Tag Archives: redistribution

Zeph’s story

by Zeph Fishlyn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The following offers a glimpse of our ongoing dialogue.

—Tyrone Boucher

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

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

Tyrone: Can you talk more about community reparations?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Tyrone Boucher

Where The Money Came From (and some history)

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

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

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

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

Values

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Process

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

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

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

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

Here’s how it worked out:

Anti-Incarceration

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

Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children $2500

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

Critical Resistance New Orleans $2000

Anti-Violence/Transformative Jusitce

Communities Against Rape and Abuse $500

Generation 5 $360 (through monthly sustainer program)

Healthcare

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

Women With A Vision (New Orleans) $2000

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

Queer and Trans Justice

Southerners On New Ground $2300

Sylvia Rivera Law Project $3000

Arts and Culture

Esperanza Center $2500

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

Sins Invalid $500

Anti-Poverty/Homelessness

POOR Magazine $2500

Welfare Rights Organization (New Orleans) $2000

Coalition on Homelessness $2500

Western Regional Advocacy Project $250

Social Justice Foundations

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

Bread and Roses Community Fund $50

Immigrant Justice

New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice $3000

Madre Tierra $6000

Other

Resource Generation $1500

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

KINDRED $2000

Making Money Make Change $100

ticket for NOLA activist to attend NPA conference $373

Misc urgent appeals $2000

TOTAL YEARLY GIVING $62,158

Letter To My Dad About Giving Away Money

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notes on Militancy, Privilege, and Guilt

by Tyrone Boucher

July 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes from a Wealth Redistribution Consciousness-Raising Dinner Party

Last November, Jess and Dean worked on putting together a dinner party that would function as a kind of group consciousness-raising session about wealth redistribution. We invited a number of friends, several who did not know each other but were connected socially through us and others. The group we invited included people from a range of class experiences and current circumstances. We created the event based on the idea that a key way to make change around wealth redistribution is to start conversations in our intimate circles that are overtly aimed at being non-judgmental and where people can address fears and concerns and teach each other models and ideas for addressing them. Continue reading

Notes from a Wealth Redistribution Conciousness-Raising Dinner Party

Last November, Jess and Dean worked on putting together a dinner party that would function as a kind of group consciousness-raising session about wealth redistribution. We invited a number of friends, several who did not know each other but were connected socially through us and others. The group we invited included people from a range of class experiences and current circumstances. We created the event based on the idea that a key way to make change around wealth redistribution is to start conversations in our intimate circles that are overtly aimed at being non-judgmental and where people can address fears and concerns and teach each other models and ideas for addressing them. Continue reading

Privilege and Solidarity

I wrote this in June 2007. You can also print it out zine-style by clicking here: Privilege and Solidarity Zine PDF

HELLO.

I wrote this zine for a few reasons. When I was growing up, I knew my family had money but I didn’t really get the concept of “privilege.” Then I became an activist and started thinking about systems of power and oppression and how privilege played a role in them. I started thinking about my own privilege, mostly as a white person, and about how I could challenge the racist systems that gave me privilege while others were oppressed. Then I started thinking about class privilege, and about how I was raised with a lot of it, and about what that meant. Somewhere in the midst of that, I learned that I had a $400,000 trust fund and became incredibly self-conscious about it. Then I realized, mostly through the urging of smart friends and fellow activists, that it was useless (and counter-productive) to try to hide or otherwise not deal with my class privilege, and I started thinking about how I could take responsibility for it in ways that reflected my values as an activist.

I began talking to other people about class privilege, and about the ways that having it or not having it affects our lives. In 2005 I went to a conference called Making Money Make Change – a gathering of young people with class privilege to talk and strategize about “leveraging” privilege for social change. I left that first MMMC feeling both inspired and critical, but excited enough that I volunteered to join the organizing committee. Organizing MMMC served as my entry into the world “donor organizing,” and I started thinking a lot about how social justice work is funded, how funding can co-opt or damage movements, and how people with access to more financial resources than we need can use those resources to support radical movement work led by people in oppressed communities. Donor organizing can mean different things. It can mean moving wealthy people to give money to social justice organizing rather than traditional forms of philanthropy. It can mean working in established and informal networks of rich people to direct energy, resources, and influence to support the goals of movement work. To me, donor organizing especially means working with other class-privileged folks to challenge oppression, capitalism, and economic injustice.

When I volunteered to help organize MMMC for the second year in a row, I decided to simultaneously embark on a self-education project. I wanted to learn more about my own financial situation, like the details of my trust fund and the history of where it came from. I wanted to learn more about how my family came to be wealthy (a new thing for my parents, who both grew up working-class). I wanted to learn about the political and economic processes that create wealth disparity and economic injustice. I wanted to learn about the landscape of “social change philanthropy” and of philanthropy in general – a world that was unfamiliar to me when I first arrived at MMMC, but which I soon learned is totally connected to both the existence of economic injustice and some attempts to remedy it. I wanted to develop strategies for leveraging privilege. I wanted to connect my work with other class-privileged folks to my other activism and to a greater social justice movement. And I wanted to figure out how to give away my trust fund in a way that reflected my values and supported social justice work.

So I read a ton of books. I talked to a million different people about movement building, privilege, activism, class, and every related topic. I had lots of conversations with my dad about his and my class history and financial resources, and about how we fit into a bigger picture. I looked at my trust documents and started learning about how the money was held, who controlled it, and how to give it away. I pushed myself to work hard on organizing MMMC and to challenge the aspects of it I was critical of. I got involved in more projects that pushed me to start conversations in my communities about money and class. I started trying to leverage my own privilege by raising funds for social justice organizing from people I know.

This is one of the results of that self-education project. It’s the product of my own perspective as a white queer person with inherited wealth. I made this zine because I wanted to challenge myself to articulate some of my thinking by writing it down. And I wanted to challenge other class-privileged folks to think about this stuff too, or think about it more, and to keep thinking about it and keep pushing ourselves to be more accountable, honest, and critical.

I also wrote this as a way to explain to friends and fellow activists outside of this donor-organizing/challenging-class-privilege/social-justice-funding world what the hell I’m doing, and to connect this work to other forms of organizing. The whole point of working to challenge wealth and power in class-privileged communities is to support a greater social justice movement. We need to be having these conversations in all the work we do, not just in insular circles of lefty rich people.

