Thinking about my roots

Oct 20, 2009 by

Flickr image from Martin LaBar

Flickr image from Martin LaBar

A recent post from Colleen over at “Know Your Own Bone” got me thinking about how I got started in all this. “This” being activism, social justice and nonprofit work.

I may not mention it much, but I’m a feminist. It’s one of my core beliefs and provides a sustaining ethical framework for the way I live my life. Just in case you didn’t know, the dictionary definition of the word (which I can still recite from memory after having it drilled into my head during my first job) is “the policy, practice or advocacy of social, political and economic equality between women and men.” Seems pretty basic right? Then why didn’t I know about it in high school or at the beginning of my college career?

About halfway through college, I was asked by a friend and mentor if I would be interested in working in the college’s Womyn’s Resource Center. I thought about for a little while; it paid better than regular work study and it was more interesting than taking TVs and VCRs to various classrooms which I did for my Media Center job, so I decided to interview for the job. That was perhaps one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life.

During my interview I was asked about my definition of feminism and I was completely speechless contemplating an answer (if you know me, you know its no small feat to render me speechless). After a while I stammered out an answer and decided right away that I needed to figure out the definition ASAP. I eventually organized a conference on feminisms – yes, there are many, many definitions of the word – and organized many other events to educate and activate the college community about women’s issues.

So what does this have to do with my present career? Well, I knew I wanted to come to DC all through college, I was a political science major and loved everything about politics. Originally I thought I’d start out working for my congressman (good old Sherwood Boehlert, who was an alumnus of my college and frequently spoke to us about politics) and then make my way from there. But when I came upon feminism, women’s issues and the injustices perpetrated the world over against a group of people that made up 50%+ of the human population, I decided I needed to do something about it.

When I came to DC to intern, I worked at a women’s organization. Through some focused networking I got myself a job in a women’s rights organization. And I moved down here to change the world.

I was a little bit…um…idealistic.

The end of this story is that I spent a few years working my ass off for a couple of different organizations and eventually burnt out. In fact I don’t ever think I can go back to working on women’s issues. This is the tragedy of so much of nonprofit and social justice work – when organizations decide to exploit young people and take them for all they’re worth physically, mentally and spiritually.

On the other hand, the positive outcome of this is that it got me started down the path to nonprofit social justice work. It also helped me focus on what I really wanted in my career: a chance to apply my skills in organizing, outreach, advocacy, member relations, etc. to a variety of organizations working on a variety of issues.

It just goes to show that simple roots can grow into a complex, interesting and completely unexpected organism.

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  • colleendilen

    Elisa, this is such an inspiring post. I love that it starts with your being asked a simple question (and I know the feeling of being dumbfounded by that one) and it involves your moving to DC to change the world.

    I know what you mean in that simple roots can often grow into unexpected (and powerful) organisms (that become deeply-rooted in who we are). I’m excited to keep my roots growing and I obviously love the metaphor. It really hits home!

    Thanks for sharing your story and for so eloquently explaining this complex but very relatable idea. I was nodding while I read the whole post. It’s nuts that the most simple things can provide such strong foundations!

  • Elisa, I’m glad you’re sharing the path you took to get into the nonprofit world. I love hearing all of our stories, because they’re so varied, yet often similar. But I wonder why you don’t talk about your background as a feminist much? You say “it’s one of my core beliefs” but maybe your bad experiences in working for women’s orgs tempered your enthusiasm?

  • Elisa….if I may be so bold as to offer—come visit me at DCCK. Let us talk together about your journey, and how, just mayyyybe, we can get you back in the idealistic fight with both fists and your whole brain. You’ve invested too much, and our city and society need you too much to let you slide out the back door, all toasted and tired. Seriously. (202) 234-0707 x 101

  • @Colleen – Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed it! Though its impossible (not to mention incorrect) to say that being asked the question was the only thing that influenced me, it certainly pushed me over an unseen ‘edge’ toward where I obviously needed and wanted to be. I’m glad to makes sense to someone besides me 🙂

    @Rosetta – Good question. I think that I don’t talk about it much because my feelings towards feminism as a movement are so complicated. My own feminism has evolved and changed significantly over the years, but I’m generally comfortable with that. However, as soon as you claim the label, people not only assume a bunch of things, but they judge as well. Honestly, I had that discussion with people far too often back in the day (you mean you’re a feminist? Does that mean you hate men? Does that mean that you don’t like women who wear makeup?) to relish it today. Plus, my energy is often used in other discussions on feminist issues without bringing the word in there to stumble on.

    @Robert – I’m truly flattered. But I’m also not sure its possible for me to get back to where I once was. I know there is still a solid core of idealism within me, otherwise I wouldn’t still be here slogging it out and doing the work. At the same time though I know me too well: I commit 120% to anything I do and even more so when I’m deeply passionate about something. That’s part of the reason I burned out. It wasn’t necessarily that the organizations were asking that much of me – I was asking that much of me. I ate, breathed, slept, cried it all the time, even at home, even when I slept. In many ways, my stepping back has been a self-preservation tactic. How do you self-preserve/protect unless you walk away from what damages you?

  • I have to admit that I’ve wondered more than a few times if I should just damn all this social justice mess to hell and go get a corporate job. Or not even a corporate job, just a less intense role at a big, huge trade association for automobile dealers or something. But then I worried that I would just be working hard for something I didn’t give a damn about. And decided that I would rather be “damaged” working for something I care about quite deeply. Even now, though, I have to let a lot of crap go – my expectations of myself to give 1000% to be in that place where I’m healthy and whole and still gaining meaning from my work. Which sometimes means I’m on the margins instead of in the trenches. After a while,though I’ve learned to be okay with that.

  • @Rosetta – Yes! That is exactly where I am. You have to let go of something(s) in order to get to where you want to be (in other words, you have to say no to be able to say yes to other things, which is a theme I know you’ve been singing recently).

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