Continuing Off-Kilter’s ongoing series of conversations with leaders across the economic justice movement delving into why, in the famous words of Audre Lorde, self-care is indeed political warfare—and the role radical self-care plays in their own lives to sustain them in this work—this week’s episode zooms out to take a look at the “labor of love” ideology underpinning the notion that social justice advocates must “suffer for the cause.” To do that, Rebecca sat down with longtime labor reporter Sarah Jaffe, whose latest book Work Won’t Love You Back surveys a host of structural factors that have conspired to create burnout culture and what Rebecca has come to call “work sickness” in America’s nonprofit sector—which doesn’t overlap perfectly with the social justice movement but which plays an outsized role in employing people who feel called to devote their lives to a particular social justice cause. They had a far-ranging conversation about the origins of America’s “labor of love” ideology; the history of the nonprofit sector and the culture of martyrdom that’s become so deeply embedded in movement work; how “work sickness” has come to be its own cross-class pandemic amidst late-stage capitalism; and why radical self-care requires redefining our relationship to work.
- Read Work Won’t Love You Back (the whole thing is worth reading, but chapter 5 focuses on the nonprofit sector)
- Follow Sarah on Twitter @sarahljaffe
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REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off-Kilter, a podcast about the fight for economic liberation and what it will take to set us all free, powered by The Century Foundation. I’m Rebecca Vallas, and I’m a former legal aid lawyer turned policy advocate who works with public policy and law, as well as organizing, coalition building, and narrative as tools for building a more just society, one premised on collective consciousness of our common humanity and the inherent dignity and rights that come with being human. Every week I talk with visionary leaders working to reinvigorate our shared imagination and disrupt the off-kilter imbalance of power in the U.S. to build a society where everyone can thrive and experience the shared abundance we all deserve.
Last week, Off-Kilter kicked off our 2023 spring season with something of a different spin by sitting down with the first in a series of leaders across the economic justice movement to dig into why, in the famous words of Audre Lorde, self-care is indeed political warfare, and the role radical self-care plays in their own lives to sustain them in this work. For more on the background behind this series of conversations, I’ll give a plug to go listen to our season opener with the brilliant Aisha Nyandoro. It’s an episode titled Self-care Is Political Warfare. You can also find the essay I wrote describing the goal for this season in show notes.
In addition to laying a foundation for this season and taking a look at the origins of radical self-care, last week’s conversation with Aisha was pretty focused on the micro, how economic justice advocates and anyone engaged in fighting for a cause, whether it’s your day job or not, can show up for themselves and why that’s inextricably linked to how well we’re able to show up for our communities. This week, we’ll be switching gears a little bit and zooming out to take a look at what our next guest calls the “labor of love ideology” underpinning the notion that social justice advocates must suffer for the cause.
As I mentioned in setting the stage for this season as part of last week’s episode, redefining my own relationship to work and truly learning to embody the truth that my worth does not come from my work has been a central part of my own self-care journey and my own process of moving past years of functional burnout after leading a deeply off-kilter life that, until fairly recently, was nearly entirely consumed and defined by my work. And while there’s a lot we can do as individuals in this regard—as Aisha and I talked about last week and as future guests in this series will offer their thoughts on as well—we would be remiss not to take a look at the structural factors that have conspired to create not just burnout culture, but what I’ve come to think of as work sickness in America’s non-profit sector, which I will note doesn’t overlap perfectly with the social justice movement, but which plays an outsized role in employing people who feel called to devote their lives to a particular social justice cause.
So, to help me do just that, I sat down with another brilliant thinker and leader in the economic justice space, longtime labor reporter and author Sarah Jaffe, whose latest book, Work Won’t Love You Back, is a must read for pretty much anyone alive today, in my personal opinion. We had a far-ranging conversation about the underpinnings of what she has termed America’s “labor of love ideology,” the history of the non-profit sector and the culture of martyrdom that’s become so deeply embedded in movement work, how work sickness has come to be its own cross-class pandemic, and why radical self-care requires redefining our relationship to work. You can find out lots more about her book and how to follow her work in show notes. Let’s take a listen. [upbeat music break]
Sarah, thank you so much for taking the time to come back on the show. And it has been a long time. It feels like a different lifetime the last time that we talked for Off-Kilter.
SARAH JAFFE: Yeah, I think was it about the first book that I wrote, which was, it really feels like a million years ago.
VALLAS: It was definitely a million years. It was Necessary Trouble. Yes, that was the last time we talked for the podcast.
JAFFE: Yeah. Wow. [laughs]
VALLAS: Well, it’s great. I know, I know! We’re just processing all the time that has gone by. And in some ways, we’re sort of, one becomes a different person over that span of time, so it’s really exciting to reconnect with you. It’s really exciting to connect with you about your new book. So, I think you’re one of those guests that sort of needs no introduction because most people are probably familiar with your work, but you’re a longtime labor reporter, and you’re someone who I feel like sometimes you’d like to describe yourself as a labor reporter before it was cool, which is absolutely accurate and true. Although we always need more labor reporters.
The last time that I had you on the podcast was to talk about your last book, which was called Necessary Trouble, a sort of a survey of contemporary protest movements. Folks should check that out as well. But I’d love to sort of start this conversation by giving you the chance to tell the story behind your latest book. It’s called Work Won’t Love You Back. You write in the introduction this isn’t a book about you, but you do bring yourself a little bit in at points as an illustration of some of what you’re writing about. So, I’m curious, what’s the inspiration for this book, and how if at all, has your own personal story as a labor reporter, with journalism being an increasingly volatile and unstable profession, informed the reporting in this book?
