Et tu, Girls Write Now?

If you don’t follow Sarah Kendzior on Twitter, you should. Her tweets are always insightful and incisive, and I appreciate that she regularly calls out organizations that claim to empower people–or in some cases, even fight for higher wages and workers’ rights– while not paying their own interns.

Her latest example is, sadly, Girls Write Now, a non-profit that provides writing mentoring to at-risk and underserved girls in New York City. As Kendzior dryly points out: “Organization claiming to champion impoverished teens seeks unpaid employee to work 25 to 35 hrs/week.”

Girls Write Now is only one of many, many organizations that expect interns to do entry-level-type work, full-time or near-full-time, without pay. But it’s especially disappointing because I’ve always liked them (and probably even given them money, although I don’t keep track of my donations well enough to know for sure).  As someone who was once a girl and has always loved to write, I know firsthand how amazing it is to grow into your own voice with the support of mentors, peers, and a community. I want all girls who are interested in writing to have that experience.

It’s incredibly frustrating that an organization doing such important work would expect their interns to work 25 to 35 hours a week unpaid, especially in a city as expensive as New York. It virtually guarantees that most of their interns will be well-off–from backgrounds nothing like those of the girls they’re serving.

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We deserve better.

I keep coming across disheartening reminders that having a successful career rarely translates into financial stability.

s.e. smith, a writer whose work I’ve followed for years on XOJane and elsewhere on the social justice internets, recently posted a list of tips for freelancers. In the introduction, ou* admitted:

Alas, the fact of the matter is that while I have been freelancing for seven years now, I still don’t have what I would call a wildly stable or successful career, and it’s highly likely that will never realistically happen. The same is true of many freelancers, especially in an economy where intellectual labour is valued less and less, which translates into lower fees for your work or dreaded offers of ‘exposure’ in offer for your free work.

The same day, I came across Susie Cagle’s post Eight years of solitude: on freelance labor, journalism, and survival. And it’s just depressing:

More newspapers and magazines want to profile me and the strange work I do than hire me to actually do it. Other writers and illustrators chastise, how can you complain about getting that kind of promotion? The year I got the most TV and radio spots and magazine write-ups, I made about $17,000.

Even though freelance writing doesn’t appeal to me for a number of reasons–I do best with external structure and routine, I need to be around people, and I just enjoy writing more when my rent doesn’t depend on it–it hurts to see how little our economy values people with skills and interests similar to mine. It’s incredibly frustrating to see so many people doing such good work but barely making enough to live on.

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Living in the post-employment economy: on permaculture, sex ed, and perpetually closed doors

During my senior year of college, I attended the Women, Action, and the Media: WAM! conference here in Boston, hoping to find career ideas and opportunities. Instead, I found there were plenty of people doing good work, but few making a living–and most of the latter had put in years of unpaid or barely-paid work to get there. Few organizations offered entry-level jobs with a living wage and a clear career path. The only way I could see to get into most positions was to work unpaid internships, or start your own project on top of working full-time elsewhere, and keep doing it until either it became profitable or you gained enough experience to apply for one of the few jobs available.

And this was before the global financial crisis of 2008.

It was intensely discouraging and disheartening to graduate into a world where there’s so little relation between work and pay, and it’s only gotten worse.

Throughout the nearly seven years (!) since I graduated, I’ve been constantly researching jobs and careers and alternative life paths, trying to find a good fit. Every time I come across someone doing work that sounds appealing to me, something I could see myself doing, I look at how they’re doing it. And almost always, it involves a superhuman amount of work, an amount of hustling that I just don’t have in me, an extra source of income, or all of the above.

One recent example: I read Paradise Lot, a book about the how the author and a friend built a permaculture garden on a small urban lot in Western Massachusetts. Permaculture appeals to me immensely, and I still hope to learn it someday, perhaps while WWOOFing if I can ever make it work. But through much of the time described in the book, not only was the author designing his own garden, but he was also working at a local grassroots organization and writing a permaculture encyclopedia–while also recovering from a traumatic brain injury.

