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Black Liberation is Real Work

Can it be a job? Is volunteerism a form of Slavery? Neither extreme is helpful for our liberatory work nor to those committed to that work.

Recently, I had a conversation about some young people’s obsession with getting paid for volunteer work. My friend who works with several community groups asked a young person to help out with an event. He was promptly and forcefully hit with the question of whether pay was involved. When the answer was no, my friend was accused of behaving like a slave master. It’s time for a principled discussion to resolve this nagging issue.

The notion of getting paid for movement work is not just limited to young people. Some not-so-young folks make the same demand. I’m not sure exactly where this thinking comes from, but I have some thoughts.

My generation saw payment for movement work blasphemous. The freedom fighters of the 50’s and 60’s were all about sacrificing for our liberation. We understood that freedom ain’t free but also strongly believed that capital(ism) was the root of all evil. This may have been an honorable position, but it left too many of us in dire financial straits, especially as we aged. Relying on GoFundMe to pay for medical treatment or a burial is not particularly honorable.

So, could one blame the next generation for going to the other extreme? Organizers, spoken word poets, musicians – all refusing to do anything for the movement without first getting paid. Had neoliberalism tendencies crept inside our beloved liberation movement and provided cover for aspiring entrepreneurs? I’m making generalizations here to convey a point. Neither extreme is helpful for our liberatory work nor to those committed to that work.

And then there’s the mistaken belief that every Black community-based organization has the same hefty budget as groups like Black Lives Matter Global or Color of Change. We need to reach a healthy balance based upon a constructive analysis of capital. This process may take some time to engage sectors of our social justice movements, but I think I can do a quick primer on the differences between a wage earner, a slave and a volunteer.

A volunteer has the free will to choose where they spend their time, money and energy. You volunteer for assignments or make donations. You join a group whose mission and vision you share. You’re committed to carrying out the activities of that mission. When you join a church, you don’t expect to get paid for passing out the programs to the congregation. When you join a sorority or fraternity, you don’t expect to get paid for passing out food baskets. When you join a fair housing group, you shouldn’t expect to get paid for tabling.

Small, community based social justice organizations rely heavily on volunteers or unpaid members to carry out their work. Some are lucky if they have a few paid staff to cover key areas of the organization’s functioning. These groups need members and supporters to supplement any paid staff they may have.

Let’s be clear. These nonprofits aren’t the same as the American Red Cross or the Ronald McDonald House. These charities do public good, but they are not trying to challenge or disrupt capitalism. They have huge budgets, and they still recruit volunteers. People who believe in their mission are free to help in any way they can. They can choose to volunteer.

General Motors or Wells Fargo may have charitable subsidiaries and ask you to volunteer. But when it comes to work – assembling a car or managing a financial portfolio – that’s a j-o-b. You are paid for what you do to maximize the capitalists’ profits. As a wage earner, you apply for a job so you can get paid for your labor. It may not always be the salary you want or deserve but it’s not free labor.

There is a burgeoning sector of nonprofits working for change. All are not created equal. It has even been said that some of these organizations and agencies have internal cultures like the corporate capitalists. That may be true, but they are not creating wealth in the same way.

The notion of someone demanding money from a legitimate organization working for change is unfair and misdirected. Accusing these groups of profiteering off one’s labor or worse, or calling someone a slave master is also unfair and misdirected. If a community group asks one to volunteer, that person can always say no without insulting the group’s integrity.

We’ve got to know the difference between an organization fighting for social change and a workplace that exploits the labor of workers for profit. We have to know the difference between being a capitalist and being a worker. There are distinctive differences between a slave, a wage earner and a volunteer.

I saw an anonymous quote that puts this issue in perspective: “working hard for something we don’t care about is stress. Working hard for something we love is called passion.” My vote will always be for more passion because fighting for liberation is not work. It is labor – a labor of love.


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