Category Archives: Articles

The following articles explore many different topics related to class, capitalism, and redistribution. We welcome your comments, and your submissions!

Zeph’s story

by Zeph Fishlyn

I’m a mid-forties white genderqueer person born and raised in Montreal and raised again as an adult queerdo in the Mission District in San Francisco. I came from an owning-class Canadian WASP family. I can thank them for good teeth and education and vacation opportunities and also for legacies of silence, repression and anger. In 1987 I landed in San Francisco desperate for connection and found it among all the small-town escapees, queers from every quarter who had managed to walk-crawl-run to a city where they could find others like themselves.

I came for a visit and stayed. I dropped out of college. I got my real education. Friends hooked me up with under-the-table work doing housepainting, bookstore work, manufacturing, commercial kitchen work, you name it. The community in San Francisco was the first place I had felt relatively safe and sane. I learned about street economies and I absorbed a lot of politics and went to a lot of protests.

When I turned 25 I found out that I had inherited stocks from my paternal grandfather that at this point were worth somewhere around a quarter million dollars. They were controlled by my Dad, who worked at a firm that invested wealthy peoples’ money for them. (And yes, they all played golf together on weekends.) I ignored this information for years because I had a terrible relationship with my Dad and didn’t want to ask him for anything EVER, particularly money. But I also felt guilty and conflicted, knowing I could have access to this resource and seeing so much struggle around me while I had this huge insurance policy.

When my Dad finally retired, a family friend in the good ol’ boys’ club took over management of those stocks and I was finally able to put aside my family baggage enough to step up to the task of redistribution. I did a ton of research, found Resource Generation, went to a couple of Making Money Make Change (MMMC) conferences, “came out” (with mixed results) to friends in my life, and in the end distributed about 75% of my inheritance, mostly to community-based foundations and some directly to organizations doing work I admired. I chose foundations with strong leadership by women, queers and folks of color, hoping they would be better gatekeepers than I could be on my own. Resource Generation and MMMC were super useful as a starting point, but I didn’t stay involved because it felt limited for rich folks to talk in closed spaces only with other rich folks about social justice. It inherently excludes the wisdom of those who know economic injustice from the inside out.

I didn’t redistribute 100% of my inheritance because I figured I was on my own from there on—my family was both threatened and hurt when I gave away this money and I assumed I wouldn’t inherit again. I didn’t want to find myself in a bad situation because of medical bills or some other crisis and have my friends and family say, “well, you had money but you gave it all away–why should we help you now?”

It was a surprise to me that my Dad gave me more assets when he became sick with cancer. As a raised-poor, formerly homeless friend said to me, “Wow, when you’re born with money the world just keeps giving it you, huh?” Before Dad died, he called me on the phone and asked me to agree I wouldn’t spend it on anything that wasn’t an investment in my future security. I thought for a minute silently about how my individual security is closely wrapped up with the security of communities I depend on, and I agreed.

I want to both honor my Dad’s concern (that I’m going to die broke and alone) and also take a lesson from an ex-lover who I was dating while I was divesting my previous inheritance. At the time, she was struggling to get into nursing school, cause she was coming up on 40 and she was tired of being poor. At the time she expressed a lot of frustration that I wasn’t putting those resources to work in a way that more directly supported the community we were both part of. It’s true, why was I funneling cash to the nonprofit industrial complex when folks we both knew were struggling with basics like health care, housing and work? Her own upbringing taught her that if you have a dime, you share it with your family and friends. I told her I felt overwhelmed by the potential minefield of being a gatekeeper in my own community, and I also wanted to support movements and organizations that were working on root causes and with communities outside of the mostly-white queerpunk circles I knew personally.

I don’t have answers. I am trying to act strategically, and I am also trying to learn what some of my working class friends have told me they take for granted: the habit of sharing as a daily act, without heroics or fancy labels like “philanthropy.” It gets complicated, but I am continuing to act on that principle–that I as an individual am only going to be healthy and safe if those around me are healthy and safe.

Community Reparations Now! Tyrone Boucher and Tiny aka Lisa Gray-Garcia Talk Revolutionary Giving, Class, Privilege, and More

Tiny aka Lisa Gray-Garcia is the cofounder (with her late mama, Dee) of POOR Magazine, a grassroots arts and media-justice organization in San Francisco. Tiny and Dee were houseless for much of Tiny’s childhood, evading various systems that threatened to institutionalize, exploit, and incarcerate them. They survived and fought back by remaining fiercely dedicated to each other, creating independent microbusinesses to make ends meet, becoming underground avant-garde art celebrities, and creating POOR Magazine to make silenced voices of poor and indigenous people heard through media and art. Tiny tells their story in her 2006 memoir, Criminal of Poverty: Growing up Homeless in America (City Lights).

Tiny has been a friend and mentor to me since 2007, when I invited her and four others from POOR to present at Making Money Make Change (MMMC), a yearly social-justice conference I helped organize for young people with wealth. My story, in brief, is that I was raised in a newly wealthy family, developed anti-capitalist politics while hitchhiking around the country in my teens, and began organizing other young rich kids with secret trust funds to give away their inheritances to revolutionary organizing and fight for social justice.

I was inspired by POOR’s work and vision. A poor-people-led organization with no paid staff and next to no traditional funding, POOR has a huge scope. Started as a print magazine, POOR now publishes content weekly at www.poormagazine.org. POOR’s members are educators, cultural workers, trainers, poets, journalists, performers, and media producers. In part because they refuse to yield to the demands of traditional funders and corporate media, POOR maintains a holistic and transformative vision. Their work exceeds traditional definitions of media justice to encompass a wide range of activism and organizing for poor people’s rights, as well as a commitment to community building, eldership, ritual and spirituality, and working for the global reclamation of poor people’s stolen land and resources.

My and Tiny’s relationship has thrived on recognizing the tensions and differences between our identities, in regards to class as well as race and gender. (I’m a white trans person and Tiny is a mixed-race, non-trans woman.) We’ve built trust by talking candidly about what it means to be rooted in our individual histories, communities, and relationships to systemic power while working for a shared vision of economic justice.

Since MMMC, we’ve had many conversations about reparations, funding revolutionary work beyond the nonprofit industrial complex, and how privileged radicals can leverage resources and power in support of movements led by poor people. In 2009, we collaborated with other members and allies of POOR to create Revolutionary Giving, a weekend-long strategy session held at POOR’s offices that focused on building movement dialogue around funding, reparations, and economic justice; about twenty fundraisers, activists, donors, students, and members of POOR participated.

The following offers a glimpse of our ongoing dialogue.

—Tyrone Boucher

Tyrone: An important thing that defined the Revolutionary Giving session was that poor people were framing the conversation, not funders—so we were able to talk about the role that structural violence and histories of oppression play in funding dynamics. Those conversations don’t usually happen, because of how much is at stake—there’s often a silent imperative not to alienate donors by talking about oppression in a way that implicates them. POOR reframes the dynamic so that funders are responsible to grassroots organizers instead of the other way around. 

Tiny: The way POOR thinks about funding is completely informed by our beliefs about poverty scholarship. It’s crucial to look at whose knowledge is considered valuable. Who knows how to best meet the needs of poor people and other marginalized communities—a wealthy funder with a master’s, or an indigena elder who’s been in poverty their whole life? Revolutionary giving is about recognizing that having wealth doesn’t qualify you to direct movements. And it doesn’t entitle you to keep that wealth—that’s what community reparations is about.Tyrone and Tiny

Tyrone: Can you talk more about community reparations?

Tiny: Community reparations means that decisions about how to help people in struggle are made by people in struggle—and that people with resources hear that knowledge and take action accordingly.

Reparations is about repairing a wrong—if you know your money comes from wrong-ass places, if you have an understanding of histories of oppression and stolen resources, then there should be no question that you’ll direct that money back towards the communities or movements that were harmed in the creation of that wealth.

One beautiful example is that one of the solidarity-board members at POOR is  launching an effort to get land for [our] Homefulness [project]—because that’s where her reparations need to go, because her family made money on real-estate development and speculation.

Community reparations is a spectrum, it’s a way of life. It’s about not devaluing or criminalizing the choices poor people make, the things we do to survive. The way that we’ve managed to do so much of what we’ve done at POOR is through what I call “underground economic strategies”—i.e., beg, borrow, and steal. And that’s essentially how all us poor folks ever do anything—we use economic strategies that are criminalized. When poor people figure out how to do something outside of the norm, it’s criminalized—whereas if Dick Cheney figures out how to do something outside of a norm, it’s called a corporation.

So another level of community reparations would be giving money to underground economic strategists panhandling on the street, without tripping about what they’’re going to do with the money. A CEO of Chevron doesn’’t get questions about what they’’re doing with their money— – why should a panhandler?

Tyrone: It’s a powerful model to apply to philanthropy, because it shifts the focus away from outcomes—receiving grants is usually dependent on having the right language, the best application, the right kind of reporting—doing what funders want, basically.

Tiny: Exactly. At POOR, we refuse to talk in outcomes—how many poor people did you teach in 2009, how much did they learn, how many jobs did they get, how long did they stay in their housing, and all that crap.

Not only is that shit disrespectful, but it wastes a lot of time, a lot of energy, a lot of fucking trees, and a lot of people’s work that could be spent on actual solutions.

Tyrone: It feels like community reparations is more challenging to implement the larger the scale becomes—like the more privilege/power/resources people have, the more desperately we try to hold onto it.

And you can go to a session like Revolutionary Giving and be inspired by concepts like community reparations, but if you have certain kinds of privilege it’s easy to retreat back into a community that’s detached from people in struggle.

Tiny: That’s why we have deeper conversations about interdependence. How do you teach people to be connected to their fellow humans? How do you teach people to be not just in relation to each other—like, say hello to the panhandler or whatever—but to actually have a responsibility to caregiving? 

The teaching of that is rooted in figuring out your relationship to the planet, to your fellow beings. And not just a cute fuzzy cat, but the mama with six kids who has no money. It requires a very intense level of non-selfishness . . . really feeling like you are responsible for your fellow human being.

There are so many people who have nothing who live that way. That’s a mindfuck for a lot of people raised in capitalism, that there are many people whose primary, most deeply held value is taking care of their family and community. That is the final, and probably the deepest, strain of community reparations.

Tyrone: That’s what inspires me most when I organize other privileged folks—seeing people act not from a sense of guilt or charity or even a tight political analysis, but from a feeling of being bound up with other people on the planet. The bigger goal is moving people towards community and interdependence—and understanding how that can be a form of wealth that offers more safety and security than individual power and resources. Getting to that place feels like a spiritual process in some ways.