JAFFE: Yeah. I mean, I think I became a labor reporter because I had a lot of lousy jobs, you know? You don’t sort of get interested in writing about people’s working conditions unless there’s something wrong with your working conditions, which, to be fair, this book should make it very clear that I think there’s something wrong with everybody’s working conditions. But I had had particularly not great experiences in a variety of fields. I worked in retail, I worked in restaurants, and I did that sort of before, during, and after college. And when I finally sort of scrambled my way through graduate school and into a job in journalism, I found a lot of the same conditions still there, right? I was hustling for work. I was getting paid very, very little. I didn’t know how much I would be making from week to week as a freelancer. I had the same kind of lousy bosses in some cases. And it started to occur to me that there’s something in common here that is happening, whether you’re working in sort of the service end of the economy or the part that they try to sell to us, right, the sort of fancy schmancy knowledge economy, creative economy jobs that we are supposed to think we’re really lucky to get to do. And it turns out that once we get there, the conditions are often just as bad as they had been in the service economy, and the money is sometimes even worse!
I talked to somebody the other day who was one of the first organizers of one of the first Starbucks unions, and he was telling me he had been a social worker beforehand. This is in Buffalo. And Starbucks was actually paying him more. And so, you start to look at these things and go, “Huh…. What’s actually connecting all of these dots here?” As I’m doing this work, as I’m sort of struggling to be a labor journalist and I’m telling the stories of fast food workers, but also of reality TV producers were an early story that I did as a freelancer, security guards at the Philadelphia Art Museum, all of these different industries that have a couple things in common. One is that they’re no longer in sort of production writ large, right?
VALLAS: Well, Sarah, I feel like that’s just that’s a perfect place to start and sort of to lay the foundation for some of this conversation, because a core theme of the book—and folks who haven’t read it probably can guess from the title, Work Won’t Love You Back, a little bit of the gist of it. We’ll be getting into it shortly—but a core theme of the book revolves around what you call the “labor of love ideology.” And we’re gonna dive into the non-profit sector in particular in just a little bit. But I first wanna give you the chance to break down what this labor of love ideology is, that I feel like you just started to kind of get into and to describe a little bit.
VALLAS: But help with some definitional work up top. What is the labor of love ideology? How does it describe what you were just stage setting with?
VALLAS: Yeah. So, back in the not-very-distant past at all, industrial labor, that was kind of the backbone of the U.S. and the West. The economy is for a couple hundred years, right? You didn’t have to smile at a car as it went past you on the assembly line. You didn’t have to smile at the coal you were digging out from under the ground, right? The job probably sucked in all sorts of ways, but what it didn’t require of you was to perform enjoyment of it. It certainly didn’t require you to actually enjoy it. In fact, several industrial workers that I’ve spoken to sort of say that it seems like their boss really takes pleasure in making sure they don’t enjoy it. That was a different economy in many, many ways to the one we’re living in now, which really revolves around service labor. And as I was sort of hinting at before, we’ve been told that we’re gonna have a fancy knowledge economy where if everybody learns to code or something, then they’ll all have good jobs, and nobody will have to go dig coal from under the ground or whatever it is. But the reality, of course, is that just most people work in some form of service sector job, and most of those jobs pay very badly. And on top of the fact that they pay very badly, and you had to risk your life during COVID to do them, you have to smile while you’re doing it, right?
The DoorDash person who brings you your delivery order has to be nice to you when he brings it to you, right? The Uber driver has to smile at you while she’s driving you from place to place. The person who checks you out in the Walgreens checkout line has to smile at you. The nurse has to not only smile at you, but also keep you calm and happy and whatever while you’re getting painful medical treatment. So many of these jobs that are, again, a bigger and bigger part of the economy than they used to be, rely on this thing variously called “emotional labor,” “social reproductive labor”: the not just bodies, but sort of hearts and minds of workers.
VALLAS: I love that. And that’s exactly what we’re gonna be digging into, especially with the sort of culture within the non-profit sector. But I wanna give you the chance to talk a little bit about kind of how we got here, right? And one of the phrasings in the book that really stuck with me was the notion of work becoming one of, if not the predominant path to self-actualization in the United States. I’ll note you also make reference to the UK throughout the book, but most of our listeners are U.S.-based. So, how did we get here to where work is perhaps the prevailing path to self-actualization? And to bring in that love concept as well, right, how did we get to a place where for a lot of people—and I’ll put myself in this camp—work has become a substitute for love, whether that’s romantic love or whether that’s even really self-love?
JAFFE: Yeah, I think one of the challenges about this is that these narratives are never perfect, right? There are always holes in it. When I was waiting tables, I had no illusions that my job was my great purpose in life, right? But I was still supposed to like it. If I didn’t perform liking it well enough for my employers, they would sort of push me out the door. I remember going to a job interview once at this restaurant. It was a sushi restaurant that I ended up working out for like a year and a half in Denver, Colorado. And my soon-to-be boss of this job interview for a job for which he’s going to pay me $2.13 an hour, and the rest is gonna be tips, asking me very seriously where I saw myself in five years. And the only thing I could think was like, “You don’t get to ask me that question for $2.13 an hour!” But of course, he did, right? And this idea that I owed him not only showing up sober for $2.13 an hour, but that I owed him some sort of emotional investment in his mid-level sushi restaurant. And look, I love sushi, but like, [laughs] you know, working in a restaurant did not bring me great joy. And I was super invested in the idea that when I got out and I got into a better job, that it would bring me meaning, and it would bring me pleasure and also social capital and all of those fun things that we’re told to get from work. And again, what I found was that my conditions hadn’t changed all that much. I was still having to sort of lay out pieces of myself for mostly men who got to treat me like garbage for whatever not enough money they were paying me.
And I think part of the challenge of understanding this as an overarching narrative of work today is that it’s really easy to slip into, “Well, we do all take meaning from our work.” And I just don’t wanna accept that we do. I think a lot of people don’t get meaning from their work. And a lot of people are maybe like me, and they think, “If I have a better job, then I will get some meaning from work.” Because I’ve been told aggressively over and over since the time I was a child and people started asking me at age, I don’t know, three what I wanted to be when I grew up, that this was something that would come to be because of my sort of desire and ambition, right? Well, 100 years ago, you wouldn’t have asked little Sarah what she wanted to be when she grew up because she would’ve been a Jewish girl, and she would’ve either worked in her parents’ business or she would’ve been a housewife right? It’s a fairly new question to ask somebody, “What do you wanna be when you grow up,” unless you are a tiny number of rich men who went to Harvard or Yale, you know? And so, when you think about these questions of how this story has changed, of what is ostensibly available to us versus the reality of what’s available to us, of all of those cracks in the system that this story of loving your job is supposed to paper over.
