the dirty details of my new salary

by dean spade

I’ve continued to struggle about how to begin to write about all that I have been thinking about and struggling with in the face of my recent class shift.  It is so interesting that we started Enough during this shift for me, and I am eager to write for it and participate in the conversations we have been trying to initiate here and that I have been writing about for years, and suddenly I find myself so stumped about how to begin.  There is so much to say, and also so much about this that is new and that requires new analysis and thinking for me, different from what I’ve thought and written about before as I struggled with the shift from childhood poverty to professionalism and non-profit salaries.

So here is what happened.  I went from making around $37,500-45,000/yr for most of my post-law school life to suddenly having a job that pays me $120,000/yr.  I feel so many things about this that it is hard to take it apart.  My foster mother cried when I told her, she was so happy.  I think about that moment a lot because it is so hard for me to feel that way about it. I think at my core I must be experiencing some deep relief—right? I mean, I spent my childhood so freaked out and stressed out and traumatized by poverty, and spent my teens and 20’s scrambling to get through school without any parental support and then managing various debt payments while trying to pay NYC rent.  Since 2006 I’ve moved across the country three times and scrambled to weigh the difference between the cost of mailing myself essentials like kitchen knives and warm clothes versus finding those things again in the new place.  I must be excited to be rid of the feelings of uncertainty and anxiety that accompanied those experiences, right?  But those feelings of relief aren’t out front.  What has emerged most loudly are two elements.  1) a set of triggers and emotional responses  about early trauma experiences of scarcity and survivor guilt about finally being secure and not being able to share it with my mom, and 2) a range of questions about how best to live my principles of wealth redistribution in the face of this new amount of resources to distribute.

For now, I’ll talk about the second issue, though of course the first part is all wrapped up in all of it. To start, here is what I have done so far:

I increased the monthly donations I make to a set of organizations and took on some new ones.  I am particularly interested in organizations that are governed by and focused building power and survival in communities of color, and I’m particularly but not exclusively tied to trans/queer work.  The orgs I’m giving to monthly now are:
Sylvia Rivera Law Project (this is the big one, I started giving $800/mo)
Audre Lorde Project
TGI Justice Project
Freedom Archives
South End Press (through their Community Supported Publishing program)
I also occasionally give to several other organizations, Project South, Seattle Young People’s Project, Critical Resistance and some others.

I also give $25-50/mo to prisoners I correspond with and $50-100/mo to community requests that people send out for various people in need in our communities (people in health crisis, being released from prisons, etc.).

I also have had a long-term policy of trying to give money to every person who asks me on the street, and my policy was to try to have it be bills rather than change whenever I had that on me. These days I’ve tried to increase the amounts, something like $3-20 rather than $1-5 whenever I can (meaning I have it on me).  I strongly believe in giving low-income people cash wherever possible since it’s the thing that is hardest to get in a system that increasingly want to just give vouchers, food stamps, etc., if anything, and so many things can only be obtained with cash that aren’t being given away.  It seems like having more control over meeting your own needs is essential to safety and health and cash provides that.  These beliefs come from my own experience of trying to get things that my family needed with food stamps as a kid, having to put essential things back on the shelf at the grocery store because they couldn’t be purchased with food stamps, and feeling those frustrations about someone else telling you what you need.

I’ve also increased my payments on my various kinds of high-interest debt pretty steeply, with the goal of being able to get rid of that within a year or two and then be able to increase what I am giving away monthly.

I have also given and lent a few thousand dollars to friends and family members suffering from unemployment and vulnerability of various kinds.

I am also in a progressive rent relationship with my roommate where I pay more rent when my income is higher, if our incomes become more equal, our rent becomes more equal.

Here is what is confusing with what I am up to:

1)    What does it mean to redistribute to people I love versus people in greater need who I don’t know as personally?  Right now a lot of people I know are out of work, or have lost access or resources in one way or another and find themselves in crisis.  I have found myself asked to or tempted to redistribute to some loved ones who are experiencing crisis even though I realize that they are less vulnerable than, say, the people served by organizations like SRLP, or the prisoners I write with, or the homeless people I meet day-to-day.   It feels hard to weigh these choices, and weighing is required. If I have a certain amount of money each month that I don’t need to pay my bills, and I am being asked for it by both loved ones and movement resources, how do I decide?  So far I’m taking it day by day but finding a lot of difficult emotional terrain there.
2)    What does it mean to pay off my debt?  If I am a radical anti-capitalist, why am I sending thousands of dollars per year to the evil corporations that own my debt?  I guess the reason, supposedly, is to avoid having my credit ruined and judgments entered against me and eventually, I supposed, my wages garnished.  On the one hand, I can imagine that not paying it might cause me to end up paying more in the end, which would reduce my ability to redistribute (if, for example, penalties and interest mount and they end up taking it out of my wages anyway).  But still, I wonder about debt resistance, especially since I work with students who often graduate with over $100,000 in debt and it becomes a strong incentive for them to take evil jobs defending the interests of the rich.  I wonder whether if we had a stronger community collaborative conversation/practice around refusing to pay debt we might be able to generate creative ideas about resisting debt and redistributing money to things we care about.  At the very least, we could help people think through the kinds of individualized fear that are built up in capitalism around things like bad credit which are all based on the competition/scarcity/individualism mentality that tells us that no one will take care of us if we can’t take care of ourselves so we must make conservative decisions out of fear constantly.  Perhaps if we built communities of shared resistance to debt people could feel stronger accepting consequences of non-payment based on their principles and the assurance of mutual care agreements.  I hate watching my students work so hard in school only to take jobs they hate in order to pay debt.  Anyway, for now I am paying off high interest debt and feeling very mixed about it.  Is it self-care and sustainability or is it buying into corporate intimidation?
3)    It is very important to me to support prisoners, but I am also aware of the complexity of sending cash into that system.  There is no chance I will stop doing so because of the urgency with which my penpals need the support.  Many prisons do not provide adequate nutrition, basic hygiene products, eyeglasses, clothes, stationary, etc. Having a friend send cash can mean the difference between having the very basic necessities and not.  At the same time, it is troubling how little of this money reaches my friends.  One of my penpals receives $12.50 for every $50 I send. The rest goes to support the system that is destroying people’s lives.  It is frustrating to not have a better option than this.  I send him the things I can send as objects rather than cash, but certain things he needs cash for so it is unavoidable that I send more money to the prison than to him.
4)    My employer is willing to put 9% of my salary into a retirement account for me without me contributing anything.  I have conflicting feelings about making such investments.  First, I feel like I don’t want to invest in a private future security and would rather invest in collective security for people old and young now and in the future.  I would rather put resources into creating a world that cares for old people, and into helping people who are old now, than squirreling away money banking on the idea that things will be just as horrendous for old people in fifty years as they are now.  Additionally, I am convinced by Jason Lydon’s analysis that interest inevitably comes from exploitation and I do not want to make money just for having capital.  That is exactly the kind of system I am trying to dismantle.  It would be like banking on the fact that the things I’m struggling for (which include a world in which no one hoards wealth while others die in poverty) won’t happen.  At the same time, if I refuse this money that my job wants to invest for me, I just won’t get it at all, it isn’t like they will donate it to the struggle for economic justice or elder care right now.  One of my friends made the argument to me that this is just more money that I can redistribute in the future.  Likely by the time my retirement rolls around there will still be struggles to support and I can redistribute it then.  I was somewhat convinced by this (knowing that I can always change my mind, empty the account and be penalized some amount and give the money away) and agreed to open the account.   I chose the “socially responsible” account, knowing that probably means little or nothing, and made my sister the first beneficiary and SRLP the second beneficiary (revealing some of the tensions/difficulties discussed in #1).  Thinking about my own death of course led me to think of my sister and how that would impact her, making me want to give her resources with which to support herself if something awful happens to me and it makes it hard for her to work or something.   I figure I can also trust her to give it away if I ask her to, but we haven’t talked about this yet since I just opened the account a few days ago.
5)    Perhaps the most confusing element that has emerged in my newfound wealth is this discussion of real estate. From the moment I got the job people have been asking me if I want to buy a house and strongly encouraging me to do so.  I have always assumed I would never own real estate, certainly both because I lived in NYC most of my adult life and also because I am so fundamentally against everything I see in the professionalization/gentrification/homonormativity developments of my peers in the last few years.  At the same time, I can’t say that paying rent to wealthy landlords and management companies is some kind of radical political act.  Perhaps the options that seem most politically interesting to me are squatting and land trust agreements.  Squatting, honestly, does not feel like a realistic option for me emotionally.  Having grown up in poverty with a constant fear of having to live out of a car, and having been a foster kid at a pivotal time in my development and not had safe places to live in some key moments, I feel pretty urgent about my need for a reliable and secure home in order to maintain my mental health.  In terms of land trusts, mostly what I  know about it is of people who have bought homes or land and put it in trust, with the exception of one woman I know who lives on trusted rural land in Massachusetts.  But I don’t know of any options like that in Seattle and if there were some I would think that they should be offered to people without housing first.
Several friends have encouraged me to look at my perspective on this issue as perhaps a bit reactionary and consider that owning my own home might be both a reasonable measure of security for myself and whoever I want to share it with and as an alternative to paying rent.  Basically, the argument seems to be that home ownership is a way to create a pile of wealth that can be drawn from when needed (to post bail for someone, in the event of some kind of tragedy, etc.), that the home itself is a resource that can be shared by giving people or projects space (although my argument is that I can already do this in rented space), and that I can always give the home away or sell it to someone for no profit or a loss at any point.  There is a project in Seattle that allows people to donate homes to an organization that helps put low-income families into them on the promise that if they ever sell they will keep the price low as well, so that a growing pool of affordable housing is created.
I have a hard time with the security-related arguments because they seem too close to conservative mindsets that always justify hoarding, but I can see the point about putting the rent I pay now to wealthy people into a different kind of resource that I can redistribute later.  At the same time, I am aware that I would have to save up a down payment, which means taking a good chunk of money I could redistribute now and tying it up in some future-oriented project that fundamentally benefits my personal security.  That feels weird.  Also, I worry about how people seem to use their house payments as a reason that they can’t give away money.  One way around this is to only buy something under conditions where my monthly payment would be no higher than my rent is now so that I could have the same amount of my monthly earnings to give away.  On the other hand, it seems like there are tons of unforeseen expenses in home ownership that are only justifiable if you are interested in possessing and maintaining this expensive thing and that concerns me.  This whole can of worms basically totally freaks me out and I would be interested in hearing what other people think of it.  Also, I just don’t have the desire to own a home—it is not something I have ever fantasized about or imagined—and that seems kind of nice.  The idea of entering the field of meaning and consumption that would be required to go through the house buying process is undesirable to me.

Those are just a few of the things on my mind these days.  I hope to write for Enough in the future about some of the emotional elements—survivor guilt, believe I am undeserving, etc.—that are surfacing as I make this transition in class.  It feels very overwhelming to describe.  It even feels overwhelming to share the practical issues outlined above because of how infrequently people expose these kinds of information and processes to each other.  I hope people will be willing to respond with their thoughts and strategies about all of this.  I also want to ask that if you are reading this and it is making you really angry to hear someone asking these questions, you consider looking at what that anger is about before writing a harsh message to me.   I like to try to be thick-skinned, but this stuff is pretty intense to share and I am doing it to build dialogue, and I want to openly ask that our dialogues be as gentle and respectful as possible because none of us have the answers to these systemic issues and all of us are working on building personal practices that can sustain us and build the world we want.

35 thoughts on “the dirty details of my new salary

  1. nikki

    This is probably really hard to talk about, but I think it’s commendable that you are making an effort to spread your wealth around and not trying to practice downward mobility or pretend it’s not happening. It’s something you had access to and can use for good to help those without the same access!

