Living Labor




Organizers are taught that organizing work should not be paid, because this work is focused on disrupting the structures of our capitalist society, not validating them. Women and femmes are taught that our work is less valuable, because we are often required to do extra forms of labor for no pay. This summer, I have felt like I do not deserve to be paid for doing organizing, feminist, and support work, and I have been experimenting with what it means to make my work and home lives about radical space-making. I have learned to trust myself and to address my needs.

At the beginning of the summer, Jeanette Stokes, the Executive Director of RCWMS, told me and my co-intern that when we read books, go to events, or have conversations that open our minds, that counts as work. I was amazed when she reminded us as a member of the Durham Living Wage project, RCWMS had to ask us to limit our hours so that our stipend check would provide a living wage. She supports our organizing work, and makes sure that we understand that the organizing that we do—whether that is doing emotional support work for friends, going to meetings, or going to rallies or marches—is real and valid labor. I found myself wondering: if all of these things I do are work, then what is left? If nearly everything I do counts as work, what is leisure? It is so unusual to hear organizing work spoken of as real work, rather than as an “extracurricular activity.” I decided to see what would happen when my work and life times is allowed to elide into each other, rather than remain rigid. Hours are socially constructed anyways!

I have learned how important it is to follow the people and things that show an abundance of life. Jeanette gave us a lot of discretion in deciding what our summer projects would be, relying on us to come up with our own projects. When we began the internship, I was following the work of organizers from Muslims for Social Justice, the Movement to End Racism and Islamophobia, and Redneck Revolt, who were coming up with a response to an Islamophobic rally organized by the hate group ACT for America on June 10. One of the successes of the counterdemonstration to that rally was that many Muslim women led the protest and were vocal in their opposition to the hate group. These organizers were amazing, and I wanted to follow the spirit of the community-driven organizing for power. I also wanted to plug into the life-filled work of Southerners on New Ground, a queer liberationist organization that is organizing mass bail-outs in order to challenge the money bail system, because of its amazing shared understanding of kinship and liberation. This pursuit of life-filled organizations has taken me to meetings and events that are outside of standardized “work time,” because most people don’t have the privilege of working at RCWMS, but the meetings have helped me to connect with people from all methods of local organizing. When my life is my work, the work has to be generative and sustaining, or I would have burned out long ago.

I have learned that it is important to check in with myself to see what I have capacity to do, and to listen to that. One of the biggest drains on my energy has been in disagreeing with folks from the Triangle chapter of Indivisible, and trying to resolve these disagreements enough to continue working together. For example, there was a rally July 5th outside Senator Tillis’ Raleigh office that stressed patriotism and asked participants to wear red, white, and blue. I believe that supporting the US supports genocide, slavery, and imperialism, and I had some long conversations with other RCWMS folks about why I would not wave a US flag. Similarly, when the group asked if we could give gifts to the Homeland Security officers who guard the federal building, I wound up in another series of conversations about the violence that any sign of allyship with police forces adds to a protest space. It has been stressful and isolating for me to use my personal relationships and Facebook presence to have these work-related conversations, and I have had to learn to trust my own beliefs in communities that disagree. I have also had to learn to trust my need to turn off Facebook, not respond to every email right away, or let the other person have the last word in the conversation. Avoiding overextending myself can be difficult, but the Resource Center has provided a wonderful space to be honest with myself about my capacity.

I have learned how to ask for help, and how important it is to be grateful to the communities that help me. I enjoy doing support work for my friends—listening to rants, checking in with them, and doing whatever I can to help them have a good day. But sometimes, that has affected my work schedule: I take my personal life with me to work, and my work life with me when I go home. It would be silly to imagine that I become a different person when I leave the apartment in the morning. So it has taken some support work from others during hard times, both from the people at work and the people in my personal community, for me to continue. I have had to shift my understanding of my work space and my “home” space into an understanding of communities: what are the communities I am engaged in, and what can we do for each other in these communities? Luckily, one of Jeanette’s defining skills is her capacity to connect people and help them to identify the communities they want to participate in. I am confident that the RCWMS community will continue to be a place of support, in work and in personal capacities, for me to connect with after the summer.