VALLAS: Yeah, I, and I’m actually, I’m getting chills while you’re saying some of that just also thinking it’s not just the question of like, “What do you wanna be when you grow up?” It’s also you kind of can’t go anywhere in society today without the first question someone asks you when you’re just in a social situation being, “So, what do you do? What do you do for work?” It’s like that’s the definitional question, right? That’s the whether it’s a cocktail party or whether it’s small talk at someone’s house or whether it’s you’re all hanging out, watching TV, if there’s someone you’re meeting and you don’t know that person, that’s the first question almost everyone’s gonna ask is, “So, what do you do?” And that becomes sort of the proxy for, “Who are you?”
VALLAS: So, I…. What you’re saying resonates very deeply for me. And I’ll just say, as the daughter of a sociologist of work, you know I wanna get nerdy about this a little bit and bring in some of the history here. Obviously, what we’re talking about is not unique to the United States, but it is sort of [inaudible]—
JAFFE: Very much not.
VALLAS: —but taken to its logical conclusion here for sure.
VALLAS: And so, help us understand kind of how we got to this point in human history where what you do is sort of held up as equivalent to or a substitute for or a proxy for your meaning in society, and therefore, the thing that you’re supposed to chase to find meaning. It takes us—and we referenced this very obliquely last week but didn’t have a chance to really get into it ‘cause I knew we were gonna do it here—takes us back to like the Protestant work ethic and Calvinist pre-determinism. So, roll the clock back for us. Tell us some of the history.
JAFFE: Yeah! I mean, I’m gonna go back even further than the Protestant work ethic, and I’m gonna go back to the Enclosure.
JAFFE: So, we’re gonna go all the way back, right?
VALLAS: Do it! Do it, do it.
JAFFE: Right! Back in the day during feudalism—which we’re not gonna say it was great ‘cause it was awful—but poor people who are basically anybody who didn’t own land had access to some land that wasn’t owned, right? That there was common space that you could have some access to, that you could feed yourself and sort things out without sort of having to go get a job. And what ends up happening in Merry Old England is they take everybody off the land. Short version. Very, very short version. Sorry, historians. Everybody gets kicked off the land, and you either are once again lucky enough to be born a duke or an earl or a whatever, and you still own the land, or you have to go get a job. And this is sort of the rise of the bourgeoisie as a thing that exists that owns the so-called means of production. So, you have to go get a job all of a sudden. A lot of people didn’t like that very much. They didn’t want to go get a job for obvious reasons. Most of the jobs then made the jobs that exist now look great. They were painful. There were absolutely no regulations on what your boss could do to you while you were in there. And horrible workplace accidents were very common, doing any number of forms of miserable pre-industrial and industrial labor, right?
So, the very beginning of wage labor is not that humans were sitting around going, “Gee, I’m bored, and I need to self-actualize, and I need something to do with my life that will give me meaning.” There were people kicking them off the land so they could force them to work and pay them as little as possible. And then slavery was also a whole part of that, where you go in to just go kidnap some people and force them to work for absolutely nothing until they died horribly. So, we’re really talking about the beginnings of the things that we think of as jobs: being coercive, if not actually forced, and nobody would have ever considered them meaningful or something you did for pleasure. And over the course of a few hundred years, you have labor struggles after labor struggles after labor struggles, most of which were over the length of the working day, right? So, you had to fight for a 12-hour working day and one day off a week. Then you had to fight for a ten-hour working day. Then you had to fight for an eight-hour workday, and then you wanted to add a whole other day off? You get a weekend? What is this business? And the French are still very good at upholding this, right? The government right now wants to do something with the working age, make people like, raise the retirement age, I think it is, right? So, make people work a little bit longer. And the French just set bunch of things on fire every time we try to do that. It’s great. [laughs] But this is the history of work: that it was miserable and people tried to do as little of it as they possibly could and were essentially forced to keep doing more and more of it. And that was the fundamental struggle.
And that continues to kind of be the fundamental struggle right up until the Great Depression where we start to see essentially mass unemployment to a level where you get the first iteration of something that Joshua Clover called the “affirmation trap,” where people are suddenly going, “Oh, we really need jobs,” not, “these jobs are miserable things that we are forced to do,” but like, “oh crap, we need them.” And this is the thing that gives us all of the labor legislation that we have in this country that is in any way meaningful basically comes out of this period. It’s been expanded and made accessible to more people, but essentially, what we get to regulate work in this country is born out of a period of time when a lot of people were unemployed. And to try to prevent them from basically having a revolution, politicians did something to improve working conditions.
So, what comes after that is—again, this is, like, this is the world’s sloppiest gloss on this stuff, obviously, because I’m doing several hundred years of history in five minutes—but what ends up happening, particularly after World War II, is that American unions in particular, but also unions across Western Europe, essentially stop fighting for shorter working hours and control over the means of production. They stop fighting over who’s gonna control the work process. And they stop fighting for this sort of freedom from work. And basically, it begins to be a fight for, as everybody would like to say, a bigger share of the pie, better pay, slightly better working conditions, retirement benefits, healthcare benefits, which contribute to the rise of healthcare as a sector of the economy that has a ton of jobs in it. And that holds up until about the 1970s.