  2. Pingback: Class Shifts « Bloody Show

  3. Per Stinchcombe

    Another issue I’ve struggled with is the power to redistribute itself. In a market economy, money confers not only stuff, but perhaps even more problematically, decision-making power. I’m uncomfortable with the idea of having disproportionate power to decide which nonprofit organizations should be funded — one of the premises of donations to such organizations is that these organizations shape our society, and I don’t like the fact that I have disproportionate influence in the shaping of our society, even if I don’t end up using that power self-interestedly.

    And, with regard to things like investment in real estate, I’m especially troubled by consciously accumulating that disproportionate power.

    This gets especially problematic when you consider that we do, in fact, tend to favor those close to us, as you mentioned. I don’t think that in itself it’s wrong to favor disadvantaged family and friends over strangers, since I think there’s at least some utility in the feeling of closeness itself, and in the knowledge that one’s friends are willing to help, even beyond the help they give. But I think there’s a difference between disproportionate sharing of something you already _have_, and using your disproportionate resources to gain even _more_ of that disproportionate power.

    These are tough questions; I’m glad to hear other people are worrying about them too.

  4. jess


    Thank you so much for posting this.

    There is so much going on here that I hope to have the time and space to respond to in more depth at some point, but for now I want to say that I am connecting so strongly to your discussion of survivor guilt relating to class shifts and the related thoughts about the importance of housing security to mental health after a childhood of housing insecurity. I sit with so many of the same complicated questions and feelings you’re bringing up in both of these areas.

    I’ve started articulating my class identity as “mixed-class *and* class-privileged.” I’m still not sure that’s exactly the right language, but it’s an attempt to acknowledge my present class privilege while also being specific about the different ways this plays out for me as someone with a past of financial precariousness, of non-class-privileged class identity. That transition, especially for people with anticapitalist politics, feels often painfully confusing. Thank you so much for offering so much here of where you’re at with it.

    Really, I wish I had time to write and write and write a much more thorough response. But for now: Thanks.


  5. jessie

    as always, thank you for the eloquent, honest, and engaging peek into your thoughts. i just read this along with tyrone’s most recent post, on the heels of a weekend of unsettling conversations with older folks in my life about wealth and giving. i feel like i could not have asked for more synchronized topics.

    i had a series of talks this weekend with my parents and our close family friends- folks who i by and large deeply trust and love- and found my excitement bombarded by ominous cautionary tales about “being too radical” or “giving too much away,” leaving me feeling overwhelmed and run a bit ragged. they kept bringing up many of the same struggles that you touched on, about houses, retirement funds, debt. what my dad keeps coming back to are two of the key things you mentioned: what if i decide to go to grad school but because i gave away all my money i have to take out zillions of loans and get an Evil Job to pay them off? and, what if i want to buy a house but struggle with mortgage because i’m no longer sitting on a trust fund?

    and the problem is, i ask the same questions as he does, and i don’t know the fucking answers. and what i admire so much about your posting is that you take the time to articulate it all so openly, the struggles along with the actions you already take and beliefs you know you hold true. when i was talking with my parents and their friends this weekend, i felt like i could never answer quick enough or sure enough to satisfy them. and especially because i’m so young to them (i’m 22), they kept pulling the “i could never have known at 22 what was good for me or what i would need at age 40/50/60,” leaving me questioning my own god-damned self-knowledge. but the truth of the matter is, i don’t know anyone who has all of this figured out, this money-saving-money-giving web of concerns and inspirations. and yet its terrifying to say outright that there’s something i’m unsure of, particularly to someone who’s doubting my ability to make decisions. so i guess where i’m going with this is to say: i appreciate so much your candidness about NOT knowing all the answers, but willing to struggle through it openly. as you said, “it even feels overwhelming to share the practical issues outlined above because of how infrequently people expose these kinds of information and processes to each other,” and i couldn’t agree more. for me, it’s crucial to remember that merely talking openly about this stuff is kinda a revolutionary act in and of itself, and the more i talk, and listen, and write, and read, the more empowered i feel to even think my own thoughts. certainly, obviously, talking, listening, reading, and writing alone don’t make the changes i want to see in the world. but how much more can be generated when everyone can struggle through understanding this shit together is unbelievable, and at least for my part, it helps me stay strong in what i know is true even as people in my life try to scare me out of radical ideas or thinking outside the box. i hope that open conversations and collective figuring-out can support us all as individuals in that way, even as we come up against our own personal and societal push-backs.

    wow, really long comment, sorry! basically all i’m meaning to say is, while i think we come to our current class positions from vastly different places, i am struggling with many of the same questions and coming up against all sorts of obstacles, in my own mind and from outside forces. staying in community with folks who i can talk about this with is so integral, and i’m so excited you expressed so much and feel renewed inspiration to hold onto what i know about myself, my beliefs, and those i trust. thank you, as always!

    hope you’re great out in seattle,

  6. Eric Kobesak

    Hi Dean

    I don’t know if this is something you have done, are also doing, or have no interest in doing, but have you considered giving some of your money to political candidates who are running for office and just need a little bit of money. I understand and support the whole idea of running for office and not spending any money but not all candidates feel that way or do that, and you may wind up helping bringing someone into office who will help alleviate poverty and start dismantiling the oppressive capitalist system that we have here in the United States that creates poverty.

    The whole idea about paying back loans and people coming together to support those who are not paying is really great and something i hope people start talking about more. Hopefully soon we will have office holders who will do something about the private banking system that has basically failed at even it’s job of keeping solvent for it’s shareholders, and with state ownership of some of the banks, the state could be directed to erase some or all of people’s debts and also keep the banks that have failed or would fail under state control and with that the creation of new programs of how money is distributed and what does that mean in relation to capital, since when you have a private banking system based on loans for profit, that means the people paying back the loans have to pay it back with interest and have growth in their income which ultimatly it connected to a growth based economy, which is necessary to pay back the loans, not withstanding income redistribution.

