There are many reasons to be angry right now. Sky high prices on supermarket shelves. Dodgy landlords. School exclusions. But those running the campaigns to tackle these problems don’t always share the same anger and experiences as those of us affected. It’s time that changed. So here’s my advice if you want to make a career out of campaigning.
This year marks ten years since I started my first job as a professional campaigner. Fresh from softening my Essex accent at university I sat in the local library because we had no PC at home. As I sat mouth wide open, scrolling through unpaid internships, there was no point shouting at the injustice. No one was listening and I’d only disrupt the elderly woman playing Solitaire.
“Chip on your shoulder” is a phrase thrown at us who talk about the difficulties arising from our backgrounds. When I Google it I find it comes from boys who placed a chip of wood on their shoulders in the pub, daring others to knock it off and start a fight. Well, off I went to a box room in the London suburbs, daring the charity sector to try me.
I take an internship in an office with bean bags thrown around the floor like a teenager expecting visitors. One day I sat around a table as the team discussed whether my 3-day a week role should be paid. As the verdict goes against me, I feel like I’m at the Old Bailey without my legal aid lawyer.
The unpaid internship left me with a Barclays credit card that, like a bad ex-boyfriend, came back to bite me long after I thought it was out of my life. But alongside that big overdraft and credit card bills, my confidence was not always up to scratch. I always seemed to be putting my foot in it. Just like at University, I didn’t seem to know how to present what I was trying to get across.
I was called out for being too angry about the issues we campaigned on. Fire in your belly was unprofessional, apparently. I was also told: stop making jokes India, or people won’t take you seriously. Oh come on, no one was taking me seriously anyway, the least I could do was be funny.
A help not a hindrance
As time went on, the chip on my shoulder started to feel like a Marvel character’s armour. When working on Greenpeace’s environmental campaigns I corrected assumptions like “most people know” why fracking is bad. When I wrote words to mobilise people to take action I knew exactly the gutsy, simple way to say it. That university teacher who’d asked me why my parents didn’t listen to Radio 4 began to look stupid.
Sure, sometimes I felt uncomfortable speaking in sterile rooms working at the Labour Party. But I knew I was fighting for Labour's policies because they’d help people I loved. That made me fight harder.
I also had something unique to bring to it when I set out to hire a team at Labour, knowing that those underrepresented people were worth working hard to hire. Now I’m lucky enough to train and mentor young people on their own campaigning journeys. It got me thinking about what I’d tell my younger self about that chip on my shoulder.
If you’re thinking of becoming a professional troublemaker like me, but without the bank or social capital of Mum and Dad, here’s some advice I wish I’d been given.
Ask for help
I often felt like asking for help showed weakness and I didn’t want to be seen as unworthy for my job. But the truth is that many of my peers had connections and cheat codes I didn’t. Maybe they’d shared dinner tables with journalists or attended political meetings since 3. By denying this, I only hindered myself. I always wished I’d found someone to mentor or coach me, or just to ask the occasional question.
Seek out campaigners you admire and email or message them asking for a chat. Tell them you like what they do and would love to learn from them through mentoring or coaching. They’ll be flattered. If they’re good people and they have the time, they’ll want to help you in some way.
Don’t be afraid to prepare
None of us want to be intimidated by people with private school accents or parents with posh jobs. But it will happen in most jobs. It makes it hard to think on our feet. I wasn’t much of a swot at school, but when it comes to being comfortable in meetings early on in your career, it can be helpful to prepare.
If people consistently send invites for discussions without agendas or topics, ask them politely to send something in advance. Then you can write a few bullet points of what you might want to say.
Same with job interviews, it’s fine to have notes in front of you even if it's just to relax you. You can also ask the interviewers for the questions in advance too.
Treat it as a unique selling point
Remember this: if you’re part of an underrepresented group like being working-class and/or being a person of colour, you have a unique perspective to offer.
Treat being working-class as a selling point and a skill that you can offer. If you’re working on public-facing communications and you don’t think people you grew up with would understand or relate, speak up and state your case. Someone recently told me that I “cut the crap” and that’s a reputation I don’t mind.
Organise with the diverse working class
Show your solidarity and build connections with everyone who is underrepresented at your organisation(s). You could go to talk to someone who was talked over by a colleague at the end of a meeting. Speak to them about how it made them feel and how you might support each other in future.
Join a union and organise for better wages and conditions. If your organisation says you “don’t need a union” because it’s a progressive group of activists then that’s a major red flag. Speak to a trade union (Unite and IGWB both represent non-profit workers) about how to get a recognition agreement in place with your workplace.
If you’re not being listened to by your HR department or manager then speak to your union rep and ask them to come to a meeting with you to ask for specific changes with deadlines. Union reps have dealt with these issues before and can offer so much wisdom.
Social mobility won’t save us
If it turns out being a professional campaigner isn’t right for you; that doesn’t mean you can’t change the world. Far from it. Much of the time it’s activists with other day jobs who make the biggest changes. Like many people of my generation, I was guilty of buying into the dream of “social mobility” at a young age. The dream of doing “better” than our parents. But while the financial stability of a paid job is essential you can do other jobs and still change things. From the Black Panthers to the Stonewall rioters, campaigners who are driven simply by the desire for justice can often do more radical and effective things. Changing the world doesn’t mean working for a charity, it could mean night time actions with Green New Deal, organising your neighbours with a tenants union or fighting with your trade union at work.
Keep the chip on your shoulder
Thankfully unpaid internships are less common than when I started my career and things are getting slowly better in a lot of organisations. But the jobs of our parents, our education, our financial instability, our accents and so on will always mark us as different in middle class environments.
But campaigning organisations should be chomping at the bit to get more working class people in senior roles - we have so much to offer.
The diverse working class has the fire in our bellies to make change happen, knowing we are the worst hit by climate breakdown and corporate greed. We often work hard, knowing we have a vested interest in making this world better. We know why some will need to stay at home with their kids rather than attend your painstakingly organised protest. We know why some might not be itching to dive into John’s 50 page policy document on reaching net zero.
In short: that chip on our shoulder means we’re up for a fight. So whether you end up a professional campaigner or an activist in your community: put it to work.
Please give me an email if you want to chat about any of this article or organise around the issues raised.
about the author
India is a campaigner with a decade of experience using people power to win change. She’s defeated corporate giants like HSBC at Greenpeace and led the campaign forcing the government’s chosen airline not to fly refugees to Rwanda. She was Head of Membership Mobilisation in Labour’s 2019 General Election campaign. As a consultant since 2020, she’s advised more than 30 non profits and trained hundreds across the UK.