes to income, yes, you can make money as an activist. “Emerging activists must understand that ‘non-profit’ s a tax designation it does not mean that an organization cannot generate revenue to address problems and sustain their workers,” explains Davis. “If work is not organized in a manner that generates financial resources it will not be sustainable.  Money may not be the primary objective but it is an important consideration for any effective activist or organizer especially when working in under-resourced communities. Activists have families and they need health care, housing, transportation, etc. just like anyone else, therefore they must manage their work in a way that enables them to take care of these essentials.  There is nothing wrong with living well.”

There are various streams of revenue for activists, according to Jenifer R. Daniels, brand strategist and co-host of #WomensWednesday on SiriusXM’s Make It Plain. She tell us, “Activists can earn incomes using the speaker’s circuit or by providing training/workshops on their specialties. Activists can also work for/with political or issue-based campaigns as paid staff.”

Niki Okuk balanced activism with a “regular” job until she found a way to combine the two. She went into business for herself and launched Rco² Material Reuse, a tire waste upcycling company that diverts petroleum waste from landfills into new products and has created green-collar jobs in Compton. “Most of my life I’ve been working my day job and partitioning my activism into my ‘real’ life, after hours,” the lifelong activist tells us. “That meant desk jockeying with my college degree during the day, protesting, canvassing, petitioning, holding community meetings, and planting community gardens on the nights and weekends. More recently I’ve started my own business, with the aim of creating good working class jobs in my community, having a significant environmental impact, and nurturing dignified and democratic workplaces–constantly dismantling hetero-patriarchy, racism, and hierarchies–and hopefully still continuing to support myself.”

If you don’t want to go the organization route, you can create your own non-profit or a social business as Okuk did. “If you get frustrated by the organizations out there, make your own way: There are beautiful examples out there of Black women who have founded, funded, and rocked their own non-profits, and many who are live-streaming, reporting, and authoring from the front lines, funding their work with ad revenue and gofundme campaigns,” she says.

But let’s be clear, activism can have dangers. “Activists working in fields where they must encounter death, devastation and enormous human suffering are very special people that have a unique capacity to work through these tragedies. Activism also requires sacrifice, the secret sauce to create change.  Effective activists solve problems and regard themselves as servant-leaders,” notes Davis.

Activism, however, can satisfy many of your needs–careerwise and personally.  Davis says not only does she feel she’s doing good work, but there are some perks she enjoys. “I thoroughly enjoy traveling and working with people from different places and cultures.  I have been to five of the seven continents…I also know how fortunate I am and this inspires me to work to advance equity and opportunity.  Victories are invigorating but working on social, economic and environmental justice means that victories are few and challenges many.  I am excited about the enormous transformations underway. Activists are change-agents that create new paths for others to follow.  I kind of like that.”

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