Under a promotional YouTube video for the AmeriCorps program I was a part of for two years, an anonymous user had commented “this is the cult of Obama”. In the winter of 2016, that was enough to get my high-school self to apply.
Near the end of my first year, one of my closest friends and I went to a coffee shop after a professional development training, donning the bright-red bomber jackets that were a signature of our program. While we were there, a man asked us what organization we were a part of and, when we explained that our job was essentially to tutor students who were identified as “drop out risks” due to their performance on standardized tests, he asked us if we felt like we were actually making any lasting impact. Despite the myriad of organization leaders and donors telling us how important our work was, and despite the fact that both of us loved our service (and had in fact committed to another year of it) we both immediately said no.
Over the past year or so, I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the non-profit industrial complex. While interning at a non-profit this past summer (one I still work with and love dearly), my intern class had an internal conversation about how our organization, as a non-profit, played a role in suppressing radical movements and allowing the wealthy to maintain their wealth while still looking morally upright. I vividly remember being in a breakout room with my supervisor and another intern, all of us realizing there was an ideological mismatch between our jobs and our visions of a more just world, but not being able to envision a job that was “better”. It resonated very deeply when Rep. Hurtado mentioned his sort of necessary hope that just being a voice at the table could help affect the change that he wants to see in a system like electoral politics.
Bayard Rustin seems to be a fairly clear-cut example of the struggle between practicality and disruption. When he found himself entrenched in the Democratic party, comrades who’d worked with him for revolution called him a traitor. It is an incredibly difficult choice to make. There is a practicality that comes with joining established systems like nonprofits or electoral politics or even a university. Frankly, it’s hard to get paid to organize a revolution – who’s going to fund it? There seems to be a certain amount of a sacrifice that comes with being a revolutionary – incarceration, a struggle to put food on the table and survive. On the flipside, choosing the “safer” route of joining an establishment often means sacrificing some of the more radical politics you might hold, at least from a professional standpoint.
I struggle a lot with where I want to be on this spectrum. On the one hand, I’ve learned a lot from people I’ve worked with in nonprofits. I do believe that there is capacity for policy to be effective. I continue to attend a university that is, in many ways, still upholding white supremacist values. I have made little sacrifice. But when I think about role models, I turn to revolutionaries. I admire deeply the work of radical organizers, people who sacrifice safety and comfort and commit themselves to true revolution (as opposed to piecemeal individual solutions).
There is a large part of me that feels like, as a student, I’m making the best use of my four years of college simply learning and absorbing so that when I’m a “real” adult, I can be intentional and thoughtful in my decisions. In my heart, though, I find myself called to fight against these establishments, a propensity to believe we need to burn it all down. What to do with this calling? Honestly, I haven’t figured that out yet.