Tiny: Exactly. At POOR, we root what we do in spirituality and love and ancestor worship. It’s not religious—it’s an understanding that everyone comes with different relationships to the earth and our spirits and our beings and our gods and our folks, and the bigger understanding that we’re all really invested in the care of each other.

Tyrone: At the Revolutionary Giving session, we talked about the idea of living with/caring for families of origin. You posed it as a challenge to privileged people: “Would you be willing to move back home as part of your commitment to revolutionary giving?” It was pretty challenging and provocative for people. Could you talk more about what this idea means to you?

Tiny: There are a few different threads to this. The first one is the concrete level: the tangible results of collective living—resource sharing, reducing consumption, and so on—are in themselves radical acts that challenge capitalism.

But the other thread, the deeper one, is about redesigning ways that people are in relationship with each other. At POOR, we believe that if we aim to transform the world and to caretake communities and movements, caretaking has to start with our roots—our family, if that’s possible. Instead of behaving like a twenty-first-century missionary activist, only taking action in communities that you aren’t a part of, or that are more oppressed than you, you also need to care for your own people. There’s a separation that results from a certain kind of activism; increasingly, the nonprofit industrial complex creates compartmentalization between our personal lives and our movement work. But justice in the world and justice in our families—we don’t see these things as separate. So to us, if you talk about community reparations, you need to also talk about how are you caregiving for the elders in your family.

Often it’s easier to say, “My family are Republicans, my family are capitalists, they told me to get out at eighteen, they have an attitude, my mom is a nightmare, my mom’s CRAZY.” 

So fucking what. I caregave for a mom who had a horrible life, and from a western, Eurocentric perspective she wasconsidered crazy. She was extremely not user-friendly and not easy to deal with. And it’s in my deep structure as a person of color, as an indigenous person, that that doesn’t matter. It’s not an excuse or a reason to abandon her or to warehouse her. 

Now, I know that this gets really touchy with folks. Especially folks who’ve had a lot of years of therapy. No, seriously—I want to call that out. In dominant culture, the support is not given for staying and caregiving. The support is given to leave, cut ties, and become independent. That’s really embedded in western psychotherapy, in Freudian and Jungian theory. And let’s be real about white folks—that’s a lot of where their knowledge comes from, especially folks with privilege.

Tyrone: I agree, and one of the things that inspires me about POOR is this commitment to approaching the work holistically, with so much respect and connection to elders, youth, ancestors, and community. I think it’s also important to talk about ways of building community outside of family of origin, which I see happening in healing ways within queer communities, and also within the incredibly diverse community that POOR is creating. I have a very close relationship with my family and feel grateful for that, but so many people have families that are abusive, or rejected them for being queer or different. What do these ideas mean in those contexts?

Tiny: That’s absolutely real—I don’t want to invalidate that. I pose it as a challenge partly for shock value, to make people think. In some ways it’s just a metaphor. Most people in the U.S. have been taught to relate to their families in this detached, capitalist paradigm that’s about individualism. How do you get people to think deeply about that in, like, two seconds? I pose it as a challenge because I want people to rethink this paradigm that pathologizes staying with and caretaking for family of origin—but the specific action people take is completely related to their particular situation.

Tyrone: As a poor people’s organization, how did POOR start teaching and training people with privilege, and how do you see that being connected to your work?

Tiny: Before there was a POOR Magazine, my mom and I made conceptual art—similar to stuff that Linda Montano or Yoko Ono were making. We started making art while living through houselessness. 

The art world itself is privileged—in terms of who’s considered an artist and, most importantly, who’s supported in art making. We got to know lots of privileged trust-funder artists. There were a lot of folks who, although they appreciated the art that we were doing, saw no problem in the fact that we were never able to work in a gallery, never got grants, were never supported in the art that we were doing beyond this fetishized, marginalized “outsider art” reality.

But we met some really great cats as well. Evri Kwong is a Tibetan American artist who did the cover art for two of our magazines, just an amazingly beautiful guy in so many ways. We had an art auction when we were launching POOR and had no money, and Evri kicked down a $2,000 painting. And because he was a known artist, it sold. And that’s how POOR Magazine was finally published—through that relationship between folks with privilege and folks without it.

As POOR developed into an organization, suddenly people who weren’t poor wanted to help us—which raised questions about our vision and about poor-people leadership. A lot of the worst destructions in herstory have happened because of the idea of help; “help” is the root of colonization, the root of missionary work, right?

It was very important for help not to become missionary or hierarchical or—the worst thing of all—default leadership. This is a big risk in media production, because you need a particular skill set that often comes from having resources or formal education. Wh

en you talk in terms of media production, the “help” often becomes the leadership if you’re not being overt about what is valued as knowledge and what isn’t.

We had to create relationships with folks who had media-production skills because we needed to learn those skills. But in order to remain poor-people-led, we had to flip the notion of education, to redefine scholarship. The folks with formal education who were trying to help would need to be educated by the poverty scholars. The education that they already held from formal institutions of learning would need to be reframed as only one form of education, not the form of education.

We formed the Race, Poverty, and Media Justice Institute (RPMJ)—a project of POOR that creates seminars and trainings—to provide a forum for our poverty scholars to teach, and to have our knowledge honored and respected rather than colonized, stolen, borrowed from, and co-opted.

Tyrone: Could you describe what you mean by poverty scholarship?

Tiny: Poverty scholarship means valuing lived experience over formal education. It means that the people who are best equipped to report and teach about poverty, racism, police violence, etcetera, are the people who experience it. In most media production and academic work, there’s a voyeuristic aspect—to us, the primary source has to be someone who’s dealt with the issue firsthand. In other words, the person who’s usually the subject of media has to be the author, the broadcaster, the producer.

Tyrone: Will you talk about Homefulness, as a concrete example of the ways that POOR is working with the ideas of interdependence and community reparations?

Tiny: Homefulness is a project that we’re working towards, rooted in the landlessness (we don’t use “homelessness” anymore) of so many of our people. It’s a sweat-equity cohousing model, meaning that people [will] work in the community in exchange for living there. It includes gardens, microbusinesses, community spaces—it could be small, it could be large, but the idea is about moving off the grid of social-service management of poor people’s lives. It’s about creating healing and equity for landless, urban, indigena families. As a permanent solution to landlessness.


The Practice of Freedom: A History of the Self Education Foundation

by Jessica Hoffmann

           I don’t have a college degree. Though I was on the path to go to a private liberal-arts college out of high school, after a series of financial-aid-related bureaucratic snafus, I ended up one gray morning when I was 18 staring at a sheet of paper offering aid mostly in the form of loans. I’d been raised by a single mom whose finances were generally precarious and who was afraid of the credit game. She never had credit cards or car loans or a mortgage or anything like that when I was a kid, and so the loan concept felt unfamiliar and frightening to me. I was pretty much on my own in terms of finances and big decisions at that point in my life, handling the college/tuition stuff by myself, without any parental or other guidance, and trying to go to school in a small town where jobs were scarce. The idea of signing on to a bunch of debt made little sense to me. I thought: I can read and write, research and explore ideas, on my own; libraries are free, and the world is vast and full of lessons. I don’t need to go into debt for this.

            Actually, my not doing college started before that. Sitting in class one afternoon late in my senior year of high school, just months before I was supposed to go to a college I’d applied to excitedly the fall before, I thought: I don’t want to go there yet. I’ve been in school almost my entire life. Its structures and systems are the main things I know. I want to be outside of all that for a minute before going from the insular social and academic world of high school to another insular social and academic world, one literally perched on a small grassy hill set off from the town it’s located in. I wrote a letter to that college asking to defer admission for a year.

            During that year, I lived in a big city thousands of miles from the big city where I’d grown up, felt lonely a lot, worried that I was “fucking up my life” (because in the world of educational elitism I’d grown up in, bailing on college, even temporarily, was a major fuck-up), worked at a small bookstore and loved it although the pay left me with little after I paid my exorbitant big-city rent (so my roommate and I ate lots of Cream of Wheat and sometimes shoplifted, and once in a while her boyfriend, who worked in a health-food store on the opposite coast, would mail us a box of food he’d pilfered from his workplace), wrote and read widely, walked everywhere, did a lot of thinking … It was a hard year and a good one. I learned a lot from all the reading I did, and also from being sort of loosed in the world, from feeling stupid and incompetent living outside the realm I’d always felt smart in (school), from having to gain and practice new skills and kinds of knowledge, from feeling sometimes isolated and sometimes thrilled by a sense of autonomy, from feeling life without the familiar structures of planned curriculum and school calendars. And when, the next fall, I was ready to start college, I discovered that the tuition grants I’d initially been offered were no longer available after my year off. That’s when the loan option emerged, and I stared at the loan papers and couldn’t bring myself to sign and decided I’d keep learning outside those systems.

           That’s one part of my story of self-education and money.

           In another part of my story, a few years later, my dad started making a lot of money, and one day I realized I needed to rethink my sense of my class identity. I’d been raised by a struggling single mom. And while my dad had always figured out how to make his child-support payments and could sometimes also help pay for stuff my mom couldn’t afford, he wasn’t a rich guy during my childhood. He lived in a van for a time (a time I have fond memories of, when he and my sister and I would spend our weekends together camping on various California beaches), and he struggled a lot money-wise for years. But by the time I was in my early twenties, he had become quite successful in dominant culture’s terms, and I realized that my sense of myself as a poor kid among rich kids—an identity I’d settled into after years of feeling alienated among wealthy classmates in the fancy public-school classes my mom was savvy enough to get me into, after I stopped trying to pass as equally “classy” as them and started questioning economic and cultural hierarchies—well, that identity was no longer quite apt. A part of me was connected to wealth, to class privilege, now.

