on doing something for nothing

Today I spent a couple of hours in the company of women, and a couple of men, who work hard for the community they live in, they spend up to 30 hours a week, each supporting, advising, helping and no one gets paid anything.  This really made me think about the value we put on actions.

I spent my time helping them to understand and improve their work.  Look at that sentence.  I ‘spent’ my ‘time’ it says a lot.  It says that there are other things that can be spent rather than money.  It says that even if you don’t have money you are still valuable. It says that if no one is paying you, then you are responsible purely for your own time and effort.  You are doing whatever you are doing because you want to.  How powerful is that?

I was reminded of another life, in another decade when a group of young women decided to make a difference in their community.  Coming together to discuss what was necessary was the easy bit, getting the ‘men in suits’ to listen was quite a different matter.  Through sticking together, giving their time freely and working together gradually, little by little great things were achieved.  What did the men in suits do?  They employed each and every one of the women, gave them good jobs and in doing so removed their power.

When the women were unwaged they could and did do exactly what they needed and wanted to do.  When the venue for the meeting wasn’t allowed a creche, they took all the children anyway, it was no ones fault that the room they set the unofficial creche up in was also the meetings break out room for refreshments.  Men in suits come for their tea and biscuits, oh really, that milk was for tea and coffee, only the children were thirsty.  Biscuits?  what biscuits? the crumbs on the nice clean corporate carpet told their own story.  The next meeting at the same venue there was an organised creche with paid staff allowing all the women to participate in the meeting.

Once waged the women realised that they had to dance to the corporate tune, for a while this was fine because they were all in a position to improve things for other women, but the raw edge, the determination and the imagination were dulled ever so slightly, The passion was tarnished.  They started to think about what couldn’t be done, rather than what could be done.  Each of the women had a better personal life.  Once waged worries about money changed, to be replaced with a different type of worry. Cars were needed to get to workplaces, childcare had to be put into place.  For a while each woman stood taller, straighter and saw herself as a success in the world,  The monthly wage cheque was validation of their worth and was soon spent.  Time to spend together was limited, working, children and family committments took over.  Snatched phone conversations keep the links together but the excitement and trust they had had together was slipping every day.

Over time each of those women have all had successes.  They were promoted, went on to education, learned things and took their passions into ever more workplaces.  They found the ‘men in suits’ were still present only, and it took time to realise, they were now part of the same system.   Months became years and one by one the women bargained and negotiated what power they had once had for a better car more responsibility and a larger wage. At some point they stopped noticing the ‘men in suits’ and started using the same language they had once fought against.  Even sometimes they found themselves justifying and arguing against spending money on creches and other extras, forgetting how difficult participation truly is when you do not have a stake in the world.

In time the women grew older, and with age they had time to reflect on the value of their working life.  Some decided that it was now time to step away and to do things they were passionate about.  The children they had needed creche’s for way back then now had families of their own.  Now it is our time, they thought and we will spend it well, be that  knitting, drinking wine or volunteering.  With no monthly paycheque came a sort of freedom which felt ever so slightly familiar.

Once again the women considered what was worth fighting for, and believe me, three decades on, nothing is better than it was.  They began to remember the power of not being paid, their passion and their energy came back,  To be able to advocate and stand up for what is right, it was still there, the corporate line could be crossed.  Each of the women started to remember who exactly she was. How had they forgotten the feeling of freedom, freedom to challenge and to demand what is needed?

So now in a community group, in a campaigning meeting, in a school playground and in local politics, look around you. See if you can spot the women who have spent a life time fighting to be as good as the ‘men in suits’ and you will see the people who eventually worked it out.  The women who were told they could have it all, and almost collapsed trying to have any of it.

If you see one of these women make sure you listen to her, make sure you learn from her and most of all grab a bucketful of her passion and excitement.  You never know where it will take you.

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