A Career in Activism Is Possible: What I Learned From Speaking At Harvard
Updated: Aug 25
Martin Luther King Jr., Malala Yousafzai, Gloria Steinem, and Harvey Milk: household names that have one thing in common. They all possess a clear understanding and passion for an issue and have dedicated their lives to making the world a better place. They are thought-leaders and advocates pushing for social change. Whether through art, history, education, or humanitarian efforts, activists are not only calling for change but actively making it happen. But can you really sustain yourself on a career in social justice?
I was so thankful to my friend Jared Fox when he invited me to speak on this topic at Harvard University's class, Power to the People: Black Power, Radical Feminism, and Gay Liberation. It had been ages since I was in a university setting and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to speak to the next generation about the real possibility of making activism your full-time job. You can earn a living while helping your communities but it is crucial that we prepare ourselves for the long-term work.
The event featured a panel of activists who show up every day for their communities. Here are just a few of my favorite takeaways.
The Importance of Intersectionality
Q: We have seen the failure of movements to be truly intersectional and what that meant for people. How can we build our movements to be more intersectional?
The panelists unanimously agreed that our movements must do better. Remember:
Intersectionality does not come in the form of tokenism. People are not checkboxes. We must work from the margins and center the most marginalized.
Sometimes folks do an assessment of “who’s in the room” and we should instead be asking questions. What do we do well? What can we do differently?
Intersectionality is a lens for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other. We tend to talk about race inequality as separate from inequality based on gender, class, sexuality, or immigrant status. What’s often missing is how some people are subject to all of these, and the is experience is not just the sum of its parts.
If it is safe to do so, interrogate the very fabric of our sectors. Fundraisers should strive to operate from the perspective of Community Centric Fundraising.
The Role Of Emotions In Our Movements
Q: We have seen a variety of emotions in social movements: anger, rage, joy. What’s the role of these emotions in your work? Can we create change with just anger? Just joy? Do we need all of them?
Working for social justice can be deeply personal and we need to create space for all the emotions that may arise.
We are asked to minimize our anger most often. This request disproportionately is asked of people of color.
Productive anger is never wrong but be sure to take time to rest. Burnout is real and we need staffers for the long haul.
Know when to leave it and when to leave. At the end of the day, a job in social justice is still a job. It is important to remember when to leave the emotional response at home (leave it) and, if your work environment becomes too draining, it is also okay to leave.
Q: How do you prioritize and uplift self-care?
The panel featured activists that worked in a variety of roles within social justice- lawyers, tech, social work, and consultants. They underscored that there are a variety of jobs within movement building and the 'frontlines' can often be the most draining emotionally. There is no shame in working 'behind the scenes'. Remember:
Know when you are 'off the clock'. It is totally okay to disconnect from the mission after-hours.
Know your values and know your skills. Make sure to pick a career that is aligned with both. You will have a bigger impact this way.
Figure out what self-care looks like for you. It can be a luxury vacation or a five-minute walk. It comes down to honoring and valuing yourself.
You have a responsibility to take care of yourself. We need you in this work- don't forget to rest.
Thank you to my fellow panelists for your wisdom:
Michael Bronski, Ph.D., Professor, Harvard University
Liz Hamor, Leadership & Allyship Consultant, Center of Daring
Jabari Lyles, President & Principal Consultant, Jabari Lyles Consulting
Eric Paulk, Deputy Director, Georgia Equality
Kyle Rapiñan, Esq., Civil Rights Attorney, New York City Commission on Human Rights
Nadia Swanson, LCSW, Social Worker, Callen-Lorde Community Health Center
Lorenzo Van Ness, Facilitator, Coalition for the Homelessness
PS- If you are curious about this class and want to check out the syllabus, click below!
Juliana M. Weissbein, CFRE is a respected leader and decision influencer in regard to fundraising operations best practices. With over a decade of experience, Juliana thrives on professional growth, team success, measurable results, and inspiring fundraisers to utilize data-based strategies. Juliana currently serves as the Associate Director of Development Operations at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She is an AFP Global Board Member, AFP Global's 2019 Outstanding Young Professional Fundraiser and is a member of the AFP Global Women's Impact Initiative. Juliana is immediate past chair of the AFP New York City chapter’s Emerging Leaders Committee and currently serves on the chapter’s board chairing their mentorship program. She resides in Houston, TX and never turns down a good kombucha.