But then it turns out that steadily paying workers more money all the time costs capitalists something. It costs them a chunk of their profits. And whenever something else comes along, squeeze those profits from another angle, well, they wanna squeeze the workers to make the money back. So, you get an oil crisis in the early 1970s, and suddenly, we get an increase in union busting, but also an increase in companies packing up the factory in Ohio or Indiana or Michigan and moving it first to the U.S. South, then to south of the U.S. border, then to China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, any number of places where the work is being done now, where there were fewer labor regulations and fewer environmental regulations. So, basically, places where you could do horrible things to workers with much less oversight. And what fills in the gaps when those jobs go away? A lot of it was, again, healthcare jobs, service economy jobs, women going to work when their husbands suddenly didn’t have a job. And that is broadly the change in the economy that we sometimes refer to as neoliberalism. So, deindustrialization brings not just sort of a shift in attitudes, but a real shift in what work people are doing. And I will pause there because that is a lot that I described.
VALLAS: You can describe it as a sloppy historical look back. I have to say that was actually heroic [laughing] to put that much history into five minutes there!
VALLAS: So, thank you, Sarah.
JAFFE: I feel like I just did a rap battle on the history of labor.
VALLAS: You kind of did! And maybe if that’s not a thing that’s been done before, maybe that’s a thing you should pitch.
JAFFE: [laughing sigh]
VALLAS: And maybe we should have that happen on this show in the future. You can think about who you would wanna go up against in that.
JAFFE: Oh, God. No one. This is terrible.
VALLAS: Oh, my God. It would be so much fun, no! But now, so, cut to present day, right? And here we are. Here we are at sort of late-stage capitalism, right, where people use the word “neoliberalism.” A lot of people honestly don’t necessarily understand what it means. There was a particular phrasing in your book that I loved, which sort of sums it up nicely, which is that we’ve got this idea of freedom not from work, but through work, right? That’s kind of where we are now in terms of how we understand how work shows up in our lives.
VALLAS: But I wanna sort of zoom in on this moment that we’re finding ourselves in, with all of that as sort of how we got here. And I wanna do that by first bringing up a word that a lot of people who work in social justice spaces or who fight for a cause or who do economic justice work, whatever way they define their relationship to the issues we talk about on this show. I’m gonna bring in a word that a lot of folks I’m gonna guess feel like applies to the people and the communities that they fight for justice for, but which a lot of people may not actually feel applies in their own lives and their own relationship to their work. So, I’m just gonna, just fair warning, I’m gonna go there. And this word is “exploitation.”
VALLAS: Now, you make a point of lifting up and intentionally defining the term “exploitation” up front in your intro, and you note really, really explicitly that it has applicability across class lines. This is not just something happening to really, really, really low-paid workers. Some of the folks you were talking about, when we first started going with this conversation, maybe in service or in sectors that are generally thought of as ones that are rife with and based on exploitation as a business model. And so, I wanna bring in this definition from your introduction. I’m gonna read it briefly here.
“Exploitation,” you write, “is not merely extra bad work or a job you particularly dislike. These are delusions,” you write, “foisted on us by the labor of love myth. Exploitation is wage labor under capitalism, where the work you put in produces more value than the wages you are paid are worth. Exploitation,” you continue, “is the process by which someone else profits from your labor. This is true whether you’re a nanny making $10 an hour, allowing your employer to make much more money at her higher-paid job, or a programmer at Google making $200,000 a year while Google rakes in over $7 billion.” And so, again, I wanna bring the same kind of up front as we segue into talking about non-profit work and social justice work, because I am struck that a lot of folks—and I’ll say this again, just ‘cause I wanna be clear about kind of who we’re talking about here in this really crossing class lines and into the professional class—I am struck that a lot of folks who work in social justice work may think about exploitation being something that happens to other people and not as something that happens to them as workers who are engaged in that very fight. So, talk a little bit about exploitation, and then that will be our bridge as we get into talking about the non-profit sector.
JAFFE: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s the thing, right? Exploitation is the business model under capitalism. There’s sort of no way around it, even if we’re working in so-called non-profits. If you think about it, if you’re somebody who works at a non-profit, and you are getting funded by X or Y Foundation—and this is also my condition a lot of the time, right, as I work for non-profit media. I’ve a fellowship through a non-profit media organization—you’re getting pressured for deliverables all the time, right? That you can’t just sort of do the thing you do and have that be enough. You have to sort of prove that what you’re doing is worth the money, that you have earned the money that you have been given somehow. And that is because that’s the culture of the system that we live under, right? That’s the structure of the system that we live under. And that money that we’re being given is essentially mopping up around the sides of a thing that produces massive human misery. [chuckles]
The same way that we got some sort of labor law in order to keep people from having a revolution, we get a sort of non-profit and charity sector in order to keep people from being so miserable that they do something that might actually upend power relations. So, while non-profits ostensibly don’t make profits, right, if you think about hospitals in the U.S., many of which although not all of which, are on a non-profit model, that doesn’t mean that the nurses and the cleaners and even the doctors aren’t being squeezed to produce as much as possible. That doesn’t mean that somebody at the top isn’t raking in some money. It just means that theoretically, some percentage of the money is going back into keeping operations going. That these things are structured within a system that you can’t sort of opt out of by saying, “Well, these aren’t profits, really.”
And what happens…. I know that there are a couple ways to talk about class, right? There are sociological ways to talk about class where we can sort of endlessly splinter and fragment it into a lot of different things. And then there’s the way of talking about class where we can say that, like for most of us, we have nothing to sell but our labor. That’s what the term “proletariat” means, right? And so, I have a Master’s degree, I have written two books, I have some degree of social capital, I’m still a renter, and if I had ever wanted to have kids, I couldn’t afford to. So, where does that put me in terms of class, right? If we’re talking about college educations and things like that, then I’m on one level. If we’re talking about income, I’m on another level. And if we’re talking about owning property, I’m on still another level, which is to say zero.
So, this question. Again, I noted the person who had been a social worker and working at Starbucks actually paid him more. These lines of class that we think are really ironclad are really not as much as we think they are. And yet, a lot of the non-profit industry has its roots in work that was, again, essentially being done by wealthy middle-class women who weren’t supposed to work for a wage because that was unseemly. But at a point when they started to be able to get some education and be, frankly, bored with sitting around and also, frankly, probably had somebody they were paying to take care of their children for them, what can they do? Well, one of the terms for that kind of charity work was “social housekeeping.” And I think that’s…. It’s always interesting to remember, again, where the ideas of what somebody who works in the sector should be like come from. And if that expectation that you are coming from money, that you don’t need a wage because you are attached to somebody else who makes real money or has real money or owns enough property that they don’t need to work, you get, again, a recipe for really, really bad, and yes, exploitative labor conditions.