Every thought in this zine was developed and processed through conversations with genius people like Laura, Rogue, Anna, Elspeth, Kriti, Sam, Chad, Holmes, Karen, Vanessa, Tanya, my dad (David), my mom (Annie), Killer, Jamie, Socket, Drew Christopher, and many others. I hope to continue to have as many amazing, inspiring, lengthy conversations in the future.

Please write to me and tell me what you think.

Tyrone Boucher
June 2007

tyronius.samson (at) gmail.com

MONEY STORIES

“Storytelling often represents the most ideological moments; when we tell stories we tell them as if there was only one way of telling them, as the ‘of course’ way of understanding what is happening in the world. These are moments when we are ‘least aware that [we] are using a particular framework, and that if [we] used another framework the things we are talking about would have different meaning.’”
-Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States

When I was growing up, I never thought of my family as rich. Even when I became involved in donor organizing work, I resisted identifying my background as owning class – I knew I had class privilege, but I thought of myself as “upper-middle class” for a long time. After doing some probing about my family’s wealth and doing plenty of reading about class in the U.S., I finally realized that this perception of my family’s class status had more to do with dominant ideology around wealth and my own resistance to identifying as “really” rich than with actual reality.

The more I’ve learned about wealth and class privilege, the more I see my incorrect interpretation of my own class status as symptomatic of a bigger problem. An important first step in taking responsibility for class privilege is to begin looking at our personal stories as part of a larger system. Or actually, multiple intersecting systems that work together: systems of institutionalized oppression like racism and patriarchy, the economic system of capitalism, and systems of ideology that keep all the other systems in place.

I’ve had anti-capitalist politics since before I became involved in donor organizing and began to look closely at my own class position. The work, energy, and conversation happening in U.S. activist movements around the time of the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle radicalized me about the globalization of neoliberal, corporate, US-led, imperial capitalism. Later I got involved in labor organizing and started thinking more about the history of capitalism in the U.S., and all the ways our economic system has supported and perpetrated various forms of oppression. When I finally did start to examine my personal privilege, I began trying to figure out where I, as a person with inherited wealth, fit into my anti-capitalist analysis.

In the process of thinking about this, I called my dad to ask him some specific questions about our class status as a family and his interpretation of it. I’m trying to create an ongoing dialogue between my dad and me about class and privilege, and part of it focuses on learning more about how, as a first-generation owning-class individual (he grew up upwardly-mobile working class), my dad came to accumulate wealth and power. He’s always had a very simplistic story about how he “made it,” basically centering on a combination of luck and hard work. Around the time I was born, he started a company that produced some kind of software publishing product; the company ended up taking off and the stock value skyrocketed; hence, new owning-class status for my family.

I respect my dad a lot; he’s thoughtful and kind, and doesn’t at all fit stereotypes of greedy corporate CEOs. The point isn’t to dis my dad and call him out as being oppressive, but to look at our position as wealthy people within a greater structure of capitalism and oppression. If we don’t step back and challenge the broader framework that we’re situated in, it’s easy to play a complicit role in oppressive systems; that’s how privilege works. Sociologist Allan Johnson describes this at the “path of least resistance.” He writes: “Good people with good intentions make systems happen in ways that produce all kinds of injustice and suffering for people in culturally devalued and excluded groups…If we participate in systems the trouble [of oppression] comes out of, and if those systems exist only though our participation, than this is enough to involve us in the trouble itself.” (From Privilege, Power, and Difference)

My dad’s story of wealth accumulation – the way he tells it – is straightforward, honest, and true to his experience. It also could have been ripped verbatim from the pages of the Resource Generation book Classified (check out the bibliography at the end of this zine); specifically the chapter on money stories, which describes some of the myths and archetypes that go into creating ruling-class ideology. Karen Pittelman, the author of Classified, writes,

…the majority of the money stories begin to take on a strange similarity to each other. They focus on one person, often a man, and they center on how his hard work, intelligence, ingenuity, willingness to take risks and temerity lead to eventual financial good fortune. While the details of each story vary, the same plotlines – even the same phrases – occur again and again: “pulled himself up by the bootstraps,” “wise investor,” “rags to riches,” “worked day and night,” “never took a handout,” and “self-made man.”

My dad’s story is a lot like this. It can be hard to talk about the oppression that is linked to wealth accumulation for him personally, because of course he doesn’t see himself as an oppressor. He’s a liberal. He sees his wealth as having been acquired basically in a vacuum, without negatively affecting others in any way. He spent his work life in offices and board meetings, not cracking the whip in a factory or overseeing the plantation. He isn’t making policy decisions and he doesn’t support the Bush administration. He isn’t an active participant in outsourcing jobs overseas, privatizing public services, breaking up unions, deregulating trade laws, exploiting immigrants, or most of the other obvious methods by which power is concentrated in the hands of a few.

But his ability to accumulate wealth was influenced by more than just his hard work and blind luck – although both of these played a part. As an entrepreneurial white man, he was well positioned to benefit from capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy. He was able to make business connections, leverage influence, wield power in the worlds of business and technology, and be taken seriously to an extent that wouldn’t likely be available to a man of color or to any woman, thirty years ago or today.

In the book You Call This a Democracy?, Paul Kivel gives a good analysis of how wealthy people in the U.S. benefit from and support oppressive systems, even when we don’t directly make the decisions that create and enforce them. He draws a distinction between the owning class (which he defines as the wealthiest 20% of the population) and the “power elite” – a much smaller group within the owning class who are leaders in business, politics, philanthropy, and culture, and who are directly involved in high levels of society-shaping decision making. Though most rich people aren’t members of the power elite, we benefit in various ways from their decisions. Even if we have leftist politics and a scathing critique of neoliberalism, colonialism, global corporate takeover, militarism, and the rest of the U.S. power elite’s evil agenda, if we are in a position to benefit from the systems that support this agenda (like capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy) we are implicated in it. It’s very easy for wealthy people to maintain an individualistic perspective on our lives when the realities of most people in the world are invisible to us. So we end up with stories like those that Classified describes – ideological narratives that keep the focus off the owning class and shield us from blame or responsibility for oppression.

It’s important to note the way these stories play out not just in our own lives as people with wealth, but in the greater society. As members of a dominant class, wealthy people hold systemic power – which allows us to frame everything from our perspective. This framing takes place not just on a personal level, but in all upper-class-controlled institutions (media, government, philanthropy, etc.). Classist ideology teams up with other forms of oppressive ideology and creeps into nearly all of the institutions that exert power over our lives. Reagan’s racist characterization of poor Black women as “welfare queens” created the climate for deeply harmful welfare “reform.” Invisibility of poor people (except as criminals) in media and popular culture erases the realities of the majority of U.S. citizens and encourages a blame-the-victim mentality that helps corporations and the government get away with deeply oppressive policies and practices. Philanthropic rhetoric that deems rich people to be the ones best equipped to fund social services allows for increasing erosion of the federal safety net. The myth that racism is over takes the responsibility off the government and private institutions (corporations, universities, foundations) to respond to the movement for reparations.

