The Price of Unpaid Activism

McKenna Dunbar typically starts her day at 5:30 am. While many of her classmates are still asleep, the University of Richmond junior has begun remote work for her full-time job as a community engagement coordinator at an environmental advocacy organization, the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club. By 8:45 am, she has logged off and is heading to four hours’ worth of back-to-back classes, followed by a quick lunch break. Then she drives to the Sierra Club office in downtown Richmond to work in person until 7:30 pm.

Long days filled with a swarm of activities are normal for the environmental studies and business administration major. As a financially independent student, she has been balancing classes with full-time work since starting college. Dunbar (who uses “she/her” and “they/them” pronouns) belongs to a small cohort of undergraduate students—roughly 10 percent in 2018—who work more than 35 hours a week on top of a standard college course load. Before the pandemic hit and forced universities to operate remotely, she held several part-time jobs, including doing research at the university herbarium lab, working as a bike mechanic, and assisting with communications and marketing tasks for various university departments. While all of these jobs have been rewarding in one way or another, Dunbar’s heart lies in the environmental advocacy space.

For the past couple of years, they have been attending protests, volunteering at the local greenhouse, doing unpaid internships for advocacy-based nonprofits, and leading an organization they founded called the Ecological Justice Initiative. But their new position at Sierra Club is different. For the first time, they are getting paid for their advocacy without relying on outside fellowships or financial awards.

The switch to full-time work with Sierra Club, as opposed to multiple part-time positions, has provided a sense of stability. “I’m definitely less stressed and I feel more secure in my life,” says Dunbar. “With part-time student work, you don’t get benefits, you don’t get sick days, you don’t get paid time off. [Now,] I have health insurance, dental insurance—all of those important things that should be a fundamental human right, but aren’t.”

Finding time for activism can be a challenge for students like Dunbar who are already saddled with academic and financial responsibilities. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Black and Hispanic students, as well as students from low-income families, are more likely to work during their time in college, and among working students put in more hours on average than their higher-income counterparts. “I do think that my experience compared to the average college student’s is unique,” she says. “I don’t know anyone else in the environmental activism sphere who’s working full-time and going to school full-time.”

Since the 1990s, the nonprofit sector has ballooned into a massive industry, now representing the third-largest employer in the US economy. For students and college graduates hoping to “do some good” while also getting paid and gaining important career skills, the allure of the nonprofit world is potent–especially today, when young Americans face unprecedented levels of debt and high living costs. Well-funded nonprofit organizations like the Sierra Club, which reported over $130 million in assets in 2019, offer paid opportunities to get involved in lobbying efforts and political organizing.

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