Gavin Leonard

From Grassroots Activism to Nonprofit Bureaucracy

(Ed's Note: As Gavin writes, "Leadership of the social justice movement is changing." Today, we kick off our new series "Building a Movement" in which 20- and 30-year-old leaders will share their lessons learned, tactics, tips and ideas that have helped them move closer to lasting and substantive social change.

We invite you to participate in this discussion by posting a comment or sending in your story ideas. Never published before? Not a problem. We will send you "A Guide to Writing for WireTap" and our editor will help you finish your story. For more information, email Kristina at

Leadership of the social justice movement is changing. Young people across the country are beginning to take on increased roles of responsibility, picking up skills and talents on the fly. I'm one of those young people, and when I get the time to reflect on the journey here, it's certainly not at all what I imagined.

Sometimes, I lose my way -- we all do -- so it's essential to pause, take a look at where we've been, where we are today, and where we want to be in the future. That way, we're far more likely to stay on the path to change without losing sight of that drive that got us started in the first place.

How we got here

My mom has been doing nonprofit work of some sort for my entire life, and while my dad's not quite so much of an activist, he's far from apolitical. My dinner table discussions were filled with anecdotes from recent meetings, there are more than a few photo albums with little me at protests, and while I can't explain exactly why I do what I do, it's got to be traced back to some of those childhood memories.

After five different schools and universities, growing up mostly in Ohio and the Midwest, but also having spent time both out West and on the East coast, I ended up in Cincinnati just months before the riots of 2001. I had finally figured out that I'm from the Midwest and that's where I belong.

I quickly got involved with community-based issues in my adopted neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine -- Cincinnati's poorest neighborhood, and the epicenter of action after Officer Stephen Roach killed unarmed 19-year-old African-American Timothy Thomas. I spent hours on end building with local cats at the barber shop around the corner from my apartment. We carried those conversations around the city and eventually decided it was time to do something with all of our talk. Before too long, we're now in our second year of building an institution "Elementz: The Hip Hop Youth Arts Center." We knew that to truly begin to make long-term change, we would first need to develop trust and relationships with youth in the community, and Elementz allows us to do that.

Now, many of my peers are in similar positions where we're working to generate the kinds of opportunities and ideas that came naturally for us. We sat in on workshops and trainings, attended protests and vigils, and most importantly, listened to the people in our communities with an eye for how to turn that talk into action for change. Now we use our experiences, and the reflections and knowledge that came from our community, to guide our efforts. We set up leadership development workshops and classes and programs, all in hopes that a critical mass of people will get caught the way we did.

Kohei Ishihara is another brilliant young leader, and fellow of "Building Leadership, Organizing Communities." Kohei says that what "started out as a community uprising" eventually turned into a full-time gig. That gig being executive director at Providence Youth Student Movement, the organization he helped found.

Kohei began doing campus organizing while at Brown University, but has stayed committed to Providence, R.I. With work on campus, "all you need is a place to meet, passion, and some access to resources, so you can make things like flyers" and where "you don't have to do all you do in the nonprofit world."

Similarly, Laura McCargar began her community-based work while at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. She "got involved with other students making a video on youth rights in encounters with police," then Youth Rights Media started in the summer of 2000. She says that her role as executive director fell into her lap in July of '02, and I can definitely relate.

From organizer-activist to administrator-fundraiser

None of us thought, "Gee, I'd really like to be an executive director of an organization." We got involved in communities. Our groups had bigger visions and needs than could be met without more structure, and here we are.

I know exactly why I became a fundraiser. But lately, I've been thinking a lot about why am I spending the majority of my time on any given day as an administrator. Can we avoid at least some of the bureaucracy and paperwork that keeps us away from actual organizing?

The biggest obstacle to less paperwork seems to be frequent reporting. Raising money inevitably leads to reports on what you've accomplished with that money, especially as funders are increasingly more interested in supporting specific projects, rather than general operating costs that make it possible to raise the money, design those programs, and maintain the space to hold them in. The general consensus seems to be that reporting and evaluation takes around 10 percent of our time. That time could be better spent.

Organizations are increasingly judged on specific outcomes, measures, benchmarks and deliverables. We are asked to quantify our work in clear numbers. I think there's a lot of value in this process, and others agree.

