Friday, June 10, 2011

Class Warfare, or, Why One Might Take a Part-Time Job

So, class warfare has come up this week—it looks like we are heading into an election cycle where the word "class" might keep coming up a little bit more often than it has in the past.  I'm guessing both sides will simultaneously gloss over the causes of income inequality while accusing the other side of making class differences worse.  Both sides will be partially correct, because class differences are getting worse, and being social mobility really is on the downturn.  Yes, that apple-pie phrase "pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps" has started to recapture some of its original meaning.

The dynamics of class in America can make your eyes cross.  What made my eyes cross recently was my online encounter with Resource Generation, a nonprofit started in Boston in 1995 that "organizes young people with financial wealth to leverage resources and privilege for social change".  I came across them via a job posting on today, and while considering what it might be like to actually work for such an organization, I felt compelled to capture some of my thinking.

In terms of a mission, let me first say that very little in America may be more important than what Resource Generation is trying to accomplish.  With tax cuts financing lobbying pushing for further tax cuts ad infinitum until the state can no longer maintain the slightest semblance of a functioning democracy, the rich can and do control the destiny of this country.  And they will do so more and more as long as we keep spiraling down this awful path of power-leads-to-more-power.  Organizing poor people to fight for their rights is looking increasingly fruitless in these kinds of circumstances; what we really need is to somehow convince the rich that they will be fulfilled by a radical commitment to giving.  Not just giving—giving up; the abdication of their money and influence.  Giving to organizations that can reclaim democracy for the rest of us (here's one, for starters).  Resource Generation is fighting that fight (at least they are talking about fighting that fight, which is the best signifier I can glean, for the moment).

Next, let me also say that there are some great intentions going on at Resource Generation that in and of themselves are pretty unimpeachable.  These young people have decided that—despite the conflict this presents to their immediate financial interests—progressive social change is what they're about.  That's good.

And you can't really blame anyone for wanting to surround themselves with like-minded people from similar backgrounds.  It's what we do.

That being said, I think it's telling that the job Resource Generation is hiring for, which coordinates their chapters across the West, is 20 hours a week.  In other words—and I'm paraphrasing here—you should ideally be rich if you're going to accept this job.  Sure, a regular person like me could juggle another part-time position to make ends meet—and I won't say I haven't considered part-time work due to the state of the economy and the fact that some of the most interesting nonprofit organizations can only afford to pay you part-time.  I would be okay with fighting through a year or two of multiple jobs if I thought it would eventually get me where I want to be.  But when it comes to living a dignified existence where you earn more than you spend, there are few things less appealing than a part-time job.

By hiring this way, this organization has probably eliminated the vast majority of nonprofit professionals from their candidate pool.  I'm going to go out on a limb and argue that the people they are excluding are the most likely to go above and beyond their full-time jobs—because they care, sure—but because when you need a full-time job, it follows that have to be competitive and show results if you want to build a career doing what matters to you.  If you don't meet funders' and nonprofit employers' increasingly exacting standards of excellence, you can't raise a family; you can't buy property; you join the ranks of the poor people you would prefer to be serving.  So not only is part-time hiring exclusionary, it's precluding Resource Generation from ever bringing on board the kind of professionalism and seriousness that will make their ideals and the organization stand the test of time and reach the wealthy young people they aren't currently reaching.

Clearly it's of little immediate importance to the folks at Resource Generation whether they show a great track record of professionalism, or whether institutional permanence ever does materialize.  I counted 6 executive directors in the last 11 years while reading through their history page, and it's awfully hard not to read between the lines that these were people who could afford to walk away from a work situation the moment it became a little bit stressful.  Given the kind of self-absorbed detail they go into on this history page, it's clear that working tenure hasn't been a feature at any level of the organization, ever.  You can chalk some of this up to the youth factor.  But I think that in the process of creating a "safe space" for the privileged and young, they've mostly succeeded in creating a marginal space, with limited impact and marginal credibility, where rich kids will continue to be comfortably insulated and nothing consequential will be demanded of them.

I'm going to be optimistic and assume that many of these concerns have already been considered by the good folks at Resource Generation.  I'm going to hope that they are moving toward hiring more staff who are not themselves independently wealthy and are at least slightly motivated by the need to make a living, and that they're getting serious enough about fundraising from their immediate networks that they can afford to keep these staff.

I will take this a step further and say I hope for the sake of America's young progressive heirs that they are seriously considering taking that job their dads can easily get them at Morgan Stanley.  And mending ties with those jerks they went to private school with.  Now, that seems a little bit beyond this topic, and it probably deserves its own entry.  But in short, I'll say I believe those are precisely the jerks we really need to convince to go along with the progressive agenda if we're going to make any progress.  And Morgan Stanley could be doing a lot more good in the world, if it had the right people.  And for now, the only people who can do this work are at a Resource Generation gathering somewhere, eating organic snacks and exploring their feelings about privilege.  That's good, yes, and important to do.  But let's take the next step.

In the mean time, I think I've convinced myself to apply for that job.  Talking truth to privilege, in a setting where they'll actually listen—as I said before—what an incredible mission.  A mission for our times.