I’ve seen more cops on my block in the past 24 hours than I have in months – a series of fights and muggings have brought them out in ever-increasing force, reminding me vividly that I have been wanting to write about violence, about crisis and trauma in communities, and all the ways we deal with those things. I’m thinking about this in the context of the US Social Forum and the Allied Media Conference on the horizon, the convergence of so many queer/POC/women-led groups doing powerful anti-violence work (lots of links embedded towards the end of this post), and also in the context of my own relationship to violence and safety as a white person, as a trans person, as a person with class privilege, as a person read as female, as a survivor. Continue reading
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.
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.
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:
Safe Streets/Strong Communities $7000 ($5,000 was for Expungement Day (partnered with Critical Resistance NOLA))
Critical Resistance $150 through monthly sustainer program + $600 for CR10
Generation 5 $360 (through monthly sustainer program)
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
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
POOR Magazine $2500
Welfare Rights Organization (New Orleans) $2000
Social Justice Foundations
Madre Tierra $6000
Resource Generation $1500
Catalyst Project $2080 (monthly sustainer plus one-time gift)
ticket for NOLA activist to attend NPA conference $373
Misc urgent appeals $2000
TOTAL YEARLY GIVING $62,158
by Tyrone Boucher
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.
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 friend-housemates were white flamboyantly-gendered queers moving into a neighborhood that was 99% working poor African-American. I had been living for a few years in the Baltimore Ave area of West Philly, where gentrification is a major issue, but where the neighborhood has also been home to a mixed race and class community for a long time. Though the southwest Philly neighborhood I had lived in is majority African-American, there are 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 changes dramatically from block to block. It was easier to feel like part of a big community of lots of different people in my Baltimore Ave home, even if that was rationalizing. In the house we bought, it was immediately clear that we were outsiders and probably invaders. 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 a bit more comfortable with us, but we still had a lot of answering to do. Though we eventually built real (if not deep) trust with many of the folks on our block, we often felt open hostility from people in the general neighborhood throughout the time we lived in this house. 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 – the ongoing feeling of being an invader in Philly’s Black community never went away. I saw very few white people in that neighborhood in the five years I lived there, but 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 in buying this house, 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 was 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.
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-American folks engaged in community organizing and with enough income that chances of them losing the house to bank foreclosure (=developers get the house) were low. 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 really challenging because our white neighbors, who had told us about the house in the first place, felt an entitlement to move their friend into the house, and this friend was really offended
when we turned down his offer of $100,000. The house ended up sitting empty for a few months while we negotiated with the eventual buyers, and this made the white neighbors and their friend really upset.
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 crazy to sell the house right before impending gentrification (related to a new fancy techology charter school in the neighborhood), and crazy to sell for too little money. Also, there was a drive-by shooting murder on our block in broad daylight that I witnessed along with about 20 other folks. I worried that my neighbors would think we were white-flighting to a “safer” neighborhood. In the end, we sold just before the housing bubble burst, and I realized that lots of black folks were moving or planning to move off the block after that violence, too. It turned out that most of our neighbors didn’t really care that much if or why we moved.
We put out word about our house to folks on our block and through an organization of African-American anti-gentrification activists in a nearby neighborhood, and that’s how we found buyers.
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 African-American anti-gentrification 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). Even with knowledge of the leak, the appraisal came in at $65k, and my co-owner and I agreed that $60k was a fair price. We said that it was a final offer, and the buyers agreed to the price.
The three of us who had been the final housemate group decided to donate $10,000 of that sale price to a number of community organizing/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 via a community fund, after meeting with a kick-ass anti-gentrification activist to pick her brain about where she thought these grants would be most useful, and what amounts made sense. We chose to give anonymously because the buyers are members of some of these groups and it felt show-off-y and weird to publicly give their money to their organizations. I wanted the story of the grants to be told in Philly, but not to feel I was doing it for approval or credit. 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!
The answers aren’t cut and dry, but I really hope that people think about these issues 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 nuts if you diverge from the path of wealth-accumulation and hoarding resources. 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 much could you spend/earn for the house? How will your sale price impact the home-owners and renters in your neighborhood?
Are you making a profit? What happens to that money? Is there a way to move some or all of that money into movements for housing justice or other liberation movements? How much money did you put into the house? How much do you “need” or “deserve” to keep?
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?
This is my personal experience of the process of buying and selling a house, but I’m sure there’s lots more insight out there. I’d love to hear feedback and insight from others. There’s a lot more questions, too, but I hope these are a helpful start.
Earlier this week I attended an amazing event put on by the Worker’s Center for Racial Justice here in New Orleans. In a chilly gym near the old St. Thomas housing development, a crowd of people gathered to celebrate victories. A group of organizers from the Congreso de Jornaleros (Day Laborer’s Congress) performed a play celebrating the victory of a group of Indian guestworkers who had been lured to the United States at huge personal cost, with false promises of permanent residency and steady employment. Instead of finding the anticipated American dream, they had been abused by an exploitative company, forced to sleep 24 to a room, prevented from leaving company premises, and threatened with deportation when they tried to organize.
The Indian workers united with the Workers’ Center and guestworkers from other countries to form an alliance, and were able to organize a strike and call media attention to the plight of immigrant workers post-Katrina. After the play celebrating their success, they hugged and shook hands with the day laborers, everyone started singing, a New Orleans brass band paraded into the gym, and the night segued into a boisterous dance party.
The program, which was translated into four different languages, was an amazing example of what many activists have called horizontal solidarity – solidarity based on a shared stake in the work, in which everyone involved has both something to gain and something to give by working together. Indian guestworkers, Latino day laborers, displaced New Orleans public housing residents, and activists from New Orleans and elsewhere all came together to support the common struggle against the racism, imperialism, and economic injustice that has raged out of control in the Gulf Coast since the storms.
I’m here in New Orleans for a month-long visit, and solidarity has been consistently on my mind. Since Katrina, this city has notoriously been a destination for young white activists to come and do volunteer work, largely hosted by the organization Common Ground. This has created a source of much-needed volunteer labor for the rebuilding process, but it has also skewed the racial demographics of the city (replacing many displaced, majority Black New Orleanians – nearly half of whom have been unable to return – with white activists from out-of-state) and created a lot of problematic dynamics rooted in racism and white supremacy. Groups like the Bay-Area-based Catalyst Project and New Orleans’ People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond have approached this situation as an opportunity for movement-building and anti-racist political education, and some white anti-racists from out of town have chosen to stay and build solidarity with local groups while working to challenge white supremacy. In a recent anti-racism discussion group here, several white activists asked questions about what solidarity looks like for those of us who aren’t direct casualties of State and capitalist repression. What is the role of white people, non-New Orleanians, people with access to affordable housing, to healthcare, to quality education – what is our role in this struggle? Is there a way we can help dismantle oppression by learning about the ways our privilege functions? Is there a way for us to use the privileges we have in the service of a larger movement?
Gulf South Allied Funders
The project that prompted my visit to New Orleans is an example of one attempt to put privilege to work for social justice. About a year ago, I joined a fundraising project called Gulf South Allied Funders (GSAF). The project was founded a year earlier by a group of fellow organizers connected to Resource Generation, a national organization whose goal is to organize young people with wealth around economic justice, anti-oppression, and social change philanthropy. The logic behind GSAF’s founding (directly post-Katrina) was that, as radical people with various types of access to wealth (personal inheritances, family foundations, connections to donor networks and wealthy communities), it would be useful for us to strategically direct whatever resources we could towards people of color-led, on-the-ground rebuilding efforts. We wanted to send money to grassroots organizations, and wanted to avoid the racist and paternalistic power dynamics common in traditional forms of philanthropy, especially when grantmaking is directed by wealthy white donors. We decided to use our resources to raise money (our goal – which we reached – was $1 million a year for three years), and to leave the distribution of the money to folks who already had trust and relationships with community-based organizations in the Gulf South. After some research, GSAF partnered with the 21st Century Foundation, a Black foundation with established connections to many of the organizations that are leading the grassroots rebuilding effort.