Kohei says, "In the past it's been more about going through the motions, but answering truthfully." Now, he notes, "We want it to be helpful, and we're headed in that direction." Laura echoes that sentiment: "Reporting is relevant and helpful I try to use the time to kick back and evaluate, which is valuable because it requires a certain discipline."

The flip side of the equation, however, is that -- in Laura's words -- "evaluation happens too often because of an externally imposed deadline," and she finds that it often induces anxiety.

The bottom line is that we want to evaluate our programs -- we want to have the opportunity to look at the work we do over time from a birds-eye view. But I know it is difficult to make reporting and evaluation truly mesh with the rest of the work, particularly because with a $300,000 budget, you probably have at least five -- and more likely 15 -- different kinds of reports and evaluation processes to follow.

Young executive directors I know put in an average of no less than 60 hours a week, and most of us have side projects that go on top of the core work for our organizations. I'm not particularly unique in the fact that I've built a nonprofit from scratch that is now at a $200,000 budget -- and it won't be until July 1 of this year that I will be able to leave my full-time job and get the possibility of a social life back.

I find that quality management is one of the biggest challenges as a young leader working with young people and young staff. Kohei estimates 35 percent of his time goes towards management; Laura simply says "a lot of my time," with a laugh; and I'd say I'm lucky to spend less than 30 percent of my time in this category. As a result, I leave the office many days with a guilty feeling because I know I've just cut it too close and in the process not given as much to others as I might have been able to.

Another thing that always seems to get pushed to the back of the to-do list is fundraising. Both Kohei and Laura agreed that they don't spend enough time on it, and I would concur. Kohei said, "I spend about 15 percent of my time on fundraising, but it should be 25 percent."

And the biggest loss is that we also end up skimping on time spent with youth -- staying in touch with the community we are serving. Whether it is just getting to know those we work with, or doing specific programmatic, campaign or case work.

Lack of community-based leadership

Another story within this story is that we're all working with constituencies that we're not a part of. Ivy League-educated, middle- to upper-middle-class people of color running organizations that work with low-income people of color are not uncommon. White folks who play the role of executive director in organizations whose constituency is mostly black are, sadly but truly, a dime a dozen.

Yet we're filling needs and doing jobs that are often the toughest ones to fill -- the jobs many would say cannot be filled within the constituency itself. And while we all feel strongly that top leadership can come directly from the constituencies we work with, and we're working hard to make that a reality, we also see some big hurdles in our way.

"A lot of these jobs require college or post-graduate degrees -- in accounting or social work or nonprofit management," says Kohei. As a guy who decided to leave New York University with three semesters left, I could argue that nonprofit managers don't necessarily need a degree. But I often joke that my real full-time job is working as a translator; I try to get wealthy and poor, old and young, black and white folks -- all to hear one another. To do this, I definitely needed my time at NYU and other experiences like that which were not and still are not available to the guys who sat in the barber shop with me and have the vision.

When it comes to following directions to the tune of eight-page proposals, matching the lingua franca of your chosen sector with your chosen funder, and learning the ropes of "relationship building" with program officers, something more than pure street smarts is definitely a prerequisite. There are precious few individuals who break the mold and learn to speak money and power fluently without ever really being exposed to anything other than poverty and powerlessness.

So even though I started doing social justice work with the hopes and dreams of being an activist and organizer, it's really not all that surprising that I now find myself sitting squarely in my office as an administrator pushing a lot of paperwork. Kohei and Laura are in just about the same place. If we envisioned anything, it was not this. But it's a position that needs to be played if we want to turn community uprisings -- often momentary -- into lasting change.

Some suggested solutions for getting back on track

Never one to complain without working to identify possible solutions, I'd like to evaluate the role of the young executive director and suggest how we -- director and funders might improve our lot in life.

1. Set up your own reporting deadlines. Consider setting up consistent times for evaluation and internal reporting independent of your grant requirements. Internal systems and processes will often be acceptable to funders, as they are willing to make exceptions if you make a good case. Work to be proactive rather than reactive in your evaluation so that you will be more able to set the standards by which your work is judged. For helpful resources, check out, or

2. Encourage funders to give more flexibility and individual tailoring in reporting. I think that if funders would factor in spending some time on the front end with each grantee to discuss what evaluation structure would work best for that organization, the benefits would be significant. We should all be careful not to lose the quality of our work in all of our desire to quantify. Also, I found at least one foundation -- Cricket Island -- that used reports by other directors to connect our organizations and share their work.

