Tag Archives: family

Zeph’s story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On crisis and community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The following offers a glimpse of our ongoing dialogue.

—Tyrone Boucher

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

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

Tyrone: Can you talk more about community reparations?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Musings on Returning Home: guest post by Jessie

On the continuing theme of reflections from the POOR session, here’s a guest post by the fabulous and thoughtful Jessie Spector:

I went to POOR Magazine’s Revolutionary Change Session with many layers of privilege to work with. I’m a queer white girl who grew up in a small-liberal-bubble kind of town, well-intentioned but pretty sheltered. My mom is of true WASP blood (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant), her particular strand of the family more liberal than most but still carries elite-isms and quite a bit of wealth. My dad grew up working class with non-religious Jewish parents who had met at a Young Communist meeting back in the day. Together they produced me: currently 22 years old and living in Brooklyn NY, after graduating from an elite private college and inheriting a couple hundred thousand dollar trust fund almost two years ago. I work at Resource Generation- a saving grace for me over the past few years- and have been long involved in queer organizing, and anti-prison work; more recently thinking increasingly deeply on how to align everyday living with the Big Visions of resisting capitalism and exploitation.

Following the introduction to Tyrone’s latest post–that apparently “blogging is an appropriate forum to post thoughts that aren’t necessarily fully formed”–I’ve taken a leap of faith to share these musings. This started as a journal entry on the flight home from the Bay, the weekend of the POOR session. On the first morning of the session several POOR Scholars spoke about home, family, community; leaving, staying, the privilege wrapped up in it all. I latched onto that theme and it stayed with me through the rest of the weekend and clearly beyond. The thoughts below are very much in progress, hardly resolved or even coherent. I would love for this to get the juices of discussion flowing- please give responses, feedback, questions, opinions, push-back, or anything else you want to offer. Continue reading

Letter To My Dad About Giving Away Money

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Letters about Poverty

by Lis Goldschmidt, Dean Spade, and Pascal Emmer

These letters originally appeared on Make and the first two also appeared in the anthology Without a Net (Ed. M. Tea).

Dean-

Hey. How’s things in NYC? Tired here. Just home from hanging out with everyone. Feeling really tired of the class stuff we were talking about the other day. Tired of people fronting like they’re poor or grew up poor or whatever-like it’s cool to be poor. You know the deal. They put it on like an accessory. You know? Just like co-opting any culture. Do you know what I mean? It’s like people who wear ‘native garb’ from wherever they’re exoticizing at the moment-but the thing is they take it off when it gets old to them.

I guess I’m just feeling pretty pissed. Like I can’t take it off. Like it IS old. It’s always been old. And makes me feel old and fucking tired. And small.

I don’t mean to rant.

The main reason I’m writing is ‘cause you carry the facts and I feel like I need them. You know the details that I think can help me not feel erased by these kinds of nights. You know how much mom made. You know the welfare info. It sounds dumb-I know what it was like but I’ve spent my whole life pretending it was something else-my whole life trying to pass as something else–I need the numbers to feel justified or some shit. I need those numbers to prove me wrong or call me out or something. Does that sound weird? It’s like I’ve even convinced myself…also like I want some fact to separate me from those people.

I mean I remember it. I remember what it was like. I remember the shame and all that. I remember that greedy excited fucked up feeling I got when she’d bring home the groceries. I remember swallowing myself one zillion times. I remember that heavy fucking cloud that hung around our tiny house. That fog that made it so hard to breathe. That stress that kept us all quiet and angry and sad. Remember?

I’m scrambling for something good and light but it goes back as far as I can remember. It only got darker and heavier.

The end was the worst, right? I guess fro me it was the worst because I felt like I was the mom when she was sick. You know? Not that we didn’t both have to pick up what she couldn’t carry anymore. But I remember doing the grocery shopping by myself. You know I think it’s really only the last maybe 5 years that I don’t have some crazy fear while in line at the grocery store. I think this is actually the first time I’ve really thought about it. There’s the shame of shopping at the discount store. Scared someone from school would see us or something-and scared that if anyone ever (not that they ever did) come to OUR house they’d see the bags from there. (Not to mention just seeing the house!) But then there were all the times we had to put stuff back-do you remember that? I cringe thinking about it right now. It was terrible. Embarrassing. I remember being scared to look at mom in that moment. How she’d look it all over a have to decide what to put back. How did she do that? How can you decide what food your three kids DON’T need? Can you imagine how stressful that must have been for her? Ugh. I fucking makes me want to puke. Then there was the shame of using food stamps. It’s funny how kids I know now use food stamps with so much pride.

