A co-worker once told me that in her 10+ years of working in the reproductive health field, her peers in other movements validated time and again that our movement is the most fucked up. Not fucked up because we don’t have our hearts in the right place (we do) or because we don’t have science on our side (we do), but because of the way we treat each other, and the way our intra-movement politics operate.
Every so often several friends and I debate the merits of “outing” certain organizations for their legendary bullshit. Everyone knows that organization A has an executive director who’s a megalomanic. Everyone knows that two particular organizations bully other smaller organizations. Everyone knows that organization B likes to fire (almost) everyone every couple of years. Everyone knows that certain national organizations have less than cordial relationships with their local affiliates. Is there merit in pinning a name to these claims? What would happen to the person who decided to to do so? Would she be ex-communicated from the movement? Lose the ability to work or volunteer in the movement ever again?
Maybe my friends and I are just bitter (former) employees. But we also believe that our movement can and should be better than this. Is this bait for antis? Everything is bait for antis. I’m willing to bet that they have similar problems in their own organizations. In a time of unprecedented legislative attacks on reproductive health, it feels impossible to find a second to catch our breath and evaluate how we’re doing. I have to believe that making sure our organizations are functioning productively and treating their employees humanely is as important as the work we’re doing.
In an effort to be less vague, let me make it painfully obvious. Here are a few clues that the reproductive health, rights, or justice organization you work at may be a toxic work environment:
- You’re expected to treat your members/patients/donors better than the way your boss/upper management treats you.
- You’re afraid to confront your co-worker/your boss about something racist/classist/transphobic/etc she said for fear of losing your job.
- You don’t get insurance coverage. The insurance coverage you get doesn’t cover pre-natal care, contraception, or abortion. You don’t get decent maternity or paternity leave. Yet these are all values your organization supposedly champions.
- There is frequent turn over and burn-out because of low pay and high stress.
- Your volunteers, interns, or anyone with “assistant” in their title are treated as a commodity.
- Young people, people of color, and/or queer folks are not valued, are not expected to be leaders, and are tokenized.
- When you give thoughtful feedback about your job or about the organization in general, no one takes you seriously.
- Your organization primarily works with or on behalf of low-income communities, communities of color, and/or young people, yet those folks are not represented on the staff or on the board. And there are no conversations about class, race, or privilege among staff. Ever.
- You see young people being encouraged to take on responsibilities for which they are not being paid, for the good of the organization and therefore the movement.
- You find yourself having to mask your work conditions, including poor communication, bad management, and unclear organizational goals, while selling your organization to donors and supporters.
- You are underpaid and are made to feel uncomfortable for any mention of that, or for requesting to be paid fairly, because times are tough/the economy is bad/you should be putting the organization’s needs before your own.
- Your organization only cares about marginalized people in a marginalized place (hello, low-income Texan women!) when your org stands to make a buck off of promoting their rough situation.
I want to be clear that these problems don’t exist in a vacuum (certainly stigma and a small professional world both play a part), and that they don’t exist only in the reproductive health, rights, and justice world. I think the above grievances feel particularly shitty because we expect better. We expect organizations that are fighting for basic human rights to treat their employees and volunteers like, well, human beings. No organization or movement is perfect. I certainly hope that my former co-worker is wrong and that we’re not the most fucked up. But in listening to dozens of folks who’ve done this work at the highest and lowest levels, I suspect that it’s more than just the non-profit industrial complex.
I originally ended this post with some tips for upper management folks on how to begin to correct the above issues, but let’s be real. They’re not reading this blog. Should we “out” the organizations that perpetuate these problems? Frankly, I don’t have the answer to that. So to those suffering any or all of the above conditions: You’re not alone. You’re not making it up. You deserve better. And if you need a space to vent or process any of your experiences: write about it, anonymously or with your name attached (e-mail us and we’ll even publish it here!). Find your compatriots who are going through the same thing, whether in this movement or others. Let’s figure out how to make our movement sustainable for everyone in it.
Thanks to those who helped me come up with the bulleted list. I won’t name you, in case your organizations might penalize you. You know who you are. Thank you.