3. Membership! There is a growing movement of nonprofit leaders doing progressive work around the country who are fed up with budgets that are ultra-foundation heavy. The nonprofit world is becoming more saturated every day, and in my opinion, too few that are doing relevant work. If we are to prove that we should be around, we need to do the hard work of developing membership bases and broad-based support in our communities that will prove our value. For more info, visit Incite! or

4. More community members, including youth, on the boards and evaluation teams of funders. If we are to truly pave the way for organizations to have constituent leadership and support organizations that provide invaluable services, funders are going to need to be a part of the solution. Too often, an innovative or truly community-based organization has to depend on individual savvy of a director and smart program officers to get its point across. No one is better positioned to evaluate whether or not you've got the pulse of your community than respected community members. If funders made an effort to have more people -- like those they are seeking to help -- on their boards, I am confident there would be a rise in the percentage of organizations with indigenous leadership doing truly relevant work. For helpful info, visit or

The years ahead

As I look toward the future, I am confident that young leaders like me, Kohei, and Laura will make our mark. The only question that remains is how big that mark will be. By consistently taking the time to step back and evaluate our position and the effectiveness of our work -- while staying focused and driven to do the work itself -- we will do right by our legacy.

Rethinking Volunteerism in America

[Editor's Note: One in every four Americans volunteered last year and the percentage of people, who donated their time is the largest of any other country. Contrary to most other governments, the United States has traditionally believed that the private sector -- not government -- should hold the primary responsibility of helping the needy. As government social programs are increasingly cut, recent statistics indicate growing numbers of volunteers in America.

Gavin Leonard has been collaborating with volunteers for the past seven years. He offers a practical plan for anyone considering to donate their work to make sure we make the most out of our desire to help communities in need.]

About a year ago, an old friend of mine asked me if our old Mennonite church youth group -- the one we both attended and he was now leading -- could come down to Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine neighborhood to do some volunteer work. I work for an organization that develops and maintains affordable housing in this city's poorest neighborhood. My friend thought it would be a good opportunity for the youth from small suburban town Bluffton, Ohio to see what is going on in the inner city.

I had been working with volunteers for about seven years now and lately, I had been thinking a lot about the two types of distinct volunteerism approaches: 'charity' versus 'solidarity.' As I see it, charity means coming in and helping somebody, with little or no regard for what that person or group of people wants or how they want to get it. There's an assumption made that anything a volunteer does is helpful. It's a top down process.

Solidarity, on the other hand, is about working with that somebody to identify what it is that the people that are being helped need and want, along with how they want to get it. Solidarity assumes equality or at least recognition of a volunteer's privilege that leads to working more collaboratively and with respect. Solidarity is based on an idea that social inequalities exist in a context that one needs to take time to understand. Working in solidarity requires patience.

The lines between charity and solidarity are never clearly drawn, and I'd say the chances that somebody is going to say they're all about charity, are pretty slim. But, given the opportunity to take a bird's eye view of an organization or individuals' interaction in a volunteer setting, I think it's possible to see the distinction.

I talked through some of these issues with my friend and expressed my desire for this group of volunteers to intentionally be in solidarity with people that they are trying to help. Theoretically, I saw the chance to develop a process that would start far before the group came to Over-the-Rhine and would continue long after.

With deeper knowledge of the situation they were entering, how they relate to it, and how that relates to national policies, I feel like the opportunity could exist for a truly long-term positive change. In my work locally, the best volunteers have been the people who came to the organization through a charity-minded group, and then stayed connected by themselves in various ways. People who read our newsletter, stop by just to check in, read books or materials we suggest - these are the folks who add real capacity and value in a model of solidarity.

Volunteers who are aware of their shortcomings, vulnerabilities, and stereotypes, and who are willing to confront them head on, make a lasting difference. There is a recognizable feeling of authenticity and truth that emerges as we begin to notice our own problems and issues while we are working with others to address their needs.

