Burned Out By the PIRG

l. Is there anything else out there?

I often spoke with other PIRG entry level staff what drew them into the job.  Many were former interns in the program, and automatically had an easy in to the organization.   Many had been recruited through information sessions and group interviews with PIRG staff at their college career centers.

But most had accepted a job with PIRG for the simple reason that they wanted to work on advocacy and social change in a nonprofit, but there were no other opportunities available.

Sure, there’s a bit of truth to that explanation.  Finding a job in the nonprofit world can be difficult for the college senior or recent graduate, much more so than going straight into the corporate world or graduate school.

PIRG devotes a staggering amount of money and time on their recruitment process.  If they changed their work culture and environment, they might be able to cut down on these costs,  keep staff around, and raise their salaries.  But a large majority of smaller nonprofit organizations, which are constantly trying to balance their bottom line, simply do not have the same resources to seek out candidates for employment.  Craigslist now charges $25 per job listing in most major American cities – Idealist also charges for job listings.

So where can you really find openings? There are plenty of opportunities out there beyond PIRG – if you have the drive and patience to seek them out.  Many openings at nonprofit organizations are passed around word of mouth, or posted directly on their websites.  Start looking into the local organizations that serve the community you hope to live in after college.  Get yourself out in the community.  Connect with alumni who might work with organizations you are interested in.

Don’t always rely on your career center. Sure, your on-campus career center can teach you a thing or two about the perfect cover letter, a successful interview, and connect you with hundreds of places to work, but don’t depend on them completely.  In the end, how badly you want a job, particularly in the nonprofit world, is up to you.  Sure, the PIRG makes it easy for you by flying out their staff to campuses all around the country and setting up interviews right in your career center, but if you want something else, it’s all on you.

Experience, experience, experience. Sure, a college courseload can be tough stuff.  But if you want to get an edge ahead of other college grads, get involved. Take on leadership positions in on-campus organizations.   INTERN AND VOLUNTEER.  Internships or volunteer positions at nonprofit organizations are particularly key because they get you into the sector.  Even 10 hours per week looks better than none at all.  Most importantly, you have references.

NETWORK. One thing your career center can be really good at, which I touched on before, is putting you within reach of a vast alumni network.  Use it.  Attend community events if you plan on sticking around your college’s city or nearby city.  If you’re interning or volunteering with an organization, attend their events and meet other people in the sector.   Throw yourself out there.

11. The facade

I remember coming out of a training as if it were the end of an army training.  Some hoopla about “we’re gonna be fighting for social justice and social change!”  I felt a little sick inside, because every creepy PIRG method that had been presented to me about how to recruit and organize people seemed to lose all of that in the equation.

Never addressed was how to get to know and deal with these new communities we’d be organizing in.  Sure, they were college campuses, maybe a little set apart from the real world – but the students there still dealt with many very real issues.  Many of these campuses were in urban neighborhoods.  Many of the students, full or part-time, juggled full to part-time jobs on the side, a rigrous courseload, and in some cases, children.

The whole structure of the organization kind of rendered everything we were fighting for to a facade.   I never really felt like I really cared about the textbook-global warming-hunger & homelessness campaigns we were expected to organize on, because we were too damn busy trying to figure out “How many people are going to attend the GIM meeting?!”  “I gotta do my numbers.”  “My tabling rate isn’t too good.”  It was like a constant struggle to re-evaluate yourself rather than fighting for the students you were working with.  Sure, the aforementioned issues drew attention and resonated, but they never really made us think outside the box.


10. Is an organization as large as PIRG really “grassroots”?

Like many other former employees, I struggled with that question.  Every day we were told that what we were doing was soooo progressive and soooo grassroots.  But it never really felt that way.

I personally think the groups that are locally-based and made up of community members tend to create the most meaningful change.  You see, the problem with PIRG is that they will place canvassers, organizers, or advocates in a random city that they are not familiar with.  They are then, in many cases, barely expected to brush up on the local politics and force the same national PIRG agenda down people’s throats.  Sure, the state PIRGs do some decent work on state and municipal legislation here and there, but for the most part, every state PIRG’s website looks identical.