I chose to get involved in GSAF despite having many critiques about the dynamics of foundation funding, because it was one of the best models I’d seen for getting a large amount of money to New Orleans and surrounding areas, and doing it quickly, consistently, and at least somewhat sustainably. The fact is, wealth is increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer (overwhelmingly white) hands. A minuscule percentage of U.S. wealth is used for philanthropy, and less than 3% of that goes to social justice organizing. Out of that 3%, the majority is still controlled by white funders and given with varying degrees of strings attached. Within this context – and particularly in the post-Katrina Gulf South, where the social justice infrastructure is still suffering from the devastation of the storms – there are few structures that are able to raise and distribute large amounts of money in a truly grassroots way. We conceptualized GSAF as a way of using our privilege and resources to increase the U.S. philanthropy dollars going towards social justice work, respond to the urgent need for funds in the Gulf, and shift the role of gatekeeper from disconnected white funders to Black funders and organizers with connections on the ground.
And the project has been successful in many ways. Established funding networks that GSAF members were connected to agreed to match and double what we raised; we asked all our friends and family to contribute; we threw house parties and held briefings and sent fundraising letters and
update letters and follow-up letters. And the money we raised went almost entirely to small, Black-led organizations doing the necessary work of organizing, rebuilding, and fighting for justice in the Gulf South.
In the context of this fundraising project, there have been a lot of questions and dynamics that we’ve continually struggled with. Although we’ve worked hard to shift power and challenge white supremacy within the funding world, it’s impossible to avoid situations in which racism and economic injustice play out in uncomfortable ways. Philanthropy is not pretty – it exists because of (and depends on) gross inequality, and comes from a structure that is the antithesis of grassroots. In order to raise money for GSAF, we sometimes fell back on tried-and-true fundraising tactics that were inherently classist, like briefings directed towards major donors and expensive fundraising dinners. These were effective for raising money, but were largely class-segregated and worked essentially by pampering wealthy people. We helped set up donor tours to the Gulf South, in which GSAF donors (with staff from 21CF) visited organizations in New Orleans and surrounding areas to hear about their work. These trips kept donors engaged, but also replicated familiar dynamics in which grassroots organizers were expected to take valuable time from their work to share and dialogue with wealthy funders.
Leveraging Privilege – Beyond Philanthropy
Despite all this, it’s pretty clear to me that the work we’ve done in GSAF is useful. We’ve managed to raise almost three million dollars for amazing grassroots organizing, and we’ve challenged some donor networks in anti-racist ways by engaging them in a process that was explicitly designed to challenge white supremacy within philanthropy. When we have access to powerful but problematic institutions, trying to leverage them for social justice can be a useful role for privileged people to play, as long as we make sure we’re not doing more harm than good. But I want to make sure that this isn’t where our work stops.
With Resource Generation and other organizations, I’ve done a lot of social justice organizing with other young people with inherited money. The U.S. is currently in the midst of the largest intergenerational transfer of wealth in history, and I think it’s strategic to do anti-oppression organizing with the people who are poised to inherit that wealth and the massive social power that comes with it. This is often referred to as “donor organizing,” which is actually an inadequate term for what I hope we’re doing. I see it as more than just organizing young rich people to donate money to social justice activism, but also as anti-oppression work that asks class privileged folks to take responsibility for – and work against – economic injustice. We talk a lot in this work about “leveraging privilege,” and I think that concept is really useful in any work that privileged people do to fight oppression. But I want us to remember that “leveraging privilege” does not boil down to just leveraging money. The work I do with Resource Generation intersects with philanthropy for obvious reasons – giving money away is a really good way to use privilege in the service of social justice. But I think that sometimes some of the thinking that fuels social justice philanthropy – specifically, the stark distinction that is made between donors and activists, and philanthropy’s tendency towards keeping wealthy people validated and comfortable at the expense of challenging the status quo – can color our approach to social justice work generally as people with class privilege. I worry that we will get so caught up in the different strategic approaches to giving away money, or try so hard to give money in the best possible way (as if one exists), that we will mistake this for the actual work.
We leverage our privilege not because it’s a big gift we have to give to the social justice movement, but because leveraging privilege is the least we can do when the systems that provide that privilege are the same systems that keep the majority of the world oppressed. Money doesn’t cause social justice, activism and organizing do – and giving money is minimally useful when we don’t do the work to challenge the institutionalized power structures that make sure we’re the ones who have that money in the first place. Privilege makes us so disconnected from reality that it can be easy to step back from struggles that don’t seem to directly affect us – but if we truly believe in social justice, it’s important for us to be active participants in the fight.
The tendency to get so caught up in “working in our own communities” that we neglect doing the real work of organizing is notoriously a little endemic among privileged folks. Catherine Jones, in an essay called “The Work Is Not The Workshop: Talking and Doing, Visibility and Accountability in the White Anti-Racist Community,“* calls out the tendency of white anti-racists to get so tripped up by the What Is My Role question that we neglect plunging our hands into the actual struggle. She names the importance of anti-racist analysis, education, and internal work, but calls for white folks to put a little less time into “figuring out” exactly how to do the work and a little more time into actually doing it.
Here in New Orleans, I’ve been learning a lot about the recent history of post-Katrina social justice organizing. I’ve spent some time volunteering with local organizations, and I’ve felt extremely privileged to learn from and support the work of the passionate local organizers who are working together to fight for a just rebuilding of their city.
I’ve seen white activists, out-of-town volunteers, and recent transplants to New Orleans working hard to remain accountable and support the leadership and self-determination of the folks who live here and who are still struggling with the after-effects of Katrina - and I’ve also heard a great deal of criticism about white activists reproducing racist dynamics, failing to listen to the voices of Black New Orleanians, and generally doing more harm than good. Hearing critique like that (and seeing those dynamics in action) is always troubling – and often scary for allies who are hoping to work in solidarity.
It’s crucial for us to listen to those critiques, and to respond to them by strengthening our anti-racist skills and analysis and shifting oppressive patterns – not by removing ourselves from the struggle or deciding that our only useful role is sending money, educating each other, and rooting from the sidelines for organizers from directly affected communities who have no choice but to fight. Often, when privileged activists take a strong stand to fight for social justice, we are accused of acting out of guilt and naive idealism. Although these are undoubtedly motivations sometimes (untangling all of our feelings about our role in oppression takes time), the critique implies that it isn’t the place of folks with privilege to fight for social justice on the front lines. Actually, it is our place to work hard, take risks, and use our skills as organizers while honoring the leadership of poor folks and folks of color. Activist and political prisoner David Gilbert writes, “There is nothing guilt-ridden about identifying with oppressed people – especially when they have been blazing the trail toward humane social change.”**
I want us to notice when the work we do to confront our own privilege turns into a new way of distancing ourselves from the in-the-trenches organizing that is being led by communities that are directly under attack. We all have tangible skills, and there are a million ways to put our skills to work - fundraising, press releases, childcare, journalism, web design, art, event planning, campaign strategizing, research, interpreting, phonebanking, being a medic, baking cookies for the meeting, etc. When we put most of our time into organizing other people with privilege, we are more able to avoid situations in which we don’t feel comfortable, or our own internalized supremacy is glaring, or it isn’t appropriate for us to take leadership. When white anti-racist activism gets defined as leading workshops and holding reading groups, or when activists with class privilege put all our energy into figuring out how to give away money in the most perfect way – and working with other rich people to try to get them to do the same – we’re not using all of our potential as allies and participants in a movement.
I’m inspired by the concept of collective liberation, the idea that social injustice doesn’t take place in a vacuum but is connected to a bigger power structure that affects all of us; that we shouldn’t do the work of fighting oppression out of guilt or obligation but out of the knowledge that all of our humanity and liberation is bound up together. I’m awestruck by the work of all the organizers of color who are leading social justice movements and building community power while also dealing with racism and economic oppression on a personal level. And I’m awestruck by the amazing and committed white anti-racists that I know, and by class-privileged folks who are challenging capitalism and economic injustice, and by everyone who is passionate about working for a more just world. I want us to do this work because we care about justice and because we care about each other. I want privileged folks to keep challenging racism, capitalism, and exploitation in our own communities and in the world; and I also want us all to be empowered to step up and get involved, to stop ignoring the struggles that are happening around us every day, to stop holding ourselves back just because we’re afraid of making mistakes. This is about all of us.