In contrast, my vision of a charity-minded volunteer is one where the experience is a single, short-term event. I've seen more than a few individuals take in difficult and complicated explanations of serious social issues and then within minutes walk away joking about this or that. I'm not saying people need to pour their lives into the organization they are supporting for that day or two - but a concerted effort to extend these conversations into peoples' everyday lives would be valuable in creating real, longer term change.

I talked to my friend about the differences I saw between charity and solidarity and I was hopeful we could do more than just your typical weekend-charity outing to the hood. I suggested that the youth group participate in a process that led up to the trip to Cincinnati, and then spent significant time talking about it afterward. I suggested an essay that tackles some of these issues -- a review of the "Sweet Charity," a book by Janet Poppendieck -- as a starting point for discussion. It seemed to me that setting up structured conversations and background in the months prior to a visit, would lead to an experience with considerably more depth and impact.

I heard back a little while later that my friend couldn't commit to a process; he just didn't have the time. He was passing it on to the new youth group leader, along with copies of our correspondence. The next time I heard from the new leader, it was to say that the youth did not have time to do something like this, and they were sorry, but they wouldn't be able to make it.

To say I was disappointed would be an understatement. I really had hoped that the group would be interested in engaging at this level. It's the kind of thing I really only felt safe asking of a church that I had attended for many years and I don't feel it was unreasonable.

Realistically, it's hard work. Working in solidarity takes a commitment and ability to listen and learn that often raises very tough issues that most of us would rather not deal with: racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and other socially divisive realities can't be ignored once you really start to pay attention.

I wrote back expressing my feelings and decided that this was a fight I'd have to fight another day. As a leader on the non-profit side that works with volunteers, I'd like share a level of responsibility here. I really need to work harder to carve out space and time to engage with potential volunteers in a way that not only suggests, but also supports a process of working towards solidarity. I also feel that the supervisors and community service liaisons at churches, schools, and universities need to carve out similar time and energy. At the end of the day, the full burden of moving such a process needs to be shared.

Engaging in a better way

My involvement as a volunteer has been fairly extensive for my age and I've spent a lot of time and thought on what it should look like. What I've come to believe is that we need to be very intentional, forthcoming, and thoughtful about how we engage in the communities we want to help.

"Sweet Charity" by Poppendieck is a well-researched look into the unintended consequences of charity work. It shows how volunteers are often just playing out their own guilt and working to achieve a level of personal fulfillment. It shows that charity often views the poor as sub-human and if and when this benevolent mentality is not checked it has the potential to actually hurt, not help the people who are supposed to be gaining something. We often ignore the systemic problems that are actually causing the holes we seek to plug. I think she's right to question this process, and it's something that all of us should take a hard look at in the current context of the growing wealth disparity and increasing reliance on charities.

Charity often comes across as patronizing and disingenuous. Corporations often spend nearly the amount of money advertising the fact they made a contribution to a non-profit as the amount of the contribution itself. And it's truly shocking how few of the volunteers I interface with actually ask a heartfelt question.

Solidarity takes more time. To think about and learn about a person is difficult. Not to mention that poverty is depressing.

Still, without professing to have the whole thing figured out, I'd like to make four suggestions for working towards a better way of engaging as volunteers:

1. Learn about the organization. Spend some time learning about the organization you'll be going to work with before you start the job. Don't create more work for it -- do your research independently and then ask questions.

2. Learn about the larger issues. Look for resources that focus on the systemic issues that create the conditions you'd like to see eradicated. That way you can join the dialogue on how to eliminate the problem itself, not just its symptoms. Ask thoughtful questions of the leader or liaison.

3. Express your appreciation. Recognizing that volunteer work is often much more beneficial to you -- whether as an opportunity for personal fulfillment, or a way to see a place you might not otherwise have access to, or simply as a way to pay off your parking ticket -- saying 'thanks' is something far too few people do.

4. Find small ways to engage after leaving. Sign up for an email list, a newsletter, stop by once in a while. If all of us take baby steps towards becoming more engaged as active citizens, we'll be on the right track.