Another example: Heather Corinna of Scarleteen, a site that provides comprehensive sexuality education to young people, recently wrote that the site will go on strike unless they receive enough donations to make their work sustainable. Corinna writes that she has been working for 15 years without a living wage, often while working multiple other jobs at the same time, because she cares so deeply about the work–but she can no longer keep that up. And, as she notes, she’s not the only one; a lack of funding and jobs is endemic in the field. I’ve seen this firsthand: one of my friends is trained as a sex educator, but she’s in the same position I am, taking whatever administrative/clerical temp jobs she can find to make ends meet.

I thought about going into sex ed, briefly, when I was interning in the media and communications department at Planned Parenthood (also during my senior year of college). And then I saw there were no jobs.

It’s easy not to realize how many doors have quietly closed, until suddenly you see them all.

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This is the world we live in.

Recently, one of my friends posted on Facebook that you know the economy sucks when people tell you you’re lucky to have a job. She went on to say how messed-up it is that, instead of employment being the default and unemployment meaning you’re down on your luck, people are considered lucky to have jobs at all.

The same day, Sarah Kendzior tweeted about a man who could only afford to eat one meal a day while working an unpaid internship–which was in human rights.

And then I read that my alma mater just gave eight million dollars to its former president.

This is the world we live in.

There are so many solutions–and so much money and power standing in the way of those solutions.

And it’s damn hard to work toward solutions, toward a better world, while still living in this one.

I am reminded of David Cain’s piece, Your lifestyle has already been designed. Cain writes about returning to a traditional 9-to-5 job after spending time traveling, and realizing that he became both casually careless with his money and too tired to exercise or do creative things.

He notes that:

Keeping free time scarce means people pay a lot more for convenience, gratification, and any other relief they can buy. It keeps them watching television, and its commercials. It keeps them unambitious outside of work.

We’ve been led into a culture that has been engineered to leave us tired, hungry for indulgence, willing to pay a lot for convenience and entertainment, and most importantly, vaguely dissatisfied with our lives so that we continue wanting things we don’t have. We buy so much because it always seems like something is still missing.

I know this dynamic too well.

I should note that working a 40-hour workweek makes both Cain and myself luckier than the many, many people who work far more hours, including those who string together multiple low-paid part-time jobs just to get by.  

But even still, I often come home exhausted, especially during the busy times when I’m on my feet lifting things all day. It’s harder to have energy for activism–including activism aimed at building a just and healthy economic system–especially when that activism involves putting on shoes and leaving the house.

It’s also harder to live up to my community-centric values when the last thing I want to do after work is go out to a local event or meeting. And it’s harder to support small local businesses–when I’m tired and don’t want to go out, it’s so much easier to buy everything from Amazon instead. 

It’s a vicious cycle that’s really, really hard to break.

On the policy level, I can think of plenty of things that could break the cycle.

On the personal level, it’s just a struggle. 

Sunday links, 1/26/14

I love Jill Scott.

Fa(t)shion
Re/Dress’ spring vintage lookbook is fabulous–and it includes their new masculine/butch styles.
-Despite all the hype, European brand Mango’s new plus size line doesn’t have many interesting styles, and has a fairly small size range.
-This year’s Big Thrifty will be on May 3rd, at a new, larger space in Malden.
-And for New York fatties, the Big Fat Flea will be May 4th.
16 things teen girls wore in the winter of 1996, as told by the Delias*s catalog.

Fat Acceptance
-Caitlin Thornton interviews the always awesome Mary Lambert about body image, makeup, and fashion.
Fat and bad knees.
-So much yes to Marilyn Wann’s rant about people who claim to be fat-positive but brag about their weight loss.
-Why it’s important to focus on children’s health, not their weight.
Things that are still a diet.
The tyranny of “the normal”: why the BMI is and has always been a hot ton of oppressive bullshit.

Climate and Sustainability
“We can’t trust capitalism to fix this” global warming mess.
-A conversation with George Monbiot about the great rewilding.
Why, not what: the heart of climate activism.
Solar wins: how sunshine will save the planet (really!)

A beautiful short film about reclaiming our energy and economy from fossil fuel companies:

Our Power Film // Black Mesa Water Coalition from Our Power on Vimeo.

