Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
I’ve been galvanized over the past year by the rise in unionizing campaigns across the country, up 58% in the first nine months of 2022 alone. And that doesn’t only include companies like Amazon or Starbucks—the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union, or NPEU, now works with the employees of more than 48 nonprofit organizations. Workers at more than 30 of them are currently in the midst of bargaining for a new contract, many for their first time ever.
Many people recognize nonprofit work as a way to make a difference, or to work with a team of people whose values align with their own. But the dramatic recent uptick in nonprofit union campaigns is evidence that there is a growing disconnect between the values of management and employees. Indeed, organizations pursuing social justice may be working at cross-purposes to their employees. That’s been my experience as a queer organizer about to leave my job organizing congregations. But what ultimately made me choose to leave wasn’t the faith community. It was organizational hypocrisy.
Growing up, I wrestled to find a sense of belonging in the faith spaces that surrounded me. When I was 22, I came out not only as queer, but also as a non-Christian and a liberal—the unholy trinity. When I learned about congregation-based organizing from a professor in graduate school and went on to hear radical retellings of the biblical narratives I grew up with—narratives that emphasized Jesus’ fight to liberate his people from Roman occupation, instead of who was or wasn’t getting into heaven—I saw a path to potentially heal my broken relationship with the church.
Over the past three years, I’ve worked alongside hundreds of faith leaders to turn out over 2,000 people to an annual action where those leaders publicly negotiated with local officials to win their commitments to solve community problems. I’ve personally facilitated a campaign that got our county to commit $9 million toward a system for coordinated access to mental health and addiction services, thanks to pressure from people in our congregations who had seen their own children institutionalized or lost to suicide, and who knew it wasn’t enough to just pray about it.
As a faith-based nonprofit network composed of 31 organizations employing more than 50 organizers across the country, each organizer works with between five and 15 congregations whose faith traditions range from Catholic to Presbyterian to Muslim to Jewish. In my affiliate organization in Florida, I was fighting so no one would ever know the feeling of erasure I felt when I left the church for failing to affirm my right to exist—until that erasure came from inside my workplace.
Working on serious community problems, like affordable housing, climate change, and gun violence, my colleagues and I frequently put in 50 hours or more a week building the community power necessary to take on those issues. We also did it while being woefully underpaid, understaffed, and overworked, and while trying our damnedest to improve the material conditions of our work such that we could access the same basic needs we wanted for our communities.
There’s a long legacy of organizing for a better workplace culture that predates my tenure in the network, but for me, the fight began when we started a queer caucus in June 2020. By coming together, we learned that queer organizers made up more than 30% of the network, and we were able to share the ways in which our queer identities were exploited or treated as expendable. Our unique struggle as queer people fighting for justice on the front lines of faith communities came at the cost of having to keep our identities a secret. We endured the constant re-traumatization of being forced back into the closet.
The reason, management would say, was so we wouldn’t risk alienating anyone in the congregations we organized. Better to sacrifice ourselves than to risk lessening the ranks of our people power. But what management failed—and still fails—to recognize is that our people power is more threatened by their failure to retain staff than by homophobic churches pulling out of our movement.
Since last February, our caucus has sat down with management at least three times in an attempt to make this point. Recently, for example, an affiliate organization in Kansas lost a major source of funding when the local Catholic bishop learned their lead organizer was in a same-sex partnership. This sent a ripple through the national network, leaving queer organizers elsewhere to wonder if they could also lose their funding or even their jobs.
But our management consistently chooses to trade empathy for effectiveness, neglecting to commit to explicitly supporting queer organizers and promising instead to offer trainings on making their organizations financially self-sufficient.
This doesn’t come as a surprise from a network of organizations that are predominately white-led and that, while fighting for a world free from white supremacy, still time and again fall susceptible to it. Internal research gained from exit interviews has already shown that the organizers most likely to quit are queer people and people of color. Of the 20 organizers who have made up the queer caucus over the past two years, eight have left. In December, I’ll make nine.
But we took away from this several key points that nonprofits need to take into account if they’re to build affirming cultures for all their staff.
- Mechanisms of accountability need to exist within nonprofits that take power dynamics into account. For example, it should be clear to all staff what the organizational hierarchy looks like, and each staff member’s roles and responsibilities should be explicitly outlined. Vaguely defined roles ensure no one is held accountable, and staff should be able to report concerns to people they trust, which queer organizers have expressed is not always the person next highest in the chain.
- The only way nonprofits and their staff can survive is by moving toward sustainability practices, like higher salary, decreased hours, and decreased workloads.
- Dismantling systems of historical oppression requires hiring people of different races, sexual and gender identities, mental and physical abilities, faith traditions, and educational and class backgrounds. That also means setting up systems that promote their health and well-being and don’t further exploit them.
Unfortunately, with high turnover and staff working in different cities across different states, we haven’t met all our goals yet. Our workplace culture isn’t completely transformed, nor have we organized a union campaign and won. Neither are we finished fighting.
As adrienne maree brown writes in her book Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, “We are in an imagination battle,” and we must engage our own imaginations in order to break free. As a queer person, I’ve had to imagine myself out of the heteropatriarchal script that was written for me in order to survive. As a queer organizer, along with my colleagues, I’ve imagined a world where management treats our labor and our identities with the dignity they deserve. If we’re going to transform our workplaces into models of the world as it should be, we’re going to have to get together and affirm our own right to exist—and organize that better world into existence.
Elena Novak is a nonbinary organizer and writer from Florida. Their articles have been published on the Huffpost blog, Everyday Feminism, and in newspapers in Florida and North Carolina. After furthering their political education at Clark University in Worcester, they began a three-year stint as an organizer helping lead behavioral health and environmental campaigns in Pinellas County, Florida. In their free time, they love hoarding books from the library and cuddling their cat, Luna. They are a member of the National Writers Union. You can reach them at [email protected]