I think it’s crucial to draw connections – between media storytelling and the stories we tell in our families; between the racism of politicians and legislators and the insidious, institutionalized racism that affects us without our even realizing it; between the paternalism of philanthropy and the privilege that we as individuals unconsciously enact; between the oppression by obvious perpetrators like police, military, and sweatshop-owning, union-busting multinational corporations and the oppression underlying our personal family fortunes.

Anti-capitalist social justice movements continually inspire me to challenge myself as a rich person and to challenge other rich people, because they situate us as players in systems that deeply harm the majority of people on the planet. It’s crucial to me to incorporate a radical critique of capitalism into both my understanding of my own wealth and privilege and into the donor organizing work I do. The “progressive philanthropy” world tends to take a stance that resists truly challenging capitalism and oppression in order to accommodate more moderate wealthy donors. Much of the landscape of social change philanthropy seems designed to make rich people feel better about ourselves and to channel some funds to progressive (or even radical) organizing without actually challenging the roots of inequality.

You don’t have to look hard to find clear explanations of how capitalism is inextricably linked to multiple oppressions: racism, through (for example) slavery, imperialist acquisition of land and raw materials, and dividing white and POC workers to keep them from organizing; sexism, through exploiting the labor of women (who are already culturally devalued) and relying on women’s unpaid and unrecognized labor; ableism, through laws allowing companies to hire people with disabilities at less than minimum wages; and so on.

We should talk about these things when we talk about having class privilege, because as the beneficiaries of capitalism we are implicated whether we like it or not. For white folks with class privilege, the history that gets erased when we tell our simplistic “pulled-himself-up-by-his-bootstraps” money stories is the (continuing) history of explicit and institutionalized racism in the U.S. Some of us can trace our inherited wealth to slavery or other systems in which white people directly profited off of the stolen labor or land of people of color. Even for those of us with “new” money, previous generations of our families are more than likely to have benefited from racist policies and institutions that helped white people and discriminated against people of color (Homestead Act, G.I. Bill, land grants, New Deal, loans, jobs, contracts, unions…). Throughout U.S. history, people of color have been explicitly prohibited by racist government policy from building assets; and since the most important indicator of wealth is how much money your parents had, cultural myths about a “level playing field” start to look pretty empty.

For class-privileged people to be allies in social justice movements, we have to take responsibility for the bigger picture behind our own wealth. Our personal decisions about money and the stories we tell (to ourselves and others) have reflections and repercussions connected to our place in the larger class system. Challenging these decisions and narratives, and challenging ourselves to look deeper, is a good way to start shifting our participation in oppressive systems.

ACCOUNTABILITY AND OUR FEELINGS

“I feel really scared when a working-class person challenges me, but I feel fine if another wealthy person does.”
-Donor at the Haymarket People’s Fund (From Money for Change by Susan Ostrander)

In the process of organizing Making Money Make Change, I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of accountability – specifically, what it means to strategize about supporting social justice work when we are doing it in a space of mostly rich people, and how emotions that rich people have around money and privilege play a role in preventing us from being accountable. “Accountability” is kind of a clichéd and overused word, but I think it’s a crucial concept in any situation in which privileged people are doing social justice work. If we aren’t held accountable to a larger movement and to people who experience the forms of oppression that our privilege shields us from, we aren’t really challenging systems of inequality.

There are lots of examples in social movement history of times when women, people of color, poor people, queer people, immigrants, disabled people, and other communities directly targeted by injustice have challenged fellow activists to confront internal oppression that exists within our movements. Activists with various forms of privilege – even if we have the best intentions – have a marked tendency to overlook the impact of institutionalized oppression in our own lives and in our organizing. Although it’s our responsibility to challenge oppression in our own communities, our work is not accountable to anyone if it is always done behind closed doors.

I’ve noticed that sometimes when progressive wealthy people come together to talk about various personal and political issues related to having wealth, there can be a tendency to throw around language about safety and “safe space.” We talk about safe space at MMMC and in other donor organizing/social change philanthropy type spaces where most or all of the people present are wealthy. We want to feel safe because there are so many taboos around speaking openly about class and money, and it’s often really hard/scary/vulnerable to share these things with other people. When I first came to MMMC, I felt super guilty about my class background and pretty much terrified of my trust fund. Processing the emotions behind my fear and connecting with other class-privileged people who were deeply engaged in challenging privilege and doing economic justice work was inspiring, and helped push me out of guilt-and-shame mode (and the accompanying political paralysis).

I think that these types of spaces – where privileged folks come together to learn from and push each other, and do the deep emotional work that comes with challenging our own privilege – are important and crucial. But I think they’re also dangerous. When we gather together in a group of rich people, even if our goal is to talk about social justice, we risk perpetuating class privilege because it is so ingrained in us. We want to create a space of support and challenge, so that we can do our own work to become better allies and activists. We don’t want create insular networks/spaces/communities of progressive or radical rich people with no accountability to a larger movement. But I think that the boundary between these two scenarios is a fine line that we sometimes, often unintentionally, cross.

The concept of “safety” in these types of spaces has a lot of problematic implications. Outside of this context, I mostly think of “safe space” as a way for people who directly deal with a specific type of oppression to create a temporary space in which that form of oppression is alleviated as much as possible (i.e. space for queer people, space for survivors, space for people of color, etc.). I think it’s also possible to conceptualize “safe space” as an intentional space where everyone present has consensed on a specific set of agreements about respect, listening, confidentiality, etc. But in progressive donor circles, I think an implication underlying the concept of “safe space” is that it is a space in which rich people can talk about the specific experience of having class privilege without the fear of being heard or challenged by people with whom that privilege is not shared.

I think it’s a misuse of the concept of safety to use the term “safe space” to describe a space that is designed for people with privilege, no matter what the purpose. We live in an unjust society that creates innumerable circumstances in which safety (in various forms) is available to privileged people at the expense of people who are oppressed. Using “safety” to justify or describe spaces that exclude people who lack a certain type of privilege not only implies that people who aren’t as privileged as we are somehow make us “unsafe,” it ignores the reality of power dynamics and the meaning of safety in the general world. As members of a dominant class, we feel “safe” within oppressive structures. Institutionalized oppression is designed to make us feel safe.