**From Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground Organization and the Politics of Solidarity by Dan Berger, p. 134
I wrote this in June 2007. You can also print it out zine-style by clicking here: Privilege and Solidarity Zine PDF
I wrote this zine for a few reasons. When I was growing up, I knew my family had money but I didn’t really get the concept of “privilege.” Then I became an activist and started thinking about systems of power and oppression and how privilege played a role in them. I started thinking about my own privilege, mostly as a white person, and about how I could challenge the racist systems that gave me privilege while others were oppressed. Then I started thinking about class privilege, and about how I was raised with a lot of it, and about what that meant. Somewhere in the midst of that, I learned that I had a $400,000 trust fund and became incredibly self-conscious about it. Then I realized, mostly through the urging of smart friends and fellow activists, that it was useless (and counter-productive) to try to hide or otherwise not deal with my class privilege, and I started thinking about how I could take responsibility for it in ways that reflected my values as an activist.
I began talking to other people about class privilege, and about the ways that having it or not having it affects our lives. In 2005 I went to a conference called Making Money Make Change – a gathering of young people with class privilege to talk and strategize about “leveraging” privilege for social change. I left that first MMMC feeling both inspired and critical, but excited enough that I volunteered to join the organizing committee. Organizing MMMC served as my entry into the world “donor organizing,” and I started thinking a lot about how social justice work is funded, how funding can co-opt or damage movements, and how people with access to more financial resources than we need can use those resources to support radical movement work led by people in oppressed communities. Donor organizing can mean different things. It can mean moving wealthy people to give money to social justice organizing rather than traditional forms of philanthropy. It can mean working in established and informal networks of rich people to direct energy, resources, and influence to support the goals of movement work. To me, donor organizing especially means working with other class-privileged folks to challenge oppression, capitalism, and economic injustice.
When I volunteered to help organize MMMC for the second year in a row, I decided to simultaneously embark on a self-education project. I wanted to learn more about my own financial situation, like the details of my trust fund and the history of where it came from. I wanted to learn more about how my family came to be wealthy (a new thing for my parents, who both grew up working-class). I wanted to learn about the political and economic processes that create wealth disparity and economic injustice. I wanted to learn about the landscape of “social change philanthropy” and of philanthropy in general – a world that was unfamiliar to me when I first arrived at MMMC, but which I soon learned is totally connected to both the existence of economic injustice and some attempts to remedy it. I wanted to develop strategies for leveraging privilege. I wanted to connect my work with other class-privileged folks to my other activism and to a greater social justice movement. And I wanted to figure out how to give away my trust fund in a way that reflected my values and supported social justice work.
So I read a ton of books. I talked to a million different people about movement building, privilege, activism, class, and every related topic. I had lots of conversations with my dad about his and my class history and financial resources, and about how we fit into a bigger picture. I looked at my trust documents and started learning about how the money was held, who controlled it, and how to give it away. I pushed myself to work hard on organizing MMMC and to challenge the aspects of it I was critical of. I got involved in more projects that pushed me to start conversations in my communities about money and class. I started trying to leverage my own privilege by raising funds for social justice organizing from people I know.
This is one of the results of that self-education project. It’s the product of my own perspective as a white queer person with inherited wealth. I made this zine because I wanted to challenge myself to articulate some of my thinking by writing it down. And I wanted to challenge other class-privileged folks to think about this stuff too, or think about it more, and to keep thinking about it and keep pushing ourselves to be more accountable, honest, and critical.
I also wrote this as a way to explain to friends and fellow activists outside of this donor-organizing/challenging-class-privilege/social-justice-funding world what the hell I’m doing, and to connect this work to other forms of organizing. The whole point of working to challenge wealth and power in class-privileged communities is to support a greater social justice movement. We need to be having these conversations in all the work we do, not just in insular circles of lefty rich people.
Every thought in this zine was developed and processed through conversations with genius people like Laura, Rogue, Anna, Elspeth, Kriti, Sam, Chad, Holmes, Karen, Vanessa, Tanya, my dad (David), my mom (Annie), Killer, Jamie, Socket, Drew Christopher, and many others. I hope to continue to have as many amazing, inspiring, lengthy conversations in the future.
Please write to me and tell me what you think.
tyronius.samson (at) gmail.com
“Storytelling often represents the most ideological moments; when we tell stories we tell them as if there was only one way of telling them, as the ‘of course’ way of understanding what is happening in the world. These are moments when we are ‘least aware that [we] are using a particular framework, and that if [we] used another framework the things we are talking about would have different meaning.’”
-Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States
When I was growing up, I never thought of my family as rich. Even when I became involved in donor organizing work, I resisted identifying my background as owning class – I knew I had class privilege, but I thought of myself as “upper-middle class” for a long time. After doing some probing about my family’s wealth and doing plenty of reading about class in the U.S., I finally realized that this perception of my family’s class status had more to do with dominant ideology around wealth and my own resistance to identifying as “really” rich than with actual reality.
The more I’ve learned about wealth and class privilege, the more I see my incorrect interpretation of my own class status as symptomatic of a bigger problem. An important first step in taking responsibility for class privilege is to begin looking at our personal stories as part of a larger system. Or actually, multiple intersecting systems that work together: systems of institutionalized oppression like racism and patriarchy, the economic system of capitalism, and systems of ideology that keep all the other systems in place.
I’ve had anti-capitalist politics since before I became involved in donor organizing and began to look closely at my own class position. The work, energy, and conversation happening in U.S. activist movements around the time of the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle radicalized me about the globalization of neoliberal, corporate, US-led, imperial capitalism. Later I got involved in labor organizing and started thinking more about the history of capitalism in the U.S., and all the ways our economic system has supported and perpetrated various forms of oppression. When I finally did start to examine my personal privilege, I began trying to figure out where I, as a person with inherited wealth, fit into my anti-capitalist analysis.
In the process of thinking about this, I called my dad to ask him some specific questions about our class status as a family and his interpretation of it. I’m trying to create an ongoing dialogue between my dad and me about class and privilege, and part of it focuses on learning more about how, as a first-generation owning-class individual (he grew up upwardly-mobile working class), my dad came to accumulate wealth and power. He’s always had a very simplistic story about how he “made it,” basically centering on a combination of luck and hard work. Around the time I was born, he started a company that produced some kind of software publishing product; the company ended up taking off and the stock value skyrocketed; hence, new owning-class status for my family.
I respect my dad a lot; he’s thoughtful and kind, and doesn’t at all fit stereotypes of greedy corporate CEOs. The point isn’t to dis my dad and call him out as being oppressive, but to look at our position as wealthy people within a greater structure of capitalism and oppression. If we don’t step back and challenge the broader framework that we’re situated in, it’s easy to play a complicit role in oppressive systems; that’s how privilege works. Sociologist Allan Johnson describes this at the “path of least resistance.” He writes: “Good people with good intentions make systems happen in ways that produce all kinds of injustice and suffering for people in culturally devalued and excluded groups…If we participate in systems the trouble [of oppression] comes out of, and if those systems exist only though our participation, than this is enough to involve us in the trouble itself.” (From Privilege, Power, and Difference)
My dad’s story of wealth accumulation – the way he tells it – is straightforward, honest, and true to his experience. It also could have been ripped verbatim from the pages of the Resource Generation book Classified (check out the bibliography at the end of this zine); specifically the chapter on money stories, which describes some of the myths and archetypes that go into creating ruling-class ideology. Karen Pittelman, the author of Classified, writes,
…the majority of the money stories begin to take on a strange similarity to each other. They focus on one person, often a man, and they center on how his hard work, intelligence, ingenuity, willingness to take risks and temerity lead to eventual financial good fortune. While the details of each story vary, the same plotlines – even the same phrases – occur again and again: “pulled himself up by the bootstraps,” “wise investor,” “rags to riches,” “worked day and night,” “never took a handout,” and “self-made man.”