          And so I immediately went looking for books and articles by other class-privileged lefties, assuming there must be lots of work out there by people who had reckoned with the combination of having wealth (or access to wealth) within an unjust economic system and believing in economic justice. That work must be out there, I figured, I just hadn’t found it before because I wasn’t looking for it—it wasn’t relevant to me. Now it was, yet after months of searching, I’d found hardly anything, not even articles in which famous lefty professors or lawyers talked honestly about their salaries and how their politics informed their personal relationships with wealth (which is why Dean’s piece here is so important). I didn’t find much to learn from in this area until I started meeting and talking to peers who were struggling with similar questions (largely through Resource Generation). One day Tyrone gave me his zine. Another time Dean and I organized a cross-class dinner party to talk about some of this stuff with our friends. Enough, a radical independent publishing project, started posting amazing content about the personal politics of resisting capitalism. In these and other community-created spaces outside dominant institutions of education, people are learning together how to rethink philanthropy, our personal roles within capitalism, resource sharing, economic justice, interdependence …  

              Now, I don’t mean to categorically disparage formal education. The links between institutional education and jobs/living wages in this society are intense. And the students protesting UC tuition hikes, as just one example, are fighting an incredibly important fight for widespread access to education within public institutions—a fight that reveals yet more connections between learning and money. Also, I recognize the ways various privileges (including my mom’s getting me and my sister into the best public-school classes in our area when we were kids, which was in part enabled by white privilege and her own class privilege, having been raised in an upper-middle-class family) have affected my ongoing project of self-education and my ability to work in fields where most others have college degrees. I just mean to let you know a little about why I was excited when Tyrone asked me to write about the Self-Education Foundation for Enough. Money and learning, rethinking traditional structures of resource sharing and education—these are themes that have been important in my personal life and my political/community work. Also, I think the very act of documenting activist histories is a kind of alt-education project. As my friend and frequent collaborator Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore said in a roundtable on activism and journalism that I facilitated for LOUDmouth several years ago, “Activists have to be journalists because our work is not being covered, and it will be disappeared from the media as soon as we snap our fingers. Activists need to document our work as much as possible because no one’s gonna do it for us.”

          So, in the spirit of doing it for ourselves, for each other, and for future community workers, I’ve interviewed a bunch of people from the Self-Education Foundation, and read through all their old newsletters and reports and things, to provide this document of what SEF was, and how it worked, and why.

—Jessica Hoffmann

It Starts with an Idea … 

          In spring 1998, Utne published an article called “How I Got My DIY Degree.”  Written by Bomb the Suburbs author William Upski Wimsatt, it was a glimpse at the life of a guy who’d dropped out of college to learn from “the University of Planet Earth.” His self-created curriculum included guidelines like “Live in a different city every year” and “Seek out hundreds of mentors.” The article ended with this note: “I’m starting a self-schooling foundation that will make it possible for more young people, especially poor kids, to educate themselves outside of school. I’m looking for highly successful dropouts as well as enthusiastic volunteers and donors with an interest in self-education.”            

          Lots of people wrote letters in response to the article, and a few sent in donations for the as-yet-unformed self-schooling foundation. Among the respondents was a rich Chicago teenager who was bored by school and excited to throw his wealth into a project that promoted self-education. Months later, a mixed-class radical youth activist who wanted to see a politics of racial and economic justice brought to the home-schooling movement linked up. Others joined, too. And out of the varied passions of this crew, the Self-Education Foundation was born. Challenging traditional ideas of both education and philanthropy, SEF was a youth-led, grassroots-oriented project that in seven years directed more than $30,000 to over 80 small, underfunded groups working on self- and community-based education.

          SEF wasn’t perfect (what is?), but it was a transformative learning experience for everyone involved—and the story of SEF offers lots of lessons for those of us still dreaming, a decade later, of different ways of doing both education and social-movement funding. SEF was an experiment in altering how movements, and the people in them, engage with both knowledge and money.

… and with Collective Action

          SEF cofounders William Upski Wimsatt, Karl Muth, and Emily Nepon came to the project from really different places. Wimsatt was an author/activist/speaker who wanted to mobilize the wealth of successful autodidacts in support of self-education opportunities for everyone. Muth was “completely dissatisfied with my upper-middle-class high-school existence … I thought I was learning nothing.” He’d reached out to Wimsatt after reading “How I Got my DIY Education” in Utne. “I was really underprepared to play any role in the organization,” he says, but “I was pretty good about asking people for money; I wasn’t at all shy about money.” Nepon, who had been unschooled in childhood, had recently dropped out of an experimental-ish college and was involved in radical social-justice work, especially youth and anti-police-brutality activism. She wanted to see a politics of racial and economic justice brought to a self-education movement that often was individualistically focused on privileged families’ ability to opt out of ordinary schooling.

            For a time their shared enthusiasm for self-education bridged the differences in their visions. By 2001, they had an expanded working crew, a board, and nonprofit status. They gave out their first $10,000 in grants that year, and engaged in a couple organizing projects, including one that challenged racist school-funding inequities in public schools in Philadelphia, where SEF was by then based. Nepon proved to be the most hands-on of the cofounders—digging into the day-to-day work of running an organization—and that meant her vision largely guided the way SEF took shape. As the project progressed, the focus wasn’t so much on mobilizing the resources of wealthy autodidacts (Upski’s original vision) as it was on challenging traditional philanthropy while supporting innovative self-education organizing. And its vision of self-education broadened beyond what Muth had imagined: “SEF decided to take on a very diverse group of goals,” he said. “In retrospect, probably an overly ambitious mix of things – everything from traditional homeschooling to new urban homeschooling to the dropout movement [to] incarcerated self-education.”

          Nepon and Wimsatt drew a solid group of inspired organizers to the project, and from 1998 to 2005, SEF existed as a small grassroots fund run by young activists. They raised money to give grants of $100 to $500 to inspiring activists in many different areas: homeschoolers and dropouts organizing for educational resources outside of schools, student-led school-reform projects, incarcerated self-educators and their supporters, independent media, and popular-education projects. Grantees were spread all over the U.S. and a few other countries geographically and were rooted in many different communities.

Giving Differently

“We believe that rich people aren’t the only ones who can talk, think, and ACT about money. Being a group of young women without access to great personal and family wealth (and the connections that go along with wealth), and deciding to take on the task of moving money is a huge challenge. We’re banking, literally, on great faith that our skills as self-educators will lead us through the learning process … and our histories as organizers and community members will be all the connections we need.”

—From a 2001 SEF newsletter

          SEF was “a totally experimental model of philanthropy,” Nepon said. The initial strategy was simple: “give 12 $100 gifts to groups as a token of appreciation for their work – and then ask them to let us interview them for the newsletter.” The newsletter served as a way to expand people’s ideas about self-education. “Those interviews helped me get the way race impacts this field,” Nepon said, “with people of color having to deal with state systems of oppression, while white homeschoolers feel like it’s all free—[we’d] share those stories in a larger, movement-building context.”

          Sara Zia Ebrahimi was drawn to SEF for the way it envisioned self-education beyond “white crunchy homeschoolers,” looking at “all different reasons and ways” people educate outside of traditional institutions, from prisoner-led programs to job training at the community level. After connecting with Nepon and Wimsatt, she became increasingly passionate about supporting social-justice work through fundraising. And SEF was like a lab where young people were “changing the face of what it meant to be a fundraiser and to be a philanthropist.”

          For one thing, SEF was committed to directly financing the movement—not serving as a tax shelter, as many foundations do, but moving funds directly to “fierce, effective groups that are often under the radar of larger funds,” as they put it.

          Adrian Lowe, who came to SEF as an intern while a single parent of a homeschooled child, said: “We made this thing that would move money in the ways money has to move for rich people to file on their taxes, to move real resources to grassroots things that don’t normally get funding – often out-of-pocket organizations for whom a $500 grant is staggering.” The groups SEF funded were, in SEF’s words, “inspiring models of ideas that could be replicated in almost any community. These groups are pulled together out of inspiration and necessity, rarely with funding or institutional support.”

          SEF gave grants without putting the burden of grant-seeking work on the grantees. Max Benitez, who received two grants from SEF (one for an oral-history project during the 2000 U.S. presidential campaign, and one for a documentary about youth and hip-hop activism), loved that with SEF there “wasn’t a lot of paperwork” and that “SEF funded me when I wasn’t able to formulate a way of getting funding from traditional channels.” He “was not affiliated with any kind of organization – I was at a place of art and activism,” yet SEF was willing to fund him, and without the production requirement typical of individual artists’ grants. “They were allowing me to make mistakes in funding my early mistake-making in my work.” Today, Max works with youth, teaching filmmaking skills and working on media justice and media literacy.

           “We took risks that an institution wouldn’t take,” Nepon says, “basically we were a community funding board without the bureaucracy that usually supports community funding boards.”

            And the people running the foundation were not typical philanthropists: they were young, and they were not wealthy. They were activists with grassroots connections, while most people in philanthropy are professionals disconnected from the communities they mean to support. Ebrahimi said, “We were a group of people no one would’ve ever thought of as people able to collect that money or make decisions about where that money goes. We were this ragtag team.”

            Nepon says, “It was just a group of activists without money doing this thing, an example of youth leadership in an incredibly professionalized and institutionalized field where ‘young’ means under 35. It was amazing and inspiring [to show that] young people who don’t have personal wealth can run a foundation, can support grassroots movement, and this is a part of movement.” In all, over 150 mostly young people supported SEF as donors.

          It wasn’t just who they were doing this work, but how they did it. There was a collective decision-making process for grant decisions. And they figured out ways to support organizations that were not formal 501c3 nonprofits. The foundation structure allowed them to receive funds from people who wanted to donate to a 501c3, and then SEF could redirect those funds to non-501c3s. They also established a program through which SEF could serve as a fiscal sponsor of small grassroots organizations with budgets under $20,000.

             All this was an intervention on what we’ve come to call the non-profit industrial complex a decade before INCITE! popularized that term in The Revolution Will Not Be Funded. An item on the agenda for an SEF planning retreat reads: “Come up with dream fundraising (as organizing) plan.” It wasn’t just about doing funding differently, but also about seeing funding and fundraising as part of organizing.

Self-Educating at the Self-Education Foundation

           The people who started and ran SEF learned how to do it while they did it—making the organization itself a lab for the type of learning they aimed to support.

            “I would never encourage someone to start this organization the way we did,” Nepon told me, “but I’m glad we did it.” The cofounders jumped headfirst into creating an organizational framework that could support huge and fast growth. “Getting nonprofit status, doing your own taxes, [and the like are] such burdensome things,” Nepon says. “I don’t think it was necessary to have the level of organizational realness that we created. None of us had ever done that before – we were learning every piece of infrastructure building on the fly – and as if [the organization] was going to be huge. I appreciate that we had that optimism, but it was really unnecessary – we could’ve done more long-range imagining of steps in the process –– but I basically learned everything about running nonprofit organizations to some degree because we did all these steps. It was an incredible learning experience for everyone involved.”

          Mentorship was integral. Movement elders generously shared organizational-development charts, workbooks, and tips. The Bread and Roses Community Fund lent Nepon Kim Klein’s grassroots-fundraising videos. “People came to my crusty anarchist house, sat and talked with me – it was incredible the way that people supported,” she said.