So then, what do we do with the intense emotions that arise when we talk about our own privilege? We certainly have a right to our feelings; and when we take steps to understand the roles we play in institutionalized oppression and begin to confront our own internalized supremacy, the level of emotion is bound to be high. Also, the experience of growing up with wealth and privilege can come with a whole host of connected issues related to family, self-worth, intimacy, community, and so on. This stuff is deep, and it is inevitable that when we delve into it we encounter anger, tears, frustration, and other forms of intense emotion.

I think it is both possible and necessary to work through our feelings in a way that is intentionally anti-oppressive. Our feelings are contextual – they don’t arise in a vacuum, and we don’t express them in a vacuum. If, for example, we experience fear, shame, or anger as a response to being challenged (personally or politically) by folks who aren’t wealthy, we can respond to that by both acknowledging the validity of our emotions, and interrogating the emotions for the hidden meaning behind them; how they might be connected to classism, how they might scare us out of challenging our privilege.

The reason for having caucus spaces around privilege should not be because we are afraid of being open with or confronted by people who don’t share our privileged experiences. It’s important for wealthy people (or white people, men, or whoever) to support and challenge each other to fight oppression, to dive into the emotion and pathos specific to the experience of having class privilege, and to do some general working-out of our shit. Non-wealthy people don’t always have to be present for this – most would probably prefer not to be.

But if we are attempting to truly support social justice, wealthy people can’t remain the only participants in the conversation. When we create exclusive caucus spaces, we should be thinking about how to also create spaces for broader community conversation. When we give ourselves the space to cry/vent/rant about our privilege among a group of similarly privileged people, we should also be challenging ourselves to move towards increasing transparency in our personal lives and communities about our lives and our class backgrounds.

Doing our personal work is necessary for anyone in social justice movements – but we should be careful not to over-focus on the personal at the expense of a bigger critique. It can be easy to get sucked into dissecting our own privilege and the way that it affects all our life experiences, but doing this work is minimally useful if we don’t bring it into more public, institutional arenas. If the goal of the work becomes personal growth, we risk losing the broader analysis – and with it, the possibility of challenging the roots of oppression within and outside of our privileged communities. In an essay called “The Filth on Philanthropy: Progressive Philanthropy’s Agenda to Misdirect Social Justice Movements”, writers Tiffany Lethabo King and Ewuare Osayande describe Women With Money (WWM), a support group in Philadelphia for women with financial wealth:

According to their website, WWM “creates a welcoming, stimulating environment where women who have wealth, whether earned or inherited, can gain new perspectives on their lives and their money.” The group also provides “a place to explore issues of wealth with safety and confidentiality.” A wealthy person talking confidentially with other wealthy people about her money does not put her in a position of accountability to people who are not wealthy. Rather, it simply makes them comfortable about having more money than they know what to do with. Some of the issues explored by WWM include guilt management, accountability, personal relationships [and] political giving…The primary function seems to be to help (by and large, white) women deal with the guilt of having money and how to manage it (not give it up). Although they claim to discuss accountability, the question that begs to be asked is: accountability to whom? Nowhere on the site is there any acknowledgement or articulated participation of people of color or the poor. Within this controlled set-up, accountability exists only between white people with money and the white Left social justice groups that want access to it. This further substantiates our claim that by not openly demanding wealth redistribution, reparations, or justice for exploited workers, white social justice non-profits function as brokers for the wealthy. They simply help them manage their money and assuage their guilt for having wealth accrued from the stolen and exploited labor of people of color. (From The Revolution Will Not be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex edited by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence)

I want to acknowledge that dealing with/challenging privilege is nuanced and complex, but I also want to talk about how exclusive spaces created so that we can feel comfortable as wealthy people don’t push us in the direction of accountability. I think it’s important, in doing this work, that we don’t feel comfortable – discomfort is the inevitable result of challenging class power and money taboos and the lies we are told (and tell) about wealth and the economy.

PHILANTHROPY VS. WEALTH REDISTRIBUTION

“These rich young people do not give their wealth away; it is not redistributed. They give away their income and keep their capital. And, as embarrassed as it might make them feel, they symbolically carry this capital – and privilege – with them in all their endeavors. As donors they do not fully relinquish their power, although they try to share it. Sometimes they resent the fact that they are not more appreciated, that their opinions are sometimes discounted. It is difficult for them to escape the attitude of noblesse oblige with which they have grown up.”
-Teresa Odendahl, Charity Begins at Home: Generosity and Self-Interest Among the Philanthropic Elite

That quote comes from a book about the practices, motivation, and ideology of elite philanthropy. Specifically, it is from a chapter about “alternative” or “social change” philanthropy. Although social change philanthropy seeks to change the power dynamics endemic to traditional philanthropy, Teresa Odendahl’s observations point out the importance of continuing to challenge philanthropy in all its forms.

The practice that we in the U.S. refer to as philanthropy is almost always a tool for the ruling class to maintain itself. Foundations, the most common vehicle of philanthropy, were created by the wealthy elite as a way to shield their fortunes from taxation. The great majority of philanthropic giving goes to elitist institutions that largely serve and benefit the rich – private universities, ballet, opera, museums, etc. Even when philanthropic money goes to institutions that serve marginalized communities, it is within a paternalistic framework of “charity” – providing basic services without challenging the roots of inequality.

There are lots of great books that critically analyze traditional philanthropy – some of them are listed in the back of this zine. But most people in the leftist donor movement are already critical of traditional philanthropy – that’s why we’re creating new forms of giving that challenge injustice and support grassroots community organizing.

But the more I learn about/observe/participate in the world of social change philanthropy, the more I feel really dissatisfied with where we’re at. I’ve been thinking about how social change philanthropy is subject to many of the same oppressive symptoms as traditional philanthropy. Ostensibly, an aim of social change philanthropy is to redistribute not only money, but also the decision-making power that determines how the money is used. But I think that as progressive donors, we often fall short of redistributing both money and power.

A simple question that I think is important to ask in trying to understand all of this is: Why do we give? The history of philanthropy in the U.S. is a history of wealthy, ruling class people using various forms of monetary giving to maintain and hoard power, class status, and wealth. The culture of traditional philanthropy provides its own motivations for giving – membership in elite networks; influence over politics, media, and culture; participation in upper-class institutions; and so on. Since our goal as progressive donors is to challenge this dynamic, I think it’s useful to take a close look at what inspires and motivates us to give.