Dean this sucks. I hate thinking about this stuff. I’m trying to reclaim it or something but sometimes it just feels like mom trained us so well that passing is easier and the shame is too thick. Sometimes I think I’d make the world’s greatest spy because I can pretend so well. Time to sleep.

I hope you’re well-

I’m glad we have each other in this.

xo lis

Dear Lis,

I took this letter with me to Montreal where I was showing the film Tara and I are making about trans people and bathrooms. While I was there, the friends of friends had a “white trash” themed barbeque. The people I was staying with called the hosts to voice our protest to this theme, and heard that others were also upset, so we went anyway, thinking people wouldn’t participate in the theme and that the message had gotten across. Of course, we were too optimistic. Many people came fake-pregnant, with giant Budweiser cans, fake southern accents and severe blue eye shadow. What to do? I thought about how ‘trashy’ it is for poor people to have children, how differently poor people’s substance abuse is surveilled and punished, how easily these white people employed a term that suggests that all non-white people are trash while only some white people require such labeling. I thought about the time you were invited to a white trash event where people were encouraged to black out their teeth, and I thought of how mom lived her whole life hiding that she had dentures-like everyone in her family-from a time when dental care for the poor was pulling out all their teeth in adolescence. When she died I learned she had hidden this from me (you too?) my whole life-sleeping in uncomfortable dentures all those nights during our 13 years together when I was too scared to sleep alone-all to hide from even me her poverty shame. (Meanwhile I dreamt of braces other kids at school could afford.) I thought of my own consciousness, starting in elementary school, of the need to separate myself from the term white trash. Be carefully how you smell, who sees your house. Try to get mom not to curse or smoke in front of other people’s parents.

But at this party I bit my tongue, turned my head when they arrived in costumes. Couldn’t bring myself to speak on this rooftop full of people I just met. I spend 60-80 hours a week exclusively talking about poverty and advocating for poor people, but I could not advocate for myself, could not give up the small amount of passing, of blending in. We left fast and Pascal, Brianna and I ranted on the street wondering how we should have handled it, talking about how girl-social conditioning still operates in our trans bodies convincing us we shouldn’t confront. With every passing hour since I’ve been more irate, no place to put it, more anger to add to the churning crushing pile that lives behind my sternum.

Tired. I hear you about being tired. I’m tired of being diplomatic about poverty. Tired of trying to convince rich people at non-profits, rich people at foundations, and rich gay people especially to care about and support the lives of low-income intersex and trans people. I’m tired of helping them notice that we exist, trying not to make them too uncomfortable to give money to the struggle that (when we win, which we will), will end wealth and poverty for everyone. Tired of being gentle and non-threatening and helping them appease guilt about their hoarding so they can act a little. And I’m tired of hearing that you’re getting paid less than the private-college educated man who sits next to you doing the same job, and tired of seeing all my trans friends without jobs, adequate housing and trapped in the criminal injustice system. I’m tired of other poverty lawyers (from upper class backgrounds) telling me I don’t pay myself enough when I make twice what mom supported 4 people with in the years she had jobs, and when our clients are fighting like hell for a couple hundred bucks a month from welfare or ten bucks to make a call from jail. I have to figure out how to not get too tired. Sometimes I think that’s what killed our mom. Somehow, you and I got out of there, out of that dirty house, off those gravel roads, out of Virginia, but she didn’t make it. I think all the time what it would be like if she could see us now-if I could make her a fancy dinner in my apartment (artichokes) and take her to see something city-beautiful, if for her birthday we could fly her to San Francisco and all three of us could have tea in your kitchen and walk around gold gate park and she’d tell us the names of all the flowers. It’s almost mother’s day.

You asked for the facts. I carry them around like the chip on my shoulder. The most she ever made was $18,000 one year. Our welfare was less that $400/month. We got a total of $50 when we three spent Saturdays cleaning the glass and mirror store, less when we cleaned houses. The Social Security Survivor’s Benefits our foster parents got for us were about $500/month each until we turned 18. (It’s sick that she could support us better by dying but there was not money to help keep her alive.) The jacket she always wanted when she was in middle and high school, that all the other kids had but she never got, was $7.02 Canadian. The most important fact, maybe, is that if we’d been in the same situation after the 1996 welfare cuts, we wouldn’t have been entitled to the same benefits because of her immigration status, and, in my estimation, we would have had a much harder time keeping a place to live or staying together as a family as long as we did.