          The learning happened on a peer level as well. Many of Nepon’s housemates were members of ACT UP Philly, and she learned crucial media skills from them. “I was surrounded by people around my age that were starting orgs,” Nepon said. “Ordinary people were running these things that were having global implications. [It didn’t feel like], Who the hell are you to attempt to have a global impact or shift the conversation in this big way?” In the late ’90s, there was a “context of possibility” around social-justice activism, Nepon said. And she thinks that is part of what inspired so many people to share resources with the nascent SEF.

          At the same time, she wishes mentors had also asked some critical questions. “I wish people had said to me, ‘What’s already out there that you can contribute your resources to instead of starting a new thing?’”

Education and Economic Justice Connect

“[T]he more you learn, the more you’ll feel compelled to rearrange basic assumptions about everything.”

– William Upski Wimsatt, “How I Got My DIY Degree”

          How do the two threads of SEF’s work—self-education and challenging/re-envisioning philanthropy—connect?

          Though SEF didn’t explicitly frame itself as an anticapitalist project, many of its organizers saw a connection between self-education and resisting capitalism. As Nepon put it, “I think self-education (by individuals and communities) is a required skill for unlearning the lies told by capitalist/imperialist media, school systems, academia, the non-profit industrial complex, and state agencies. Our ability to survive, resist, transform oppressive systems like capitalism is entirely dependent on our capacity to unlearn the damage those systems have had on us, the limits we’ve been taught.”

          Lowe concurs: “Education systems are systems, and they serve the status quo. They reproduce society as it is; that’s what they’re for. People [can resist] that in a variety of ways – whether it’s self-education or going to school and resisting it (as in the student-led school-reform movement in Philly that got some support from SEF) … cuz not everybody has the resources and family support to not be in school.”

          Connecting self-education to resource redistribution happened in multiple ways at SEF, from bringing an economic- and racial-justice analysis to the often white-dominated, class-privileged, individualistic world of homeschooling to supporting self-education work in prisons to building new models of grassroots fundraising. But none of that is easy.

Challenges (or, The Political Is Personal, Too)

           SEF’s vision was huge, and implementing it was complicated and hard work. The organizers were remarkably transparent about their struggles, which feels fitting—they documented and shared their learning process in newsletter updates and on a substantial Web site, providing resources for others to learn from.

           One of the SEF’s biggest struggles was dealing with participants’ personal, and difficult, relationships with money. 

           “It was hard to fundraise when all of us had our own pretty serious stuff about money,” Lowe said, remembering an instance when some SEF folks went to hear Wimsatt talk about giving money at a private college. Lowe walked out feeling like, “I would’ve much rather mugged people in the parking lot outside” than participate in asking class-privileged people to give like this. It seemed like “asking for money” was the space where “you have to sell out the radical nature of the work and make it seem less threatening.” Today, Lowe thinks that kind of fundraising is “an important part of movements – having people who can translate the important work people are doing into terms [that are accessible to ‘donors’] … it’s a skill that’s needed if you want to access those resources – at the same time, not everyone is able to do it.”

            At a certain point, it felt like no one at SEF wanted to do it. “The energy to ask, and the ways you have to frame things to ask, felt really awful,” Lowe said. “Fundraising is nasty, and I don’t think SEF was able to get away from the ways it’s nasty.”

            Nepon, who had become the default representative of SEF at philanthropy conferences and events for young donors, was feeling isolated. “I was literally having panic attacks in some of these young-donor-organizing spaces … In donor organizing there’s totally people with an anticapitalist agenda – but in the bigger [philanthropy] conferences [it was] horrifying … ExxonMobil Foundation giving out little oil wells filled with candy – [at one philanthropy conference,] that was the only food I had to eat, in the gift bag for presenters, in a hotel I couldn’t afford food in.” She struggled with a painful “feeling of class-outsiderness.” At the same time, within SEF, she felt perceived as the person who had experience with donor organizing, and with wealthy people, and so she felt uncomfortable when conversations happened like the one where “Adrian told me he’d rather rob people coming out of a fundraising event than beg for money. I think that conversation wouldn’t have happened if we’d had a shared theory of grassroots fundraising and the role of people with wealth.” All this was particularly painful for Nepon because she is Jewish. She felt she was “perceived as being in the Jewish middle-man position—the anti-Semitic you’re the communist/you’re the banker bullshit. I don’t think it felt that way to others involved. I think they were shocked when I brought up how painful it was to be Jewish in that position.”

          The group eventually sat down with a facilitator to talk about their individual relationships with money. As Lowe remembers it, they had “intense conversations about tokenism, about what asking for money means to different people.” And at one point it ended up with “everybody being like, ‘I can’t be the one who asks anymore.’” That the group for a long time “could not talk about class with each other,” as Nepon put it, was perhaps an inevitable result of living in a capitalist culture that discourages honest discussions about money and our relationships to it. But they eventually did talk about it, “and it turned out,” Nepon told me, that “we all had to some degree overlapping mixed-class experiences. I think we all had some amount of class privilege and some amount of experience with the humiliations of poverty. People’s own relationship with that was unexplored, which got in the way of solidarity with each other about the way we got money, even though we had shared [values] about the way we redistributed it. … We were not sharing fundraising/donor relationships collectively, so I think people perceived us as being funded by scary rich people as opposed to the reality, which was that it was mostly a bunch of high-school dropouts and a few people who had wealth and were committed to redistributing it.”

           All this wasn’t just a behind-the-scenes bit of process, but an important part of their work that was documented in an SEF newsletter:

We also had real difficulty talking about our relationships with money and fundraising. Our shared history of being in marginalized communities, and the reality that we’re trying to work across lines of race and class privilege, had left us all defensive and careful. As people raised as women, some women of color, and without our own sources of wealth, we were struggling to do effective fundraising and maintain our dignities — to do fundraising and grant making that really challenges institutional racism, sexism, and capitalism. As a solution, we’re creating a fundraising plan that lets each of us plug in along our comfort lines — and still get the work done. We brought our vision back into focus and said it: we’re doing this work together because we want to bring these movements together and move resources and money to all of them.

          “SEF was self-conscious,” Lowe thinks, about the painful class dynamics of movement funding—“which I think is an improvement – a lot of people don’t even know that they’re tokenizing or exploiting, trying to play people’s white guilt or class guilt. SEF was aware, which I think makes it a little bit powerful.”

             In Nepon’s vision, “Ideally, the movement would be accountable to no government funding, no foundation funding, no individual-wealthy-people funding. Ideally it would be a membership model where everybody gives to their ability, and that’s enough – but we live in a different model. Within that, some wealthy people have radical politics and are interested in redistributing [wealth] – although some still have terrible behavior because of their wealth, like, similarly, white people are a problem sometimes, and men. We try to put privileged people to work in the movement understanding that people with the best of intentions can be destructive, and we have to work on that. … If I were to do [SEF] again, I would want to build up trust and a shared analysis around [fundraising], because it was painful. I’ve continued to enjoy and pursue grassroots fundraising, but I can’t do it in organizations where people don’t value the work or get the liberatory politics of it – how it’s a form of base-building.”

Onward

          In November 2005, SEF announced that they were shutting down. In a letter to their community, Nepon explained:

Why are we shutting down? A couple of reasons. The first is that it was hard work to try to create and fund an organization led entirely by young people. While the philanthropic community talks about wanting to support emerging leaders and new voices, the only grants we received were from other organizations with youth leadership.

SEF was a small foundation. We were run almost entirely by volunteers, and our highest total annual budget (including grantmaking) was under $35,000.

Even though we did receive nonprofit status, we still functioned much like a grassroots volunteer project. We needed a funding boost to take on more non-profit-style work, and to offer salaries that would free up our time to really do this work … and that funding wasn’t there.

Another reason I personally am ready to step out of this work is that I feel I’ve aged out. I believe in self-education and youth activism, but I don’t think I’m currently suited to speak to those communities’ needs or act as a “talent scout” in the way I did when we started the organization.

With so many crises in the world, it has been difficult to build a movement around a long-term strategy. Our mission, misquoting Paulo Freire, says “We believe that self-education is the practice of freedom.” We believe that people who know how to educate themselves are able to gain real information about their world, read between the lines that corporate media and State-directed school systems offer us, and challenge oppressive institutions while building alternatives. With this kind of organizing, it’s hard to demonstrate or prove results. People change, are changed by their learning, slowly and deeply. We can track some of the impacts of SEF’s work, but many of the real successes and challenges lie in the life stories of individuals and may take decades to manifest.

          In all, SEF gave over $30,000 in grants to over 80 organizations, sent four local youth leaders to the 2005 INCITE! Conference, and supported other organizations as a fiscal sponsor.

          Even now, SEF is still sharing resources. Their Web site is still up, offering abundant documentation of the organization’s work, and resources for people seeking funds now: http://www.selfeducation.org/html/grants.html#resources

          The work done, lessons learned, education supported, and visions developed by a group of committed young folks in SEF are still impacting people and movements in many ways—some of which we may not even be able to imagine yet.

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.  Continue reading

Interview with Jason Lydon

Jason Lydon is a 26-year-old white queer clergy person living and organizing in Boston, Massachusetts.  I interviewed him in December to hear more about how he approaches the wealth/income/money questions that come up in his work as a pastor and activist.

What is your class background?

I grew up to say that I was “middle-class,” just like everyone who makes between nothing and great riches.  The term feels completely useless to me.  However, I come from a professional class family, mom and step-dad both with masters degrees and who were social workers; father with an undergraduate degree who worked as an engineer, first in the Navy and then in civilian private companies; and a step-mother with an undergraduate degree and a position as a tax accountant for a small firm.  My mom and step-dad were my primary parents and declared bankruptcy twice before I graduated high school.  I went to sleep away summer camp.  We owned one car and leased another.  I qualified for free lunch at school but wasn’t allowed to take it.  My step-father’s parents have/had access to money.  My mom’s mom immigrated here from Ireland, worked in a Raytheon factory, and cannot really read and never was able to pass her drivers test.  I come from a family that believes in the beauty of credit cards.  I have a sister who works for a museum.  A brother who goes to community college.  Another sister who teaches pre-school at the YMCA.  Another sister who works at a barn and goes to community college to be a paralegal.

What is your current class position?

Professional class.  I have no assets.  I make $31,000.00 per year serving a leftist church.  I have numerous thousands of dollars in debt for school and credit card use.  I know extremely wealthy people.  I am currently in school for a Masters Degree at a progressive Episcopal seminary school.  I own two suits.

What decisions have you made about being a paid worker for social justice and why?