VALLAS: And this is where I really wanna go for the balance of our time. So, we’re getting into it. We’re getting into that chapter of your book, which is called Suffer for the Cause, which is really all focused on how the labor of love myth shows up in the non-profit sector. So, let’s go there fully, and let’s get into it. Before we do that, I wanna offer a couple of caveats. Number one is I wanna be really clear. This conversation is not to say that all non-profits are terrible or bad. [chuckles] We are not here to say that non-profits are, by virtue of their existence, somehow a bad thing. In fact, a lot of non-profits do really good work. I happen to be affiliated with one of them. It happens to power this podcast. So, that being said, the fact that non-profits can do really good work and often are involved in really important and good work does not mean we shouldn’t have conversations that take a look at the working conditions and the culture of the sector. And that’s a lot of what the rest of this episode is gonna do. So, there we go. My inner lawyer’s happy. We’ve offered the caveat. Okay.
So, Sarah, getting into this, you started to sort of get there, to go there in terms of talking about not just how exploitation shows up, not just within for-profit work, but as the predominant model that, at this moment in human history, with capitalism being the structure that we live inside, that even if we’re working for non-profits, it doesn’t mean we’re immune from the same features, shall we call them, of capitalism as folks who work on the for-profit side experience. And so, what I really wanna do with this kind of next chunk of the conversation is to give you a chance to talk a little bit about not just your reporting on the sector in what shows up as Chapter Five of Work Won’t Love You Back, but also, to tell a little bit of that history that you just started to go to about kind of what got us to where we have a non-profit sector, where it started. You started by mentioning that it was quote-unquote “women’s work” in its origins. So, and then we’re gonna talk a little bit about how it gets to, how it connects to a conversation about burnout and radical self-care in keeping with this season.
So, I’ll just note that you open that chapter by profiling a particular worker, a worker named Ashley Brink, who worked at the time for Planned Parenthood and for a particular clinic in her community. And the quote that will resonate for a lot of folks is, “You don’t do the work for the money. You do this because you care about it, right?” It’s a thing I have said many, many times throughout my career working for non-profits. It is a thing that gets said a lot: “Oh, we don’t do this work for the money,” right? And I also wanna be really clear. Non-profits are not one-to-one with the larger social justice movement. There is a lot of overlap, but they are not totally the same.
JAFFE: Right, exactly.
VALLAS: But they do make up a huge, huge, outsized part of it and play an outsized role in employing people who feel called to devote some portion of their lives to a particular cause. So, that’s part of how we get to talking about the non-profit sector as really, really relevant for interrogating the culture of the larger social justice movement. So, with that, talk a little bit about Ashley Brink, that Planned Parenthood worker that you met and that you profiled for this chapter. And then that’ll take us into a little bit more of how this labor of love ideology shows up in the non-profit sector and how we got here.
JAFFE: Yeah. So, Ashley Brink, like many workers at Planned Parenthood specifically, and in the non-profit sector writ large over the last several years, was involved in a union drive. Ashley and their coworkers at this particular—it was Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains—so this particular Planned Parenthood affiliate, well, you know, I tell Ashley’s story. They were making something like $12 an hour at the time for doing really sort of very difficult medical assistant work at a workplace that often had right-wing protesters picketing outside of it. There had been a shooting at one of the Colorado Planned Parenthoods not that long before we talked. And doing all that work for $12 an hour was exhausting, right? Ashley in particular was a sort of swing worker, which meant that they were a fill-in for any clinic around the state, basically, of Colorado that needed extra help because somebody was out sick or whatever. So, a lot of their time was spent traveling.
And it’s a real look at the work that goes into this that I think is even more important to talk about in this post Roe v. Wade moment, where healthcare workers, reproductive healthcare workers, and abortion clinic workers are under increased amounts of pressure, stress, threat, legal threat now, that wasn’t there before maybe. Yeah, think about the conditions they were working under. And so, Ashley and their coworkers decided that maybe they should have a union, and maybe this would help them have a seat at the table to discuss how the organization was being run, what they could do to better serve their patients, and how they could prevent themselves from being completely exhausted at the end of every day. So, in that moment, Planned Parenthood didn’t love the idea of them unionizing. Just kind of like basically no boss ever loves the idea of their employees unionizing, no matter how radical and left-wing and pro-labor they say they are. I mean, that includes unions, right? Unions don’t terribly love when their staff workers form a staff union. [laughs] So, this is just an ongoing thing.
But particularly what happens when non-profit workers and caring workers—which of course, the Planned Parenthood workers are both—when they start to organize and make any demands for themselves, it’s immediately sort of pitted against the people they serve. So, “Oh my goodness! If you have improved working conditions, it will actually take something away from our patients.” When, of course, if you think about it rationally, that doesn’t make any sense. Having a well-paid, well-rested person assisting at my medical procedure, whatever it might be, is probably better for me than the opposite, than having them be exhausted and broke, right? But nonetheless, this ended up becoming a long and messy campaign for union recognition. They had to win an election. Planned Parenthood didn’t voluntarily recognize the union, and then an even messier process of bargaining. And this is true in a lot of places that’s happening right now. I’ve been following the story of Planned Parenthood North Central States, which is in the middle of unionizing right now. That is Minnesota and surrounding states.
And so, when we, again, I can’t stress enough that these are conditions that are pushed into the non-profit sector because that’s the broader conditions of work everywhere writ large, right? Planned Parenthood is also trying to squeeze more work out of its workers than it pays for, right, whether or not that money is being recouped in profits or whether that’s just less money they have to fundraise at the end of the year. The budgets are always being balanced on the backs of the people who do the work.
