Tag Archives: intimate communities

Zeph’s story

by Zeph Fishlyn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In defiance of all that splits us

Do you know Aurora Levins Morales?Medicine Stories: History, Culture and the Politics of Integrity by Aurora Levins Morales She is a much beloved writer, historian, poet, and activist. I first read her writing in This Bridge Called My Back (now shockingly out of print), and lately I’ve been reading her blog, where she writes about disability and chronic illness, imperialism, poetry, capitalism – read this post about her experience returning to the U.S. after some months in Cuba receiving medical treatment:

Coming back to capitalism after three months out from under is like walking into a horror movie. In this country, my neighbor can spray pesticides in his back yard and even if it gives me seizures, the right to private property overrules my right to health, and the worst thing is that it seems self-evident to him that it should be so.

When I recently read an essay on facebook co-authored by Aurora and Susan Raffo, I asked if I could re-post it here. This is a piece about interdependence, about building alternatives to this U.S. paradigm of individualist violence so that Aurora, and all of us, can survive.

I am building a virtual village around myself, because it will keep me alive and because it will improve all of our chances.  I have a lot to give, but it’s not sustainable to give it without more nourishing relationships…I want a band of fellow travelers, an extended family, people I can call on.  I won’t belong to the world where much loved artists die alone in poverty.  I insist on a kinship web of people who will feed each other when there’s not enough food, come to each other’s rescue, and offer each other shelter, in defiance of all that splits us.
I believe that the stronger we can build these webs of kinship and care, the better able they will be to support all of us.
Please read the entire piece below.

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.


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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reflections from a Homownersexual

by Ezra Berkley Nepon

BUYING

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

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

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

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

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

 

SELLING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Questions for Potential Homeowners

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

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

 

Class Stuff

I’ve been thinking about class and community. I’ve been thinking how hard it is to build cross-class community. Lots of stuff comes up in my cross-class relationships. Stuff about money of course, but really, it’s not just the money. There’s stuff about talking, stuff about eating, stuff about dressing. There’s stuff about how close you stand and who you touch and how far in advance you make plans. There’s stuff about how often you do laundry and who has your spare key and how you feel about the kids on the corner. Continue reading

Enough: Questions

by Jess Hoffmann

What is the difference between financial security and hoarding wealth?

What is the difference between financial security and hoarding wealth?

What is the difference between financial security and hoarding wealth? What is the difference between financial security and hoarding wealth? What is the difference between financial security and hoarding wealth? What is the difference between financial security and hoarding wealth?

If I say it enough times—three, twenty-three, one hundred and ten, every morning before I open my eyes and at night before bed; if I say it over and over like an incantation; if I obsess about it, months-into-years on end, alone; if I ask everyone I know to weigh in—will the answer come?

Continue reading

Buy One, Get One. Free.

by Alexis Pauline Gumbs

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.

Continue reading