Friday, August 11, 2006

A Glance Into the Worlds of Non-Profits

When I first came to YWTF as an intern, Deva had me write a short “bio” about myself. I remember writing that I was “interested in the balance between activism and feminist theory” and that I wanted to “further my experience in feminism” through the internship. After the past week, in which I did some career shadowing with several successful younger women, I have a new perspective on what exactly I mean when I say that there must be that balance between what we think is right and what we do to achieve it.

During each day’s career shadowing, I experienced a different type of activism on behalf of women. On Monday I visited the American Association of University Women (AAUW) which focuses on achieving equity between men and women in university settings and, though few would deny that this is an admirable goal, AAUW is one of the leading organizations that acts to fulfill it. Moreover, AAUW doesn’t have just one method of operating: their activism spans from research and lobbying to chapter activism and financially assisting women to gain higher education.

On Tuesday I shadowed at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), an organization that, some argue, is based more on theory and books than on action. Yet, from what I saw and read during my stay, IWPR is an invaluable resource for the gender activist community. The sheer volume of research and studies that IWPR circulates is astonishing, and the results that come from such publications even more amazing. Senators and House representatives have been known to change their stances on issues simply from reading IWPR’s “Status of Women in the United States” reports, not to mention the value of just collecting and disseminating information about women’s equality, or lack thereof. Sure, IWPR may not often lobby or do other more conventional political activism, but their research is the backbone of countless other groups’ platforms, on the Hill and elsewhere. IWPR’s collaboration with many women’s organizations, in fact, is yet more proof that women can and do work together.

Speaking of women working (excuse the awkward and cheesy transition), on Wednesday I visited Women Work! The National Network for Women’s Employment. (And yes, Women Work! usually has an exclamation mark after it, like Jeopardy! but so as not to confuse my computer or my readers, I’ll leave it off.) Women Work operates in two different and seemingly opposing ways. They not only lobby and advocate for political issues, but they also work at the ground level to offer job training and education to women. It was inspiring for me to see how Women Work can deal with both politicians and the women they help, without privileging one over the other (if anything, the women themselves are the ones privileged over the politicians!). Women Work advocates for women to get the vocational training they need to get better jobs and to succeed, and if that’s not activism, I don’t know what is!

Now, although I learned a lot in all of the places I career shadowed, Thursday was probably the most enlightening experience of the week. At the same time, it was the most unnerving, and it left me really considering what to do with my gender activism in the future. I career shadowed with the director of Digital Sisters. I would say that I shadowed at Digital Sisters, but in this case, there was no solid location, no air-conditioned business office – this was the kind of activism that really gets you in the field and allows you to see the effects of your efforts . We visited two places, both impoverished areas where Digital Sisters offers technical education so that people can get better jobs. Digital Sisters goes to the heart of the problem – to the housing projects and the homeless shelters – to help get people off the streets and off drugs and into successful careers.

As I looked upon settings so different from the office buildings to which I was accustomed, I wondered about my own activism: was I doing enough to really reach individual women? I had the right ideas, but how was I translating them into action? And as for my future, how could I reconcile my hoped-for career as a professor with being an activist for women (and men) in hardship?

I still don’t have the answers to these questions, but with time (and experience) I think I will. For now, I’ve at least experienced activism in a myriad of ways, from the halls of the House to community streets. Each women’s organization has a different method, maybe even a different demographic, but the mission is similar: to advocate for and better the lives of women.

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