I serve a church that gets the majority of its money from rents of tenants in our building and from donations from members of the congregation.  I have made a strong commitment not to make more than $35,000.00 a year for full time work, period.  This is an arbitrary number.  Currently I make $31,000.00 per year.  I recently turned down a raise from the church.  Our budget is $200,000.00 yearly.  The majority of the money goes to maintaining our building that we utilize it to bring Leftists and progressives in the Boston area together.  It seems very strange to me that I should be given a raise on a yearly basis simply because I have been there longer.  It was only a few years ago that I lived on $16,000.00 in the year.  I do not need to increase my standard of living every year when my church could use that money to do other programming and better serve our community.

I do not believe that anyone’s money belongs to them.  Because of the history of capitalism and the function of White Supremacist capital development in the United States there is no way to say that any of the money that exists is not stained with the blood of exploited workers.  Colonization, destruction of our planet, theft of labor, and exploitation of all living beings is the basis for the U.S. economy.  Currently there is such a huge amount of poverty existing not just around the world but also here in the United States.  Certainly the primary challenges must be made on a systemic and institutional level however that does not make personal choices irrelevant.  As a person of faith I believe that I must make choices, as often as possible, that fulfill a call to creating loving communities.  For me this means things like not putting money into a savings account or any account that gains interest.  In what way am I entitled to more money because I have more money?  That simply does not make sense.  Interest is a price paid by banks and other systems that increase the wealth of those who allow the institutions to invest and spend the money in other places.  Interest becomes a gift to those who already have money.  If I have five dollars and put it in the bank why should I have more than that later?  What entitles me to growth of money simply for having it?  I would suggest absolutely nothing.  That money, if I do not need it, is certainly needed by other people.  Once we begin developing savings accounts that accrue interest what is the incentive to redistribute that wealth to those who have not been given the access and privileges to the same wealth?

How does your relationship to imprisoned people and prison abolitionist work relate to this? Do you send money to prisoners? What wealth redistribution strategies do you think are needed in the struggle to end imprisonment?

People on the inside are often forced to work in slave labor conditions getting paid pennies for their work.  Other times prisoners are not allowed to work at all and have no access to even pennies.  However, these same prisoners are then expected to pay for their basic necessities like soap, toothpaste, toilet paper, underwear, socks, etc.  Because the food industry in many prisons are corrupt and unfulfilling many prisoners are forced to supplement their diet with food they buy from the canteen and also many religious foods are not provided by the cafeteria.  Over and over again prisoners are forced into situations where they have no money but have needs for products from the canteen and thus have to trade with other prisoners, often creating unhealthy situations that can include sexual slavery.

At this time I send money to a number of prisoners.  However, one must be aware of how the particular prisoner can obtain money.  Every prison is different.  Some prisoners are forced to pay a room and board fee, even if they are nearly indigent.  Thus you have to be sure you communicate with the prisoner you’re supporting before you put money into their canteen.  You do not want to give money to them that is then taken by the prison to pay a “victims fee” or “room and board fee” or an imposed fine from the courts, unless the prisoner you are supporting has asked you too.  Personally, as an abolitionist, I would like to be sure that any money I give to a prisoner is spent on that prisoner’s needs.  I have given money to other prisoners at times who are willing to purchase things for the prisoner I am providing support for in exchange for some extra money for themselves.  I simply need to trust the prisoner I am supporting and remember to take their direction and support them in the way that most makes sense for them.  Prisoners NEED financial support.  I would suggest that ALL of us on the outside have a responsibility to financially support those locked behind the walls.

What relationships do you see between doing faith-based work and redistributing wealth? Or what role do you see for faith-based communities in wealth redistribution goals?

As a Unitarian Universalist I affirm the inherent worth and dignity of ALL people.  In a capitalist society we assign individuals greater worth by paying them more and less worth by paying them less.  That is inherently against my understanding of Unitarian Universalism.  I would suggest that all faiths hold the same primary truth and that capitalism and wealth accumulation is anti-love thus antithetical to true living in faith.  Specifically as a Unitarian Universalist I exist in a faith community with a large amount of wealth.  Certainly the majority of Unitarian Universalists do not see Unitarian Universalist values in the same way I do.  However, I think there is great potential in the use of religious spaces to help relieve people with money of their wealth.  That does not mean the particular religious institution should be entitled to that money but I do think religious leadership and the history of voluntary poverty is a possible place for wealth redistribution to occur.  I have a friend who pastors at a church that passes the basket each week for a different family that is financially in need.  This is a Black church with hugely different financial access in the church and each week they raise between 4 and 8 hundred dollars for one of the church families.  The next week it is another family.  There is an understanding in the church that you give whatever you can to help those who are in need.  This kind of wealth redistribution could work on a larger community level if people chose to do so.  Religious institutions provide one outlet, secular communities can do the same.

What kind of structures do you want to exist in terms of how wealth and well-being are distributed? What are your wildest dreams?

I think we should all reflect more regularly on Marx’s slogan, “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.”    In my wildest dreams workers would own the means of production and have a say over what happens with their product after it is produced.  Clearly we have to think more realistically about a global economy and a hugely service-based economy in much of the so-called Western world.  I would like to think smaller communities would have the ability to control their own smaller economies.  I would like to believe that trade would exist between these economies that benefit all of those involved.  I would like to think that no one would be allowed to acquire wealth at the expense of another.  On the way to get there I dream of us passing maximum wage laws next to minimum wage ones.  I imagine a system where one does not have to worry about access to money to assure access to health care, housing, food, education, and appropriate transportation.  I imagine a culture shift where we understand that money is a symbol as much as it is a tangible reality.  I imagine we would abandon the new age ideas that we simply need to think positively and money will show up but still understand that money exists as an energy that causes pain and destruction but does not have to.  I am not an institutionally educated economist.  I am sure many of my dreams are “not possible” by economic ideals.  I do, however, think we can imagine things far different than the capitalist system we currently live under.  I think we need to borrow from concepts of participatory economics as well as anarchist communism and economic democracy.  My dreams include an end to the state as a requirement for real democracy to be possible and the capacity of humanity to exist in economic equity.

Do you have any reading recommendations for Enough readers?

United for a Fair Economy (UFE) resources
Inclusive Democracy
Pareecon Today
Unitarian Universalists for a Just Economic Community

Do you have any other personal practices you want to share that you think might be useful or inspiring for Enough readers thinking about the personal politics of redistribution?

I say a quiet prayer every time I spend money.  I understand this can feel hokey to some however I find it to be a good reminder that I must utilize my greatest capacity to work for the end of capitalism.  After I give someone some cash or swipe my credit card I say, to myself, “In the spirit of loving community may capitalism fall with revolutionary fury.”

If you have an interest bearing account, consider closing it.  You are not entitled to that money.  If you do choose to keep your interest bearing account consider giving away 100% of your interest every year.  Even if you do believe you are entitled to the money you “earned” you did nothing but have money in an account to accrue interest.  Will this act end capitalism?  Of course not.  However, we must remember to make choices in our lives that show our values and possibility for change.

Consider capping your wage.  Do you really need to make more money?  Even if you have a job where the company isn’t going to use the money for something particularly useful you can start a real conversation.  Imagine your boss’s face when you turn down a raise.  I must tell you it starts a funny conversation.  Consider the same with retirement.  Suggest that your employer put your retirement money into a local social justice campaign.  How can we feel good about putting money away for the future when there are so many in need of that money right now?  When people ask you how you’re going to take care of yourself when you can’t work for money anymore remind them that there will be other people who will financially care for you.  It’s a good reminder that you must care for others who cannot take financial care of themselves now.  Truly reflect on why we should feel entitled to the money we make.  If you live in a community where everyone can financially take care of themselves think about why it is that you are in such an economically homogenous community.  How can you be accountable to others in financial need?  Think about what action you can take.  It won’t end capitalism over night, but it’s part of our process of creating different communities.

What I Gave and Where I Gave It: 2008 Giving Plan

Tyrone Boucher

Where The Money Came From (and some history)

My dad set up a trust fund for me when I was young, with stock from a software company he started. The company ended up making lots of money, and my trust fund grew to about $400,000. When I turned 25 (last year), the option opened up for the trustees to begin transferring the money into my control.

Because of my involvement in economic justice organizing, I’d already had lots of conversations about class, inheritance, and giving with my father by the time I started to get the money. He agreed to arrange for $200,000 to be transferred into a brokerage account that I controlled. I used some of the money to pay him back for my expenses he’d paid for in the past (like school), and put most of the rest of it into my giving plan.

Dealing with this money has been an ongoing process of talking with my family, understanding kind-of-complicated financial and tax stuff, making compromises (mostly about moving more slowly than I’d like), and getting clear on my own motivations and vision. I’m planning to give away 50-60% of the money from my trust fund by 2010, and most of the rest of it later, as I get access to it.

I’ve been really glad to have this opportunity for honest conversations with my family and community about wealth, class, and giving. I try to share my giving plan as much as possible if people are interested, mostly to start community dialogue and get feedback and provide an example of giving money with a social justice framework. I always like hearing people’s thoughts and ideas and impressions. I hope this can be a tool to inspire people to create new and interesting ways to give money – there are so many different ways to do this and I sure don’t have it all figured out.

Values

1. The vast majority of my giving goes to social justice organizing (i.e. groups that organize communities to fight the root causes of injustice).

2. I give almost entirely to groups that are led by the communities they are organizing; specifically, folks who are most directly affected by oppression – people of color, poor/low-income people, queer and trans people, women, etc.

3. I give to organizations with a multi-issue analysis because I believe that all forms of oppression are connected, and that everyone’s liberation is bound up together.

4. I give without regard to 501c3 status or whether or not my donation will be tax-deductible.

5. I strive for accountability and transparency in my giving by sharing my giving plan freely and soliciting direct input from other activists, organizers, friends, and family.

6. I always give unrestricted donations rather than requiring that my gift be used for a specific purpose or project.

7. I make multi-year commitments as much as possible, and try to be clear with the recipients about how much I can give and for how long.

8. A percentage of my giving goes to social justice foundations with activist-advised funds, because I believe they do important work to support grassroots organizing and reshape philanthropy in positive ways, and that they are an important model for shifting the decision-making in social justice funding from individual donors (particularly folks with privilege) to community activists. I also know that the grant application and review processes that come with foundation funding can drain the time and energy of organizations – so, I chose to give the majority of my donations directly to orgs.

9. I make a point to give to individuals when I can, because I want to live in a world where people support each other and share resources within networks and communities.

10. When possible, I try to pair my giving with fundraising and donor organizing. I believe that donations can go farther when I use them as an opportunity to educate and engage with other donors about my choices, so I always give publicly rather than anonymously and try to use my giving to help get other people to give.