    Okay, enough ranting about banking, thanks for your post Dean

  7. dean

    hi jessie,
    yes, i agree that when people talk to each other about these ideas and openly question the scarcity/security logic, we create space for each other to make choices that are scary and are discouraged by many well-meaning people who love us. my hope is that this website will give us all some support in making some of these decisions. we are social animals and we revolve around norms and i think it’s much harder to make choices like these without any sense of support or agreement from others we feel connected to.
    another thing that i thought of when i read your comment is about how so much of this advice that you and i are both receiving from various well-meaning people is based in a practice of denying privilege and security. i bet that even if you gave away your entire trust fund, if something really bad happened to you or if you had some difficult debt or even if you just wanted something like a house, there might be other people in your family who still have $ and could/would help out. similarly, if i give away a ton of money i make for the next several years and never buy a house and never create a retirement account, i will probably still have the same earning potential then and still have a lot of similar opportunities to save up and do some of those things. neither of these is guaranteed (in fact i’m hoping that sometime soon we have massive redistribution instead and your family has only what others have and my wage disappears because no one has to sell their labor and i just teach because i love it and sustain myself through community sharing of various kinds) but my point is that the kind of fear and panic that underlie this advice is really not based in the reality of the deep kinds of security that people with wealth or high incomes have even if they give away their immediate money. it seems like so much of this comes back to fear and scarcity again and again.
    thanks for all that you shared!

  8. dean

    hi eric,
    that is interesting stuff about the banking.
    i have not considered giving money to electoral candidates. i guess i have generally focused on change strategies that are more about building broad bases of leadership rather than supporting individual candidates. i think i have some general skepticism about electoral politics as a path to change (although i am not interested in being absolutist and would be interested in thinking about counter-examples, and i am thinking of an interesting excerpt from a book i read called “detroit: i do mind dying”). i also think that i tend to want to give money to things that are harder to raise money for, less glamorous, more long-term than electoral races. finally, i think i am in an ongoing struggle about questions of social change and state power that leave me leaning toward a politics of building alternative systems of sustaining people and communities rather than trying to reform different elements of US government (though this sounds weird for a lawyer to say, i know) because i primarily believe the US is a racist, colonial project and that many reforms actually strengthen its oppressive power. but i am open to hearing about why i should reconsider these ideas at any point–they are just representative of where i am now, so i primarily focus on giving to projects that are engaged in building a bottom-up politics through organizing and direct services rather than projects focused on accessing/entering elite spaces like public office to change things from the top down. i can imagine that if there was a chance to get someone with amazing politics elected at the local level, and if their campaign was a way of doing broader community organizing on a bunch of issues and leadership development in a bunch of communities, it might appeal to me. i haven’t thought about it enough. interesting to consider. thanks for your comment!

  9. isabell

    thanks for laying out your struggles so honestly, dean! it really breaks through a lot to just even talk numbers like that. why does it seem so taboo in our society? i think just talking about it and getting real about numbers is a good start in figuring out some of the questions you put out there.

  10. Penelope

    Dear Dean,

    Thank you for writing this post. As someone who grew up in and out of foster care, homelessness, trailer parks, etc., and who is entering into academia (not at your salary but still higher than I am comfortable accepting)… but whose mother lives in poverty still and whose brother died five years ago today in “the poverty draft,” I identify strongly with your survivor guilt. Entering into higher ed largely removed me (for many reasons) from the company of people who would join me in asking the questions you here bravely and publicly ask of yourself.

    A few pieces of your post stood out to me: 1) the emphasis on redistribution, rather than on changing the relations of the means of production, 2) the excruciating (and, seems to me unduly harsh) emphasis on yourself as an individual solution (here in the form of money, but time is another one I struggle with) to systemic problems, and 3) an internalization of the complicity capitalism exacts of us all– at any given moment more and less “deserving”– in order to merely survive. This last piece took me down when I was poor and takes me down now that I’m not poor, whenever I forget that it’s a structural rather than exclusively volitional complicity.


  11. dean

    hi penelope,
    thanks so much for writing. i hope you are taking care of yourself today as you mark the anniversary of your brother’s death. i am never sure what to do with myself on the birthdays and anniversaries of loved one’s deaths. i hope you find good ways to spend this day.
    i really appreciate what you said about structural versus individual causes/interventions in wealth/resource/time/life chances distribution. i feel like my political work in the world is generally about changing broader structures of violence and oppression, and also is explicitly about getting out of individualized frameworks for thinking about oppression. this space, enough, is for me about thinking about how structural violence shapes our decisionmaking around individual money/wealth practices so that so many of us have daily engagements with capitalism that we know are at odds with our values and lack a support system for thinking that through. i hope that the analysis we do here doesn’t suggest that we think people with wealth giving it away is the way that poverty will be ended. i think, instead, it is a place to talk about how even if that is not how poverty will end, it is not irrelevant and it is not a reason to hoard wealth and to internalize fear-based practices of individualized security. my hope is that this site helps people connect their daily experiences and practices to their broader analysis about maldistribution and exploitation, and to co-develop practices around resource sharing that are part of imaginging alternative relationships to well-being and resources. i really appreciate you pointing out the danger that this kind of thinking can make it seem like any individual person’s wealth practices in capitalism are the thing that needs to change rather than the conditions of production. i think that the other angle of this experience that i didn’t write about much here, the part about survivor’s guilt and my own feelings of disentitlement that stem from various early traumas, can lead me to be hyper-vigilant and critical of my own practices at times in a way that is more self-blaming than necessary and can then start to sound very individualizing as a result. i feel like i’m struggling to strike a balance between living my politics and using my politics to live out various self-blame/guilt trips that i have.
    anyway, thanks a lot for your interesting interventions.

  12. Penelope

    Thank you, Dean!

    Honestly, I struggle to grasp the project of wealth distribution. I think so very highly of all of your work that I have read and so have been very curious to see this project unfold. I struggle not to understand it as noblesse oblige. I think back to paradigmatic moments in my childhood, like having to whip out the bright pink “free lunch” punchcard. Or watch the nasty looks on the checkout clerks’ faces and the people in line annoyed at the delay when my mother whispered that she’d need to pay in food stamps. And I worry that seeking to elicit the generosity of the wealthy obscures the fact that they have no right to wealth to begin with. And, conversely, that the poor have every right to lunch, to groceries, to respect, simply by virtue of being alive.