My dad’s story is a lot like this. It can be hard to talk about the oppression that is linked to wealth accumulation for him personally, because of course he doesn’t see himself as an oppressor. He’s a liberal. He sees his wealth as having been acquired basically in a vacuum, without negatively affecting others in any way. He spent his work life in offices and board meetings, not cracking the whip in a factory or overseeing the plantation. He isn’t making policy decisions and he doesn’t support the Bush administration. He isn’t an active participant in outsourcing jobs overseas, privatizing public services, breaking up unions, deregulating trade laws, exploiting immigrants, or most of the other obvious methods by which power is concentrated in the hands of a few.
But his ability to accumulate wealth was influenced by more than just his hard work and blind luck – although both of these played a part. As an entrepreneurial white man, he was well positioned to benefit from capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy. He was able to make business connections, leverage influence, wield power in the worlds of business and technology, and be taken seriously to an extent that wouldn’t likely be available to a man of color or to any woman, thirty years ago or today.
In the book You Call This a Democracy?, Paul Kivel gives a good analysis of how wealthy people in the U.S. benefit from and support oppressive systems, even when we don’t directly make the decisions that create and enforce them. He draws a distinction between the owning class (which he defines as the wealthiest 20% of the population) and the “power elite” – a much smaller group within the owning class who are leaders in business, politics, philanthropy, and culture, and who are directly involved in high levels of society-shaping decision making. Though most rich people aren’t members of the power elite, we benefit in various ways from their decisions. Even if we have leftist politics and a scathing critique of neoliberalism, colonialism, global corporate takeover, militarism, and the rest of the U.S. power elite’s evil agenda, if we are in a position to benefit from the systems that support this agenda (like capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy) we are implicated in it. It’s very easy for wealthy people to maintain an individualistic perspective on our lives when the realities of most people in the world are invisible to us. So we end up with stories like those that Classified describes – ideological narratives that keep the focus off the owning class and shield us from blame or responsibility for oppression.
It’s important to note the way these stories play out not just in our own lives as people with wealth, but in the greater society. As members of a dominant class, wealthy people hold systemic power – which allows us to frame everything from our perspective. This framing takes place not just on a personal level, but in all upper-class-controlled institutions (media, government, philanthropy, etc.). Classist ideology teams up with other forms of oppressive ideology and creeps into nearly all of the institutions that exert power over our lives. Reagan’s racist characterization of poor Black women as “welfare queens” created the climate for deeply harmful welfare “reform.” Invisibility of poor people (except as criminals) in media and popular culture erases the realities of the majority of U.S. citizens and encourages a blame-the-victim mentality that helps corporations and the government get away with deeply oppressive policies and practices. Philanthropic rhetoric that deems rich people to be the ones best equipped to fund social services allows for increasing erosion of the federal safety net. The myth that racism is over takes the responsibility off the government and private institutions (corporations, universities, foundations) to respond to the movement for reparations.
I think it’s crucial to draw connections – between media storytelling and the stories we tell in our families; between the racism of politicians and legislators and the insidious, institutionalized racism that affects us without our even realizing it; between the paternalism of philanthropy and the privilege that we as individuals unconsciously enact; between the oppression by obvious perpetrators like police, military, and sweatshop-owning, union-busting multinational corporations and the oppression underlying our personal family fortunes.
Anti-capitalist social justice movements continually inspire me to challenge myself as a rich person and to challenge other rich people, because they situate us as players in systems that deeply harm the majority of people on the planet. It’s crucial to me to incorporate a radical critique of capitalism into both my understanding of my own wealth and privilege and into the donor organizing work I do. The “progressive philanthropy” world tends to take a stance that resists truly challenging capitalism and oppression in order to accommodate more moderate wealthy donors. Much of the landscape of social change philanthropy seems designed to make rich people feel better about ourselves and to channel some funds to progressive (or even radical) organizing without actually challenging the roots of inequality.
You don’t have to look hard to find clear explanations of how capitalism is inextricably linked to multiple oppressions: racism, through (for example) slavery, imperialist acquisition of land and raw materials, and dividing white and POC workers to keep them from organizing; sexism, through exploiting the labor of women (who are already culturally devalued) and relying on women’s unpaid and unrecognized labor; ableism, through laws allowing companies to hire people with disabilities at less than minimum wages; and so on.
We should talk about these things when we talk about having class privilege, because as the beneficiaries of capitalism we are implicated whether we like it or not. For white folks with class privilege, the history that gets erased when we tell our simplistic “pulled-himself-up-by-his-bootstraps” money stories is the (continuing) history of explicit and institutionalized racism in the U.S. Some of us can trace our inherited wealth to slavery or other systems in which white people directly profited off of the stolen labor or land of people of color. Even for those of us with “new” money, previous generations of our families are more than likely to have benefited from racist policies and institutions that helped white people and discriminated against people of color (Homestead Act, G.I. Bill, land grants, New Deal, loans, jobs, contracts, unions…). Throughout U.S. history, people of color have been explicitly prohibited by racist government policy from building assets; and since the most important indicator of wealth is how much money your parents had, cultural myths about a “level playing field” start to look pretty empty.
For class-privileged people to be allies in social justice movements, we have to take responsibility for the bigger picture behind our own wealth. Our personal decisions about money and the stories we tell (to ourselves and others) have reflections and repercussions connected to our place in the larger class system. Challenging these decisions and narratives, and challenging ourselves to look deeper, is a good way to start shifting our participation in oppressive systems.
ACCOUNTABILITY AND OUR FEELINGS
“I feel really scared when a working-class person challenges me, but I feel fine if another wealthy person does.”
-Donor at the Haymarket People’s Fund (From Money for Change by Susan Ostrander)
In the process of organizing Making Money Make Change, I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of accountability – specifically, what it means to strategize about supporting social justice work when we are doing it in a space of mostly rich people, and how emotions that rich people have around money and privilege play a role in preventing us from being accountable. “Accountability” is kind of a clichéd and overused word, but I think it’s a crucial concept in any situation in which privileged people are doing social justice work. If we aren’t held accountable to a larger movement and to people who experience the forms of oppression that our privilege shields us from, we aren’t really challenging systems of inequality.
There are lots of examples in social movement history of times when women, people of color, poor people, queer people, immigrants, disabled people, and other communities directly targeted by injustice have challenged fellow activists to confront internal oppression that exists within our movements. Activists with various forms of privilege – even if we have the best intentions – have a marked tendency to overlook the impact of institutionalized oppression in our own lives and in our organizing. Although it’s our responsibility to challenge oppression in our own communities, our work is not accountable to anyone if it is always done behind closed doors.
I’ve noticed that sometimes when progressive wealthy people come together to talk about various personal and political issues related to having wealth, there can be a tendency to throw around language about safety and “safe space.” We talk about safe space at MMMC and in other donor organizing/social change philanthropy type spaces where most or all of the people present are wealthy. We want to feel safe because there are so many taboos around speaking openly about class and money, and it’s often really hard/scary/vulnerable to share these things with other people. When I first came to MMMC, I felt super guilty about my class background and pretty much terrified of my trust fund. Processing the emotions behind my fear and connecting with other class-privileged people who were deeply engaged in challenging privilege and doing economic justice work was inspiring, and helped push me out of guilt-and-shame mode (and the accompanying political paralysis).
I think that these types of spaces – where privileged folks come together to learn from and push each other, and do the deep emotional work that comes with challenging our own privilege – are important and crucial. But I think they’re also dangerous. When we gather together in a group of rich people, even if our goal is to talk about social justice, we risk perpetuating class privilege because it is so ingrained in us. We want to create a space of support and challenge, so that we can do our own work to become better allies and activists. We don’t want create insular networks/spaces/communities of progressive or radical rich people with no accountability to a larger movement. But I think that the boundary between these two scenarios is a fine line that we sometimes, often unintentionally, cross.