The PIRG/Fund/GCI have strangled the left.  Money that could have been granted to and spent on smaller non-profit organizations working on truly local issues has somehow found its way over to the PIRGs because, well, they know how to ask people for money, and do it often.  Sure, they advocate on some decent issues, but why can’t they just stick to the federal level unless they revamp the way their state PIRGs work?  If I would suggest anything to senior staff at the PIRG: make your state offices more reflective of the state you are representing.  Become a part of the fabric of the community – don’t just exist to fulfill cold numbers for the overall national goals.

-posted by CaliforniaDude

9. A good quote from “Lockse”

Not unlike my own blog, many accounts of the PIRG – oft more scathing than mine – exist on the internets – especially in response to the stories on the Fund canvass office in LA that was working to unionize and Dana Fisher’s book, Activism Inc.

In any case, a poster Lockse has a great thought on why the PIRG/Fund/GCI model is so caught up in recruitment:

“Altogether, I’ve become ashamed that one of the central lessons of my years of training–recruit, recruit, recruit–has allowed PIRG/Fund/GCI leaders to fall into the attitude that since there are always more people to fill the ranks, there’s no need to form relationships based on respect and trust.”

“It takes a certain kind of person to be an organizer…”

It’s no wonder the PIRG is so aggressive in their entry level recruitment.  That’s because they have a pretty low retention rate.  Like many before me, people get fed up and leave.  Now think about it.  If so many entry level staff leave before their time is up, maybe there’s something fundamentally wrong with the working environment.  But this thought never seems to cross the minds of those in leadership positions.  That’s because most of these people have, for whatever reason, been able to stick it out for so long, and know the PIRG model as the only organizing model on the planet.

Don’t let them fool you again. Don’t let them think you are worthless when it comes to working on a campaign.  You can be an organizer and not work eighty hours a week.  There are many different ways of organizing communities and getting constituents excited about different policy issues.  Though PIRG has many good ideas, in order to be truly successful you ALWAYS have to think outside the box.  The PIRG does its best to discourage that.  Don’t think that their way is the only way.  There are still many other kinds of career opportunities out there to create social change – and get paid what you deserve.

The job

I realize that there actually isn’t a lot I can say about the job experience itself, because a lot of what I would describe would give much of it away.  As much as it would add to the story, I’m not going to risk calling anyone out (but boy, would I love to).  So let’s just get down to brass tacks.

As a campus organizer, you’re expected in the first week and often second week to run a massive recruitment drive – bringing students in to volunteer and/or intern on the different StudentPIRG campaigns and attend the “Kickoff Meeting”, or “General Interest Meeting (GIM)”.  Tabling in a student center was the most effective way of reaching out to students – many other student organizations at the campus would do the same thing.  The other tactics included class raps, which basically consisted of interrupting a class to talk about the PIRG chapter and have students fill out an interest card, and phonebanking ALL of the contacts you made during recruitment to get them to say yes to volunteering for an event and attending the GIM meeting.

I do agree with the PIRG on this principle – the sooner you reach out to someone who signs up to volunteer, the better.  This is a fundamental of every successful campaign.  But for one single organizer to implement with students who were just learning the ropes, it was exhausting.

There was a script for every kind of interaction possible – from speaking to classes, to phonebanking, to training students to table, to training them on how to communicate.  There were so many methods that I often forgot exactly what it was that we were doing this for.

The campus organizer is also expected to run an internship program, complete with a weekly class – a great incentive to get students involved in leadership positions (and get course credit!) on the three plus campaigns you were expected to run in a semester.  This did take a lot of weight off my back, but don’t you worry – if my staff director saw me being able to take a step back, there was always some other thing to do.

What’s not mentioned in the job description is that in addition to worrying about your campus and students – you’re expected to play a role in recruiting future entry-level PIRG staff.  We’d be assigned to another campus – curiously not our own – and expected to “ID”, if not stalk – dozens of potential staff by researching Facebook profiles, student organizations on campus, and so on.