Leaders of non-profits should work to maintain an up-to-date resource list for volunteers and leaders at institutions bringing volunteers could establish a checklist that they discuss with volunteers covering ways to stay engaged before, during, and after the brief engagement.

So, how do we actually implement these types of steps and conversations so that we are moving in a positive way towards solidarity?

Volunteerism in America is a complicated web of individuals, groups, and institutions that are all shaping how we view people that are not like us. I think it is high time we make a concerted effort to share the responsibility and move towards a long-term solidarity model for volunteerism that is respectful, dignified, and purposeful. Charity will only get us so far.

Calling Activists to a Higher Standard

[Editor's Note: Is it possible to lead a financially comfortable, healthy and happy life, and be an effective activist working for social justice at the same time? Gavin Leonard and Adrienne Maree Brown are both accomplished young organizers who have different views on what it really means to strike a balance and how it affects the long-term plan for transforming politics. Gavin Leonard, 25, volunteers as director of Elementz, a hip hop youth arts center, and works at an affordable housing agency. Adrienne Maree Brown, 27, is the director of communications at the League of Young Voters and a board member of the Ruckus Society.]


Point: Calling to a Higher Standard By Gavin Leonard

Over a period of about a month this summer, I watched every episode of the West Wing available on DVD. I work for a nonprofit community development corporation from 9 to 5, and as the director of a nonprofit hip hop-based youth arts center on the side. I'd say I work about 100 hours a week, and I still seem to find plenty of time to watch TV. And I like it. But I'm also becoming increasingly disappointed and impatient: I can count on one hand the number of people I know personally who work more and harder than I do.

I know there are more than a handful of people -- who I don't know personally -- that work harder than I do. For instance, I listen to a lot of sports-talk radio while I'm working during the day. Every time I listen to the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals give a press conference, I can't help but think that he works much harder at making a football team go than I do at trying to make the world a better place. It's really quite amazing how much energy is spent fine-tuning athletics -- amazing to the point of really bothering me. How is it that in the grand scheme of things such trivial pursuits occupy so much of peoples' time, money and energy?

The concept of working hard inevitably gets me thinking about the fact that, in my generation of activists, there is an overwhelming desire to "be sustainable." There is a growing tendency to take care of oneself, to successfully balance personal health, happiness and comfort with active work toward progressive social change. I want to be clear: I'm not against any of those things. But I'm really concerned about how well this strategy is going to work out for us.

I've watched more than a few active, engaged young people stop or greatly decrease their work on social justice issues to pursue "a more sustainable lifestyle." The implied assumption is that this new lifestyle will include work on issues, but they put a greater emphasis on staying healthy and happy. The problem is, I've seen a whole lot of people that end up focusing nearly exclusively on themselves -- leaving the movement one more person behind in an already uphill battle.

Fine Line between Sustainability and Selfishness

There's a very fine line between somebody ending up in their own world that's positive and ending up in their own world that's selfish, but I think it's a line worth discussing. For illustration, consider the choice to pursue a good relationship, have a child, and then spend a lot less time working and a lot more time raising that child -- a good choice, in my opinion. Put that decision somewhere on the same spectrum as the decision to take a corporate job to make more money -- a decision I'd guess most of us have watched someone make, and then we never quite see that same old friend again.

It seems pretty well agreed upon that we live in a self-centered society, and that seems to scare the hell out of people and truly bother the very people that are working to "be sustainable." But the whole concept of change has been slowed down dramatically by the selfishness of society, and activists and progressives are actually perpetuating their very own kind of bling bling while denouncing rappers and their cars.

I know it eats at me. I own what I consider to be a nice house with a deck and a hot tub. I have the hot tub so that I can be comfortable at the end of a long day of hard work. Same with my nice stereo and no longer new couches. If I at 18 could confront myself today at 25, I'm quite certain I'd end up with a black eye -- or at least a severely bruised conscience.

And that's exactly it. I am meeting me, and I've got a bruised conscience. I know I spend entirely too much money on things I don't really need. I know that with nothing more than a stronger will I could be a part of setting the even higher standard that I believe needs to be set. But every time I've ever tried to beat myself up, somebody's told me not to because it's "unhealthy and unsustainable." I'm scared to death that I'll never meet somebody who will give me a downright ass whipping, and at this point, I'd settle for someone that would just let me do it myself. I feel like we keep lowering the bar when a long, earnest look at the big picture should actually have us raising it.