Process

I was intimidated by the idea of creating a giving plan, because I wondered how I would ever be able to choose between all of the amazing social justice organizations that I wanted to support. I had been giving smaller amounts somewhat haphazardly for a few years before I began gaining access to my inheritance, but I’d never created a clear plan.

When I finally sat down to do it, it wasn’t as hard as I thought. I made a list of all the organizations I’d given to in the past, and all the organizations I’d always meant to give to. I wanted to give consistent support to these groups, so I added them all to my new, multi-year giving plan.

I wanted my giving plan to reflect a wider range of organizations than the ones I was personally familiar with, so I informally approached several organizers in my extended community whose work I admired and asked them for input. They recommended organizations with whom they shared values and who they saw as allies in their work (I also specifically asked for organizations who had a hard time getting funding from traditional sources), and these organizations also went on my giving plan.

The process of trying to figure all this out has taught me that there are so many ways to give money, and most of them are both useful and challenging in their own ways. I try not to get too caught up in working towards perfection, because there is definitely no perfect or best way to create a giving plan. I think of giving money as one small facet of my social justice work that hopefully reflects my broader commitment to wealth redistribution, anti-oppression, and grassroots organizing.

Here’s how it worked out:

Anti-Incarceration

Safe Streets/Strong Communities $7000 ($5,000 was for Expungement Day (partnered with Critical Resistance NOLA))

Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children $2500

Critical Resistance $150 through monthly sustainer program + $600 for CR10

Critical Resistance New Orleans $2000

Anti-Violence/Transformative Jusitce

Communities Against Rape and Abuse $500

Generation 5 $360 (through monthly sustainer program)

Healthcare

New Orleans Women’s Health and Justice Initiative/INCITE! New Orleans $6000

Women With A Vision (New Orleans) $2000

Third Root Community Health Clinic $2000 (Half of this donation is a “loan” – to be paid forward to another community health project in 2009.)

Queer and Trans Justice

Southerners On New Ground $2300

Sylvia Rivera Law Project $3000

Arts and Culture

Esperanza Center $2500

IDA $3000 (one time gift to help them buy their land)

Sins Invalid $500

Anti-Poverty/Homelessness

POOR Magazine $2500

Welfare Rights Organization (New Orleans) $2000

Coalition on Homelessness $2500

Western Regional Advocacy Project $250

Social Justice Foundations

21st Century Foundation $2000 (Through Gulf South Allied Funders (gsaf.info))

Bread and Roses Community Fund $50

Immigrant Justice

New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice $3000

Madre Tierra $6000

Other

Resource Generation $1500

Catalyst Project $2080 (monthly sustainer plus one-time gift)

KINDRED $2000

Making Money Make Change $100

ticket for NOLA activist to attend NPA conference $373

Misc urgent appeals $2000

TOTAL YEARLY GIVING $62,158

Letter To My Dad About Giving Away Money

 by Tyrone Boucher   
 
I wrote this letter to my dad as part of an ongoing dialogue we were having shortly before I turned 25 and began to get some access to the trust fund he set up for me. I wanted to explain why I planned to give away the money, why I thought it was important and useful, and why I wanted him to be involved.
      

Hey dad, 
 
Thank you so much for your thoughtful response to my email! I read it several times, and I’m sure I’ll return to it frequently as I continue to think about this stuff. Everything you wrote about economics was really interesting, and gave me a lot to think about in terms of how I view wealth accumulation. I have a lot of thoughts prompted in part by some really awesome books I’m reading right now about the racial wealth divide and political economy respectively, and I would really love to talk more this stuff as I finish those books and pull my thoughts together.
 
For right now, though, I want to respond to some of the more personal stuff you wrote – as well as bring up stuff that is really timely right now in regards to my giving and my own relationship to wealth.
 
I’ll start with this: as I mentioned, I recently joined a donor circle called Gulf South Allied Funders. This move (even though I already have a million things on my plate) was really important to me, because GSAF is a group I’ve been inspired by since it began a little over a year ago. Beyond just the fact that I think a lot about the impact of Katrina and its obvious connection to racism – and want to help support social justice in the Gulf South however I can – GSAF uses a model of giving that I find really exciting and thoughtful. I’ve already explained some of this, but the basic history/model is this: nine young (white) people with varying degrees of access to financial wealth (who knew each other through their work with Resource Generation) came together in the wake of Katrina with the goal of leveraging their resources and class privilege to support the equitable rebuilding of the Gulf South. They acknowledged that they weren’t a part of the communities most violently affected by the hurricane and the racist devastation that came with it, and had the goal of working with a regranting institution that was connected to those communities and more able to identify and strategically fund the important work that was being done. That’s how they ended up partnering with the 21st Century Foundation – a Black community foundation with longstanding relationships to community organizations in the south.
 
Most of the money that GSAF helps channel to 21CF doesn’t come from the personal giving of the nine original members of the group – it comes from fundraising within the communities that those folks have access to. This includes their families, friends, churches, etc. as well as the Resource Generation community – and also a few established donor networks (Women Donor’s Network, Threshold Foundation) that have been asked to match or double the funds that GSAF raises.
 
I think about this when talking with you or mom about the idea that the money in my trust fund isn’t substantial enough to actually make an impact in social justice movements. I agree with you that just giving the $400,000 or so that I have to a grassroots organization or activist-led regranting institution won’t catalyze a revolution. But there are a couple reasons why I still feel compelled to give, and give a significant portion of what I have.
 
The first is sort of what I described above – the way that my wealth and class privilege give me access to communities that have more resources than I do, and a certain amount of leverage in communicating with those communities. Maybe not always as an individual, but in teaming up with GSAF I become a part of a powerful donor network with connections, influence, and lots and lots of money.
 
It feels really weird. A lot of the folks I meet in these communities have very different politics than me, and I don’t always agree with the ways some other donors and donor networks choose to use their resources and power. But, as I’m discovering more and more, just being a self identified “person with wealth” gives me a certain “in” in this world. Rich people, even progressive rich people, have a tendency to take each other seriously in way that they don’t with other groups (particularly groups that most directly and urgently need funding). And though the reasons and dynamics behind that feel fucked-up and oppressive, one thing that I have come to believe in the course of my activist work is the importance of organizing in the communities I come from. Working with Resource Generation and GSAF and Making Money Make Change feel like ways that I can learn to acknowledge and take responsibility for my own privilege while simultaneously using it to “leverage” power in a way that 1) is accountable to grassroots movements, 2) challenges other wealthy people to be less oppressive, and 3) supports the vision of the more just world that I would like to see.
 
The second reason I feel compelled to give is a more personal, spiritual urge. I’m incredibly inspired by the folks I’ve met who gave away their inherited wealth to support social justice. I find it particularly inspiring when this giving includes an analysis of the inherent power dynamics of philanthropy and an effort to redistribute power in a way that transfers decision-making ability about the money to the hands of people and communities who are on the front lines of social justice work. I have seen the way that this intentional letting go of power has been transformative for many of my friends. It isn’t about whether or not the money is ultimately used most “effectively” (whatever that means), or about releasing the giver from the guilt of having lots of privilege. What has inspired me most is the idea that simply the act of giving and the just transfer of power that accompanies it is a radical act, and one that – in itself – is in alignment with a vision of social justice.
 
I know that in our conversations, I can (and often have) come across as filled with righteous indignation as well as guilt about my privilege. I do feel anger, as well as some guilt. However, I am finding those emotions to be less and less useful as a place from which to do activist work. Increasingly, am am supported and sustained by social justice work in a deep way – by the vision for a better world, as well as the art and community and support and political inspiration and personal growth and challenge that come out of radical movements. When I give money, I intend to be really conscious about not doing it from a place of guilt, but doing it from a place of love and joy and the desire to align my actions with my spiritual and political beliefs.
 
I’m also conscious that my own ability to consider giving away a big chunk of my financial “cushion” is directly related to the fact that I grew up so financially supported. I am extremely grateful for the feeling of safety and of being taken care of that was connected to being financially secure growing up, as well as for the many opportunites (various types of lessons, Farm and Wilderness, my bike trip and trip to Thailand, and many more) I was able to have. I know that these resources alone put me in a position to be able to have even more resources and security for the rest of my life. I’m grateful for the flexibility that having access to money and other resources has given me, and I’m even more grateful for your willingness to let me find my own path and for encouraging me to follow the things I’m passionate about.
 
I guess the reason I’m saying all of this to you is that I feel like I’m in a process of evaluating how much I need and how much I want to give away. I respect the decisions you make around supporting yourself and your loved ones, and I see (and really respect) that you haven’t been motivated by greed or the desire to accumulate wealth. I hope you can see where I’m coming from, and know that I’m explaining this all to you because I do respect and feel supported by you. I feel that you support me in my process about this stuff and you listen without judgement when I talk about class privilege and related issues that could be really loaded. I want to engage with you in this process, and get your feedback about the thoughts I’m having.
 
I also want to hear about the feelings that get brought up for you around safety and security when I talk about giving away money – because I have feelings about that stuff too. I remember a good conversation we had once when we were walking around the lake that touched on this stuff, and I want to explore what it would mean for my life not to have this big trust fund, and get your insight about obstacles and problems that I may not have thought about.
 
While I ponder all of this, it’s important to me to actively start the process of giving, which is why I’ve committed to GSAF and have been giving smaller amounts to other organizations more frequently. If you recall, we each gave GSAF $500 last year. You pretty much just gave because I asked you too, I think. I’d like to talk about the idea of both of us giving more this year - and if you are open to giving more, to be more engaged with me about what giving means, and why we’re doing it, and how we can come from different places but be on the same page about the act of giving. I don’t know if that sounds vague…what I’m trying to communicate is something about how giving money isn’t just something that I do because I should, or because I feel obligated to, but something that feels like an inspiring and empowering act. I’d like to share that with you in some way. Though I’m not attached to you increasing your donation, I would at least like to talk about it and continue to share what giving means to me.
 
Anyway, this is long, again. Obviously this stuff is on my mind a lot, and just writing it out is really useful. Thank you again for having this ongoing dialogue with me – I’m really excited about it. And I can’t wait to hear your thoughts.
 
xoxo Tyrone

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Enough in a College Course

by Andrew Willis Garcés

This semester I had the privilege of teaching a course at Georgetown University through the Program on Justice and Peace called “Social Justice: Sustaining Activism.” It was conceived as a place for student activists to take a step back from their justice work and the stress of deadlines, graduation and impending debt service to reflect on their commitments to continuing that work beyond their lives as students. In addition to two and a half hours of classtime each week — designed to be experiential and with peer support time built-in — the students were each paired up with longtime local activists to interview, several of whom were invited to present as guest facilitators. Each day was focused on unpacking one topic related to sustaining social change work, like “How Does Social Change Happen?,” “Nurturing Radical Vision,” “Facing Unequal Privilege” and “Emotional/Spiritual Sustainability & Avoiding Burnout.”