    I suspect that while I am the audience for much of your work, I may not be the audience for this project…?

    Sorry to be a pill, but this project has caused me to question some of my own political commitments.

  13. dean

    i’m curious to hear more about this. i guess i feel like people shouldn’t keep wealth because we are not entitled to it, so my thought is to have serious conversations about why people keep it, how and why to give it away. within that, i am interested in engaging with the activist and scholarly critiques of philanthropy and nonprofitization, and talking with people about why supporting people of color led, grassroots, horizontally structured movements for transformative social change is a good thing to do with extra money. for me, that lines up with a politics of resistance to capitalism, though it involves the very uncomfortable struggling with the ways in which we are all complicit with and incorporated in capitalism while trying to destroy it. i’d love to hear more about why having these conversations supports the idea that certain people should be wealthy, and whether there are ways to think about people giving away money that can critically engage with rather than just mimic paternalistic charity models. i think your thoughts on this subject are really interesting and i’d love to hear more.

  14. Penelope

    hi dean.

    perhaps it all comes down to a decision as to where one’s going to throw one’s weight in the stream of oppression.

    from my perspective, the “good” (enter morality) thing to do is to recognize that there is no “extra” money to begin with. there is profit-become-capital, which has been extracted at the price of blood, sweat, and tears. the wealthy can throw it back at those “lucky” enough to even be exploited (compared to say those living in the favelas, etc.) until the cows come home, but it will never change the relation of capital– which keeps sucking profit from labor.

    and to me, convincing the have-nots that they should have a bare minimum, e.g. U.N.’s list of human rights, gets us all to a redistribution of power–the relations of the means of production– much faster than convincing the haves that they shouldn’t have so much– (especially since there are so many more have-nots than haves). the poor have so much less vested interest in maintaining the status quo, to begin with…and a lived experience of exploitation, from below.

    rather than giving money away, i’d like us to cease taking money from exploited people, land, animals. which means asking obnoxious questions about university endowments that pay our salaries (through “the miracle of compounding interest”), and about the long history of theft whereby a given piece of the earth has become “real estate” (among other). and being willing to say, “no thank you! give me a life that’s not paid for with blood, sweat, and tears.”

    i’ve seen what happens when a have-not realizes that the horatio alger “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” myth is toxic bunk. it happened to me. maybe it’s just too hard for me to hold to that truth, downstream with the wealthy who have what the have-nots never should have lost/given up.


  15. tyrone

    Hi Penelope,

    I agree with you that real change comes from mass movements of disenfranchised people, and we’re definitely not attempting to challenge that on Enough. I’d be curious to hear more about what it means to you to “cease taking money from exploited people, land, animals”, because I think that the complex insidiousness of capitalism makes it so difficult to disentangle ourselves from that system. I see Enough as both a space to engage with some of the personal complexities of living with anti-capitalist politics in a capitalist system, and as a space to have broader movement conversations about building sustainable movements and alternatives to the restrictive elements of the nonprofit system.

    I definitely don’t believe that giving away money is the route to systemic change. I do think that having open conversations about money, funding, wealth, privilege, wages, reparations, etc. – and doing the difficult work to imagine ways of building lives that reflect and support social justice – is a crucial part of building sustainable movements and challenging capitalism.


  16. Ronni

    I fell upon your blog this morning. I am almost 49 years old and read this with an incredible sense of hope for the future. You and your friends will be leading the world when my children will most need you as an example of the power of social change.

    There are many opportunities for micro-financing. There are a number of not-for-profits that let you invest in specific, personal projects where you are paid back with interest and can then continue to reinvest in other ventures. Some incredible things are happening. One of the first successes was a woman who invented a very simple solar oven that has enabled people in developing countries to cook food, increase health, and not use messed up energy sources.

    Don’t think that the “socially reponsible” fund is necessarily useless. You can and should ask to see where the money goes. Even if you just skirt oil, big pharma and conventional ag. business, you will be making a shift.

    Don’t forget about bartering, either – another way to blur class lines by exchanging goods and services.

    I do think that real estate is a way to create equity so that you can work on bigger projects that support your vision. You can, however, buy land and not develop it. Land always has worth but instead of putting another piece of ticky tacky on it and messing up the home of flora and fauna, just know that you have it. Go to it and camp out when you need to clear your head.

    These are just some suggestions and written in a more directive tone than I mean to use – but I am late late late for an appointment but could not pass up the moment, having been so moved by your blog.
    Peace and justice,

  17. Tupe


    Just one thought on buying a house:

    Along the lines of progressive rent payments with a roommate, you’re in a position to put down a huge chunk of the capital needed to start a housing co-op.

  18. EmmaRose

    I am so happy that this conversation is developing here — I saw this post when it was commentless and came back a few days later to see so many good thoughts.

    The thing that always trips me up about letting go of security is that I’m not sure that people’s fears of not being taken care of aren’t real. The world is set up in so many ways to actively pull us apart from each and to make our commitments as individuals seem more pressing than our commitments as communities or to communities. Having to pay taxes -> having to work for money -> being responsible for your own debt. As we’re asking people to give up the security that comes from buying into capitalism, what kind of alternative system of support and care and safety are we able to offer? I know there are a lot of serious attempts out there to create communities that allow people to disengage in some ways from capitalism/capitalist logics, but I also see a lot of these kinds of co-ops, communes, non-corporate health care schemes, etc imploding under the pressures of capitalism. I don’t think this is because the people involved weren’t serious enough or good enough, but because it’s so damn hard to swim upstream in this way.

  19. Jason Lydon

    hey dean,
    thanks soo much for writing this. i greatly appreciate your open-ness and willingness to be bold and honest about your struggles and challenges. also, being open about the number of dollars and realities of money is a culture change that is so vital for the left. i have so many comments, thoughts, and feelings i want to communicate (damn lack of time at the moment). i specifically wanted to comment on the prison money issue. i really identify with the challenges of giving money and knowing that chunks (significant chunks at times) go to continue the prison industrial complex. i think, for me, one of the most vital parts of this is the ability to give some aspect of autonomy and control to the prisoner you are writing with. there is something incredible about just putting out there a willingness to distribute money some place they need/want it to go. the direct accountability in this relationship has, in my experienced, dramatically increased the trust and willingness of me by my penpal. these things are deeply complicated, to say the least, and i am glad that your writing encourages us to sit with some of those complications.