Not to be overly dramatic, but Fidel and Che probably also struggled with similarly bruised consciences (both having middle-class backgrounds and education). Something also tells me that Huey and Bobby wouldn't hesitate to call me out on my contradictions. And I know from watching that the West Wing's Josh Lyman and Toby Ziegler would kick my ass all up and down the street.

It bothers me that I'm afraid of the characters on the West Wing. I can't help but think of the White House today, and that the people inside are working so hard to maintain the status quo. If I want to see what happens in that building change so much, but am not willing to put in the extra effort to make it so, then what am I really doing?

My questions and concerns are not haphazardly aimed at anyone whose politics are progressive or who would like to see the world changed. I'd like that to be the case, and in an ideal world I'd like to see us all actively engaged in our communities. But on a real, deeper level I understand that this is a conversation for people who identify themselves as activists and organizers.

Of course I give a special shout out to the privileged people in the house -- white folks, folks with good resumes and noteworthy college degrees, and generally people who have the ability to decide to "be sustainable."

Most people are hustling all day to feed their families, holding down two jobs, and generally unable to find the time they'd like to learn and love and do the things that make life beautiful. I'm not talking to y'all. I'm talking to people who have time and energy and resources, and could be doing better things with all three. And I'm talking to those who identify as activists or organizers, who have made some type of commitment to this work, but due to lack of accountability and responsibility, often coupled with a need for direction, don't use their time well.

Do We Have What It Takes?

A friend of mine recently wrote an email to a group of people, who were working on the progressive side of the 2004 election. She noted that she didn't see in us what she'd seen in the people who protested in Birmingham, and beyond, during the Civil Rights Movement.

"Whatever that was, that belief in the possibility of something better and the worth of sacrificing toward that something better, most of us don't have it today. I think what most of us are lacking is a sense of wholeness that allows us to see beyond what we're fed by our culture of consumption," she wrote. "I'm not an ideal community organizer. The true work of making this city a just place to live belongs to those who are committed to making this city their home now and into the future," she added.

While I can't seem to put my finger on the "it" that is in question here -- that difference between the Civil Rights Movement folks and the activist generations of today -- I know it has something to do with faith, conviction and passion coupled with a permanence of geographic place and local focus on building power and resources.

I don't see "it" either. And while there's certainly nothing healthy about marching from Selma to just about anywhere that's past the border of Selma in the summer heat, somebody needs to be willing to do it anyway. I'm not advocating for big marches or protests in the Civil Rights Movement style, as I think those tactics generally don't work anymore (mostly due to a mass media that pays little, even when tens of thousands gather in the streets).

What I'm looking for is more of that energy that appeared to be behind the marchers and protesters of the '60s and '70s. In those years, a small group of thoughtful, concerned citizens mobilized and got into the hearts and minds and living rooms of nearly everyone in the United States. We can do that now, and it seems evident that it's needed now as much as ever.

I suppose what I'm really calling for is a new and higher standard for activists and organizers. It's my belief that there are a lot of people working awfully hard to maintain and increase levels of oppression, and if that's to change, we've got to match that work.

Then, of course, we need more people to become activists and organizers. And while some may argue that what I'm suggesting will turn people away and make it harder to do the work, I would say the opposite. I think that the reason so few people get involved is because it's so hard to see change from our work. If we work harder and with more clarity to our anger, we can win.

People like to be on the winning team, and right now, we're losing. We've got to work harder. And for a lot of people, working harder will simply mean working more efficiently -- with more clearly defined strategy that has more tangible targets, better use of available resources to maximize effectiveness and positive communication to avoid doubling of work unnecessarily.

I'm not saying we should all be sleeping at our offices. But I for one often don't sleep well because of all the things I feel like need to happen before I can feel good about, for instance, wanting to bring a child into the world.

Let's set a higher standard. Let's get more done. Let's show the next generation that real sustainability is in a truly better world where we're getting closer to our goals, not further away from them.


Counterpoint: From Celebrities to Leaders By Adrienne Maree Brown

When Gavin first asked me to read his opinion piece, I couldn't wait to respond to the idea of how we work as activists, and whether we are working hard enough.