The concept of “safety” in these types of spaces has a lot of problematic implications. Outside of this context, I mostly think of “safe space” as a way for people who directly deal with a specific type of oppression to create a temporary space in which that form of oppression is alleviated as much as possible (i.e. space for queer people, space for survivors, space for people of color, etc.). I think it’s also possible to conceptualize “safe space” as an intentional space where everyone present has consensed on a specific set of agreements about respect, listening, confidentiality, etc. But in progressive donor circles, I think an implication underlying the concept of “safe space” is that it is a space in which rich people can talk about the specific experience of having class privilege without the fear of being heard or challenged by people with whom that privilege is not shared.
I think it’s a misuse of the concept of safety to use the term “safe space” to describe a space that is designed for people with privilege, no matter what the purpose. We live in an unjust society that creates innumerable circumstances in which safety (in various forms) is available to privileged people at the expense of people who are oppressed. Using “safety” to justify or describe spaces that exclude people who lack a certain type of privilege not only implies that people who aren’t as privileged as we are somehow make us “unsafe,” it ignores the reality of power dynamics and the meaning of safety in the general world. As members of a dominant class, we feel “safe” within oppressive structures. Institutionalized oppression is designed to make us feel safe.
So then, what do we do with the intense emotions that arise when we talk about our own privilege? We certainly have a right to our feelings; and when we take steps to understand the roles we play in institutionalized oppression and begin to confront our own internalized supremacy, the level of emotion is bound to be high. Also, the experience of growing up with wealth and privilege can come with a whole host of connected issues related to family, self-worth, intimacy, community, and so on. This stuff is deep, and it is inevitable that when we delve into it we encounter anger, tears, frustration, and other forms of intense emotion.
I think it is both possible and necessary to work through our feelings in a way that is intentionally anti-oppressive. Our feelings are contextual – they don’t arise in a vacuum, and we don’t express them in a vacuum. If, for example, we experience fear, shame, or anger as a response to being challenged (personally or politically) by folks who aren’t wealthy, we can respond to that by both acknowledging the validity of our emotions, and interrogating the emotions for the hidden meaning behind them; how they might be connected to classism, how they might scare us out of challenging our privilege.
The reason for having caucus spaces around privilege should not be because we are afraid of being open with or confronted by people who don’t share our privileged experiences. It’s important for wealthy people (or white people, men, or whoever) to support and challenge each other to fight oppression, to dive into the emotion and pathos specific to the experience of having class privilege, and to do some general working-out of our shit. Non-wealthy people don’t always have to be present for this – most would probably prefer not to be.
But if we are attempting to truly support social justice, wealthy people can’t remain the only participants in the conversation. When we create exclusive caucus spaces, we should be thinking about how to also create spaces for broader community conversation. When we give ourselves the space to cry/vent/rant about our privilege among a group of similarly privileged people, we should also be challenging ourselves to move towards increasing transparency in our personal lives and communities about our lives and our class backgrounds.
Doing our personal work is necessary for anyone in social justice movements – but we should be careful not to over-focus on the personal at the expense of a bigger critique. It can be easy to get sucked into dissecting our own privilege and the way that it affects all our life experiences, but doing this work is minimally useful if we don’t bring it into more public, institutional arenas. If the goal of the work becomes personal growth, we risk losing the broader analysis – and with it, the possibility of challenging the roots of oppression within and outside of our privileged communities. In an essay called “The Filth on Philanthropy: Progressive Philanthropy’s Agenda to Misdirect Social Justice Movements”, writers Tiffany Lethabo King and Ewuare Osayande describe Women With Money (WWM), a support group in Philadelphia for women with financial wealth:
According to their website, WWM “creates a welcoming, stimulating environment where women who have wealth, whether earned or inherited, can gain new perspectives on their lives and their money.” The group also provides “a place to explore issues of wealth with safety and confidentiality.” A wealthy person talking confidentially with other wealthy people about her money does not put her in a position of accountability to people who are not wealthy. Rather, it simply makes them comfortable about having more money than they know what to do with. Some of the issues explored by WWM include guilt management, accountability, personal relationships [and] political giving…The primary function seems to be to help (by and large, white) women deal with the guilt of having money and how to manage it (not give it up). Although they claim to discuss accountability, the question that begs to be asked is: accountability to whom? Nowhere on the site is there any acknowledgement or articulated participation of people of color or the poor. Within this controlled set-up, accountability exists only between white people with money and the white Left social justice groups that want access to it. This further substantiates our claim that by not openly demanding wealth redistribution, reparations, or justice for exploited workers, white social justice non-profits function as brokers for the wealthy. They simply help them manage their money and assuage their guilt for having wealth accrued from the stolen and exploited labor of people of color. (From The Revolution Will Not be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex edited by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence)
I want to acknowledge that dealing with/challenging privilege is nuanced and complex, but I also want to talk about how exclusive spaces created so that we can feel comfortable as wealthy people don’t push us in the direction of accountability. I think it’s important, in doing this work, that we don’t feel comfortable – discomfort is the inevitable result of challenging class power and money taboos and the lies we are told (and tell) about wealth and the economy.
PHILANTHROPY VS. WEALTH REDISTRIBUTION
“These rich young people do not give their wealth away; it is not redistributed. They give away their income and keep their capital. And, as embarrassed as it might make them feel, they symbolically carry this capital – and privilege – with them in all their endeavors. As donors they do not fully relinquish their power, although they try to share it. Sometimes they resent the fact that they are not more appreciated, that their opinions are sometimes discounted. It is difficult for them to escape the attitude of noblesse oblige with which they have grown up.”
-Teresa Odendahl, Charity Begins at Home: Generosity and Self-Interest Among the Philanthropic Elite
That quote comes from a book about the practices, motivation, and ideology of elite philanthropy. Specifically, it is from a chapter about “alternative” or “social change” philanthropy. Although social change philanthropy seeks to change the power dynamics endemic to traditional philanthropy, Teresa Odendahl’s observations point out the importance of continuing to challenge philanthropy in all its forms.
The practice that we in the U.S. refer to as philanthropy is almost always a tool for the ruling class to maintain itself. Foundations, the most common vehicle of philanthropy, were created by the wealthy elite as a way to shield their fortunes from taxation. The great majority of philanthropic giving goes to elitist institutions that largely serve and benefit the rich – private universities, ballet, opera, museums, etc. Even when philanthropic money goes to institutions that serve marginalized communities, it is within a paternalistic framework of “charity” – providing basic services without challenging the roots of inequality.
There are lots of great books that critically analyze traditional philanthropy – some of them are listed in the back of this zine. But most people in the leftist donor movement are already critical of traditional philanthropy – that’s why we’re creating new forms of giving that challenge injustice and support grassroots community organizing.
But the more I learn about/observe/participate in the world of social change philanthropy, the more I feel really dissatisfied with where we’re at. I’ve been thinking about how social change philanthropy is subject to many of the same oppressive symptoms as traditional philanthropy. Ostensibly, an aim of social change philanthropy is to redistribute not only money, but also the decision-making power that determines how the money is used. But I think that as progressive donors, we often fall short of redistributing both money and power.
A simple question that I think is important to ask in trying to understand all of this is: Why do we give? The history of philanthropy in the U.S. is a history of wealthy, ruling class people using various forms of monetary giving to maintain and hoard power, class status, and wealth. The culture of traditional philanthropy provides its own motivations for giving – membership in elite networks; influence over politics, media, and culture; participation in upper-class institutions; and so on. Since our goal as progressive donors is to challenge this dynamic, I think it’s useful to take a close look at what inspires and motivates us to give.
The concept of “incentive” comes up a lot in fundraising and philanthropy. Incentive to give money takes many forms in different situations, from tax deductions to public recognition to a feeling of satisfaction and self-worth. But I think that often, “incentive” can be translated to mean “power and control.” In Charity Begins at Home, a businessman with inherited wealth told the author: “Entrepreneurs have a great need to control. If you give them a controlling reason to give philanthropic money, you have all of the sudden got a philanthropist that might not otherwise be there.”
