Tag Archives: self-determination

In defiance of all that splits us

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

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

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

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

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.


Notes From New Orleans

March 2008 

 

Earlier this week I attended an amazing event put on by the Worker’s Center for Racial Justice here in New Orleans. In a chilly gym near the old St. Thomas housing development, a crowd of people gathered to celebrate victories. A group of organizers from the Congreso de Jornaleros (Day Laborer’s Congress) performed a play celebrating the victory of a group of Indian guestworkers who had been lured to the United States at huge personal cost, with false promises of permanent residency and steady employment. Instead of finding the anticipated American dream, they had been abused by an exploitative company, forced to sleep 24 to a room, prevented from leaving company premises, and threatened with deportation when they tried to organize.


The Indian workers united with the Workers’ Center and guestworkers from other countries to form an alliance, and were able to organize a strike and call media attention to the plight of immigrant workers post-Katrina. After the play celebrating their success, they hugged and shook hands with the day laborers, everyone started singing, a New Orleans brass band paraded into the gym, and the night segued into a boisterous dance party.


The program, which was translated into four different languages, was an amazing example of what many activists have called horizontal solidarity – solidarity based on a shared stake in the work, in which everyone involved has both something to gain and something to give by working together. Indian guestworkers, Latino day laborers, displaced New Orleans public housing residents, and activists from New Orleans and elsewhere all came together to support the common struggle against the racism, imperialism, and economic injustice that has raged out of control in the Gulf Coast since the storms.


I’m here in New Orleans for a month-long visit, and solidarity has been consistently on my mind. Since Katrina, this city has notoriously been a destination for young white activists to come and do volunteer work, largely hosted by the organization Common Ground. This has created a source of much-needed volunteer labor for the rebuilding process, but it has also skewed the racial demographics of the city (replacing many displaced, majority Black New Orleanians – nearly half of whom have been unable to return – with white activists from out-of-state) and created a lot of problematic dynamics rooted in racism and white supremacy. Groups like the Bay-Area-based Catalyst Project and New Orleans’ People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond have approached this situation as an opportunity for movement-building and anti-racist political education, and some white anti-racists from out of town have chosen to stay and build solidarity with local groups while working to challenge white supremacy. In a recent anti-racism discussion group here, several white activists asked questions about what solidarity looks like for those of us who aren’t direct casualties of State and capitalist repression. What is the role of white people, non-New Orleanians, people with access to affordable housing, to healthcare, to quality education – what is our role in this struggle? Is there a way we can help dismantle oppression by learning about the ways our privilege functions? Is there a way for us to use the privileges we have in the service of a larger movement?


Gulf South Allied Funders

The project that prompted my visit to New Orleans is an example of one attempt to put privilege to work for social justice. About a year ago, I joined a fundraising project called Gulf South Allied Funders (GSAF). The project was founded a year earlier by a group of fellow organizers connected to Resource Generation, a national organization whose goal is to organize young people with wealth around economic justice, anti-oppression, and social change philanthropy. The logic behind GSAF’s founding (directly post-Katrina) was that, as radical people with various types of access to wealth (personal inheritances, family foundations, connections to donor networks and wealthy communities), it would be useful for us to strategically direct whatever resources we could towards people of color-led, on-the-ground rebuilding efforts. We wanted to send money to grassroots organizations, and wanted to avoid the racist and paternalistic power dynamics common in traditional forms of philanthropy, especially when grantmaking is directed by wealthy white donors. We decided to use our resources to raise money (our goal – which we reached – was $1 million a year for three years), and to leave the distribution of the money to folks who already had trust and relationships with community-based organizations in the Gulf South. After some research, GSAF partnered with the 21st Century Foundation, a Black foundation with established connections to many of the organizations that are leading the grassroots rebuilding effort.


I chose to get involved in GSAF despite having many critiques about the dynamics of foundation funding, because it was one of the best models I’d seen for getting a large amount of money to New Orleans and surrounding areas, and doing it quickly, consistently, and at least somewhat sustainably. The fact is, wealth is increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer (overwhelmingly white) hands. A minuscule percentage of U.S. wealth is used for philanthropy, and less than 3% of that goes to social justice organizing. Out of that 3%, the majority is still controlled by white funders and given with varying degrees of strings attached. Within this context – and particularly in the post-Katrina Gulf South, where the social justice infrastructure is still suffering from the devastation of the storms – there are few structures that are able to raise and distribute large amounts of money in a truly grassroots way. We conceptualized GSAF as a way of using our privilege and resources to increase the U.S. philanthropy dollars going towards social justice work, respond to the urgent need for funds in the Gulf, and shift the role of gatekeeper from disconnected white funders to Black funders and organizers with connections on the ground.