The concept of “incentive” comes up a lot in fundraising and philanthropy. Incentive to give money takes many forms in different situations, from tax deductions to public recognition to a feeling of satisfaction and self-worth. But I think that often, “incentive” can be translated to mean “power and control.” In Charity Begins at Home, a businessman with inherited wealth told the author: “Entrepreneurs have a great need to control. If you give them a controlling reason to give philanthropic money, you have all of the sudden got a philanthropist that might not otherwise be there.”

Shifting Power

Philanthropy is such a horrifying institution that I feel dubious about attempts to reform it into something that is capable of supporting radical social movements. At the same time, we live in a capitalist society in which foundations play an increasingly influential role. Wealthy people, depending on our situations, have varying levels of involvement and influence in the world of philanthropy. For wealthy people with radical politics, it’s important to have a critique of these institutions whether we choose to work within them or not. It’s been useful to me to learn more about philanthropy (both “traditional” and “alternative”), because it helps me to understand the forces at play in any work that wealthy people do to “leverage” privilege for social change.

There are lots of (well, at least a few) community-based foundations throughout the country with the goal of funding social justice organizing. One thing that’s been really interesting for me to learn about is the different ways that these foundations distribute money; i.e., how they set up their grantmaking boards. I think that looking at these grantmaking boards gets at the roots of some of my questions about how the ways that we give money can support or challenge class power dynamics.

The simplest model of shifting power within these types of foundations is to place grantmaking decisions in the hands of a board that is made up of activists and community organizers, with the majority coming from the communities that are most affected by oppression and inequality (people of color, women, queers, poor and working-class people, etc.). The idea is that these are the folks best equipped to disperse funds to social justice organizing – not only are they affected by issues of injustice in a more direct way than elite funders, but they’re experienced activists with expertise and grounding in grantee communities.

That’s a simplistic explanation, and of course there are a million ways that things can get complicated. But what’s been interesting to me in learning about these types of foundations is how rarely that model is actually implemented. More often some compromise is struck that allows for greater donor control: the grantmaking board is made up of a combination of donors and activists; or there are two grantmaking boards – one for activists and one for donors, dividing up the funds and making grants independently; or the board is made up only of donors, with an expressed commitment to funding social justice work.

[I want to note that drawing a stark distinction between "donors" and "activists" is weird and problematic, and often used in ways that are counterproductive to movement-building. Obviously, donors can and should be activists, and activists can and should be donors. I think it hurts our movements to imply that "donors" have no role to play in the actual, on-the-ground organizing work, and to characterize "donors" only as wealthy people. Grassroots movements have historically been funded by people in the communities doing the organizing, and the donor/activist dichotomy can be thought of partially as a reflection of the increasing influence of foundations and the non-profit industrial complex on social movements. That said, I think it can be useful to use this dichotomy when talking about foundations and philanthropy, because it's so ingrained in those institutions. But take it with a grain of salt.]

I think looking at these different types of funding boards sheds some light on how deeply we don’t want to give up power. Community foundations that strictly limit donor involvement in funding decisions have a much harder time attracting wealthy contributors. And within the broader world of social justice philanthropy, activist-led re-granting institutions are just a small part of the way that wealthy people give money. Instead, we’re starting our own foundations, participating in elite donor networks with other lefty rich people, creating our own projects or nonprofits, or just giving directly to organizations doing work that we find interesting.

What are the costs when rich people are the ones making the decisions about how to fund social movements? At its most insidious, this funding dynamic can take the form of elite individuals and foundations using money as a way of manipulating movements and steering them away from forms of organizing that pose a true threat to elite power. This dynamic is elaborated on in many of the phenomenal essays in the book The Revolution Will Not be Funded: Beyond the Nonprofit Industrial Complex, listed in the bibliography. A good example is the way that the Ford Foundation used funding to exert its influence in the Black power movement, supporting a focus of Black capitalism over Black liberation and directing movement energy away from radical organizing. (This is talked about more in Black Awakening in Capitalist America by Robert L. Allen, which is excerpted in The Revolution Will Not be Funded.)

Of course, as individual progressive donors, we don’t always set out to harm, co-opt, control, or de-radicalize movements – but unless we consciously and intentionally try not to, we may end up enacting these dynamics anyway. It’s a function of the way privilege works that systemic oppression usually manifests not through conspiracy, but as a natural reproduction of power and privilege.

Here’s an example: in the early years of the San Francisco-based Vanguard Foundation, grantmaking was done by two boards, one made up of (wealthy, white) donors and one made up of members drawn from the (activist, mostly people of color) “community.” Both had access to equal amounts of money, and would make grants separately. In a quote I found in Teresa Odendahl’s book Charity Begins at Home, a Vanguard donor board member explains:

The donor board would fund certain kinds of issues that perhaps were mainly organizations of white people – maybe more middle-class white people – doing certain, what we would consider essential work. The community board would sometimes fund the project of a community that might not be the most incisive, but nonetheless the community had been underrepresented in our funding.

A glaring problem in this statement – and one that I think is representative of a much larger problem – is the assumption by the donor board that the organizations doing the most “incisive” work are white middle-class organizations. Later, Odendahl indicates further what seems to be a prevailing belief of the wealthy donors – that the community board funded projects because of a desire to “see that the constituencies they represented were funded,” while donors, free from the obligation to fulfill such quotas, possessed a purer motivation to simply reflect “their politics and their sense of which groups were effective.” Somehow, the groups they deemed most “effective” strongly tended to be white and middle-class.

Taking Responsibility

In yet another totally awesome and useful book – Money for Change: Social Movement Philanthropy at Haymarket People’s Fund – author Susan Ostrander writes about internal processes at Haymarket, a community foundation whose grantmaking model (at least at the time this book was published) was especially strict in terms of not allowing participation of it’s wealthy donors on the grantmaking board. One of the ways that Haymarket raised money, despite its limitations on donor control, was by holding “wealth conferences” for progressive rich people.

It was kind of fascinating for me to read about these conferences, because a lot of the dynamics that came up within them were so similar to issues that I think about around MMMC. Haymarket’s wealth conferences served as a major fundraising tool, even though there was an explicit policy disallowing direct solicitation of participants. MMMC has a similar non-solicitation policy, but also succeeds (to varying degrees) in moving its wealthy attendees to give money. I think that the success of these types of “passive fundraising” brings up some important questions about why we give (i.e., what is our incentive), and what we ask for in return.

