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How to volunteer your time and energy to social justice without being exploited

I’ve made it a rule to never work for free, with one exception: social justice work — especially if it’s for a cause I deeply believe in, and the organization reaching out just doesn’t have the funds yet.

Two years ago, for instance, I co-organized a free literary workshop by and for writers of color with members of my writing community. As someone who firmly believes in the power of stories, but rarely sees herself in them due to a publishing industry that privileges whiteness, I wanted to help transform the literary landscape through supporting other writers of color, so that we could tell more stories for us, by us. Since it was our first time offering this workshop, I knew we wouldn’t receive funding, but could apply for grants for future workshops if this one was successful.

The process of deciding whether to do social justice work for free process will differ for everyone, though. Given that marginalized people have been historically undervalued for our work, including the emotional labor that social justice work so often requires, we want to be especially careful about working without compensation.

Here are questions to consider when deciding to do social justice work for free, based on my experience, as well as those who work in the social justice space, so that you can do the needed work of dismantling white supremacy and other forms of oppression without falling prey to exploitation.

Did the organization reaching out do its homework?

If someone asks if you can appear on a panel or volunteer your time and energy to their organization in other ways, make sure they care enough to learn about you and your work, says Isaias Hernandez, an environmental educator and creator of the queerbrownvegan Instagram account. Be wary of requests that clearly look copied and pasted. Hernandez recalls receiving requests that don’t cite his work, sometimes from organizations that don’t follow him on IG.

“If they preach about protecting and cultivating communities, it also needs to extend to the digital creators they meet online,” he tells Mic. “Tokenization and pedestals are created when organizations fail to do their research and homework behind an individual.” Plus, researching you allows them an opportunity to figure out if a partnership with you is even a good fit.

Have you done your homework on the organization?

Beyond making sure the organization’s stated mission and the work they request aligns with your values, do some extra digging to confirm the funding and other support they receive does so, too. YoNasDa Lonewolf, an Oglala Lakota and Black human rights activist, tells Mic that she doesn’t speak at conferences sponsored by banks that have funded the Dakota Access Pipeline, or mining companies, such as those currently trying to take Apache land. “There’s certain things that I make sure I research, that I make sure I will not engage in, or that I will not support,” Lonewolf says. “I stand very firm in my activism. I can’t be bought, and I can’t be sold.”

What exactly is the funding situation?

“I understand that social, racial and environmental justice organizations have the least funding in the non-profit industry,” Hernandez says. “I completely understand that many of those orgs don’t have the money to pay people.” Personally, if an organization is transparent with me that they can’t afford to pay, but I really care about what they do, I’m down to put in work for them.

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But if the organization receives a lot of funding and still expects him to work for free, Hernandez tries to remind them that environmental education is his full-time career, and that he’s done a lot of free work in the past. He also asks them to understand that his time and wealth mean a lot to him.

Is the request specific and transparent?

Sometimes, Hernandez receives requests from organizations that don’t explicitly state whether they can compensate him. This ambiguity can be a sign of shadiness. Some organizations can afford to pay creators, but bank on them opting in to work for free out of their discomfort with having a conversation about payment. If an organization reaches out to you, look for a specific request (“We want to invite you as a guest on our panel”) and a statement of whether they can pay you.

Does the organization want to invest in you long-term?

The organizations Hernandez volunteers his work to have developed long-term relationships with him. For instance, he offers free guidance and support to environmental justice organization Pacoima Beautiful largely because from a young age, they helped him understand the environmental injustice he was experiencing, which laid the groundwork for his career. “When I do free work for these organizations, I don’t really see it as work, I see it as a form of redistribution of my privilege,” he explains. “It’s not really that they owe me, but I owe them.”

Likewise, I volunteered with my writing community because they’ve done so much to nurture and advocate for me as an emerging writer. If my relationship with the organization feels reciprocal, I’m more than happy to support them, whether they can pay me or not.

Is the potential impact worth it?

When Lonewolf does work for free, “the impact of change is more powerful than profit,” she says. “I’m a strong believer that the children are our future, so any opportunity that I get to be able to speak to students and the youth, paid or not paid, I always make sure I’m doing it.”

Recently, a student invited Lonewolf to speak to her class in Miami, but could afford to pay her only $100. Even if Lonewolf needed the money, she covered her own flight and shared tools with the class on how to organize and make a difference in their communities, a decision that continues to pay dividends. She still mentors some of the students. Many have reached out to local organizations, and organized rallies and marches in response to George Floyd’s murder last year.

If you decide to work for an organization for free, set boundaries to avoid overextending yourself, like asking them not to reach out after work hours, Hernandez says. If you have to say no, express appreciation for the work the organization is doing, but say that you’re prioritizing paid work for now. Attach your rates in case they’re interested in working with you in the future. Educate them about how their sponsor stands against social justice, if that’s the case, Lonewolf adds. Remember: your no is your no. Social justice shouldn’t come at the cost of your livelihood, your mental health, or your values.