Philanthropy is such a horrifying institution that I feel dubious about attempts to reform it into something that is capable of supporting radical social movements. At the same time, we live in a capitalist society in which foundations play an increasingly influential role. Wealthy people, depending on our situations, have varying levels of involvement and influence in the world of philanthropy. For wealthy people with radical politics, it’s important to have a critique of these institutions whether we choose to work within them or not. It’s been useful to me to learn more about philanthropy (both “traditional” and “alternative”), because it helps me to understand the forces at play in any work that wealthy people do to “leverage” privilege for social change.
There are lots of (well, at least a few) community-based foundations throughout the country with the goal of funding social justice organizing. One thing that’s been really interesting for me to learn about is the different ways that these foundations distribute money; i.e., how they set up their grantmaking boards. I think that looking at these grantmaking boards gets at the roots of some of my questions about how the ways that we give money can support or challenge class power dynamics.
The simplest model of shifting power within these types of foundations is to place grantmaking decisions in the hands of a board that is made up of activists and community organizers, with the majority coming from the communities that are most affected by oppression and inequality (people of color, women, queers, poor and working-class people, etc.). The idea is that these are the folks best equipped to disperse funds to social justice organizing – not only are they affected by issues of injustice in a more direct way than elite funders, but they’re experienced activists with expertise and grounding in grantee communities.
That’s a simplistic explanation, and of course there are a million ways that things can get complicated. But what’s been interesting to me in learning about these types of foundations is how rarely that model is actually implemented. More often some compromise is struck that allows for greater donor control: the grantmaking board is made up of a combination of donors and activists; or there are two grantmaking boards – one for activists and one for donors, dividing up the funds and making grants independently; or the board is made up only of donors, with an expressed commitment to funding social justice work.
[I want to note that drawing a stark distinction between "donors" and "activists" is weird and problematic, and often used in ways that are counterproductive to movement-building. Obviously, donors can and should be activists, and activists can and should be donors. I think it hurts our movements to imply that "donors" have no role to play in the actual, on-the-ground organizing work, and to characterize "donors" only as wealthy people. Grassroots movements have historically been funded by people in the communities doing the organizing, and the donor/activist dichotomy can be thought of partially as a reflection of the increasing influence of foundations and the non-profit industrial complex on social movements. That said, I think it can be useful to use this dichotomy when talking about foundations and philanthropy, because it's so ingrained in those institutions. But take it with a grain of salt.]
I think looking at these different types of funding boards sheds some light on how deeply we don’t want to give up power. Community foundations that strictly limit donor involvement in funding decisions have a much harder time attracting wealthy contributors. And within the broader world of social justice philanthropy, activist-led re-granting institutions are just a small part of the way that wealthy people give money. Instead, we’re starting our own foundations, participating in elite donor networks with other lefty rich people, creating our own projects or nonprofits, or just giving directly to organizations doing work that we find interesting.
What are the costs when rich people are the ones making the decisions about how to fund social movements? At its most insidious, this funding dynamic can take the form of elite individuals and foundations using money as a way of manipulating movements and steering them away from forms of organizing that pose a true threat to elite power. This dynamic is elaborated on in many of the phenomenal essays in the book The Revolution Will Not be Funded: Beyond the Nonprofit Industrial Complex, listed in the bibliography. A good example is the way that the Ford Foundation used funding to exert its influence in the Black power movement, supporting a focus of Black capitalism over Black liberation and directing movement energy away from radical organizing. (This is talked about more in Black Awakening in Capitalist America by Robert L. Allen, which is excerpted in The Revolution Will Not be Funded.)
Of course, as individual progressive donors, we don’t always set out to harm, co-opt, control, or de-radicalize movements – but unless we consciously and intentionally try not to, we may end up enacting these dynamics anyway. It’s a function of the way privilege works that systemic oppression usually manifests not through conspiracy, but as a natural reproduction of power and privilege.
Here’s an example: in the early years of the San Francisco-based Vanguard Foundation, grantmaking was done by two boards, one made up of (wealthy, white) donors and one made up of members drawn from the (activist, mostly people of color) “community.” Both had access to equal amounts of money, and would make grants separately. In a quote I found in Teresa Odendahl’s book Charity Begins at Home, a Vanguard donor board member explains:
The donor board would fund certain kinds of issues that perhaps were mainly organizations of white people – maybe more middle-class white people – doing certain, what we would consider essential work. The community board would sometimes fund the project of a community that might not be the most incisive, but nonetheless the community had been underrepresented in our funding.
A glaring problem in this statement – and one that I think is representative of a much larger problem – is the assumption by the donor board that the organizations doing the most “incisive” work are white middle-class organizations. Later, Odendahl indicates further what seems to be a prevailing belief of the wealthy donors – that the community board funded projects because of a desire to “see that the constituencies they represented were funded,” while donors, free from the obligation to fulfill such quotas, possessed a purer motivation to simply reflect “their politics and their sense of which groups were effective.” Somehow, the groups they deemed most “effective” strongly tended to be white and middle-class.
In yet another totally awesome and useful book – Money for Change: Social Movement Philanthropy at Haymarket People’s Fund – author Susan Ostrander writes about internal processes at Haymarket, a community foundation whose grantmaking model (at least at the time this book was published) was especially strict in terms of not allowing participation of it’s wealthy donors on the grantmaking board. One of the ways that Haymarket raised money, despite its limitations on donor control, was by holding “wealth conferences” for progressive rich people.
It was kind of fascinating for me to read about these conferences, because a lot of the dynamics that came up within them were so similar to issues that I think about around MMMC. Haymarket’s wealth conferences served as a major fundraising tool, even though there was an explicit policy disallowing direct solicitation of participants. MMMC has a similar non-solicitation policy, but also succeeds (to varying degrees) in moving its wealthy attendees to give money. I think that the success of these types of “passive fundraising” brings up some important questions about why we give (i.e., what is our incentive), and what we ask for in return.
Susan Ostrander describes the Haymarket conferences as spaces that focused heavily on personal-growth work and relationship building. Haymarket staff played a role in the conferences, but not to champion Haymarket or to necessarily present a case for its model of grantmaking. In fact, Ostrander indicates at one point that many of the conference participants didn’t even really know exactly what Haymarket was, even though they may have been Haymarket donors.
Although the Haymarket staff might directly solicit participants at some point after the conference, during the conference their role was to hold a space for the personal development of wealthy conference attendees – and to build relationships with folks who might later become major donors to Haymarket. This required the staff to do a lot of emotional labor and sociability work; Ostrander writes: “Building and maintaining these relations seemed time consuming, sometimes rewarding, and sometimes emotionally draining. A large portion of the work seemed to consist of informal ‘schmoozing’ and caretaking and what looked like, but really wasn’t, relaxed ‘hanging out.’”
It seems a little disingenuous to attempt to build authentic cross-class relationships when funding is directly at stake. But there are tons of models in social change philanthropy that have community activists and wealthy donors working together, either to directly make funding decisions or to build a progressive donor community that will presumably eventually lead to increased funding for social change organizations: cross-class donor circles; grantmaking boards within community foundations; the Haymarket wealth conferences of yore (i.e. the 90s); and MMMC, their contemporary counterpart. While it’s safe to say that these models are a major improvement on traditional philanthropy, I think it’s important to think about how power is exercised, outwardly or covertly, in these situations in ways that mimic and enforce dominant power structures. For wealthy people, I think it is our responsibility to interrogate our role in these dynamics, and think about the ways that we resist redistributing power and resist removing the (obvious or subtle) strings attached to our money.
There’s a great article by Ira Silver called “Buying an Activist Identity” that further elaborates on the dynamic I’m getting at, although in a different context. In the article, Silver describes the grantmaking board at the Chicago-based Crossroads Fund, whose model has community activists and wealthy donors making funding decisions together. The logic behind this has to do with integrating donors more deeply into social movement work by putting them in working relationships with community organizers, which seems like a worthy goal; but the article is about the ways that relationships between the donors and the activists on the board end up reproducing class power dynamics.
