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: 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: 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.