Natalie Evans describes herself as an accidental activist, after a racist incident she filmed on a train went viral two years ago.
It spurred Natalie and her sister Naomi to set up the Instagram account Everyday Racism to help educate people about racism, and how to tackle it.
They now have more than 200,000 followers on the social media platform, and last December Natalie quit her job as a youth charity worker to concentrate full time on the activism.
“We were starting to receive feedback from people saying ‘thank you for this’, and ‘this is helpful’,” says Natalie, who is 32 and lives in the Kent seaside town of Margate. “I realised then this was something I wanted to work on full-time – to help change the world a little.”
Plus, she says that managing the workload around Everyday Racism while holding down another day job had become too much. “Emails were coming through all the time, I had so much admin.”
Everyday Racism’s Instagram account has 200,000 followers
But how is Natalie able to support herself? While she and her sister earn money from advising businesses and other organisations, it is not enough income to survive on.
And so the sisters have set up a Patreon membership account, where Everyday Racism’s supporters pay them between £3 and £10 per month for extra resources.
“People kept telling us to set one up but I wasn’t sure,” says Natalie. “But it takes time to write up resources and do the things we do.”
They launched their Patreon account at the end of last year, and now have 150 subscribers. Meanwhile, Naomi, also still works three days a week as a teacher, albeit cut down from four.
From Insulate Britain, to Black Lives Matter, and Greta Thunberg, activism has become more visible in the UK and other countries in recent years, despite the pandemic lockdowns.
In turn, this has led to a small but growing trend of people like Natalie Evans, who quit their previous day jobs to focus solely on their activism.
Marly Lyman, 31, used to teach film and media in private schools, but is now a full-time activist for Extinction Rebellion (XR).
“I knew for my mental health that I needed to help in the community, be surrounded by people who I love to be around, and do a job I love,” says Mr Lyman, who lives in Northampton. “When Extinction Rebellion appeared on the scene in 2019 that changed everything. It was the missing piece in the puzzle.”
For the past few years he has been focusing on local group development in the Midlands for XR, but he will soon be moving towards UK-wide media and messaging work.
To help support him financially, he receives living expenses of £400 a month from XR. He also claims the government’s universal credit, and earns some additional funds from poetry recitals.
To reduce his expenses he bought a narrowboat to live on, but admits his life is a financial struggle.
When we speak he says that his girlfriend wants him to go on holiday to Wales for a weekend. “But I just can’t afford it,” he says. “I’m constantly turning things down that I used to love, like music festivals and the creative arts. I don’t really do it anymore.”
Anna Hughes, 39, who lives in London, quit her job as a cycling instructor six months after starting the Flight Free UK campaign in 2019, encouraging people to reduce their emissions by pledging not to travel by plane for a year.
“It quickly became clear that it would be a full-time project, and by that summer I was going to have to quit my job,” she says.
She now lives on £1,000 a month, with £600 per month from a crowd-funding campaign and £400 from her dad.
“I guess he feels it’s my inheritance, so he’s giving it to me now,” she adds. “I am very fortunate that I have a low-cost lifestyle and can afford not to have a wage.
“I own my boat, I live off-grid, my energy is generated by the sun, and I don’t pay council tax. The only reason I can do this is because my living costs are so low.”
Ms Hughes, who lives in London, is now looking for funding, so she can pay herself an annual salary of £30,000. “I hope I get it, I can’t continue doing this forever. It’s been three years since I quit my job.”
At one point she did consider part-time work, but she says she was already struggling to keep up with the level of work required with Flight Free UK. “But if I don’t secure funding eventually I will have to quit and go back to full-time work,” she admits.
Like Marly Lyman, Anna has had to make sacrifices. “I don’t have a pension,” she says. “I don’t have savings. If I think about the future, I’m so screwed! If I go on holiday, I travel by bike. I don’t go out for dinner and drinks. It’s all very boring.”
People quitting their day jobs to become activists shows their activism is working, says Kajal Odedra, 37, global communications director of Change.org, and author of Something: Activism for Everyone.
She says that social media platforms mean “people now have internet supporters they can turn to to help continue working on issues for the greater good… there’s really exciting innovation in this space and it feels right giving people [who are activists] income.”
She adds that, in fact, there has never been a better time to be an activist, in her view.
“The tools available mean you’re a lot more efficient rather than going around a shopping centre to collect signatures,” says the New Yorker. “You can start a petition now, and share on WhatsApp, and collect hundreds of responses in hours.”
However, she notes that not everyone can give up their job, admitting that “it’s a privileged thing to do”.
“Instead what we need is is create better ways for activism, for example, more support, better access to getting funding, and local councils giving funding to activists.”
Natalie Evans admits that it was tough to take a cut in her income, but she says she is committed to working full-time on Everyday Racism.
“There’s no doubt this feels 100% like the right thing to do. I’m really privileged this is my job, but it’s also really hard as well. It’s not easy reliving trauma every day.”
Anna Hughes adds that what keeps her going is the feedback from supporters. “Every so often someone on Twitter will say ‘you’re doing a great job, I love the campaign’. That makes it worthwhile.”