A vastly oversimplified nutshell version of Ira Silver’s findings: a) wealthy donors care about social movements, want to identify as activists, and want to be down; b) they look to the community organizers on the board to validate their activist identities and assure them that they are down; c) community organizers are committed to moving money and don’t want to alienate donors who are a major source of funding. They therefore yield to the unspoken pressure to reassure the donors that they are, in fact, down; and d) donors, secure in the belief that their participation on the grantmaking board is sufficient evidence that they are down, continue about their business as rich people reassured that there is no need for them to deeply challenge their class position or greater economic inequality. Ira Silver sums it up better: “[In] order to ensure that they get their small piece of the pie, community organizers willfully legitimate the class hierarchy that creates the very need for philanthropy in the first place.”
So to relate this discussion back to the question about why we give and what we get in return: We get to feel like we are down. We get to feel less guilty about having wealth. We get to feel like we are good. We might end up feeling like giving some money gets us off the hook of really challenging our position of power and privilege in society.
This is the tension that I feel so often in donor organizing: we want donors to feel good so that they continue to be donors, but really challenging power doesn’t feel good. It’s been coming up in the context of MMMC, where the goals of the retreat are somewhat in dispute: Is our aim to simply move money to social justice organizing, even if in doing so we risk perpetuating oppressive class power dynamics? Or is the goal for us to do real anti-oppression work that asks us to examine and challenge our privilege in a deeper way – even if we risk losing some people who aren’t interested in doing this deeper work but might otherwise have given money?
Obviously, I have a biased position; as a class-privileged person, I want to challenge my fellow class-privileged people to confront our privilege and support social justice movements however we can. I’m not a fundraiser at an organization that relies on the contributions of wealthy donors – if I were I might have a different perspective. But since I have the luxury of reflecting on idyllic scenarios in which wealthy people step up and use our privilege to challenge capitalism and the ruling class (and since I’m trying to figure out how to do that myself), I spend a lot of time thinking about what that would look like.
The donors described in Money for Change talked about a tension that they referred to as “living the contradiction;” meaning, being rich and also being committed to social change. This is an important tension to talk about, but it kind of glosses over the fact that having exorbitant wealth is usually voluntary. [Not always. There are plenty of wealthy people who don’t have control over their assets for various reasons (like the money is stored in a trust controlled by uncooperative trustees), or who will continue to inherit money on a regular basis for an extended period of time, or whose relationships with family would become so strained or damaged by the act of giving away their money that it becomes a big factor in giving. Obviously it’s not always simple.] Divesting oneself of class privilege is often impossible depending on the circumstances – if you grew up with money like I did, it’s sure to have affected every aspect of your life, and it’s impossible to give away experiences gained by the privilege of having wealth. But often we have a choice about whether or not to hold on to our actual money.
I’d like to talk more about what it really means, as wealthy people, to “align our resources with our values” when our values are about economic justice. What does it mean to talk about wealth redistribution if we aren’t taking the steps to equitably redistribute our own wealth? How do we justify making the conscious choice to stay rich when that position puts us in the role of wielding influence and class power whether we intend to or not? Are we really challenging inequality and class supremacy when we continue to inhabit the role of “funders?” What does it mean to never give away our principal, or only give a little of it? What does it mean to pass that wealth down to our children?
The thing about class privilege is that it skews your perspective. My dad is always trying to convince me that our family isn’t as wealthy as I think we are, and that if I met some of the people he knows who are really rich, I would see how modest our lifestyle has been in comparison. Class privilege often means we don’t see the bigger picture – that we compare ourselves to the miniscule portion of the population who are even richer than we are, instead of to the vast majority of people on the planet who are prevented by oppressive systems (racism, capitalism, colonialism…) from being able to meet even their basic needs. This takes the pressure off of us to really examine our place in these systems as people with (often multiple forms of) privilege.
Ultimately, wealth redistribution won’t happen by rich people suddenly deciding to voluntarily give away all our money. An important way to leverage privilege is to use the power bestowed on us by our class position to advocate for involuntary wealth redistribution, and to support anti-poverty organizing and organizing that challenges the systemic oppression that creates wealth inequality.
But meanwhile let’s talk about what we can do, as individual wealthy folks who care about in social justice, to model the values we believe in. Capitalism means that anyone who has inordinate wealth has it at the expense of people who are poor. Holding on to more money than we need puts us in a position of wielding power in unjust ways. Let’s keep doing the deep, hard personal work of processing how wealth has affected our lives, let’s keep leveraging our influence in the world of philanthropy; but let’s do it with an acknowledgement that in a just world, no individual would be in the position of controlling exorbitant wealth.
Thinking about this stuff so much has left me with a lot more questions than answers. I want to keep figuring out how to work with other class-privileged people to not only move money, but to also challenge the systems that create wealth inequality in the first place. I want to find more ways of giving that shift funding decisions into the hands of a community rather than keep the decisions in the hands of individual wealthy donors. I want to continually challenge myself to leverage my own privilege in donor networks and funding institutions while also challenging the power and dominance of foundations and the 501(c)3. I want to be part of a critical dialogue about money, about need vs. luxury, and about security vs. hoarding. I want to keep these conversations going and resist the temptation to settle into privilege without challenging it. I want to push myself to go further, go deeper, and do the work I need to do to be an effective activist and organizer. I want us to push each other.
Please be in touch: tyronius.samson (at) gmail.com.
INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, The Revolution Will Not be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, South End Press, 2007: This book should be required reading for anyone involved in funding, anyone involved in social justice organizing, and anyone, ever.
Meizhu Lui, Barbara Robles, Betsey Leondar-Wright, Rose Brewer, and Rebecca Adamson, with United for a Fair Economy, The Color of Wealth: The Story Behind the U.S. Racial Wealth Divide, The New Press, 2006: Incredibly useful for understanding connections between racism and economic injustice. The five different authors give examples (backed up with lots of facts, history, citations, and analysis) of ways that institutionalized racism and (especially) explicitly racist government policy prevented and continue to prevent people of color from accumulating wealth and assets while helping and supporting wealth-building for white people.
Karen Pittelman and Resource Generation, Illustrated by Molly Hein, Classified: How To Stop Hiding Your Privilege and Use it For Social Change, Soft Skull Press, 2005: Funny, incisive, and good. And the illustrations rule.
bell hooks, Where We Stand: Class Matters, Routledge, 2000: bell hooks being brilliant about class. Also has a few chapters that specifically address wealth and challenge wealthy people to be more transparent/generous/honest/conscious.
Tiny, a.k.a. Lisa Gray-Garcia, Criminal of Poverty: Growing Up Homeless in America, City Lights, 2006: Tiny is a founder of POOR magazine, a media project in the bay area dedicated to advancing the voices of poor and otherwise marginalized people. This memoir is about how Tiny and her mother Dee came to be homeless and poor, the experiences they had trying to become not homeless and poor (using extremely creative and artistic means), and a great and accessible critique of how the system is set up to keep people homeless and poor.
Linda Stout, Bridging the Class Divide and Other Lessons for Grassroots Organizing, Beacon Press, 1999: Linda Stout founded the Piedmont Peace Project, a community organization, led by poor and working-class people, with a really awesome class analysis. She writes about how social movements have failed to create real, large-scale change in this country because they have failed to unify folks from different class backgrounds. She describes ways that middle- and upper- class people consciously and unconsciously exclude, silence and oppress lower-income people within social movement organizing.
Paul Kivel, You Call This a Democracy? Who Benefits, Who Pays, and Who Really Decides, Apex Press, 2004: Doesn’t beat around the bush in calling out the ruling class. Also lots of useful diagrams.
Anne Slepian & Christopher Mogil, with Peter Woodrow, We Gave Away a Fortune: Stories of People Who Have Devoted Themselves and Their Wealth to Peace, Justice, and a Healthy Environment, New Society Publishers, 1992: Good book profiling wealthy people who gave away lots of money, plus analysis about economics, privilege, guilt, and other important things for rich people to think about. The folks in this book go way further in their giving than most people in philanthropy; but I think the book also illustrates how much further we have to go.
Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States, Rowman & Littlefield, 2006: A really good book about the subtle, insidious racism typical of the post Civil Rights era, and the rhetoric and ideology that holds it up. Helpful in thinking about the ways that privilege can make our own racism (or, by extension, classism, sexism, etc.) invisible to us. Bonilla-Silva interviews a bunch of mostly white people about race, transcribes portions of the interviews verbatim (with the verbal tics and rhetorical incoherence of casual speech intact), and then rips them apart using critical analysis.
