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
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.