The George Washington University may not have been my first choice when I was applying to colleges, but once I committed to pursuing an undergraduate education in the nation’s capital, I was determined to take advantage of the changemaker’s candy shop. I spent my freshman year living and learning with the next generation of interdisciplinary innovators as an International Arts and Culture cohort member of the Elizabeth J. Somers Women’s Leadership Program. I studied sociology to deepen my love of macro systems theory. I double minored in graphic design and law and society because my love of the humanities transgressed the delineations of art and social science. Like many GW students, I was an overachiever, glutinous when it came to resume building opportunities. I joined student government, worked four internships in the non-profit sector over the course of three years, held a leadership position in the GW Artists for Advocacy student organization, and led significant strides in the student movement to remove the Colonial monniker by launching the Anything But Colonial coalition. I even graduated a year early summa cum laude, a triumph overshadowed by the devastating global pandemic that wreaked havoc in 2020.
Graduating in 2020 meant that the self-identity crises of being quarantined and recently graduating with no employment plans intersected in a gorgeously orchestrated rock bottom. On top of that, being a glutinous overachiever in college left me with a serious case of burn out. I refused to relinquish my ambitions of leaving a mark on the world, so after graduating I pushed down the burn out and dove head first into the underpaid and overworked insurgent progressive campaign trail.
Looking back, now that I have the privilege of earning a stable paying job in political communications, I’m able to see my year-long path through the campaign trail as a learning experience. I learned that when progressive political candidates choose to reject corporate donations because they’re told it’s the ethical campaign model, they often end up relying heavily on exploitative volunteer labor models. Grassroots fundraising strategies like phone banking and flooding inboxes with emails diverts time, money, and a candidate’s emotional resources away from building the trusting and authentic relationships with constituents that earns votes. This is to no fault of any individual progressive candidate. It is the model of ethical and grassroots insurgent campaigns that they are told will lead to success. The worst part is that the majority of the time it leads to incredibly genuine and worthy candidates losing to the well-funded establishment. It also creates a burn-out pipeline where skilled campaign workers leave the campaign trail for more stable and healthier work environments. The solution is not to sacrifice ethics for corporate donations, but if we do not create more sustainable campaign structures our movement will burn out.
I learned a lot on my journey from student to intern, to managing campaign trail communications, to directing communications for an elected official. I recognize that many of these revelations are not new, and that my words are an echo of activists and advocates much more seasoned than myself. It took personal lived experience and learning the hard way for me to internalize these messages as habitual practice.
I learned to value my labor and my emotional wellbeing, because working for and with human beings means that even the most progressive people may forget to do this for me.
I learned that Capitol Hill and a political science degree are not the only paths to building a fulfilling career in politics. Electing and amplifying the next generation of progressive politicians is a multifaceted institutional shift, and each individual’s unique ability, labor, and energy has value to movement building and challenging unjust institutional practices. My graphic design skills got my foot through the door to the nonprofit sector. From there I continued to build on my communications skills so that I was prepared to take on the campaign trail, and from there amplify the work of elected officials. I learned that my ability to take on unpaid internships in college was a privilege, and that this acknowledgement could be both humbling and celebratory of my hard work.
I unlearned capitalist myths of what work habits build a successful career. If you do not build identity, self-worth, and self-care beyond the movement you will burn out. When my work as an activist was my entire identity, I reduced myself to one dimensional identities and diminished my self-worth to the labor I contributed to the movement. Burn out and unemployment forced me to relearn how to be a whole human being beyond labor and achievements. I had to relearn my passions for artmaking, writing, and reviving ancestral Jewish practices like baking challah and celebrating Shabbat. When I took a step back to practice self-care and self-reflection, it made me a better asset to the movement because I was not immobilized by unproductive obstacles.
I learned to ask for help. I could not have overcome the obstacles of unemployment in a global pandemic, post college burn-out, and campaign trail imposter syndrome without the professional development and career support of the Arena Academy.
I also learned to be humbled by the realization that I will always be an imperfect asset to the intersectional liberation movement, unlearning colonized systems until my final breath. That is the beauty of being human, and the consequence of our socioeconomic system. I look forward to rereading this blog in a few years with self-critique to remind myself that my current lived experience is limited, and that those limitations are what hold me accountable to lifelong learning and empathy.
Lastly, I learned to think critically about unapologetically taking up space in white-washed advocacy spaces. Feminist activism counteracts the cis-white man’s world by normalizing the cis-white woman’s experience, reversing feminine habits by adopting the patriarchal habit of refusing to apologize for your actions. Audre Lorde was right when she said “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. We cannot adopt the apathetic and selfish behavior of cis-white men as a model for an inclusive and intersectional movement. When we reframe unapologetically taking up space to practicing humble and compassionate self-advocacy, we can break bread and build trust together. Instead of competing for exclusively numbered seats, we can build a bigger table.
*Hayley [pronouns: she/they] is a queer, Jewish, digital activist and creative storyteller currently working as Communications Director for a New York State Senator. They are an alum of the 2017-18 International Arts and Culture cohort of the George Washington University’s Women’s Leadership Program, graduating from GW in 2020 Summa Cum Laude with a BA in Sociology. She is also a 2021 alum of the Arena Academy communications track.