The Enough! Blog came in handy for our back-to-back sessions on “Class & Classism” and “Financial Sustainability.” Along with Notes from New Orleans and Reflections from a Homownersexual, the students also read a handout by Boston’s Class Action, a few short articles by Betsy Leondar-Wright from her book Class Matters and a chapter from Becky Thompson’s A Promise and a Way of Life. For the discussion on financial sustainability, we looked at an annual report put out by Russell Herman, Jr., an activist who works as a facilitator, trainer, coach and mentor to North Carolinians working for justice, and raises his entire salary through individual donations. He’s as transparent about his fundraising and spending as his organizing time, and notes in his report that “the taboo on money [among activists] supports oppression and must end.”

This challenge was taken seriously by the students in the course, few of whom had ever discussed their own class backgrounds in a group setting. As a way of starting the conversation, I invited them to line up in order of raised poor & working class to owning class, and to take as much time as they needed to figure that out. They dove right in, using humor and humility as tools as they talked about family vacations, parents worrying about paying the next month’s utility bills, riding the bus to work or driving in their own cars to retail jobs and soccer practice. After lining up, they broke into two groups with those closest to them on the class spectrum. Most were raised middle class. The students who grew up with less (they chose not to identify as working class) agreed to participate in a fishbowl, letting us listen in on their discussion and responding to a few questions about what they were proud of about their class background, what was challenging and what they’d like people who wanted to be allies to know.

For our “Financial Sustainability” discussion the next week the students got into groups to reflect on the readings for the week. Then I wrote the word “ENOUGH” on an easel pad, and they generated the first list. The comments that day really hit home for me how alien it is to start a conversation about sustaining yourself financially by talking about what’s adequate, as opposed to what desires we’ve been told are normal for people who can attend colleges like Georgetown (where a fifth of the students come from households making above $300,000 a year.) All of us a in the room that day made a choice to throw out those expectations and start from scratch, asking, tentatively, “…and, enough to go out to a movie once in a while with friends? Is that too much?” Fear was as present in the first list as the second — fear of taking more than our share, of being an accomplice to inequality, of the values and desires being nurtured two and a half hours a week in the refuge of a three-credit study group being suffocated by other people’s expectations and our difficult-to-dislodge unearned privilege. Although the discussion ended on a high note, the question hung in the air: Where to, now?

The semester ended this week with student presentations on “What Sustains Me” — more like in-the-moment status reports than comprehensive answers. Some referenced the impact their political commitments have on visions of careers, occupations and family expectations about wealth and standards of living. But most spoke of the financial piece as being a small part of a larger whole. One student led us in an activity of writing our “forecast,” where we’ll be in six months, five years, ten years, fifteen years. Another helped calm my own anxiety about not being able to offer long-term support for the students’ risky experiments with self-disclosure and reimagining their futures by talking about her inspiration for the sticker art project she invited a few dozen high school and college students to participate in. She spoke of having been hard on herself for a long time, getting stuck around issues of privilege and the limit one person can have on structural oppression. So she picked one thing she could do — help groups of people have that conversation, prompted by the Howard Zinn quote, “Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.” Sage advice from a student activist on the frontlines. When stuck, make a list of things you can do; of what constitutes “enough,” or gets us on the path to justice. Pick one.

What is Enough?

  • Supportive network to lean on when you need financial help
  • Enough to pay utilities
  • Quality food to stay healthy
  • Ability to pay urgent medical and dental bills
  • Small emergency fund
  • Enough to spend on entertainment, going out
  • Activism-related travel
  • Enough to support others financially
  • Pay student loans
  • Having enough downtime!

Fears About Not Having Enough

  • Debt collectors
  • Gas turned off
  • Becoming too focused on paying bills, loans, less focused on other things that are important
  • Social justice work losing priority in my life
  • Values changing
  • “Forgetting where I came from”
  • Losing ideals/idealism
  • Losing my radical politics
  • Not being able to support a family (echoed by all!)
  • Having to move back in with family
  • Not having enough for my kids
  • Getting sick

Notes on Militancy, Privilege, and Guilt

by Tyrone Boucher

July 2007

I read Dan Berger’s book Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity in the midst of organizing a conference called Making Money Make Change and thinking constantly about what it means to work with other wealthy/privileged people to support and strengthen social justice movements. I was totally enthralled by the book, I think because it directly addresses some of the questions I’ve been thinking about so much lately in terms of how I approach my activism, and how to work with other privileged people to support and participate in broad-based movements. In the book’s conclusion, Berger asks: “What does it mean to be a white person opposing racism and imperialism? What does it mean to be born of privilege in a world defined by oppression? How can those with such unearned social benefits work in a way to undermine and ultimately dismantle systems of injustice?” (272).

In the course of my work organizing other class privileged folks to fight capitalism, classism, and wealth inequality, I’ve sometimes been encouraged by fellow organizers to take my political intensity down a notch because it can alienate people. It’s important for me to hear this, because it reminds me how important it is to meet people where they’re at, be compassionate and humble in my relationships with other radical or progressive folks who share my privilege, and work in my own communities to help build a strong multiracial, cross-class movement. I appreciate being challenged about this stuff, and it often serves as a much-needed check on my tendency towards stubborn indignation. 

But this conversation touches on something that I ponder a lot, something about militancy and ideology and the balance between being gentle enough to be accessible and having a political critique that is strong and uncompromising. I thought about it a lot while reading Outlaws of America - the Weather Underground had an extremely strong critique, and they critiqued from a position of privilege, challenging the racist and imperialist institutions that “benefited” them and their families. Especially in their early days, it seems like they often fell into the trap that wise fellow organizers frequently warn me against – being so angry, uncompromising, and critical that they mistook potential allies for enemies and alienated many people who could have worked with them to fight racism and imperialism.

I do think, though, that there are some important lessons to take from Weather’s militancy and revolutionary politics. I keep returning to the issue of perspective, and how perspective (so heavily influenced by our position in relation to racist and imperial power) informs the way we interpret different political struggles. The WUO has a reputation, even in the Left, as being overly reactionary, violent, and angry; Outlaws of America explored – in greater depth than is usually given to accounts of the WUO – what the intention was behind Weather’s rhetoric and tactics and why their analysis was important in the context of the state repression, imperial violence, and Third World revolutionary struggle that characterized the times. 

The WUO invented itself as the “white fighting force” of the grassroots, people-of-color-led revolutionary movement. They saw that in the Global South (as well as in the U.S.), people of color were being targeted by U.S. imperialist violence; and, in order to resist this violence, repressed communities were turning to armed struggle and guerrilla warfare as their only recourse. Weather leaders argued in favor of “bringing the war home” – as the NLF in Vietnam, the Black Panthers in the U.S., and other national liberation movements took up arms to protect their rights to freedom and self-determination, the WUO also committed to “revolutionary violence” as a form of solidarity. 

Weather’s strategy of violence was a direct response to a feeling that a people’s revolution was not only possible, but directly imminent. Given this climate, members of the WUO made the choice to commit themselves to bringing about the revolution by means they believed to be the most expedient, even if it meant facing significant possibility of injury, death, or lifelong incarceration.

Some of the critiques of the WUO (critiques that I, Berger, and many former WUO members share) are based on the organization’s tendency towards sectarianism, aggression, and overblown propagandistic rhetoric. But in their more considered, less reactionary moments, the WUO’s strength seemed to lie with its uncompromising alliance with the most repressed communities, its repudiation of privilege based on oppression, and its commitment to throwing down and participating in dangerous, urgent, and militant revolutionary struggles. WUO members saw themselves as directly accountable and responsive to radical groups of color like the Panthers, AIM, the Young Lords, and others; so when these groups called for outright war against the state, the Weather people were ready to rob banks and plant bombs in the service of the revolution.

Weather’s tactics often involved calling upon and leveraging privilege; members’ white skin and (often) class and educational privilege shielded them from the most violent forms of state repression, allowing them greater ability to carry out dangerous and illegal actions. Even during the time when WUO members occupied many of the spots on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, COINTELPRO surveillance and police violence never neared the level faced by radical groups of color. Members’ class privilege and access to personal and family resources increased Weather’s capacity as well. Although their approach to sexism and queer liberation was inadequate at best, they had a strong analysis of white privilege (and, more sporadically, class privilege) that informed the direction of their work; Berger writes, “privilege was [Weather's] raison d’etre – the group set out to use its privilege in the service of revolutionary change” (156). 

So again, what does it mean for privileged people to be radical, to be “revolutionary,” and also have a deep commitment to confronting, analyzing, and “leveraging” privilege? What are the limits, for privileged people, of “organizing in our own communities” when the majority of people who have privilege will never choose to truly challenge that privilege or work to destroy the oppressive systems that create it? I’d like to stay mindful of the dangers of becoming overly self-righteous (“I’m a better white person/rich person/straight person/man”), but I want to find a balance that allows privileged radicals to relate in an accessible way to other privileged people (with the hope of moving them towards increased politicization) without compromising a radical analysis. I do believe, for example, that being rich is wrong. I don’t necessarily think it is strategic to say it in a beginner’s workshop for wealthy people on Class Privilege 101, but I do think it’s strategic to say it. I think it’s powerful and important for wealthy people in solidarity with poor people to renounce and redistribute our wealth, and to be outspoken about why we make that choice.

This line of thinking often leads me into conversations about guilt. Guilt is a really touchy issue when talking about privilege, and people seem constantly afraid of “coming from a place of guilt” when doing solidarity work. I think this is important to be aware of, as guilt often works to keep us stagnated and immobilized, or prompts us to lash out at allies or be defensive or just generally make bad decisions. But I also think that the concept of guilt sometimes gets used in a counterproductive way, as an accusation against privileged people making militant or radical choices. For example, many of the people who a) caution me not to give my entire trust fund away because I need some of it for “security” and b) insist that if I do give it all away I must be acting from a place of guilt – are also people with class privilege. And I understand how in this increasingly privatized, class-stratified society, money often does mean security. 

But I also think it’s worth calling attention to the ways that class conditioning, privilege, capitalism, and other factors influence how we view “security” and what we believe is necessary for security – as well as what we think is a reasonable personal response to the gross inequality and oppression that gives wealthy (and white) people certain kinds of security at the expense of poor people of color.