VALLAS: So, Sarah, and I feel like that offers just a lot in terms of a glimpse at this particular chapter of the book and also a glimpse at one person that you’ve lifted up as just a, [uncomfortable chuckle] a sadly commonplace sort of poster child, right, of people who work within non-profits who are dedicated, deeply dedicated to the cause, as Ashley describes throughout this chapter, but who are trying to figure out how to pretzel themselves to show up for the people that they’re serving in this work while not being paid enough, but also being treated with conditions that aren’t sustainable.
VALLAS: I wanna give you, and I’m gonna ask you to do a little more history work here because you just did a lot before, but it’s just you’re so good at it, Sarah. You’re just you’re really good at bringing in history. So, I have to ask you one more time to do this, a little bit more of this, which is to tell a little bit of the history of the non-profit sector and its evolution, right? You mentioned briefly before that it started as something that was viewed as social housekeeping and really for women who were looking for something to do. Today, now, people often refer to it as the “non-profit industrial complex,” a phrase that itself should be unpacked. I suspect folks would actually find it really interesting to hear kind of how we got from the origins of the non-profit sector to where it is today. And obviously, philanthropy plays a huge role in that story. So, tell a little bit, if you can, of the short version of the history behind the non-profit sector and why it’s relevant as we talk about working conditions, and frankly, what it’s like to be someone involved in work in the non-profit sector today.
JAFFE: Right. So, again, as I sort of already said, the non-profit sector comes from attempts to put Band-Aids on the biggest gaping wounds of capitalism. So, what was charity work from the beginning? It was taking care of the poor. It was giving alms to the poor, right? It was done by churches in a lot of cases. It was done because it was good for your soul to care for the poor. And then turn of the last century, so I’m talking late 1800s, early 1900s, you start to get this expansion of philanthropy. Again, these people who have massive, massive fortunes. And then they’re going to deign to, like, build an opera house and slap their name on it or something, right? They’re gonna fund this or that thing, and that’s gonna be great. And they’re gonna give this or that money to doing some sort of work to help poor people, right, basically poor people, other forms of oppressed and exploited people at various intersections of various forms of oppression. But mostly, at the end of the day, we’re talking about poor people.
And what this does, especially in the cutbacks that follow, again, the World Wars and then edging into the neoliberal era when there are massive, massive cuts to the public sector, is it creates a set of structures that fill in for things that the state either has never done or no longer does to make sure that we don’t have massive numbers of people sleeping on the streets. Although in the U.S. these days we have a lot of people sleeping on the streets because, well, none of this is actually working very well as a system. So, part of the problem with all of this, right, is that like, the Ford Foundation isn’t really going to fund that much of a critique of the entire system that created Henry Ford. Now, that’s not always entirely fair because I’m on your podcast, and I’ve gotten money from, actually Ford Foundation wrote us a grant for Belabored recently.
VALLAS: And us, too, and I have to have to disclose that also! So, yep.
JAFFE: Yeah. So, you know, there are things. But what they’re not going to do is fundamentally sort of bankroll a change in their own positions of power. And a lot of people, again, who work in these places, who are employees of these organizations, would love to do that. But you’re going to be coming up against the pressures of it the whole time.
There’s a story in the book that I included because I saw it in two different places. It was talking about George Soros being in a meeting of all of these people who work for his various philanthropic outlets. And George Soros spends a lot of money on trying to do good things in the world, right? But they tell the story of him sort of pounding his fist on the table and saying, “It’s my money! We will do it my way.” And then somebody in the back of the room piping up and saying, “Actually, if you paid your taxes at the rate they’re supposed to be, it would actually be the government’s money.” And that story sort of epitomizes a lot of what’s happening here, right? Is that we end up with an incredibly privatized welfare state and these privatized organizations around the edges that are trying to fix things. There’s government money in some of this stuff too, right? A lot of people who are working in non-profits are also getting grants from cities, states, federal governments. This is also true in the arts sector, where you get a combination of sort of private philanthropy and public money, not much public money in this country, but in others, a little bit more. And all of it is supposed to cobble together support for the kinds of things that people want, but it isn’t terribly profitable to provide, right? That’s really where the sort of non-profit part comes in. [laughs] And so, what happens here, right, is two things. One is that a bunch of very exhausted people who are not getting paid very much are trying to make up for all of the gaps in a giant shredded social safety net. And two, is that anything that’s sort of too radical is not going to get funded.
VALLAS: And I’ll add another dimension of it, just as somebody who spends a lot of my time raising money to do the work, right?
JAFFE: And that’s exhausting.
VALLAS: So, a lot of this actually resonated. It’s what’s totally exhausting. But you really, you make this point beautifully. It’s a whole other job in and of itself, right? Like, there’s doing the work of, and yeah, a lot of what I do is not direct service provision these days. I’m a former legal aid lawyer, but I spend most of my time these days trying to change unjust policies and laws in the spirit of redistributing power and wealth. But even in this role that I play now, right, I spend a ton of time raising money so that we can do that work. And it’s a totally different skill set. [laughs] It’s a totally different…. You know, instead of just hours in the day that it has to happen so that we can do the work. And part of what you really describe beautifully in this chapter, and which really resonated for me as well, is because of that obsession with deliverables, as they’re often called, which you referenced before, which is very much kind of a carryover from the for-profit side of things, but into this philanthropy funded non-profit space, you end up with this kind of commodification of the work, right?
VALLAS: It’s like we’re all in this position of not just needing to ask for money, but needing to show constantly what we’re doing with it in a way where we’re making the case that we’re doing more with less, while also trying to show that what we’re doing is better than what somebody else is doing in the field and that therefore, we’re more deserving of the money than their organization is. And all of this, you know, it ends up not just creating unnecessary competition among organizations that, frankly, should be working together because we’re all more effective when we work together towards shared goals, but it also creates this other level of exhaustion because of the time it takes to raise the money, coupled with, as you point out, really, really, really high rates of turnover because, and even at the organizational level, because sometimes the leaders in philanthropy can be just as subject to trends as folks who are on the for-profit side, right? And so, there’s certain things that can become trendy to fund for a little while, and then the trend moves on. And so, you describe one particular organization that had to go under after three years because they were trendy for a minute, and then they couldn’t actually keep raising the money and doing the work at the same time while the trend was moving on.