And let’s not forget the best part of all – when students on campus go on break for the summer, you’re expected to be a canvass director for those three or so months.  Oh joy!  Throughout the year, you’re also expected to squeeze in ten days of door-to-door or street canvassing, which is intended to train you for the summer.  Are you serious?  That’s really enough time for someone with no fundraising experience to be ready to run their own canvass?

In many cases, my colleagues struggled to find summer housing and worry about the rent for their current living situation because they were asked to run a canvass in a completely different city.  Many people would end up semi-homeless for that entire summer, crashing on couches or in the canvass office.  Lucky for me, I didn’t stick it out for the summer.

I mentioned this before – don’t let PIRG fool you when they say “Oh, well we’re activists – we’re not here to make a lot of money!”  But PIRG is a massive organization, if you weren’t able to figure that out already.  They subsist on a massive canvassing operation of regular donors, and get quite a lot of grant money from federal and local benefactors and foundations.  If I had been working for a small, truly grassroots organization, I would have understood the pay cut.  But these guys are not lacking in funds.

PIRG takes advantage of an entry level worker’s naivete – they advertise the starting salary right around 23,750 – but in the first year, much of that salary is your “health earnings” which go to paying your premium.  Though this is common practice at many other organizations and companies, it’s not very clear until you receive the first paycheck.  So you don’t walk home with much in your bank account.

The PIRG also funds an almost fully subsidized vacation in Aspen close to Christmas.  For a week, you get free housing, food, and discounted activities at the resort.  In your first year on staff, you cannot use your vacation time until the completion of your first year, so you could “borrow” time to go to Aspen.   Sure, Aspen itself was awesome and debaucherous.  But couldn’t the money they spend on this be better off somewhere else?   I’m pretty sure they do Aspen to ensure everyone takes the same time off.  Forget about seeing your family – you can get drunk and screw your co-workers in Aspen!

Having worked as an intern with other organizations and in a legislative office – I was already prepared for this line of work being much more than the standard 40 hours a week.  After a while, I found it egregiously insulting by how much responsibility I was asked to take on by my staff director and how little I was receiving in compensation.  60 hours was a slow week – 75 was the standard.  When I wrote the director of one of my summer internships for an organization that did similar constituent and legislative organizing as PIRG, she was aghast and concerned for my well-being.  “Having the chance to take on leadership and responsibility in an entry level job is not something you come across that often.  But what you’re expected to do is just ridiculous.”

PIRG Training

They don’t do no messin’ around at the StudentPIRGs.  Not long after I accepted the job, they flew me out to one of the central offices to begin training.  I was hired at an irregular time – most campus organizers were hired to train during the summer and hit the ground running for the fall semester. The group I trained with kind of just came right into it.

I am going to say that the training was definitely useful.  The reason PIRG still exists is because their model of organizing can definitely be effective.  I learned a lot from the campaign planning portion of the training – how to put it on paper and make it clear and concise for the people you are organizing.

What was frustrating about the training (and ultimately, throughout my experience at the college campus) was the insistence on scripted “raps” you were expected to use when you are trying to draw people into the student chapter at a tabling event.  Even though the PIRG was placing us at a number of very unique college campuses, both urban and rural, it was almost frowned upon when I tried to tailor the rap to my college campus.  If I added an example of something on my college campus, I’d get a “well, let’s just stick to what’s there” kind of response.  But wait – shouldn’t we be trying to draw in people to our cause with examples they can relate to and understand?

What I’m saying is – the way the campus organizer model is set-up is to encourage one to follow everything by the book.  In a way,  PIRG trains entry-level organizers as if they’ve never had an ounce of activist or public speaking experience – and yet, the candidates they seek for these entry level positions are expected to have those skills.  So basically it’s their way or the highway.

I think the funniest part of training was when they had everyone read excerpts from Saul Alinsky and Cesar Chavez.  It was almost as if they included that just to give us the feeling that we were a part of something radical and refreshing.  But really, I think Alinsky and Chavez would have groaned at the sight of an entry level PIRG organizer.  So many of the skills that we were expected to bring to the college campus were full of contradictions that did more harm than good to the community.