  20. Christopher

    Capitalism is not extremely opressive nor does it magically create debt. What creates our debt is the will to live beyond our means. Everyone is told of the American dream and most people jump at the dream the quickest and easiest way they can (you yourself have debt with a large corporation in order to acheive a dream). This is not to say that there aren’t evil people and corporations out there. They are out there and they are taking advantage of peoples ignorance. However the sad fact is that if someone really wants to work out of a situation, as long as they lay their head between our borders they can. But too many people want easy answers. No one wants to work at McDonalds just to make ends meet, and people dont act responsibly sexually just because they can’t afford a kid. It is sad because some people do deserve help out of their holes but a majority of them have dug them theirselves, and will pass them onto their kids. These people don’t like to look back and say that their own lazyness or ignorance has put them there. Sharing and helping people out is beautiful however finding a human being who isnt doing so out of ego, is like finding life in outerspace. Even on the most base level helping others out makes you feel good, or in some situations is a catalyst for guilt relief. It is sad that you can work your way up out of poverty just to feel bad about it, and it really trivializes your plight, if yourself as an example shows that even if someone works their way out of that hole they might just end up where you are, much less if they have half of it handed to them by others. I guess my main point after all of this is that trying to help with your money really only plays into this system. It is almost like idolizing money and saying it is a problem but in your hands it can be a solution. Time is the most effective way to touch someone, a check lasts until it is cashed and spent but a day of memories last forever. Teach a man to fish, give people the chance to do what you did. It would be better to show the world how it can help itself.

    I in no way mean to bring a negative attitude to this conversation, I enjoyed your article
    very much and even treasure many of your thoughts. I also hope to reopen this page tomorrow and have the hounds of hell have torn my statements apart so that I may further educate myself.

  21. George A. Williams

    hi dean,
    Your questions are the answer. No one has the exact answer and all we study now in the future will be null and void. As an African American, Vietnam combat wounded veteran and retired firefighter, having a confortable pension, I face the same issues. We (including Christopher) must watch our language. Use the term assist instead of help and I’m with you.

    Having been on welfare and living out of a car, I was assisted in finding a job made for me (firefighter), which changed my life. Christopher I hope you don’t consider me one of the hounds of hell, for you will be barking up the wrong tree. Dean you are so Right On.
    Peace Brother,
    George A. williams

  22. Christopher

    I have had more time to reflect on all of this (I like that i’m reflecting on it), and I think if I pulled out the core meaning of my statements as they pertain to this story perhaps it could be a little more constructive. If you want to make lasting sustainable differences I beleive the best way will be with people you can physically touch. Building a since of community and say assisting disable people in your town, bringing your town together, etc… Sending a check off will only eventually lead to situations such as when you were a kid and someone was telling you what you can and cannot buy with aide. It is almost like buying into a capitalist system of charity in my eyes. I guess what I also want to say is kind of along the lines of George’s comment about helping/assisting, something impersonal is help but assisting takes time and physical presence.

  23. Nat

    A common thread in some of the previous critiques seems to hinge on the question of where to draw the line between redistributing in a radical, systemic way and just “throwing money” at people in a charitable way. I think Christopher’s last point about the importance of geographical/spatial proximity is really interesting in this sense. Is it possible to redistribute radically (again, not that this is the single path to systemic change) from a great distance? Is it possible to participate in movement-building and solidarity work from a great distance?

    To start, I think it’s true that community building happens best with physical and face-to-face contact, and there is clearly a lot of value in doing local work. *Only* redistributing your money from a great distance (i.e. wiring money to far-off groups and people, rather than to local groups) can foster a sense of “virtual” (placebo) activism, or worse, can start to pain grassroots change as a commodity that can be “bought” without having to actually engage with it.

    On the other hand, let’s say a rich lefty decides *only* to contribute personal labor and time and energy. That’s nice, but it ignores the fact that sometimes movements (and the people in them) actually need cash. And it also sidesteps the sticky ethical question about what all that person’s illegitimate wealth is now doing gathering dust. (For me, that’s part of the importance of the conversations on this blog – i.e. they’re not about implementing some sort of feel-good lifestyle politics for rich progressive people, but about figuring out how their/our wealth can contribute to movements they/we are *already* involved in in other ways.)

    A final consideration here, getting back to the geography issue, is that while local community involvement and local redistribution are both important, one of the effects of capitalism, imperialism, etc., is that oppression is geographically uneven. The prison industrial complex removes people from one location and locks them in institutions designed specifically to be “far away,” in more senses than one. International trade systems like NAFTA create pockets of destitution in the Global South by siphoning their resources to faraway cities in the Global North. So *only* working in solidarity with people you can speak with face to face can be really limiting in terms of the power structures you are able to address. To me, working with people from far away is an example of how sometimes giving money might be an effective means of participation/solidarity.

    But then also there’s the whole question of what “effectiveness” means exactly.

  24. Pre

    Hi Dean,
    Thanks for writing this. I only just finished reading your post and I have a lot of thoughts/responses floating around my head at the moment. I mainly just want to say thank you, thank you for your thoughtful reflections and writing.

    Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about class, ownership, status and how they correspond to notions of success and maturation. An ever increasing number of my (mainly queer) friends are buying big items, like cars, furniture or homes with significant others. These purchases seem to correspond with plans to establish themselves as a “family” through marriage contracts and/or children. I feel happy that they’re happy, but conflicted by the conflated significance of their consumerism and status as a family. I’m trying to navigate my discomfort with consumption and my participation in consumerism. I clearly have a lot to learn, but your writing has helped focus my thoughts. Thanks again.

    Sincerely, Pre

  25. andrew wg

    I’m so grateful for this post and the conversation here.

