26 February 2008

The Activist Bug

When I graduated from college, I accepted a position at Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. "SLDN is a national, non-profit legal services, watchdog and policy organization dedicated to ending discrimination against and harassment of military personnel affected by "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and related forms of intolerance."

I worked there for 4 years, and had my first taste of what it's like to believe strongly in a cause and see that the work you're doing does benefit others. There was a small window of time where I could have gone either way - become a non-profiteer or go to grad school for Victorian Literature. It could have been a hard decision, but my mind had made itself up. When daily, I saw the personal impact that the organization was making - or more specifically, at the time, that Kathi Westcott was making - I knew I was done in: an activist for life. Every step I take, I'm thinking about activism, and how to help others through volunteer work and philanthropy. It's an amazing bug to have caught, and I'm happy that the fire keeps burning within me.

Now, I'm two jobs passed that one, and while I truly love my job, it's not the same as touching people's lives, listening to their painful stories of discrimination and sadness, of a desire to serve their country that the government is trying to squelch. When I left, I felt the burn of regret and sadness, but also knew that it was the right time for me to move. I had been through 5 supervisors in 4 years, seen the organization change and grow, and knew that it was time that I learned more from other organizations, supervisors and colleagues.

Where I am now, I am learning, and growing. I'm being challenged and feeling empowered. But I never stop thinking about the service members who the Pentagon discharges daily because they are lesbian, gay or bisexual. Even worse, in times of war, when military personnel are needed, the discharge numbers decrease. The Pentagon has discharged more than 11,000 service members since the law was implemented in 1994. The military has discharged at least fifty-five Arabic linguists and nine Farsi linguists under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the last five years.

I am currently inventorying the benefits that I get from working in higher education - benefits that I take for granted, and that I hadn't known while working in the non-profit activist arena. I am lucky. I'm lucky with what I have at my disposal, I'm lucky with the opportunities that are given to me, I'm lucky that my coworkers don't discriminate against me and that who I love is not grounds for termination.

As I said, SLDN keeps changing - I hardly recognize it in terms of staff. Only 4 of the people I worked with are still at SLDN fighting the good fight. The staff seems new and re-energized, and I can't wait to see what great things they accomplish in the future.

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