Denver Michele Healy, the new chief of staff for SEIU’s Organizing Department, and one of the founding directors of their WAVE training program for new organizers, started one session of the Organizers’ Forum by listing the six things that she felt were critical in good training and retention of competent organizers. Number 2 on the list was “Job/Life Balance.” She got to that item in her remarks, and said simply, “We don’t know anything about that so there’s nothing we have to say,” and then she moved deftly on to number 3 as the whole crowd roared in laughter and recognition. The “job/life” balance question is not one where most organizing operations have great records.
Scott Reed of PICO’s national staff had spoken of this theme earlier as an increasing “entitlement” in the way a current generation of organizers sees the work. He had to also explain during questioning that he saw this as a good thing, which almost says as much about how these questions are changing as anything.
The evolution of organizer development in the last 40-50 years from “sink or swim” and “survival of the fittest” to the new language and discussion of around training and development is definitely a new thing, and many of the people in the room bridged these times. I can still remember Saul Alinksy arguing that women could not be organizers because they were too emotional, and at the best they could not be hired until after menopause because they would not fully commit to the work until they were older. Saul, thankfully, would not recognize the work now and the organizers who work in it.
The decision for organizers to raise children despite the demands of hours and travel has not been a simple one for many. Inevitably people have adapted rather than the work, which is part of the quid pro quo of organizing, and why Michele’s comments were fiercely honest. We all do it, but we ask no quarter, while occasionally giving some.
Sue Chinn from the Center for Community Change incredulously asked Helene O’Brien, ACORN’s National Field Director, how was it possible that she was able to get women to agree when hired by ACORN to go away from their homes and children for 3 months or more. Without skipping a beat Helene described how real women wanting to be in the work call friends, family and ex-spouses about watching the kids, how sometimes kids are brought with them, and any number of work around solutions that make this work.
Chris Anderson, an organizing coordinator from the British Columbia Government Employees Union, a private and public sector union of 60,000, found the whole discussion incomprehensible. The wages, benefits, and vacations are so liberal that they cannot get rid of staff he joked. Starting pay at $60,000 and 10-12 weeks of vacation were factors he cited, but the fact that organizing is new there and only within one state also makes a difference no doubt.
These are hard questions and no doubt the times they are a-changing, but the work everyone agreed will always be member centered, not staff centered, and it will always be hard and against the odds, so the answer to the job/life balance is never going to be ideal, even as it might improve.
For all of the worry these group of veteran organizers had when Naomi Roth, the director of Green Corps, asked if she could poll people there after the small groups on whether they would spend money from a windfall on new staff and programs or old staff, 90% raised their hands that their dollars would go to build the work with new staff. That’s the way organizers always vote on these questions. You have to go with what helps the organization grow, and the devil takes the hindmost.