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