JAFFE: Yeah, and this is something that we’ve seen a lot in the various waves of the Movement for Black Lives, right? That at first, there was a ton of interest in and money flowing in to Ferguson and the greater St. Louis area, and you had organizations like the Organization for Black Struggle that had never been able to have a paid staff before that suddenly got some money and were able to hire some of the young people who had been organizing in the streets to be paid staff. So, this is creating jobs for literally people who had been organizing the movement. And then the money dries up because the money goes elsewhere, and funders have weird whims and decide this is the thing they’re gonna do this week, and then they change their mind. And you’re basically, again, picture—you know, I hate picking on George Soros because there are so many weird anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that are obsessed with George Soros—but you just picture somebody being like, “We’ll do it my way because it’s my money.” And it’s like, well, um… it shouldn’t be your money. Because actually, the fortunes that a lot of people are living on in this country are built on a history of slavery, white supremacy, and various other forms of exploitation and oppression that would not have allowed people to build up those fortunes otherwise, right? We talk about Elon Musk being the richest man in the world. Well, where does his money come from before he got involved in tech? His family had an emerald mine in apartheid South Africa, you know? [chuckles] You sort of don’t accumulate that much wealth without having essentially stolen it from people. And yeah, and this is the system that we’re stuck trying to do good work in, me as much as anybody else, right?
One of the things that I have realized about my life is that selling books, which is also, by the way, alienated and exploited labor, right? I make, hmm, somewhere between ten and 15 percent of every copy of a book sold after my—whatcha call it? Why am I blanking?—advance gets paid back. The publisher’s making a lot more money off of this thing. I’m holding it up. The video’s off. The publisher’s making a whole lot of money off of this thing that I’m not ever gonna see, right? But it’s still a little bit more honest than having to beg people to fund me, because as long as I can prove that I sell books, people will keep giving me money to write them. [chuckles] That is the challenge, whereas trying to desperately extract money from people to do the work is exhausting in a different way.
VALLAS: Well, and so, there’s a bunch of dimensions here, and I wanna call out a few of them. And then in the remaining time that we have, I also wanna talk a little bit about what some of the structural solutions might be, and you start to point out some of them in the book. But bringing us back to this ongoing series of conversations about radical self-care and redefining our relationship to our work, especially among folks engaged in fighting for a cause in some way, shape, or form, you describe that the culture of movement work—and you’ve now kind of taken us to present day, telling some of that history and doing it beautifully—the culture of movement work is one of self-sacrifice. And I’ll maybe even take it a little further and say it’s one of martyrdom, right? You write that as the labor of love ideology plays out in the non-profit sector, quote, “The assumption that activists are a different type of person, are more committed than the rest of the world,” it features prominently in the mythology necessary to get us to suffer for the cause, the title of this chapter. And so, I also wanna note that the culture of movement work is one that we as people engaged in this work actually also have a role to play in reinforcing or in disrupting.
And I’ll own some of my own role in this because on my own journey of redefining my relationship to my work and understanding which parts of how I’ve been showing up in this work are me and which parts have been kind of conditioning from the spaces that I’ve moved in, something that I’ve become aware of in myself is how much I’ve modeled a really unhealthy relationship to work to other people. And in fact, how I’ve shown up as a manager of teams at points and as a creator of organizations and projects, who has been someone who has modeled not just really terrible self-care, but a really unsustainable, unhealthy relationship to work. That was actually part of my inspiration for doing this series, to sort of retract that modeling and to replace it with a healthier, more sustainable approach to the work. But you really, you write about that in this chapter as well, that as people learn what’s successful for advancing in the non-profit space, they then end up carrying it into the organizations that they rise in and then modeling it for and demanding it of their staff, right? So, it’s something that we replicate as individuals within this system, too.
But you also make a really important point—and I just wanna throw it out ‘cause we would be remiss if we didn’t—non-profits are generally really underfunded, and we’ve got to acknowledge that. And so, it’s the whole do more with less thing isn’t coming out of nowhere. It’s usually because there is a commitment to the cause and “hard choices”, quote-unquote, that need to be made to try to get it all done. But the point that you make is it’s not fair for workers to be the ones to pick up the slack. Why is it, why do we need to be pitting workers against the people that they’re seeking to serve through that cause, whether it’s their day job or something they do on the side, that is what they’re called to serve? So, talk a little bit about—and let’s take this as sort of a segue way into talking about structural solutions—what can help us break this cycle? Is it unions? Is it the non-profit unions that are organizing workers in non-profits? And you write a little bit about one of them, the Nonprofit [Professional] Employee Union, NPEU. Is it shifting the funding model so that it’s not all rich people giving their money through foundations to non-profits? But maybe it’s community grassroots donations so that we’re accountable to community and not to rich people in this work. Like, what is it that’s gonna break this cycle? Talk a little bit about some of the structural solutions that you see coming out of your reporting.
JAFFE: Overthrow the capitalist mode of production?
VALLAS: Well, you could just go there and then end it. [laughs]
JAFFE: I’m joking, but I’m not joking, right?
JAFFE: Like, the problem is that this system is not designed to be fixed with Band-Aids. That we cannot, just like sort of telling everybody that we’re gonna solve COVID by people can mask if they want to and not mask if they want to and get vaccinated if they want to and not get vaccinated if they want to, we can’t solve this thing with a few people volunteering to be good people. That’s never, ever, ever gonna work. It’s just gonna burn the few people who think of themselves as the extra-good people out. It’s not possible for you and me and every other of the, I don’t know, 10 percent of the U.S. workforce that works in some form of non-profit to fix the thing. It’s, it can’t. And I think that’s the real challenge. And one of the things that this sort of pitting the workers against the recipient, supposed recipients, of the charity, basically, one of the things that that does is it replicates that old power dynamic where you basically had the wives of rich men doing the charity for the poor ladies who needed to be taught how to bathe properly and etc., etc., right? The problem that poor ladies had was not that they didn’t know how to bathe. It was they didn’t have a house with a bathtub, and they didn’t have time to bathe every day because they had to work a million hours a week.