My immediate reaction to Gavin's ideas -- of working harder and working more -- is to ask where working efficiently comes into play. I also like to watch TV while working a job that has me traveling half the year as a trainer, and balancing many different roles. I work in communications, alliances and training for the League of Young Voters, am the board chair of the Ruckus Society, and consult on organizational development for a few side projects that are close to my heart. On a good day, I write a few songs and sing them, go for a walk, am a good friend, daughter and sister.

I have been lucky as a worker, because I have figured out my working style and I revel in it. I am constantly reassessing my role in our work and trying to fall into a space where there is total flow between my skills, interests and what's needed. I like to do a lot of work quickly, and I like to work on deadline. I need a long to-do list to inspire me to knock the work out, and I need to know there is a good purpose to the work.

I know a lot of people who work more than me, but I know very few people who get more done, especially in the same amount of time. I also know a lot of people who waste working time with inefficiency and with low-quality work because they are burnt-out and in denial about it.

Now, to be honest, I have learned to work efficiently, which changed me from a burn-out-for-cool-revolutionary-points-type worker into a hard worker whose name may never be known in the history books. Bit by bit, I am releasing my organizer ego, and it really helps me in determining how I work.

Sometimes I lapse, and I can immediately tell and start making an exit plan, but in general the Cool-Revolutionary-Hard-Worker phase of my life is behind me because it was exhausting and inefficient. I didn't sleep much. It was important that everyone around me knew how hard I was working, and that I was so righteous for the movement. Looking back, evidence of burnout was rampant. I was producing lower quality writing, thinking, training and relationship building.

I actually didn't notice this low quality in myself until I noticed it in those around me. I was surrounded by people who were burning candles on both ends in both hands. I noticed the shallow depth of content from speakers who didn't have enough sleep. In meetings, I became aware of the weak and unoriginal strategies that came from folks who had lost perspective. They were so busy working for the people that they didn't leave time to talk to the people.

The result of this approach to organizing -- as far as I've seen it and been guilty of it myself -- is the phenomenon we call celebrity organizers. Everyone knows their names -- they exist in every community. They are amazing and articulate and energetic and inspirational. But more often than not, folks don't have the skills they need to develop true leadership in others. And when they go, there is no one to continue and sustain the work. We have to get real about the fact that the crisis is constant -- every single day the shit is hitting the fan, and as long as we act as a one-person cleanup team, we'll always be more funky than functional.

And why? A major negative side effect of our overwork is that we do not allow space and time for learning and empowering those we want by our sides. Others cannot do the work that we drive with our egos, rather than with an eye towards what the people need the most.

I know, I've done my stint in that world. Amy Goodman has a quote I love that says, "Pundits are people who know very little about a lot of things." I think we as organizers can fall into this too, so that before we know it, we are filling all 20 positions in our work and filling them all in a state of exhaustion and inexperience.

Bring the Work, but Keep the Martyr Badges

So I reached the point of burnout, and I started thinking about my own work. How could I ensure that I was proud of what was coming out? How could I isolate my periods of high stress so that they didn't conquer my life? I don't want to be unrealistic: If you're working right, there will be periods of high stress. But how to make sure that isn't the constant state of the work?

One of the main areas of stress in my work -- even today -- is knowing that I am overworked and underpaid. A lot of the examples Gavin gives of folks who are working hard are people who are getting paid really well to work that hard. The paycheck for the head coach of the Bengals is much more inspirational than, say, mine or Gavin's.

The sad reality is, when you aren't getting paid what you're worth, you don't have the money for hot tubs, gym memberships, saunas, or even just a basic vacation. I've reworked my tiny budget to prioritize these little indulgences, because they make it possible for me to work 20 hours some days and not complain. And not that I'm doing it for the money, but I feel like most of the activists I know consider their mission to do "it" against the money.

The organizing world right now is caught up in a dialogue between the desire for a higher quality of life by those who come from the most impacted communities, and the internal struggle of people of privilege who choose to be organizers between their quality of life and their guilt. There's a certain sick pride I see in the eyes of organizers from privileged backgrounds as they compare their struggles.