Everything Else
-Nicolette Mason is the best. After Jezebel’s ridiculous stunt of offering $10K for unretouched pictures of Lena Dunham, Nicolette decided to raise the same amount of money for women’s empowerment instead.
Food gentrification and the culinary rebranding of traditional foods.
-If you can, donate to Youngist, which publishes the voices and stories of millenials (and, unlike many outlets, actually pays its authors).
-I like this daring new approach to fighting for a fairer economy.
“Nobody knows my life but me”: an elegy for Dr. V.
Afterthoughts and aftershocks: why a dozen different editors failed Dr. V.
-Sarah Kendzior writes brilliantly about the cruelty of the mainstream media (but unfortunately uses some ableist language to do so).
Reimagining freedom: one student’s take on the Zaptatistas’ Escualita.
Remember that famous about obedience to authority? Here’s how Stanley Milgram got it all wrong.
-Sick of Dan Savage’s asshattery, and want some better advice about sex and relationships? Check out Cardinal Rules.
-Suey Park writes about the importance of community in activism. I love these beautiful words she quotes from Jeff Yang: “These threads won’t weave themselves, nor will these chains break of their own accord, and unless we join hands and swim together, unless we become each others’ sidekicks, the river of memory will sweep us away. “

Follow-up to my piece on art in Boston, with lots of pictures

Benjamin Reynolds contact juggling at Figment 2013.

First off, thank you to everyone who read, shared, and commented on my post earlier today! I am so grateful for the creative communities I have here in, as Jojo calls it, “Bostosomedfordville,” and I’m glad that my piece resonated with many of my fellow Bostonians.

Second, throughout this post I’ll be using a few pictures that I dug up while working on the original post, but didn’t have enough space to use. Enjoy!

Morris dancers at NEFFA 2009.

This morning, I tweeted the link to my post to Sarah Kendzior, and she responded, “Thanks! I’m not sure we disagree that much. Boston has great things to offer, I only wish daily life were more affordable.”

I appreciate that she clarified her position, and I think we do agree more than we disagree when it comes to art, money, and cities. I still wish her original essay hadn’t made such sweeping generalizations, but I’m glad it started so many conversations and inspired me to write about why I love my Boston so damn much.

Sometimes I get sick of living here–not because of anything wrong with the area itself, but because I have cravings for adventure and new places to explore, and Boston can get pretty small after a few years. So it was great to have a reminder of all the things I love about living here: how amazingly creative my friends and communities are,  how there’s always something unusual and fun (and often geeky) going on, what a wonderful big little city this is. Or is it a little big city?

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Is creativity dead in Boston? Not the one I know.

bridge covered in rainbow slinkies

An installation by artist Lisa Greenfield during the Fort Point Open Studios, 2009

Social critic Sarah Kendzior’s latest piece, Expensive cities are killing creativity, didn’t sit right with me. Normally, I find myself all but jumping up and down in agreement with her work–but this time, I found much of her analysis jarringly at odds with my own experience.

Kendzior describes expensive coastal cities like New York and San Francisco as “gated citadels,” playgrounds for the rich, places where corporate pressure and the high cost of living reward conformity and stifle creativity. (Although she doesn’t mention Boston specifically, she does include it in a follow-up tweet.)

But my Boston doesn’t feel corporatized, sanitized, like a gated citadel. My Boston isn’t a place where creativity is undervalued, or valued only when it enriches wealthy children. My Boston certainly isn’t a place where “you live when you are born having arrived.”

My Boston is vibrant and creative as hell. Especially here in Somerville, where I’ve lived for five and a half years–and which has the second-highest concentration of artists in the country.

First off, I can’t talk about creativity in Boston without mentioning the folk dancing and music scene, which has been the base of my social circle for as long as I’ve lived here. There’s an incredible number of regular social dance events, culminating in the yearly NEFFA festival, a veritable folkie paradise of singing, jamming, dancing, and outdoor cuddle piles. We have gender-free contras, guerilla contras, a dance and music camp in nearby Plymouth, lots of overlap with the swing and blues dancing scene, great concerts at Club Passim and other venues–and most importantly, a strong sense of community. Individual people may come and go, but the community stays–and I doubt it’s going away anytime soon.

Outdoor contra dance in Copley Square, 2007.

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