    Just one perspective to add to the buying a house issue — some of us who have put years into fighting de facto forced urban displacement in solidarity with working class people, in cities like DC, have also shifted energy at times to exploring sustainable alternatives to “affordable housing” paradigms (and squats, which in DC haven’t been sustainable). Like urban land trusts, and in some places cohousing. Gentrification has been so aggressive here that exploring those alternatives, even ones where, for instance, a class privileged activist may become a landlord and rent to working class immigrant families, which does happen here, even that has been considered a kind of neighborhood self-defense strategy. One longtime affordable housing activist who bought years ago in a redlined neighborhood rents out two houses to multiple families, for about 40% of market rent. And about ten years ago eight or so working class women housing activists started a limited equity housing coop with down payments cobbled together and help from a nonprofit developer, which has since become less than friendly to them. But the coop remains, and it’s too bad more folks hadn’t taken that initiative when housing prices were a third what they are now; it’s become an anchor for all kinds of grassroots struggle, in a place where public space, to say nothing of grassroots event space, has become scarce. Not saying that these examples are necessarily applicable, but they’re at least interesting from the perspective of strategies used to keep cities income diverse, and support folks who are doing that work. And, perhaps just as critically, keeping community space alive in neighborhoods where folks of color and working class people are being forced out and the geography is being hijacked for the rich.

    Thanks again for sharing all of this Dean.


  26. andrew wg

    I’m so grateful for this post and the conversation here.

    Just one perspective to add to the buying a house issue — some of us who have put years into fighting de facto forced urban displacement in solidarity with working class people, in cities like DC, have also shifted energy at times to exploring sustainable alternatives to “affordable housing” paradigms (and squats, which in DC haven’t been sustainable). Like urban land trusts, and in some places cohousing. Gentrification has been so aggressive here that exploring those alternatives, even ones where, for instance, a class privileged activist may become a landlord and rent to working class immigrant families, which does happen here, even that has been considered a kind of neighborhood self-defense strategy. One longtime affordable housing activist who bought years ago in a redlined neighborhood rents out two houses to multiple families, for about 40% of market rent. And about ten years ago eight or so working class women housing activists started a limited equity housing coop with down payments cobbled together and help from a nonprofit developer, which has since become less than friendly to them. But the coop remains, and it’s too bad more folks hadn’t taken that initiative when housing prices were a third what they are now; it’s become an anchor for all kinds of grassroots struggle, in a place where public space, to say nothing of grassroots event space, has become scarce. Not saying that these examples are necessarily applicable, but they’re at least interesting from the perspective of strategies used to keep cities income diverse, and support folks who are doing that work. And, perhaps just as critically, keeping community space alive in neighborhoods where folks of color and working class people are being forced out and the geography is being hijacked for the rich.

    Thanks again for sharing all of this Dean.


  27. Sailor Holladay

    Thank you all for the dialogue and thank you Dean for writing this!
    I have chosen out of necessity for the last two years to not pay any of my debts that aren’t to friends and it has quickly had an effect on my “credit score”.

    I wonder if buying real estate for the purpose of renting to those of us with “bad credit scores” is radical.

    also, I have a raised-poor friend who is buying small pieces of land and re-wilding them in community.

    Even with my parent’s hippy commune foibles, I trust that there will be a place for me to stand in community as I age.

    lots lots to think about. thanks!

  28. Elián Maricón

    People who did not grow up in abject poverty are incapable of understanding what you are going through.

    As one who comes from a similar background, I struggle every single day with the fact that I am getting my PhD at one of the top universities in the country. Meanwhile, my mom is barely able to afford the rent for her trailer on what she earns as a cashier at Walmart.

    I won’t try to tell you how you should handle this situation. What I WILL say is that I admire the fact that you are trying.

    You can’t save the world, but you sure can make your little corner of it a better place. I have no doubt that you will do just that.

    If you are looking for ideas about where to spend your time and money:

    Older adolescents who are aging out of the foster care system. You can read about their plight by doing a search for Dr. Curtis McMillen on Google Scholar.

  29. Gabriel

    Hi Dean,

    I am reading this rather belatedly, but I so appreciate it. Your caring, insight, and analysis as always challenge and inspire me.

    The one piece of this dialogue that particularly struck me at the moment is the tension between giving to friends/friends/family loved ones and giving to people you don’t know or investing in poc led organizations fighting for social change.

    There’s a Muslim tradition that it is better/more favored to give Saddaqa (which I’ve often seen translated as charity or alms) to family members and neighbors who are in need as compared with unknown others. I’m not exactly sure what the reason behind that is, although I got from the examples in hadith something about how it’s not so good to just give in some removed way and feel like you’ve done you’re duty while ignoring the fact that your next door neighbor or sister or somebody else who should be close to you in your community hasn’t been able to put food on the table that week.

    I have mixed feelings and I think Nat has a lot of good points. I like the idea of investing in one another in local communities and kinship networks. Giving to (and receiving from) people we know seems like it could help build community and ease some of the anxious belief that we will always need to fend for ourselves even more than long distance giving could. I also think it’s really important for us to try to support each other in being able to ask for (financial, physical, emotional, or other) types of help from one another when we need it. There’s something powerful about realizing in a personal, day-to-day way how interdependent we all are and to practice letting go of some of the shame, guilt, and resentment associated with asking/having/giving resources in our society. It’s also just human to want to be there for the people we love and I don’t know that that’s a bad thing.

    At the same time, a lot of the people I am personally close with and who have financial needs are still much more privileged and often have lesser needs in many ways than a lot of the people whom I am less close to. Is giving to the people I know another way to keep wealth consolidated among more privileged people? Plus, while I think giving money to people directly is important, I do think that investing in poc-led community organizing that addresses fundamental systemic problems of power is a better way to move toward long term change. Also, so much wealth is already accumulated in the US through imperialist exploitation of much of the rest of the world. Is giving locally–even to grassroots by/for social change organizations–a way of perpetuating that imbalance? How could I ever give responsibly to groups that aren’t local though, when I have comparatively so much less understanding of local dynamics elsewhere and what different groups are like? As Per pointed out, it is really uncomfortable–and a part of the underlying problem–that I even have the power to make these kinds of decision.