Economically poor people logically choose to struggle for a higher standard of living for themselves and their families. Folks who grew up with a lot and then became aware of the real impacts of privilege often want to assuage their guilt. That price is often offered in the form of working really hard for very little money, achieving a nearly monastic work existence. Please bring the work, but keep the martyr badges. That way of working is outdated, romanticized, idealistic and, ultimately, selfish.

Working Better, not Longer

Gavin calls sustainability a strategy. To me it's not a strategy -- it's a necessity. If you want to become a healthy person, you don't stop eating and start running 10 miles a day -- that will shock your body and the results won't last. I think it's an antiquated vision of activism -- the idea that you have to sacrifice sleep, private time and years of your life in order to be a "proper" activist.

My reason for attempting to "be sustainable, take care of myself and be happy and comfortable" is because I work better under those conditions. My goal as an organizer is to make sure that my most valuable contribution to the movement, my brain, is not putting out a half-ass product because I have gone so many days not sleeping that I start to see Che in my cereal saying "Good job." I've seen the results of that type of sleepless, burnt-out work, and it's sub-par.

It is selfish to work this way. You are denying the movement the best you have to offer, in exchange for the most you have to offer. Quality is as important as quantity in organizing.

It's about balance, not going too far in either direction. I feel Gavin on the fact that as the level of average affluence rises in this country, you see more self-described activists and organizers with their houses, hot tubs, vacation homes, Lexus hybrids and part-time hours.

At the same time, there didn't used to be an option to do this work and get paid and have health care. Now that is an option. The challenge is to hold yourself and your co-workers accountable to a higher internal standard. Work better, not longer. Work more efficiently, rather than just unstoppably.

In terms of holding folks accountable, I try to do this in my work now, and let folks do it to me. When I see that a co-worker is too tired to do quality work, I call them on it. When I see that a co-worker is on the edge of a burnout, I call them on it.

Lead and Live by Example

As for the larger picture of the movement and the concern over the missing people who are willing to walk -- I think right now we aren't missing walkers, and we definitely aren't missing talkers. Even hard workers -- we're not missing the hours. What's missing now is hope that we can achieve what we set out to do, and a willingness to step up to the plate as a leader.

If we collectively set the standard of organizing as overworked, underpaid underdogs, we will perpetuate an environment most people don't want to live in and that has no continuity. On the other hand, if we collectively decide we want to lay back in a pro-capitalist nonprofit movement where folks are living large and living lazy, we will fail our ancestors, our children and ourselves.

But to me the line is clear -- what is the standard of living we want for everyone? It's not excess, and it's not martyrdom. We must perpetuate a new vision for a lifestyle of plenty -- taking care of ourselves and our communities, giving adequate attention to our health and our children, living according to the values we are fighting for every day. That means sleeping well, eating right, understanding your piece of the work and working it.

The Political Power of the Midwest

A few months before the election 2004, it became clear that a lot of money would be thrown at my city -- Cincinnati, Ohio. I head a hip hop youth arts center, Elementz, in Cincinnati's poorest neighborhood. And as a local organizer, I started getting calls from my activist friends in New York and California wondering, "What issues are hot there? Which local races are coming up? Who has the biggest constituency in the city? Who can move people?" And so it began.

Sadly, nobody ever finished the job. In less than a year preceding the presidential elections, millions were spent trying to turn red states into blue. New York flew in organizers to do grassroots work, California sent money, and D.C. dispatched lawyers. But after the election, many of us are still here asking, "When will these resources stay?"

I was hoping that at least one of the big left John Kerry support machines would be able to sustain itself -- and its place in the community -- here in the Midwest. Because as top-down and out-of-touch as groups like America Coming Together (ACT) were, they did get people talking here. They created a buzz that something was happening and it mattered. You got flyers in your door every day and called you more times than you could count. It seemed like somebody really cared.

It's Time to Think Long-Term

We need somebody to care more than just once every four years. There are more towns like Cincinnati, Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Detroit than there are San Francisco's and New York's. As increasing amounts of financial and human resources flow to the coasts, the Midwest is falling further behind.

Every year, I go through the list of national foundations that might fund projects in our area. And every year I find that more choose to stay closer to home -- San Francisco or New York.

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Happy Holidays!