And the project has been successful in many ways. Established funding networks that GSAF members were connected to agreed to match and double what we raised; we asked all our friends and family to contribute; we threw house parties and held briefings and sent fundraising letters and
update letters and follow-up letters. And the money we raised went almost entirely to small, Black-led organizations doing the necessary work of organizing, rebuilding, and fighting for justice in the Gulf South.


In the context of this fundraising project, there have been a lot of questions and dynamics that we’ve continually struggled with. Although we’ve worked hard to shift power and challenge white supremacy within the funding world, it’s impossible to avoid situations in which racism and economic injustice play out in uncomfortable ways. Philanthropy is not pretty – it exists because of (and depends on) gross inequality, and comes from a structure that is the antithesis of grassroots. In order to raise money for GSAF, we sometimes fell back on tried-and-true fundraising tactics that were inherently classist, like briefings directed towards major donors and expensive fundraising dinners. These were effective for raising money, but were largely class-segregated and worked essentially by pampering wealthy people. We helped set up donor tours to the Gulf South, in which GSAF donors (with staff from 21CF) visited organizations in New Orleans and surrounding areas to hear about their work. These trips kept donors engaged, but also replicated familiar dynamics in which grassroots organizers were expected to take valuable time from their work to share and dialogue with wealthy funders.


Leveraging Privilege – Beyond Philanthropy

Despite all this, it’s pretty clear to me that the work we’ve done in GSAF is useful. We’ve managed to raise almost three million dollars for amazing grassroots organizing, and we’ve challenged some donor networks in anti-racist ways by engaging them in a process that was explicitly designed to challenge white supremacy within philanthropy. When we have access to powerful but problematic institutions, trying to leverage them for social justice can be a useful role for privileged people to play, as long as we make sure we’re not doing more harm than good. But I want to make sure that this isn’t where our work stops.


With Resource Generation and other organizations, I’ve done a lot of social justice organizing with other young people with inherited money. The U.S. is currently in the midst of the largest intergenerational transfer of wealth in history, and I think it’s strategic to do anti-oppression organizing with the people who are poised to inherit that wealth and the massive social power that comes with it. This is often referred to as “donor organizing,” which is actually an inadequate term for what I hope we’re doing. I see it as more than just organizing young rich people to donate money to social justice activism, but also as anti-oppression work that asks class privileged folks to take responsibility for – and work against – economic injustice. We talk a lot in this work about “leveraging privilege,” and I think that concept is really useful in any work that privileged people do to fight oppression. But I want us to remember that “leveraging privilege” does not boil down to just leveraging money. The work I do with Resource Generation intersects with philanthropy for obvious reasons – giving money away is a really good way to use privilege in the service of social justice. But I think that sometimes some of the thinking that fuels social justice philanthropy – specifically, the stark distinction that is made between donors and activists, and philanthropy’s tendency towards keeping wealthy people validated and comfortable at the expense of challenging the status quo – can color our approach to social justice work generally as people with class privilege. I worry that we will get so caught up in the different strategic approaches to giving away money, or try so hard to give money in the best possible way (as if one exists), that we will mistake this for the actual work.


We leverage our privilege not because it’s a big gift we have to give to the social justice movement, but because leveraging privilege is the least we can do when the systems that provide that privilege are the same systems that keep the majority of the world oppressed. Money doesn’t cause social justice, activism and organizing do – and giving money is minimally useful when we don’t do the work to challenge the institutionalized power structures that make sure we’re the ones who have that money in the first place. Privilege makes us so disconnected from reality that it can be easy to step back from struggles that don’t seem to directly affect us – but if we truly believe in social justice, it’s important for us to be active participants in the fight.


Active Solidarity

The tendency to get so caught up in “working in our own communities” that we neglect doing the real work of organizing is notoriously a little endemic among privileged folks. Catherine Jones, in an essay called “The Work Is Not The Workshop: Talking and Doing, Visibility and Accountability in the White Anti-Racist Community,“* calls out the tendency of white anti-racists to get so tripped up by the What Is My Role question that we neglect plunging our hands into the actual struggle. She names the importance of anti-racist analysis, education, and internal work, but calls for white folks to put a little less time into “figuring out” exactly how to do the work and a little more time into actually doing it.

 

Here in New Orleans, I’ve been learning a lot about the recent history of post-Katrina social justice organizing. I’ve spent some time volunteering with local organizations, and I’ve felt extremely privileged to learn from and support the work of the passionate local organizers who are working together to fight for a just rebuilding of their city.

