Valuing labor in the anti-violence sector

This post comes out of a conversation that I had with a friend the other day.

I volunteer for a bunch of organizations, including rape crisis and domestic violence organizations. Those, and LGBTQ anti-violence programs (which help LGBTQ people who have experienced interpersonal violence, and work to prevent such violence), could collectively be referred to as the anti-violence sector. There are a couple of things that I’ve observed:

1) It is hugely dominated by women and trans/gender nonconforming people (some of whom are also women). Some LGBTQ anti-violence programs came out of cis gay men’s communities in the ’80s or thereabouts, in response to gay bashings, and traditionally have strong ties with those communities, but even those, these days, tend to be dominated by people other than cis men. And in anti-sexual-violence work and anti-domestic-violence work I encounter even fewer cis men – they definitely exist, they’re just very outnumbered (and they’re disproportionately gay/bi/queer/etc, which means that like the women and trans folks that I discuss below, they’re more likely to be poor than straight cis men).

2) It depends on unpaid labor (both volunteer work and internships) that is also performed mostly by women and trans people. I appreciate everything I’ve learned and had the opportunity to do by volunteering extensively in the anti-violence sector, and I also see the usefulness of the model from a movement-building perspective (lots of community members, not just those who made it their paid career, trained in the relevant skills and forms of organizing) but I feel weird about it from a labor perspective. This is not “volunteering” in the sense that some people think of the term, where you show up for a couple of hours to do unskilled tasks. To do direct service volunteering with my local rape crisis center, I had to have 40 hours of initial training to get certified as a rape crisis counselor, and have to attend two 90-minute continuing ed/skills development meetings per month, in addition to the work itself. It’s hard not to wonder if we’re undermining the idea that grueling and important anti-violence work is of value (on the other hand, even with volunteers reducing the number of paid staff needed, it’s not like there’s enough money to pay the existing staff, and I’ll get to that in a minute).

These organizations usually have a mix of government, foundation, and individual funding, with funding for smaller and people-of-color-oriented organizations usually coming disproportionately from the first two categories. You can read all kinds of illuminating things about the trials and tribulations of nonprofit funding (including the data to back up my previous sentence) at the blog Nonprofit With Balls. This rarely allows for good salaries. There are clinicians with graduate degrees getting paid at levels that qualify them as “Very Low Income” for a two-person household in this metro area under HUD regulations. And advocates who work their asses off who make even less. Especially in the context of a society where 57% of trans/gender nonconforming people have household incomes of less than $50,000/year (compared to 41% of the general population) and where women make less than men and are more likely to be poor, there’s something wrong here. The current funding and pay structures are reinforcing inequality. The individualistic approach would be to tell young people that they should go into well-paying fields and not these ones, but that doesn’t address the issue that we need talented people to go into these fields.

Now, I’m talking about a structural problem here, not just trying to stick the blame on nonprofits themselves. I’m aware that the money is often genuinely not there (though I do think some people in the sector need to reconsider certain attitudes – I’ve heard wonderful people who are paid far too little talk about decent salaries as being “unsustainable” and a sign that an organization is doing something wrong, instead of a goal that we should aspire to make feasible for everyone). But why isn’t it there? Because much of the money comes from government and foundation funders, and the amount they supply doesn’t support paying people at reasonable levels.

“Well, the government doesn’t have the money either.” Here’s the thing. The federal government has a bunch of money. I used to do computer science rearch at companies that got most of their funding from the Department of Defense. In my first job out of college, I was being paid roughly twice as much as someone in a typical bachelor’s-level anti-violence-sector job in this metro area, to work on research funded by DoD small-business-funding programs, some of which was pretty cool (and interesting to other researchers), but most of which ended up on a shelf somewhere in terms of how much the DoD actually cared about putting it to use. If the DoD could give my then-company enough money to pay me a decent salary for that, why doesn’t, say, the DHHS, or the Department of Justice, have money to give to rape crisis centers to pay workers at least $50k/year for skilled labor? It’s a matter of funding priorties. It’s not a matter of the free market, because we are talking about government-funded sectors here.

It’s a matter of valuing labor that is mostly by and for women and trans/gender nonconforming people (which is itself a matter of valuing those people and their well-being). It’s a matter of valuing service work and affective labor. It’s a matter of treating workers in these jobs with respect instead of as martyr-wanna-bes who took a value of poverty. It’s a feminist and queer issue.

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