Susan Ostrander, Money for Change: Social Movement Philanthropy at Haymarket People’s Fund, Temple University Press, 1995: If you are obsessively researching social change philanthropy like me (and maybe even if you aren’t), you might find this book incredibly interesting.
Ira Silver, “Buying an Activist Identity: Reproducing Class Through Social Movement Philanthropy,” Sociological Perspectives, 1998: If you don’t have access to those article databases that only students and academic types are allowed to use, feel free to email me and I’ll send you a copy of this.
Teresa Odendahl, Charity Begins at Home: Generosity and Self-Interest Among the Philanthropic Elite, Basic Books, 1990: Another book in the genre of “sociologist studies rich people in philanthropy.” Reading this made me hate philanthropy, but in the best way.
Allan G. Johnson, Privilege, Power, and Difference, McGraw-Hill, 2006: A very clear, simple, concise explanation of the ways privilege and power function. Especially useful for conversations with your family.
Paulo Friere, Pedagogy of Hope, Continuum, 2006: Paulo Freire was a class-privileged educator and theorist who used radical education to challenge oppression. This book, published 20 years after his seminal Pedagogy of the Oppressed, is kind of a reflection on his life and work. He has lots of interesting things to say about privilege, class, and liberation if you can handle the dense, rambling theory.
Making Money Makey Change: I criticize because I care; I have Making Money Make Change to thank for getting me started thinking about this stuff, pushing me to be a better organizer, and providing a forum to meet and learn from other folks who are thinking about what it means for class-privileged people to be an effective part of social justice movements.
Resource Generation: Resource Generation works with young people with class privilege who are trying to figure all this stuff out. They are good.
Bolder Giving: Profiles people who gave away significant portions of their assets.
Millions for Reparations: Good information about reparations.
Challenging White Supremacy: Tons of really good articles about privilege and anti-oppression work.
Class Action: Challenging classism.
United for a Fair Economy “raises awareness that concentrated wealth and power undermine the economy, corrupt democracy, deepen the racial divide, and tear communities apart.”
POOR Magazine: Awesome.
Racial Wealth Divide: More about the racial wealth gap.
This article is inspired by my friend Ingrid Chapman at the Catalyst Project. Ingrid asked for my input into the Anna Braden training program, Catalyst’s new anti-racist training program for white activists. Their website can be found at: http://collectiveliberation.org.
I offer my reflections as a participant and facilitator of anti-racist workshops in undergraduate, graduate, and community education settings with the intention of building the leadership of raised poor and working class people, including raised poor and working class white people, within the greater anti-racist movement. As a raised poor white anti-racist, I have had frustrations working in groups dominated by white, middle and owning class people. I offer these thoughts to middle and owning class white anti-racists, to soothe past moments when neither of us knew how to act; with the intention of moving together toward what we want: an end to racism and white supremacy in our lifetime.
I have a desire to protect against marginalized perspectives being tokenized and taken as ‘truth’. Please don’t believe anything I say. I am excited that my thoughts may be of use to you.
First, it is necessary for me to ask myself what my interests are in making class and race distinctions. One might say that the drawing of further distinctions further divides people. Those who hold institutionalized power in the current society have devised distinctions to divide us. This is a strategy from a socio-economic system that requires these divisions to maintain itself. Let us make distinctions with the intention of reunification and social transformation. As we notice the patterns that the oppressive society has instilled into our different socially constructed identities, we begin to heal our hurts so we can use our thinking to end racism and other oppressions.
It is critical that different groups work in solidarity separately as well as with each other. There is a lot of work for white folks to do with other white folks on racism and white supremacy to become better able to work in coalition with people of color. When white folks of various class backgrounds come together, there are often unnamed cultural differences that create challenges. A prevalent assumption made is that everyone is “white middle class”, and “white middle class” culture is taken as the norm, further centering the experience of white, middle class people with an unfortunate consequence of marginalizing the experiences of those in the room from poor and working-class backgrounds.
When building a culturally relevant learning environment, don’t assume that if people don’t identify as middle class, they must be working class. As with any social identity, let people identify their class identity and follow their lead. Speak many options so they may choose to identify with as many, or none, or a class identity they never thought of (e.g. low-income, money-poor, raised poor, poor, poverty class, working class, workers, criminal class, etc). At the least, give the options of “raised poor and working class”.
Contradict the historical and current mythos that only poor and working class white people are racist while holding white people of all class backgrounds accountable to racism and white supremacy. This becomes increasingly possible when we can notice institutional, individual, cultural forms of racism.
There is a history of owning class and middle class white people scapegoating poor and working class whites for racism. This position lacks an analysis of the ways that social institutions controlled by owning class whites play a major role in perpetuating white supremacy. Concurrently, there is a history of poor and working class whites committing acts of racism against people of color in the U.S. We get to hold these complexities as we work against racism and toward the transformation our social histories.
Speak using multiple-issues and multiple-identities while reminding that the focus of this session is unlearning/challenging racism and white supremacy.
As educators, let’s stop assuming raised poor and working class white folks aren’t ‘getting it’ because they’re poor or working class. White folks of all classes ‘don’t get’ racism’ because of the distress of whiteness. It takes time, and we will get it soon.
Don’t assume that all white people have been segregated from people of color. While this is the case for many white people, racial segregation has much to do with economics. Poor and working class whites may have grown up with close connections to people of color.
Encourage all participants, including facilitators, to postpone assumptions about race and class when making statements. Not all black folks have family in prison, not all white folks have access to higher education.
The non-retention of raised poor and working class participants in anti-racist workshops may not be a lack of commitment on their part or our part to anti-racist thought and action, but may be a consequence of economic oppression such as inability to find affordable childcare, limited access to transportation, or working a job that doesn’t allow time off for social justice education or organizing.
Have food! Share food! If you say food will be provided, provide food. Some participants may be counting on that snack as one of their meals for the day. Ask people what they want to eat. Invite, but don’t require people to bring food. Some participants may not be able to afford to bring food to share. Have more options besides hummus and carrot sticks.
Follow through on economic accessibility (free materials, scholarships, transportation) if you offer them. Parcel out the labor (giving rides, bringing food) to reduce the chance that people will burn out or get resentful. Make getting basic needs met a project of the learning community.
Remember the potential for this learning opportunity to be resume building for many participants. In addition to supporting the leadership of the raised poor and working class participants, offer to be a professional reference, offer to write letters of recommendation for future opportunities.
When choosing workshop activities, reflect on how certain activities may reinscribe oppression rather than transform it. When we take two steps back if our parents didn’t go to college, poor people always end up at the back of the Privilege Walk, reifying our social position.
Assume the self-determination of all participants. People are best equipped to think for themselves.
Some additional resources:
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: Red Dirt: Growing up Okie
Tiny aka Lisa Gray-Garcia: Criminal of Poverty: Growing up Homeless in America
bell hooks: Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, and Where We Stand: Class Matters
Myles Horton: We Make the Road By Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change
Joanna Kadi: Thinking Class: Sketches from a Cultural Worker
David Roediger: Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class
Mab Segrest: Memoir of a Race Traitor
Chip Smith: The Cost of Privilege: Taking on the System of White Supremacy and Racism
Linda Stout: Bridging the Class Divide and Other Lessons for Grassroots Organizing
Debt is spelled with a silent ‘b’. (I mean to use the passive voice.) Debt is spelled with a silent ‘b’, an empty letter holding space next to unopened bills. Debt is spelled with a silent ‘be’. As in “be quiet, feign ignorance and master the timing of smiling and leaving.” But I learned this before I learned to spell.
My mother learned from my father that debt was the American way. A $9 trillion US deficit backs this lesson up. From letters dropped out of my mother’s mouth I learned that money was something we never had enough of, something we needed urgently. From cards dropped out of my father’s hands I learned that money was not real. From the hypocritical narrative of consumer capital I learned shame and silence. I learned that we were less than empty, that we were less than zero.