Susan Ostrander describes the Haymarket conferences as spaces that focused heavily on personal-growth work and relationship building. Haymarket staff played a role in the conferences, but not to champion Haymarket or to necessarily present a case for its model of grantmaking. In fact, Ostrander indicates at one point that many of the conference participants didn’t even really know exactly what Haymarket was, even though they may have been Haymarket donors.

Although the Haymarket staff might directly solicit participants at some point after the conference, during the conference their role was to hold a space for the personal development of wealthy conference attendees – and to build relationships with folks who might later become major donors to Haymarket. This required the staff to do a lot of emotional labor and sociability work; Ostrander writes: “Building and maintaining these relations seemed time consuming, sometimes rewarding, and sometimes emotionally draining. A large portion of the work seemed to consist of informal ‘schmoozing’ and caretaking and what looked like, but really wasn’t, relaxed ‘hanging out.’”

It seems a little disingenuous to attempt to build authentic cross-class relationships when funding is directly at stake. But there are tons of models in social change philanthropy that have community activists and wealthy donors working together, either to directly make funding decisions or to build a progressive donor community that will presumably eventually lead to increased funding for social change organizations: cross-class donor circles; grantmaking boards within community foundations; the Haymarket wealth conferences of yore (i.e. the 90s); and MMMC, their contemporary counterpart. While it’s safe to say that these models are a major improvement on traditional philanthropy, I think it’s important to think about how power is exercised, outwardly or covertly, in these situations in ways that mimic and enforce dominant power structures. For wealthy people, I think it is our responsibility to interrogate our role in these dynamics, and think about the ways that we resist redistributing power and resist removing the (obvious or subtle) strings attached to our money.

There’s a great article by Ira Silver called “Buying an Activist Identity” that further elaborates on the dynamic I’m getting at, although in a different context. In the article, Silver describes the grantmaking board at the Chicago-based Crossroads Fund, whose model has community activists and wealthy donors making funding decisions together. The logic behind this has to do with integrating donors more deeply into social movement work by putting them in working relationships with community organizers, which seems like a worthy goal; but the article is about the ways that relationships between the donors and the activists on the board end up reproducing class power dynamics.

A vastly oversimplified nutshell version of Ira Silver’s findings: a) wealthy donors care about social movements, want to identify as activists, and want to be down; b) they look to the community organizers on the board to validate their activist identities and assure them that they are down; c) community organizers are committed to moving money and don’t want to alienate donors who are a major source of funding. They therefore yield to the unspoken pressure to reassure the donors that they are, in fact, down; and d) donors, secure in the belief that their participation on the grantmaking board is sufficient evidence that they are down, continue about their business as rich people reassured that there is no need for them to deeply challenge their class position or greater economic inequality. Ira Silver sums it up better: “[In] order to ensure that they get their small piece of the pie, community organizers willfully legitimate the class hierarchy that creates the very need for philanthropy in the first place.”

So to relate this discussion back to the question about why we give and what we get in return: We get to feel like we are down. We get to feel less guilty about having wealth. We get to feel like we are good. We might end up feeling like giving some money gets us off the hook of really challenging our position of power and privilege in society.

This is the tension that I feel so often in donor organizing: we want donors to feel good so that they continue to be donors, but really challenging power doesn’t feel good. It’s been coming up in the context of MMMC, where the goals of the retreat are somewhat in dispute: Is our aim to simply move money to social justice organizing, even if in doing so we risk perpetuating oppressive class power dynamics? Or is the goal for us to do real anti-oppression work that asks us to examine and challenge our privilege in a deeper way – even if we risk losing some people who aren’t interested in doing this deeper work but might otherwise have given money?

Letting Go

Obviously, I have a biased position; as a class-privileged person, I want to challenge my fellow class-privileged people to confront our privilege and support social justice movements however we can. I’m not a fundraiser at an organization that relies on the contributions of wealthy donors – if I were I might have a different perspective. But since I have the luxury of reflecting on idyllic scenarios in which wealthy people step up and use our privilege to challenge capitalism and the ruling class (and since I’m trying to figure out how to do that myself), I spend a lot of time thinking about what that would look like.

The donors described in Money for Change talked about a tension that they referred to as “living the contradiction;” meaning, being rich and also being committed to social change. This is an important tension to talk about, but it kind of glosses over the fact that having exorbitant wealth is usually voluntary. [Not always. There are plenty of wealthy people who don’t have control over their assets for various reasons (like the money is stored in a trust controlled by uncooperative trustees), or who will continue to inherit money on a regular basis for an extended period of time, or whose relationships with family would become so strained or damaged by the act of giving away their money that it becomes a big factor in giving. Obviously it’s not always simple.] Divesting oneself of class privilege is often impossible depending on the circumstances – if you grew up with money like I did, it’s sure to have affected every aspect of your life, and it’s impossible to give away experiences gained by the privilege of having wealth. But often we have a choice about whether or not to hold on to our actual money.

I’d like to talk more about what it really means, as wealthy people, to “align our resources with our values” when our values are about economic justice. What does it mean to talk about wealth redistribution if we aren’t taking the steps to equitably redistribute our own wealth? How do we justify making the conscious choice to stay rich when that position puts us in the role of wielding influence and class power whether we intend to or not? Are we really challenging inequality and class supremacy when we continue to inhabit the role of “funders?” What does it mean to never give away our principal, or only give a little of it? What does it mean to pass that wealth down to our children?

The thing about class privilege is that it skews your perspective. My dad is always trying to convince me that our family isn’t as wealthy as I think we are, and that if I met some of the people he knows who are really rich, I would see how modest our lifestyle has been in comparison. Class privilege often means we don’t see the bigger picture – that we compare ourselves to the miniscule portion of the population who are even richer than we are, instead of to the vast majority of people on the planet who are prevented by oppressive systems (racism, capitalism, colonialism…) from being able to meet even their basic needs. This takes the pressure off of us to really examine our place in these systems as people with (often multiple forms of) privilege.

Ultimately, wealth redistribution won’t happen by rich people suddenly deciding to voluntarily give away all our money. An important way to leverage privilege is to use the power bestowed on us by our class position to advocate for involuntary wealth redistribution, and to support anti-poverty organizing and organizing that challenges the systemic oppression that creates wealth inequality.