I would like to argue for an alternate interpretation of, for example, making the choice to give away all inherited wealth. (Obviously this means different things for different people, but I’m particularly addressing white people in the U.S) Rather than seeing such a move as a symptom of guilt, an attempt to disassociate from privilege, or problematic “downward mobility,” I’d like to make a pitch for it as a step in the direction of alliance with the majority of the world, to whom any financial safety net is totally unavailable – and an acknowledgement of the fact that in the zero-sum game of our capitalist economy, rich people are able to accumulate wealth because other people are poor.

I want to avoid placing inordinate emphasis on the personal, individual choices we make about how to deal with privilege in our own lives – I think that type of micro-focus can become self-serving, and detract from potential to do broader movement building. But I do think our personal choices are worth looking squarely at because of the relationship they have to the way we live our politics. Although I share a lot of the criticisms of the Weather Underground, I was inspired by reading about the commitment of a small group of privileged folks putting everything on the line to fight for justice. Although I doubt many U.S. activists today would identify with the feeling (that imperialism was in its last throes and revolution was imminent) that drove a lot of Weather’s urgency, I think there are important lessons to be learned from that type of uncompromising commitment to social change and the roles that privileged folks can play in bringing it about.

Reflections from a Homownersexual

by Ezra Berkley Nepon

BUYING

In 2001 I bought a house in Philadelphia in partnership with a close friend. We called our new relationship “homownersexual” because we were queers in a committed partnership with each other that had nothing to do with marriage or monogamy. We bought a three story, five bedroom house that was in good shape for $25,000, with a personal loan from her grandparents and an agreement to pay it back at a relatively low interest rate (7%). We collected a total of $625 month from the combined “rent” of the housemates (including ourselves), which paid the “mortgage” and bills plus a little for home repair savings.

We and our various housemates were white flamboyantly-gendered queers moving into a neighborhood that was 99% working poor African-American. Prior to this move, I had been living for a number of years in the Baltimore Avenue neighborhood of West Philly, where gentrification is a major issue, but where the neighborhood had also long been home to a mixed race and class community. Though the neighborhood (now called Cedar Park) that I had lived in was majority African-American, there were also a number of African and Asian immigrant communities, multiple white communities (in this case I mean sub-cultural communities), and the income/class breakdown of the neighborhood changed dramatically from block to block. In that context, it was easier to feel part of a community with lots of different people, even if that was rationalizing.

In the house we bought and moved into in the Parkside neighborhood, it was immediately clear that we were outsiders. We bought the house because we knew the only white people in the neighborhood, a couple with a great reputation among their neighbors which helped people feel more comfortable with us, but we still had a lot of answering to do. At the time, we wrestled with concerns that we were invading a Black community, and how we could be good, thoughtful neighbors as a sort of harm reduction.  Though we eventually built real (if not deep) trust with many of our neighbors, we often felt open hostility from people in the broader neighborhood – and we could understand that it was coming in response to the real threat of impending displacement that our presence suggested.

I’m thankful for the relationships I built on that block, but if I had it to do over again, I would not move there. Years later, I have more experience and language for understanding the gentrification process, and how it relates to larger processes of colonization, but I don’t necessarily have clearer answers to how we could have done it more “right.”  The ongoing feeling that I was invading a Black community never went away.  And it wasn’t just about race, it was also clearly about class. We were from a range of class backgrounds, but as a household we didn’t fit the class makeup of our neighborhood any more than we fit it racially.

We had anti-capitalist intentions, but we were hazy on the strategy. We made a commitment to each other that we wouldn’t sell the house for a profit, and definitely never to a developer. We didn’t really imagine selling the house, though, so we never put anything in writing, and that made things difficult when we faced the reality of actually selling the house in a capitalist system. We planned to live there for a long time, to take an old house and restore it with the labor of ourselves and our friends, with recycled and trashpicked materials. We wanted to create a home that felt safe and comfortable for our queer community to take refuge in. We didn’t want to pay rent to a shady landlord. We wanted our broken friends to have a place to heal without needing to work a job to pay rent. We dreamed about the projects we would start once the house was paid off, like solar panels and roof decks for gardens.  I think we did succeed in creating the feeling of both a cozy home and a place of refuge for ourselves and many other people, and we did some exciting restoration and painted the house a ton of bright colors and paid our friends to work on the house when projects were beyond our own skills. All of the people who lived in the house also worked on house-fixing projects, and there was an explicit agreement that both working on the house and paying “rent” were investments in the house, that the worth of the house belonged to all who invested in it, and that if the house was never sold that investment would be a more philosophical one, a gift of community-building for the future people who would live in the house. We were completely transparent about how we paid the “mortgage” and bills, and any financial decisions were made collectively. There was a power-imbalance in the reality that two of us technically owned the house (though we were open to adding others to the deed), and that power did matter, but as much as possible we tried to be honest and open in any negotiations around money and power in the house. I think we were successful, and other housemates reflected that it was meaningful to know that they were not just paying rent in our house, and to feel that it was actually a collectively-owned home.

 

SELLING

About five years later, the house was paid off but the relationships of the group living in the house had dramatically changed. Our lives were shifting in ways that didn’t make group living/homeownership a functional option. After lots of heartbreak about letting go of the sense of family we had felt in the house, those of us still living there decided to sell it. We looked into land-trusting the house but didn’t pursue it. For me, that was partly because land trusts permanently end the financial asset of owning a home and I wanted the option of putting the house up for bail or selling it to raise funds in the case of an emergency. We bought this house right after the traumatizing Philadelphia RNC protests, where many of my loved ones and political community were kept in jail with bails set as high as $1 million, and in the aftermath where legal expenses cost tens of thousands for some individuals who were targeted by the Philly police for their political organizing, charged with layers of felonies and facing massive repression.  A week after buying the house, I used it as collateral to bail a friend out of jail. I wanted to keep that option open as an ongoing resource.

We envisioned our perfect situation for selling the house: African-Americans engaged in anti-gentrification work, and with enough income that the sale price wasn’t likely to lead to bank foreclosure. These criteria were largely about hoping that the house wouldn’t be flipped or lost to developers through our sale. We made a clear commitment to each other that we would not sell the house through word of mouth in our white subculture. This was especially challenging because our white neighbors, who had told us about the house in the first place, had a friend that they wanted to buy our house. He was pre-approved for $100,000 loan and ready to buy, so turning him down risked offending him and our neighbors. The house ended up sitting empty for a few months while we negotiated with the eventual buyers, and this further frustrated our neighbors and their friend.

We put out word about our house to people on our block and through an organization of African-American anti-gentrification activists in a nearby neighborhood, and that’s how we found buyers.

There were lots of other external pressures confusing me about how to sell the house in an ethical but not white-guilt-stupid way. All my neighbors and family were telling me that we were making a mistake by selling the house right before impending gentrification (related to a new fancy technology charter school in the neighborhood), and by selling for too little money. Also, as we were deciding to sell the house, there was a drive-by shooting murder on our block that I witnessed in broad daylight along with about 20 other neighbors. I worried that my people would think we were white-flighting to a “safer” neighborhood. In the end, the housing bubble burst just after we sold, and I realized that a number of other neighbors were moving or planning to move off the block after that violence, too. To be honest, it turned out that most of our neighbors didn’t care that much if or why we moved.

We tried to be as careful as possible about where we put money in this process. We didn’t work with a realtor, and we used a lawyer recommended by the network that we connected with to spread word about the house. We didn’t originally get the house appraised. Instead, I looked at online house sale records from city hall for my block and came up with $60,000 as a number that seemed like a good deal but in line with recent sale prices. The buyers counter-offered to buy the home for $45k, and we really struggled with confusion about what was “fair.” We had recently discovered that the oil tank was leaking – a huge problem that we had told the buyers about but did not plan to fix before the sale (they might want to switch to gas heat, which can be a subsidized process). We also perceived that selling too low could negatively impact other neighbors’ property values.  So, we got the house appraised and even with knowledge of the leak, the appraisal came in at $65k,. My co-owner and I agreed that $60k was a fair price, said it was a final offer, and the buyers agreed to the purchase.

The three of us who had been the final housemate group decided to donate $10,000 of that sale price to a number of housing justice/anti-gentrification groups in West Philadelphia and to split the rest of the money between the 7 people who had lived in the house for six months or more, pro-rated by number of months paying rent. This way, we each got back about 75% of the money we had paid in “rent”.  We had never made an explicit agreement about what it meant that the house was “collectively owned” so this money was a surprise to many of the former housemates. I wrote a letter to each person who was getting money with an explanation of how we sold the house and how the money was divided so that the process would be as transparent as possible.

We made donations anonymously through donor-advised grants through Bread and Roses Community Fund, after meeting with an anti-gentrification activist who gave helpful advice about where she thought these grants would be most useful, and what amounts made sense. We chose to give anonymously because the buyers were members of some of these groups and it felt like an awkward dynamic. The community fund put out an announcement about the grants that came from the sale of a house and received a large number of donations in response!

 

Questions for Potential Homeowners

Since initially publishing this article, I’ve often thought about how the super-low cost of our home—$25,000—was key to our ability to be creative, flexible, even experimental in our process of buying, living in, and selling the house. Though gentrification has continued to evolve in the almost-decade since I wrote this article, I know Philly’s housing market is still much more affordable than many other cities where my friends are trying to buy homes. So, of course the specifics of this story won’t easily apply to all situations, but the experience did raise a number of financial and ethicalissues that I encourage people to consider when buying or selling a house:

  • Where is your money going? Are there ways to fund movements/people involved in movements for social justice with those big chunks of money that go to lawyers, realtors, contractors, moving companies?
  • Who are you asking for input or advice about this process? Are there ways that you can connect with activists in your neighborhood or city, so that the choices you make are informed by more than your own perspective? Is anyone challenging you?
  • Who understands and shares your political commitments? Lots of people will tell you that you are making mistakes if you diverge from the path of wealth-accumulation and resource-hoarding. Even if you feel sure of your position, it really helps to have supportive allies.
  • Can you buy or sell through word of mouth rather than paying a realtor, and that way keep the sale price lower and the process less commercial?
  • How do you choose your lawyer for the final sale paperwork? Do you need a lawyer?
  • How will your sale price impact the home-owners and renters in your neighborhood?
  • Are you making a profit? What happens to that money?  How much money did you put into the house? How much do you “need” or “deserve” to keep? Can you direct any percentage of that money into movements for housing justice or other liberation movements? Current tax laws make it unlikely that you’ll be paying taxes on income from the sale of a house. If taxes really worked as a form of wealth distribution (which of course they don’t), how much would you be willing to pay?
  • If you do keep some money from the sale of your home (as I did), where does that money live? Do you earn interest? Under what circumstances would you be willing to spend it or give it away?