I love you, Lis. You’re my memory and my witness, and my only connection to all that we’ve lost. I love that you keep the sweatpants mom got in rehab and that I slept in them when you were caring for me after my chest surgery. When I’m not biting my tongue, it’s because I’m thinking of how quickly you call people on their shit, how vicious your wit can be, and how you always have my back.

Love, Dean

Dean —

This is not an editorial note but a further reflection on the night we attended that fucked-up party. Internally and with other people I’ve been hashing out feelings of anger, repulsion, and frustration about how events went down and the way in which I responded to them. Mostly I felt horrified and betrayed by the fact that the party’s theme had not been dropped (or remotely questioned) by the time we arrived when the host had been confronted in advance about the theme’s malicious nature. In the end, the decision to attend the party at all was under the assumption that we would be participating in a barbeque, and not in something with a “white trash” motif.

Of course, things did not play out that way and we found ourselves amidst attendees clad in “trashy” clothes, either fake-pregnant or drug-addled. In my head I thought about people’s costumes and behaviors as racial and class minstrelsy, where masquerading as white and poor shored up this tacit claim to a clean, bourgeois white identity. Recognizing that not everyone shared this assumed middle-class white background would have the disrupted the suppression of guilt and denial of privilege enabled by white trash fetishism. You are so right to point out the racist and eugenicist implications of the theme as well.

What remains more troubling to me than people performing “white trash” was how i found myself utterly silenced and unable to confront them about their fucked-up behavior. It’s intense to think about how deep girl-social conditioning runs, compelling us to be diplomatic and non-confrontational when the situation called for the contrary. But that aside, it’s really important to acknowledge the differing degrees of marginality we experience in a given context. For you, not saying anything to the people at the party might have been a survival strategy. For me, having never had to deal with food insecurity or the social crime of being poor, not saying anything meant being complicit with the theme’s anti-poor message. Though i thought things had been rectified beforehand, i’m responsible for having invited a friend to a party where there was a known chance that they could be made vulnerable. Also, part of surviving is knowing that we can depend on people we care about to advocate for us is situations where a vulnerability to oppression prevents us from advocating for ourselves. In this sense, my silence meant failing to be an ally when it was needed. As well, you didn’t know any of those people, which made it difficult to engage them in any sort of challenging dialogue. Some of the folks there i consider friends and many do good political work, so i was distressed by this strange peer dynamic which shutdown conversation and isolated (and dismissed) those who took issue with the theme.

This has got me thinking about strategies we can prepare for the next time something like this happens (b/c sadly, it’s bound to). i attribute my silence and inaction to not having been ready to deal with the surprise and severity of what we witnessed. While this may be legitimate it’s certainly no excuse. Being able to respond with immediacy requires a little fore-planning, like enlisting all of your friends before the event happens to dis-invite themselves and to make explicitly clear their refusal to participate in anything so fucked-up. Or, deciding to collaboratively crash the party with the intent to make sure people get it. i remember that person who came wearing white articles of garbage and thinking how subversive that could have been with a different intention. Confronting with tact, creativity, and most of all NO COMPROMISE is an idea that consumes my thoughts a lot. Next time i’m fully prepared to make a stink, knowing that whatever vicious or defensive bullshit others might level will be outweighed by the support of people i love.

I really appreciate the letter format of the communiqués between you and Lis, not to mention both of your sharp analyses and your incredible accounts of surviving and reckoning. Transmitting something political though a correspondence with someone you respect and care for deeply has this ability to communicate in unconventional ways. Class stuff is so difficult to tackle in general but especially on a personal level because of the incredible guilt or shame and social reticence around it. It’s ingrained in us from early on to conceal our economic status, to actively avoid discussing class privilege in real terms, and to deny, vilify, or (for upper-class liberals) romanticize poverty. Having just read some of Barbara Ehrenreich’s book “Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America” and its rave reviews by upwardly-mobile liberals, it disgusts me to observe how issues of poverty are only believed or taken seriously when interpreted by an educated, middle-class person. Where much of academic writing about poverty fails is in addressing why poor people can’t speak of their own experiences and fucking be heard. This is also why the letter format is so effective. It throws readers outside their impersonal, distant relationship with the text, encouraged by most academic writing, and makes them face up to their own anger or discomfort over what they read. Your writing has this effect. Keep up the amazing work and I look forward to reading any changes or additions you make.

with love, pascal