When I graduated from University, I turned down a highly paid grad job at the world’s biggest law firm, Baker & McKenzie, to focus on building the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, which I’d started when I was at Uni.
At the time, I was aware of the risk. During University, I had a scholarship and youth allowance to support me, meaning I could survive and do as much activism as I could throw myself into, supplemented by small random income streams like editing the Sydney University student newspaper, doing casual tutoring, and subjecting myself as a lab rat to testing new products at the Sydney University lab when I was really broke.
But after graduating and turning down all the corporate job offers, I had no guaranteed income. Whilst I thought I could get part-time work doing something I liked, I was well aware I could end up working in a pub or café to support myself. After five years of University, my parents weren’t too impressed that I was potentially throwing it all away, and the vast majority of my friends thought my decision was crazy. They were all accepting their grad jobs with the public service or big corporate law or management-consulting firms.
Luckily, it worked out for me. I worked 2 days a week as GetUp’s climate campaigner throughout 2008, whilst working the other 5 days unpaid at the AYCC. My Co-Director Amanda worked 2 paid days at PWC, and the other days at the AYCC. At the end of that year we finally got enough funding for both of us to be paid, and I was able to leave GetUp and work full-time for the AYCC. Sure, we only got paid 3 days a week, but it was enough to live on.
Now, AYCC has raised enough in cash and in-kind support that we have 5 full-time and 4 part-time staff, paid living wages. I’m really proud of that.
After doing a speech at the recent Brightest Young Minds summit in Sydney to an audience of super keen young people with awesome ideas to change the world, I was asked by one of them about how risky it was to turn down the traditional corporate or Government career and start up your own not-for-profit, or throw yourself full time into building a movement, or setting up a social enterprise.
It was a good question, and something that warranted more than a 3 minute response, so I’ve written this post for her and the other young activists struggling with the question of how much to risk in order to pursue their dreams.
This isn’t a question faced by the vast majority of the world’s people engaged in struggle for social and environmental justice.
If your human rights are being violated, you often have no choice but to fight. If the forest where you live, where your ancestors have been living in for generations, where your cultural traditions are held, and that is at the heart of your livelihood and life, is under attack from mining or logging or some other form of destruction, you often feel no choice but to fight to defend it. The movie Avatar reflected the many struggles that Indigenous peoples have engaged in for centuries, resisting colonization and oppression.
If you live in one of the world’s many shantytowns or slums and your Government gives an order for it to be demolished, you have no choice but to fight. It’s your home, family and survival at risk. You literally have everything to lose if you don’t stand up and try to change the situation.
And for those living in Australia wearing a hijab, or those with skin colour other than white, there is little “choice” to engage in the issue of racism, and to fight against it at least on a personal level. The struggle is forced upon you, rather than one you may consciously “choose” – although of course there is the point where one chooses to take action on a broader political level, rather than just individual level – which is, for example, why not all people of colour are involved in the broader anti-racism movement, and why not all women are involved in the feminist movement.
There are huge risks involved in these struggles. Throughout history, Indigenous peoples have been killed – both by authorities, and by other groups – for standing up for their survival, and basic human rights, let alone broader issues of justice. African Americans were killed in the civil rights movement. Examples of political prisoners all around the world show that being involved in a social movement in many countries around the world is highly dangerous.
In Australia, many of the people at the front-line of the coal industry – for example communities in the Hunter Valley whose health is being destroyed by coal mining and farmers whose land is being polluted and destroyed– feel they have little choice but to stand up to the coal industry.
And when it comes to climate change, I’ve met a lot of Pacific Islanders who feel they have no choice but to dedicate their lives to solving climate change, no matter the risk or the personal cost.
For most of the audience at the conference in question, the issues that they were passionate about may have come out of direct experiences and personal stories, but weren’t struggles forced upon them.
Young Australians choosing to engage in issues of climate change, global poverty, peace, child slavery and other ‘big-picture’ issues experience much less risk than the people in the struggles previously mentioned. We can choose to come in and out of movements and struggles, as opposed to living with the reality of oppression each and every day.
We do have a choice, and the risks we face are tiny comparable to those who have gone before us, and those who are engaged in the same struggles in other countries in our region such as China. In Australia, trying to change the world doesn’t normally end with you in gaol, or tortured, or “disappeared”.
The risks that we face are much smaller, but they are still real questions that are valid to ask and have answered.
In the context of the relatively privileged lives many Australians lead today, there are still risks that young people weigh up when deciding whether to eschew the typical path and do something different.
Many University students have invested years in their education. Their parents, and themselves, have placed high expectations on them in terms of careers. There are well-sign posted and well-trodden paths leading to careers into both Government and corporate careers; and even into careers working with big non-governmental organizations like the Red Cross, St Vincents de Paul, Amnesty International or the United Nations.
But you might have an idea for something innovative, something exciting and new, that you think could really change things. Or maybe you’ve been volunteering at a little organization, whether not for profit or social enterprise, and you want to keep doing that – but there’s no funding.
You can do it, and you should.
Ask yourself, how bad could it really get? What is the worst that could happen to me? Most of the young people at the conference I was speaking to would have some kind of fallback option. A Plan B. It’s easy for most middle-class kids to have an automatic safety net in place in case things go wrong: for me, if it had really all fallen to pieces when I was setting up the AYCC and I had absolutely no income, I could have moved back home to Newcastle, stayed with Mum temporarily and gone on Centrelink until I sorted something out.
There are few decisions that you can’t recover from.
But the big answer to the question asked by Australian young people worried about the risk of doing something different, doing something to make a difference, is that in my experience, it’s not as risky as you think it is.
My experience has been that there is funding available out there if you’re doing something worthwhile, if you have dedication and persistence and are a bit smart about it. That Australians are generous, and if you make a case for your cause, you can raise enough money to set up an organization or keep one going. Or you can find an innovative business model that generates enough income to raise money for you to keep doing what you love.
Here’s a fact most people don’t know: There is a HUGE skills shortage in Australia in the social benefit and not-for-profit sector.
It’s highly unlikely that if you have experience as a campaigner, you won’t find a job. Everyone assumes there are no jobs in activism, so everyone chooses a different career path – and our movements are left with too few people with experience and struggle to recruit and employ staff!
When I worked at GetUp and had to try to find a replacement specialist climate campaigner, we couldn’t find one. The position went unfilled for at least a year! Hiring staff for the Australian Youth Climate Coalition is similarly difficult – whilst we’ve now found amazing applicants for the roles we have there, experienced young campaigners especially with skills in online organizing, and fundraising, have been incredibly difficult to find.
So if you do focus on getting experience in the organization or movement you want to work with, as a volunteer at first, you will often find yourself offered a job later on.
Not as risky as you think.
My last point is simple: when we think about the risks, let’s think outside ourselves for a moment. The risk of you NOT getting involved in that organization you think is changing the world; the risk of you NOT setting up that project that will make an impact on climate change; the risk of you turning your back on your desire to protect our generation and those to come from the greatest threat the world has ever faced – well that’s a bloody big risk.
After all, there are no jobs – or survival – on a dead planet.