But meanwhile let’s talk about what we can do, as individual wealthy folks who care about in social justice, to model the values we believe in. Capitalism means that anyone who has inordinate wealth has it at the expense of people who are poor. Holding on to more money than we need puts us in a position of wielding power in unjust ways. Let’s keep doing the deep, hard personal work of processing how wealth has affected our lives, let’s keep leveraging our influence in the world of philanthropy; but let’s do it with an acknowledgement that in a just world, no individual would be in the position of controlling exorbitant wealth.

THE END…

Thinking about this stuff so much has left me with a lot more questions than answers. I want to keep figuring out how to work with other class-privileged people to not only move money, but to also challenge the systems that create wealth inequality in the first place. I want to find more ways of giving that shift funding decisions into the hands of a community rather than keep the decisions in the hands of individual wealthy donors. I want to continually challenge myself to leverage my own privilege in donor networks and funding institutions while also challenging the power and dominance of foundations and the 501(c)3. I want to be part of a critical dialogue about money, about need vs. luxury, and about security vs. hoarding. I want to keep these conversations going and resist the temptation to settle into privilege without challenging it. I want to push myself to go further, go deeper, and do the work I need to do to be an effective activist and organizer. I want us to push each other.

Please be in touch: tyronius.samson (at) gmail.com.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, The Revolution Will Not be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, South End Press, 2007: This book should be required reading for anyone involved in funding, anyone involved in social justice organizing, and anyone, ever.

Meizhu Lui, Barbara Robles, Betsey Leondar-Wright, Rose Brewer, and Rebecca Adamson, with United for a Fair Economy, The Color of Wealth: The Story Behind the U.S. Racial Wealth Divide, The New Press, 2006: Incredibly useful for understanding connections between racism and economic injustice. The five different authors give examples (backed up with lots of facts, history, citations, and analysis) of ways that institutionalized racism and (especially) explicitly racist government policy prevented and continue to prevent people of color from accumulating wealth and assets while helping and supporting wealth-building for white people.

Karen Pittelman and Resource Generation, Illustrated by Molly Hein, Classified: How To Stop Hiding Your Privilege and Use it For Social Change, Soft Skull Press, 2005: Funny, incisive, and good. And the illustrations rule.

bell hooks, Where We Stand: Class Matters, Routledge, 2000: bell hooks being brilliant about class. Also has a few chapters that specifically address wealth and challenge wealthy people to be more transparent/generous/honest/conscious.

Tiny, a.k.a. Lisa Gray-Garcia, Criminal of Poverty: Growing Up Homeless in America, City Lights, 2006: Tiny is a founder of POOR magazine, a media project in the bay area dedicated to advancing the voices of poor and otherwise marginalized people. This memoir is about how Tiny and her mother Dee came to be homeless and poor, the experiences they had trying to become not homeless and poor (using extremely creative and artistic means), and a great and accessible critique of how the system is set up to keep people homeless and poor.

Linda Stout, Bridging the Class Divide and Other Lessons for Grassroots Organizing, Beacon Press, 1999: Linda Stout founded the Piedmont Peace Project, a community organization, led by poor and working-class people, with a really awesome class analysis. She writes about how social movements have failed to create real, large-scale change in this country because they have failed to unify folks from different class backgrounds. She describes ways that middle- and upper- class people consciously and unconsciously exclude, silence and oppress lower-income people within social movement organizing.

Paul Kivel, You Call This a Democracy? Who Benefits, Who Pays, and Who Really Decides, Apex Press, 2004: Doesn’t beat around the bush in calling out the ruling class. Also lots of useful diagrams.

Anne Slepian & Christopher Mogil, with Peter Woodrow, We Gave Away a Fortune: Stories of People Who Have Devoted Themselves and Their Wealth to Peace, Justice, and a Healthy Environment, New Society Publishers, 1992: Good book profiling wealthy people who gave away lots of money, plus analysis about economics, privilege, guilt, and other important things for rich people to think about. The folks in this book go way further in their giving than most people in philanthropy; but I think the book also illustrates how much further we have to go.

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States, Rowman & Littlefield, 2006: A really good book about the subtle, insidious racism typical of the post Civil Rights era, and the rhetoric and ideology that holds it up. Helpful in thinking about the ways that privilege can make our own racism (or, by extension, classism, sexism, etc.) invisible to us. Bonilla-Silva interviews a bunch of mostly white people about race, transcribes portions of the interviews verbatim (with the verbal tics and rhetorical incoherence of casual speech intact), and then rips them apart using critical analysis.

Susan Ostrander, Money for Change: Social Movement Philanthropy at Haymarket People’s Fund, Temple University Press, 1995: If you are obsessively researching social change philanthropy like me (and maybe even if you aren’t), you might find this book incredibly interesting.

Ira Silver, “Buying an Activist Identity: Reproducing Class Through Social Movement Philanthropy,” Sociological Perspectives, 1998: If you don’t have access to those article databases that only students and academic types are allowed to use, feel free to email me and I’ll send you a copy of this.

Teresa Odendahl, Charity Begins at Home: Generosity and Self-Interest Among the Philanthropic Elite, Basic Books, 1990: Another book in the genre of “sociologist studies rich people in philanthropy.” Reading this made me hate philanthropy, but in the best way.

Allan G. Johnson, Privilege, Power, and Difference, McGraw-Hill, 2006: A very clear, simple, concise explanation of the ways privilege and power function. Especially useful for conversations with your family.

Paulo Friere, Pedagogy of Hope, Continuum, 2006: Paulo Freire was a class-privileged educator and theorist who used radical education to challenge oppression. This book, published 20 years after his seminal Pedagogy of the Oppressed, is kind of a reflection on his life and work. He has lots of interesting things to say about privilege, class, and liberation if you can handle the dense, rambling theory.

Web Resources

Making Money Makey Change: I criticize because I care; I have Making Money Make Change to thank for getting me started thinking about this stuff, pushing me to be a better organizer, and providing a forum to meet and learn from other folks who are thinking about what it means for class-privileged people to be an effective part of social justice movements.

Resource Generation: Resource Generation works with young people with class privilege who are trying to figure all this stuff out. They are good.

Bolder Giving: Profiles people who gave away significant portions of their assets.

Millions for Reparations: Good information about reparations.

Challenging White Supremacy: Tons of really good articles about privilege and anti-oppression work.

Class Action: Challenging classism.

United for a Fair Economy “raises awareness that concentrated wealth and power undermine the economy, corrupt democracy, deepen the racial divide, and tear communities apart.”

POOR Magazine: Awesome.

Racial Wealth Divide: More about the racial wealth gap.