    On a somewhat related note, what I’m also really thinking about is how having kids can change the way we think about and deal with money. As you know, I grew up rich and for the last few years have had a salary that began in the upper 30s and is now edging into the upper 40s. I have always been totally happy with that salary, which has seemed more than adequate for my needs. I live in an apartment in Brooklyn I rent with roommates, which to me seems great. Earning more money has not seemed particularly important or desirable to me.

    Now, though, I am starting for the first time to really consider if I want to have children. I have tons of political/personal questions about whether (and if so how) it would be okay for me to parent a kid, particularly in terms of race and racism as a white queer person. But also, I realize that when I start thinking along the lines or parenting, I start thinking really differently about money and class. I start thinking that I will have to earn more and think differently about my career and life choices as a result. I would “need” a bigger place, I would “need” to have enough to pay for food and clothes and insurance and toys and other sundries for the child–would I save (hoard) for my kid’s college education? my parents did for mine. would I pay for my kid to get private classes in music or martial arts or what have you? my parents did for me. would I take my kid on fancy vacations? my parents took me. would I take out a life insurance policy with my kid as a beneficiary in case something happens to me? my parents did. Some means of having a kid, particularly for queers, can cost money too. I believe kids can have happy lives without a lot of luxuries, but still a part of me feels like it would be my _duty_ to provide as much as I could.

    Wealthy white people leaving their wealth to their white children is such an incredibly direct example of unearned privilege passing from one generation to the next. I’ve always assumed that should I inherit a chunk of money some day (I suppose it is fairly likely that I will) I would just give away all the money very quickly (or at least the vast majority of it). I’ve also always assumed that when I make a will (it seems unimportant right now when I have so much more debt than assets), I would leave all (or at least the vast majority) of my money to social change organizations. But if I had a kid, I think I would suddenly feel tempted to leave some to that kid, perpetuating that exact same legacy of racist wealth distribution.

    If I were to have a kid, how much spending would be responsible investing in caring for another human being? How much would just be the perpetuation of privilege, rampant consumerism, and the shunning of responsibility and opportunities for creating a more caring world for all kids in favor of protecting my “own”? How does one avoid thinking of child rearing as an individual or nuclear (if alternative) family oriented undertaking? The capitalist longings for “security” that I can to some extent mute or dismiss when I am just thinking about me take on a whole new ferocity when I contemplate raising a kid.

    I’m just at the very beginnings of thinking about this stuff, noticing these feelings of mine, and voicing these questions to myself. I’m curious about how other people have asked or answered these questions, particularly if they have thought about having kids or do have them.


  30. Dean Spade

    Thanks so much for all these thoughts. I am always inspired by your approach to complex questions and I’m very curious to see how you keep developing your ideas about these things. And dying to know more as your thoughts develop about having kids.
    xo dean

  31. Avigael

    As a recovering (maybe) Anarchist and current AmeriCorps member working for non-profits to fill the void left by the government, but never-the-less employed by the government, I feel so fortunate that I came across this blog/conversation and discovered the lawyers can make change.

    I am a recent college graduate and spend much of my time debating (either internally or with others) the topics discussed here. I am a caucasian woman born into the middle-class and I have had every educational and extracurricular opportunity. My parents are incredibly hard working individuals and I love them, but I have always struggled with what Gabriel touches on in describing the wealth and privilege or lack-there-of that is inevitably transferred simply with reproduction and circumstance. Beyond biology (and as a queer woman who wants children, I am quite beyond biology), I am a product of my parents’ ideals, whether I do or do not ascribe to them. It is difficult to reject the capitalist system in which wealth is so intertwined with the nuclear family because it has made my parents, my brother, and my cat happy, but I still believe it is ultimately wrong.

    Also, I struggle with the fact that because I am a college grad with debt, the thought of engaging in a ‘radical’ act – such as not paying that debt, or anything that challenges the system of which I am apart – will lessen my future ability to, quite frankly, garner a salary that will afford me the financial privilege to make social change and have (as Per mentioned)’decision-making power.’ Volunteerism (as is work in a non-profit) is in many ways a luxury – if I did not have the financial ability to survive myself (years of working at a small deli), I could not survive right now on my meager salary of a bit more than $11,000 and AmeriCorps wouldn’t be an option… So if I want to have children and continue to have ‘decision-making power’ while knowing IVF costs a whole lot of capital and my state just told me I do not have the same right to marry and gain those financial rights as everyone else, does this mean I should plan to sell my soul (give in) and live comfortably? (I don’t actually believe this – I would love an honest response, though).

    One more thought (sorry I am so scattered here): can I be effective working with poverty and toward community/economic development if I myself have never experienced poverty? There is nothing in which I believe more than leveling the socio-economic ‘playing field,’ but am I an effective advocate due to my personal and familial history? I have always wanted to work in academia, but can I be effective there? How can I study law because of my burning interest in it, without ever ceasing to be an advocate for the public good?

    thank you all for your thoughts.

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  33. sabeen

    thanks for opening up, being vulnerable and sharing. i’d chime in but i’m only beginning to look at my own privileges so i’ll refrain for now. i’d be curious to hear about your ongoing transition and see what decisions you lean towards in regards to some of your struggles with debt and buying a home.

  34. Sarah

    I admire what you have accomplished, coming from very difficult circumstances and achieving a great deal. It’s also amazing how much you give back, both financially and with other resources. One thing I have to disagree with is considering not paying back loans (both you personally and on a large scale). As much as big banks have made some terrible decisions, people who borrow money (myself included) do so with the knowledge that they must pay it back. If you are against banks and paying the money back, then I really don’t think you should borrow in the first place. You enter a contractual agreement to pay it back and while student debt has saddled a large portion of the population, it is the personal responsibility of the borrower to enter into the agreement with an understanding of how much is being borrowed, how much interest will be paid, and how long it will take to pay off. As much as having student loan debt is a big weight on people, they made that decision and if they are morally opposed to paying it back, they shouldn’t have borrowed in the first place. The price tag of higher education, causing people to feel they need to borrow in order to go to school, is another story.

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