This idea that these well-meaning, middle-class and rich people can serve the poors in this, whether that’s sort of how clearly we think of it, and it is probably not how most people think of it, saying that the people who work in Planned Parenthood or any number—I’m blanking on other organizations right now—should do the work for the love of it rather than for pay, is to say that the people who should do that work should be rich. They should have another form of support. They should be married to a rich man. They should be the daughter of a rich man. They should be the son of a rich man, the husband of a rich man, whatever you might wanna do, right? It is to say that they should not be the people who need the help. They should be separate somehow. And that is to replicate in itself a power dynamic that is never gonna change the system.
JAFFE: So, when I was talking about those organizations in Ferguson finally having money to hire people and being able to hire the young people from the movement, not to go out and hire somebody who just graduated from Harvard to come down and move to St. Louis to do the work, but to actually hire people who had been on the ground getting tear gassed by the National Guard, right, that’s a different structure and a different understanding. And those people are gonna have different needs in terms of what they need from the job, in terms of money, in terms of generational debt, poverty, family members you might be supporting, right? The situation is just gonna be different from when you are the nice middle-class child of nice middle-class people who went to a nice middle-class university, got a nice middle-class degree without some nice middle-class debt, and now you work in a nice middle-class job in a non-profit, taking care of poor people that you don’t really interact with that much. That is, for a million reasons, not a dynamic that is going to change very much in the world.
And that is, actually, I know it can sound like it’s not, it’s actually an argument for paying the people who work in non-profits better because if you actually pay them enough to live on, you can hire people who need the money to live on and not just people who have some other form of support. The same way that unpaid internships limit who gets to get into jobs in the media, in film, in whatever. Because who can do an unpaid internship? Somebody who doesn’t need to get paid. Who doesn’t need to get paid? Somebody who has another source of income, right?
And so, I think that one of the things we really, really have to talk about is who we’re expecting to do this work and what the dynamics we expect to be between sort of quote-unquote “them” and “us.” Because at best, we shouldn’t be talking and thinking in terms of them and us. We should be talking and thinking in terms, as you mentioned, about how do we organize our own community? How do we change things with the people who live around us? That ends up with community funding models, but it also just ends up with different community organizing models and different ways of thinking about how we change the world. The good thing, I mean, there are many good things about unions, but one of the good things about unions is that they are funded by members. They are not funded by the Ford Foundation. Bless the Ford Foundation. They fund plenty of worker centers. But if you’re actually thinking about a union that is funded by worker dues, the reason that it’s funded by worker dues is so that the workers have power over what it is. That’s the reason to have that kind of money, that kind of funding structure, even if you’re talking about people who work at McDonald’s and don’t make a lot of money.
VALLAS: Well, you heard it here first. It’s the end of capitalism that we need, folks. And I can’t say I’m surprised to hear you say that, Sarah, because that’s sort of where pretty much every episode of the show ends up taking us in terms of what’s at the root of everything that we’re all seeking to fight all of the time in terms of the social ills that we knew were not okay as part of our normal and our status quo even before the pandemic, but which have been sort of thrown, had fuel thrown on them and are now all on fire in so many ways that we can’t ignore in this pandemic that is not over, that we’re entering year three of right now.
But Sarah, we’re gonna run out of time. So, what I’m gonna do is I’m going to say to folks who are looking to learn more and who wanna dig more deeply into not just the history of non-profits, but as you write, how burnout is a problem of the age of the labor of love and what that looks like across our economy, across the class lines that, as you mentioned, are a lot blurrier than we often talk about, and particularly how this all plays out within the non-profit sector, I’m gonna send folks to your book. It’s called Work Won’t Love You Back. I guarantee you, if you are a person who has ever worked, who is working right now, who ever plans to work, it is a book you need to read. It is a book that will change you. It will change how you think about work. It will change how you think about your relationship to work. And I know it certainly means that Sarah, your words are in my ears a lot as I continue what I now know is going to be a lifelong journey of redefining my own relationship to this work. But I’m just really grateful to you for your reporting, I’m grateful to you for this conversation, and we could honestly talk for a whole other hour about what it looks like to move beyond this place where we have non-profits mopping up around the edges of capitalism’s never-ending crises, as you describe, towards a more lasting change, a different equilibrium, to use your words. But I wanna close this conversation with just sort of some food for thought for folks. It’s another quote from that chapter on non-profits. It comes from Ruth Wilson Gilmore. And you quote Ruth Wilson Gilmore as writing, “The purpose of the work is to gain liberation, not to guarantee the organization’s longevity.” And that’s a theme that is, I think, showing up in a lot of spaces right now as folks are thinking about how to do the work differently and how to do the work with greater intentionality and with more mission alignment and less as just sort of bots that are in institutions that are, in many cases, ones that have internalized the very ills of capitalism that we’re all seeking to fight with our work at sort of paradoxical levels. So, Sarah, thank you so much for taking the time. I really enjoyed this conversation. I wish we had longer, but this was really fun. [theme music returns]
JAFFE: Ah, thank you.
VALLAS: And that does it for this week’s show. Off-Kilter is Powered by The Century Foundation and produced by We Act Radio, with a special shoutout to executive producer Troy Miller and his merry band of farm animals, and the indefatigable Abby Grimshaw. Transcripts, which help us make the show accessible, are courtesy of Cheryl Green and her fabulous feline coworker. Find us every week on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your pods. And if you like what we do here at Off-Kilter Enterprises, send us some love by hitting that subscribe button and rating and reviewing the show on Apple Podcasts to help other folks find the pod. Thanks again for listening and see you next week.