Critical Desire

by dean spade

I went to D.C. for a job interview last week.Riding in the airport van in the rain from Dulles surrounded by the familiar climate and landscape brought back the feeling of Albemarle County, Virginia, where I grew up.Out the window through the rain I saw an SUV and was instantly transported back in time to 8th grade when my best friend Phoebe’s dad got a new jeep with Eddie Bauer leather interior and picked us up from school in it.I was flooded with the feeling of safety I had whenever I was doing something mundane like grocery shopping with Phoebe’s family.They were my escape from my chaotic, dirty, small, sad stressful house where that whole year my mom lay dying of cancer.Our fragile little family held together sloppily by a single mom on welfare and burdened by shame and struggle was its final decline.Being the youngest I was the one sitting at home all the time trying to fill my mom’s shoes as the caretaker, trying to get her to eat, trying not to run away when she coughed and vomited and struggled to stand up and walk naked, skin hanging from bones, to the bathroom.At Phoebe’s house there were two parents, meals at a table, rules, no cursing, no drunkenness, clean sheets, the feeling of being taken care of, restrained and guided.

It is not surprising, in some ways, that an SUV can evoke all that.It is marketed, like so many things, to promise safety while reminding us of our insecurity and fear.These forces underscore capitalism—structured insecurity—the requirement that there always be a pool of unemployed laborers keeps us all in line, fearing poverty even when we’re the least vulnerable to it and craving ever more security—personal, national, economic—even when that quest for security (in the form of accumulation) ever-broadens the domestic and global wealth gap that makes everyone less safe and secure.

How do we manage desire in this emotional/political context?I think most people have some critique of their desire, some limits at which they become concerned about its impact.Whether it is concern about the environmental impact of big cars, or the labor practices supported by buying sweatshop made clothing, or the local business- and culture-killing effects of frequenting starbucks, I hear a lot of people across class making decisions about what to consume that recognize the impact of their desire and consumption on others and the principle of interconnectedness that such a recognition requires.

I am interested in how that impulse could expand, building on the analysis people have when they “vote with their dollars” by boycotting something or supporting something else, to encompass a broader understanding of the connection of our personal economic choices to the well being of others and the world we want to live in.In other words, how can we build a broader politics of redistribution that expands the critical perspectives many of us already have about consuming some goods?

I see an example of a community ethic of critical desire emerging in some aspect of the “green business” conversation.That dialogue has invited people to shift norms of desire by understanding the impact of their desire and consumption on others and understanding the desires they have inherited from culture as products of damaging political conditions (like SUV’s in an oil war).So, when people in the local foods movement write and talk about the value of building desire for fresh local fruits and vegetables in season, they are also encouraging us to question our desire for peaches in January and acknowledge the conditions that produced massive agricultural reforms that changed how food gets to our tables and the impact on local farms and on the environment of food traveling thousands of miles to our plates.

I am interested in how we could build a shared conversation that engages desire critically about money and consumption more broadly.I want to be involved in conversations with people who are joining me in acknowledging the maldistribution of wealth that permeates our world and thinking creatively about how we can be agents of redistribution in our personal lives.In other words, I want to start talking to people I know about how we can all give more money away.What is hard about this conversation is that there is an enormous taboo about talking about money in our culture, and there is an enormous feeling of scarcity and financial insecurity that everyone seems to experience in capitalism.These problems are compounded by guilt—people often feel judged about what they consume and are afraid of opening the topic about what is in their bank accounts and what kinds of electronics they are buying, even with their intimate friends, for fear of being judged.This fear is not unreasonable because often the way we all deal with our insecurity about how we’re living our lives is to judge others, so judgment is definitely a danger.To me that whole picture of fear, judgment, secrecy, and insecurity is extremely convenient for maintaining the status quo of maldistribution and preventing meaningful conversations about developing an ethical relationship to desire and consumerism in community with others.

Maybe I am naïve, but I see signs of hope for this conversation everywhere.I think many people are already engaging in some kind of critical thinking about some of their consumer desires, whether it is based on environmental concern, labor practices, or small business support. I want us to take that conversation to the next level.I want to see people talking to each other about the politics of where their money goes—what it means to “save,” what it means to buy real estate, what it means to own ipods and cell phones, what it means to give money to homeless people, what it means to give money to non-profits, what it means to share money with friends. I want us to talk about the politics of inheritance and retirement and have some thoughts about these things instead of just working on auto-pilot (aka reproducing capitalism, the ever-growing wealth gap, poverty for most of the world).I want us to think about how we could shift our desires for security in interesting ways—maybe SUV’s look safe but what is really safe is reducing our oil dependency.Maybe retirement accounts feel safe but what is really safe is saving Social Security from being privatized by Republicans.Maybe owning property feels safe but what is really safe is working toward a world in which homelessness is inconceivable.

I just heard this radio program about how during the recent wildfires in San Diego, people with extremely expensive insurance had the benefit of private firefighters coming and defending their houses, while neighbors without it had their houses burn.The fires caused a lot more damage than they might have if we didn’t live in a country that is defunding emergency services and sending our National Guard to Iraq.The message that came through to many who lost their houses is, “the government can’t protect you, you have to buy more expensive private insurance that comes with private firefighters.”As we continue in that direction, we see the costs of safety go up and the penalties of poverty increase. I am hoping for a different conversation where we might take our fierce desires for safety and security and invest them in collective well-being that is a much more sustainable kind of protection.

Part of what I like so much about some of the environmentalism conversations is that they are not (sometimes) competitive or judgmental. People share their ideas and practices without demanding that one another do the exact same thing.Maybe you compost and your friend drives a veggie diesel car, and you tell each other about your practices and get inspired by each other, but there is not the sense of harsh judgment that might keep you from talking at all.I want the same thing in conversations about wealth redistribution.People’s lives are different, our needs and experiences are different, and we each need to navigate these difficult questions in our own ways.We might find that communities or groups of friends share absolute limits about some things—a rejection of a certain consumer good that all agree is appallingly wasteful or luxurious, or we might find that there are no shared absolutes.Ideally, what would be shared is a practice of inquiry about desire that helps us move toward more mutually beneficial ways of addressing our shared insecurities and fear.Maybe groups of friends make an agreement about caring for each other during illness or emergency rather than hoarding resources privately in fear of facing those circumstances alone.Maybe people agree on a major common fear and figure out how they can pool resources to support community organizing work aimed at alleviating that particular vulnerability.I think the answer to capitalist alienation, insecurity and fear is not private consumption, which only adds fuel to the fire, but connection and commitment to recognizing how our fates are tied.