Improving work conditions or remaking a living?

You make your living, I’ll make mine: It’s a limiting strategy for social change. What becomes possible when we make our collective wealth visible?


When I set out on this project, I gravitated to the term ‘decent work’ conditions. This was a strategic decision about how best to frame the issue of what’s challenging about being a young leader in the nonprofit sector, particularly for those trying to organize something new in their own communities.

Now, I see that a focus on work conditions leaves the wider picture of our livelihoods out of the frame. As the pace of our lives quickens, it’s time to reimagine what it means to ‘make a living’ while making social change.

Making youth labour visible

Grassroots youth-led work is often invisible, in the same way that feminized work is made invisible. It is relationship-based and challenges the status quo. It derives from a source of strength within communities whose strengths have been traditionally ignored in the mainstream of our country.

I liked the framing of ‘decent work’ because it highlighted this work as labour that is taking place under the guise of the grant system, but outside the realm of traditional employee-employer protections. As it stands now, the invisibility of grassroots youth work makes it very easy for promising early initiatives to get taken up by ‘big guy’ organizations without due credit or compensation.

In quiet moments of trust, I’ve heard stories of how young organizers themselves are often left out in the cold, struggling to pay the bills and keep healthy. Meanwhile, their projects and ideas end up in the hands of professionals who — despite their integrity and the best of intentions — don’t have the relationships or personal stake needed to realize the original vision.

Grassroots youth-led work is often invisible. Meanwhile, their projects and ideas end up in the hands of professionals who don’t have the relationships or personal stake needed to realize the original vision.

Changing this predicament is still as urgent as ever. It’s a change that starts in our own minds.

…Yes, but visible to whom?

I was having coffee with a trusted friend the other day, and was probably rambling my way around this thorny briar patch of questions. And in rough paraphrase, her reply was that the ultimate blow colonizers gave to indigenous peoples was to enforce individualitic norms on top of a collectivist culture — to make everything about our own independent pursuits.

European settlers then, and many others since, have re-enforced the idea that, to be fully human, we each need to commit ourselves to securing private gains, to buying our private land, to building a private house, and to filling it with our private possessions. This brought about an important re-learning in me. As we try to get out of this predicament around work conditions, we run the risk of recreating the problem we are trying to solve: you make your living, I’ll make mine.

To push back against a system within which you do not hold power, it takes lots and lots of work. It means diverting the flows of authority, incentives, and resources that move in concentrated directions. It’s a continual drive to change the hearts and minds and will of others.

Making collective wealth visible to ourselves

Changing these flows is important work. But what I’m realizing is that it cannot be done by further buying into an individualist wage culture that impoverishes our shared health and sustainability. It’s going to need to start with a change in the hearts and minds and will of ourselves.

As we try to get out of this predicament around work conditions, we run the risk of recreating the problem we are trying to solve: you make your living, I’ll make mine.

If the problem is that young organizers are overburdened, under-supported and under-valued — even as they create organizations, hold together programs, care for people that the system will not, and maintain a whole constellation of relationships across the system — is it irresponsible to redouble our energy together in a whole new effort of pushing pushing pushing? Instead of demanding more more more of our individual selves, how can we start to create the conditions for a decent living that is shared within a community of caring that touches on our immediate lives?

What does it look like to remake a living?

Remaking a living

These past few months, I have been hosting conversations with people from all across the nonprofit and community organizing spaces. And, to toot my own horn for a moment, I’m pretty good at getting people to share their deeper stories of self — about their fears, their hopes, their highest dreams for what their work and lives could become.

From people of all backgrounds, what I’m hearing is that we may succeed in creating local moments of inclusivity and trust, but everyone seems deeply anxious about the personal necessities we must forego in order to confront collective problems. Even people with so-called stable jobs speak to these scary effects of precarious work.

Instead of demanding more more more of our individual selves, how can we start to create the conditions for a decent living that is shared within a community of caring that touches on our immediate lives?

What alternatives do we have for translating individual precarity into collective support? Take GYC, for example. We often talk about ourselves as a family — people we can trust enough to let our guard down and take off the ‘game face.’ But what does the idea of family suggest? It suggests children, partners, extended relations that stretch out in all directions and into the future. It means that we enter into a space as more than individuals, and care about our how we’re doing as a collective.

Many of us talk about staying involved in social justice work for a long time. Personally, I’m thinking about a 50-year plan for how we can together keep our passion, fire, health and livelihoods intact. What kind of internal action beyond our individual wages and work conditions is necessary for that to happen?

Stepping off the treadmill

I often think of the grant system as a treadmill. You run as fast as you can to keep up with what the contraption demands of you, and hope all your forward momentum as individuals translates to some collective strength. There are flashing buttons and pre-programmed settings that I don’t entirely understand, even after working in government, nonprofit and academic institutions for 8 years.

Instead, I wonder: what is this race we are training for? Where does it even lead?

If I am right in sensing that most of us don’t like the pre-programmed settings, the natural reaction might be to try and reprogram the machine: slow it down, lessen the incline, program in some rest periods. So we strategize together: How can we reprogram the machine? (And on some days, how can we smash it?)

Everyone seems deeply anxious about the personal necessities we must forego in order to confront collective problems. If we release the necessities of the current economic framework together, even a little bit, what ‘new’ living could we remake?

But of course there is another option: just get off of it. Not to escape or run away — though for some, that’s a valid response — but simply to look each other in the eyes, and walk together. Where could we end up then?

In the words of my wise friend over coffee, “Necessity narrows what’s possible.” If that’s true, how do we work with our communities and families to change what’s necessary? What becomes possible then?

The possibility of what’s truly necessary

In this case, the necessity to push for better work conditions within the current economic framework — where does that treadmill really lead?

I know this is a loaded question. Of course I’ve benefited from the privileges of waged labour already in my life, so it’s easier for me to question it. That necessity for a decent wage is for sure a real constraint that is imposed on us every day, and it’s harder for some of us than others to move beyond it. But I still believe that the necessity (at least in part) comes from within us, and it can be changed.

If we release that necessity together, even a little bit, what ‘new’ living could we remake?