August 29, 2016 How to become a professional activist

What is activism?

Social injustices. You have seen it or even experienced it. Whether it’s refugee kids getting locked up in some remote island or a friend getting bullied because of his ethnicity, you feel outraged and urged to do something. If you’re the kind of person who’s burning with passion to fight for a better world, you may want to consider a career in activism.

Activism is about working together with like-minded people to build a movement that creates change. Working in this space, you’re likely to work with many people who share similar interests in the issues that you’re passionate about.

The whole purpose is to create people power that can compel decision-makers, mainly in government, to enact change. Tactics of activism vary from using online petitions to organising a letter-writing event, from lobbying politicians to engaging in civil disobedience, organising a protest and so on.


What does it involve?

Working in activism is exciting. It’s never ending as there is always something new. Whether it’s an election, a change of minister or a headline story of unexpected human tragedies, anything that has the potential to shape public policies relevant to your issue can change your work. You could be sitting in front of your computer finishing a petty cash spreadsheet when you’re suddenly told you need to organise a rally for 1000 people for tomorrow because of a crisis situation.

Working in such a fluid environment, one learns to become a jack-of-all trades. You may start with administration and office logistics but then in a few months time you have to learn about training facilitation for your volunteers and delivering a motivational speech in front of a big audience.

You get to work with the most passionate and dedicated people who share fundamental beliefs in how the world should be. Your job will feel like an extension of your private identity and your colleagues are more like your ‘comrades’.

On the flip side, many activists are prone to burnout. People who work in this field often put in 110% of their energy. Plus, many of the changes you’re working for often take decades because social and political progress doesn’t happen overnight. It can take an emotional toll. You must be careful in managing yourself.

Let Them Stay

Alright, sounds great. How do I get into activism?

Building a career in activism is challenging. Opportunities for paid roles are limited and there’s almost no clear career pathway.

Many activists start out in their university years as ‘unpaid’ activists. They’re usually from academic backgrounds in Arts, Law and Social Sciences.

They’ll join a university club with an activism focus, such as Oxfam, Amnesty International and Oaktree. Some then apply for internships or doing volunteer work at these organisations, building up their skills, knowledge, network and reputation.

However, even after months of interning or volunteering, only a few are lucky enough to land paid roles. These jobs aren’t necessarily activism-related, eg. fundraising, customer service, administration and so on.

Others who aren’t as lucky in landing paid jobs in the NGO sector may explore opportunities in government, unions, academia or the corporate world first before later transitioning into activism.

Activism careers exist but it’s still a niche area of work. You need relevant skills and competencies but also passion, great relationship management and persistence to land a job. Personally I think this field of work is worth the jump if you’re looking to turn your vision of a better world into reality.

A career in activism? Why not!

Ken Matahari supports more than 50 Amnesty action groups throughout NSW, managing a team of 20+ volunteers in Amnesty International’s office in Chippendale.

He started his activism career as a volunteer during his final undergraduate year at Flinders University in 2009 in Adelaide. Since then, he’s worked as a staff member for more than five years, moved from Adelaide to Perth and finally Sydney.

Ken Matahari
is Activism Support Coordinator at Amnesty International Australia