“To be truly visionary we have to root our imagination in our concrete reality while simultaneously imagining possibilities beyond that reality.”
– bell hooks (1952-2021), author, theorist, educator, and Kentuckian
In the pursuit of true visionary change, bell hooks reminds us that our imagination must be rooted in our concrete reality while simultaneously exploring possibilities beyond it. This principle applies to grassroots organizing, where compensating directly impacted community members can foster equity and build community power. As the Executive Director of the Kentucky Civic Engagement Table (KCET), I’ve witnessed the transformative impact of compensating grassroots leaders, prioritizing community care, and removing barriers to participation.
Reimagining Compensation and Community Care
Addressing the issue of compensation for grassroots leaders first surfaced when a colleague sought to pay a community member for leading a yoga session during a leadership development event and received pushback for it. The pushback against compensating volunteers raised important questions about who can afford to engage in these spaces without financial sacrifice – “If we decide to start paying a volunteer or member, where do we draw the line?” “Who gets paid and who doesn’t?” Too often, those who possess generational wealth or stable jobs with higher wages enjoy the privilege of participating freely, leading to a skewed representation of our communities’ voices. KCET determined it was crucial to reevaluate whom we support and compensate in our efforts to build power together.
I started questioning the accessibility of “volunteer” spaces and who can participate without financial burdens. Engaging in unpaid organizing and advocacy work is a privilege mainly afforded to white, older, and wealthier individuals with generational wealth or stable jobs offering flexibility and higher wages. But is that who we need to build power with? Who has the most to gain by learning organizing skills and having time to practice those skills? And how can we rethink who we’re supporting and compensating to be in community with us?
Integrating Equitable Compensation and Community Care at KCET
I carried these questions with me as I moved into my current leadership position as Executive Director of Kentucky Civic Engagement Table (KCET). KCET is a statewide coalition that supports grassroots organizations to advance coordinated strategy, win shared policy and civic engagement victories, and build long-term power. For KCET and our partners, we focus on the people most impacted by injustice for our organizing efforts: Black, Indigenous, and people of color, immigrants and refugees, disabled people, LGBTQIA people, young people, currently and formerly incarcerated people, and poor and working class people across Kentucky.
This is one reason why it’s so important to me that we equitably compensate our grassroots leaders to be a part of this movement – because we believe that the expertise needed to solve a community’s problems lies within the community itself, and so often, people who are most impacted by injustice often have the biggest barriers to participation.
We initially offered compensation to grassroots leaders to attend trainings and convenings if they would lose wages to be there, but we wanted to go deeper when developing our own compensation procedures and to also be a leading example for our thirty-four partner organizations about what is collectively possible when we center community care and the participation of directly impacted people.
During the development of our 2023 budget, KCET prioritized integrating compensation and community care into various line items. For instance, we organized a four-day intensive training with participants from across Kentucky. While some attendees would be compensated as part of their job, others volunteered and faced lost wages, child care costs, and travel expenses. In response, we allocated funds in addition to staff time, venue rental, and convening materials to provide stipends for lost wages, gas or travel reimbursement, and childcare support. This approach ensures that participants whose jobs do not include organizing can join, feel supported, and gain valuable skills for their communities. We’re committed to integrating these supports into every event and opportunity in our yearly budget.
Targeted Equity, Not a Blanket Approach
Our compensation policies target directly impacted individuals to ensure their meaningful participation, without creating a blanket approach where every volunteer receives compensation. In grassroots organizing, people do make personal sacrifices and offerings to the collective – their time, their money, their expertise, etc. These are choices made with the knowledge that these sacrifices and offerings are worth it, and are a necessary part of the strong, broad-based social movements we need to win. But it is inequitable and a centering of privilege to operate as though these sacrifices and choices look the same for everyone.
With this in mind, we ask every person who registers for our events if they need access to financial compensation or stipends. This simultaneously removes barriers to participation for directly impacted people, while also allowing those with more privilege to assess if they genuinely require this form of support, or if they can make a choice to participate based solely on their personal stake in this work.
“Love is an act of will. Both an intention and an action.”
Many organizations struggle with the concept of compensating volunteers, but at KCET, love is at the center of our work, and we believe that the people closest to the problems are closest to the solutions. We know that people can’t show up to attend a meeting or participate in a canvass if they don’t have child care or will miss a shift at their job and can’t then pay their bills. Being equitable in our approach and leading with values of love and care means that we consider what it will take for someone to fully participate in our movements and then work together to remove those barriers.
Overcoming Barriers to Compensation
Implementing equitable compensation doesn’t come without challenges.
One of the biggest barriers to compensation is often an organization’s own policies and procedures. Compensating volunteers or grassroots members for their time is a new concept to a lot of people and there’s very little guidance on how to operationalize it, beyond making sure your accounting is in order. Organizational leaders – oftentimes people from privileged backgrounds – will also raise concerns about people abusing the system, which often leads to making volunteers jump through more hoops and that disproportionately impacts the very people we’re trying to organize with.
Another barrier to compensation is the lack of funding to actually compensate community members. There are grants for general operating support, projects, rapid response, technical assistance, and more. But rarely, if ever, do you see specific grants for funding opportunities for these necessary parts of movement work. As I mentioned previously, this type of compensation is built into our overall budget as well as different project budgets. We’ve been very lucky to have supportive funders who have given us unrestricted funding so that we can operationalize these kinds of supports.
What happens when we don’t consider the care and support that directly impacted community members need in order to engage in our work? Our movement and our people suffer. People experience burnout more quickly and more often. They can’t operate at their highest capacity in movement work because they’re preoccupied by concerns related to financial stability and survival. Without adequate care and compensation, directly impacted people are oftentimes forced to sit on the sidelines, while others (those who can afford to engage) speak for them or overextend themselves to be engaged. All of this means a weaker movement and fewer wins for our people and their communities.
Equitable compensation is not just a financial transaction; it is an act of love, care, and empowerment. When we prioritize the needs of directly impacted community members, our movements become more inclusive, powerful, and effective in driving positive change. By investing in our grassroots leaders, we create a path towards a more just and equitable future for all.
With much gratitude to:
- Jessie Skaggs, Fundraising & Communications Officer for KCET
- Celine Mutuyemariya, Organizing Director for BLACK (Black Leadership Action Coalition of Kentucky)
- Marcus Jackson, Founder and Executive Director of ABLE (Advocacy Based on Lived Experience)
Note from AFJ – Join us next week to hear from two KCET-sponsored program directors, who are centering directly impacted community members in their organizing with a mission to build multiracial people power in Kentucky.