 

I’ve seen white activists, out-of-town volunteers, and recent transplants to New Orleans working hard to remain accountable and support the leadership and self-determination of the folks who live here and who are still struggling with the after-effects of Katrina - and I’ve also heard a great deal of criticism about white activists reproducing racist dynamics, failing to listen to the voices of Black New Orleanians, and generally doing more harm than good. Hearing critique like that (and seeing those dynamics in action) is always troubling – and often scary for allies who are hoping to work in solidarity. 

 

It’s crucial for us to listen to those critiques, and to respond to them by strengthening our anti-racist skills and analysis and shifting oppressive patterns – not by removing ourselves from the struggle or deciding that our only useful role is sending money, educating each other, and rooting from the sidelines for organizers from directly affected communities who have no choice but to fight. Often, when privileged activists take a strong stand to fight for social justice, we are accused of acting out of guilt and naive idealism. Although these are undoubtedly motivations sometimes (untangling all of our feelings about our role in oppression takes time), the critique implies that it isn’t the place of folks with privilege to fight for social justice on the front lines. Actually, it is our place to work hard, take risks, and use our skills as organizers while honoring the leadership of poor folks and folks of color. Activist and political prisoner David Gilbert writes, “There is nothing guilt-ridden about identifying with oppressed people – especially when they have been blazing the trail toward humane social change.”**


I want us to notice when the work we do to confront our own privilege turns into a new way of distancing ourselves from the in-the-trenches organizing that is being led by communities that are directly under attack. We all have tangible skills, and there are a million ways to put our skills to work - fundraising, press releases, childcare, journalism, web design, art, event planning, campaign strategizing, research, interpreting, phonebanking, being a medic, baking cookies for the meeting, etc. When we put most of our time into organizing other people with privilege, we are more able to avoid situations in which we don’t feel comfortable, or our own internalized supremacy is glaring, or it isn’t appropriate for us to take leadership. When white anti-racist activism gets defined as leading workshops and holding reading groups, or when activists with class privilege put all our energy into figuring out how to give away money in the most perfect way – and working with other rich people to try to get them to do the same – we’re not using all of our potential as allies and participants in a movement.


I’m inspired by the concept of collective liberation, the idea that social injustice doesn’t take place in a vacuum but is connected to a bigger power structure that affects all of us; that we shouldn’t do the work of fighting oppression out of guilt or obligation but out of the knowledge that all of our humanity and liberation is bound up together. I’m awestruck by the work of all the organizers of color who are leading social justice movements and building community power while also dealing with racism and economic oppression on a personal level. And I’m awestruck by the amazing and committed white anti-racists that I know, and by class-privileged folks who are challenging capitalism and economic injustice, and by everyone who is passionate about working for a more just world. I want us to do this work because we care about justice and because we care about each other. I want privileged folks to keep challenging racism, capitalism, and exploitation in our own communities and in the world; and I also want us all to be empowered to step up and get involved, to stop ignoring the struggles that are happening around us every day, to stop holding ourselves back just because we’re afraid of making mistakes. This is about all of us.


 

*http://colours.mahost.org/articles/jones.html

**From Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground Organization and the Politics of Solidarity by Dan Berger, p. 134

Poverty Scholarship

by Tiny a.k.a. Lisa Gray-Garcia

“Writing, reading, thinking, imagining, speculating. These are luxury activities, permitted to a privileged few whose idle hours of the day can be viewed otherwise than as a bowl of rice or a loaf bread less to share with the family.”

-Trinh T Minh-ha from Women, Native, Other

There are many things this poverty scholar can teach you— but in reality, no more or less than any of the poverty scholars you see, or more than likely don’t see, everyday. Homeless families, poor youth of color, migrant workers, panhandlers, sex workers; sitting, dwelling, camping, soliciting work, convening. I am them, they are me.

We are in a revolutionary struggle to not be lied about, incarcerated, mythologized, and misconstrued; to be truly heard and recognized for the deep scholarship we all hold; to survive while battling the looming jaws of poverty, the criminal injustice system, the police, the welfare system, and the gentrifying landlords.

But the one thing this poverty scholar must teach you is to re-think your notions of scholarship itself. Who is considered a great scholar? How is scholarship attained? How is greatness honored? And with what barometer do we measure this canon?

At POOR Magazine we have a radical concept of scholarship: who deserves it, how it is attained, and how it is used. This scholarship has a new canon, with new designations for greatness. Survival itself, through extreme poverty and crisis, houselessness, racism, disability, and welfare, to name a few, are what you need to qualify for poverty scholarship. Conversely, a person who is formally educated with a Master’s Degree and no poverty scholarship would be considered inexperienced and therefore, should not be writing, lecturing, or legislating for and about communities in poverty. The formally understood “signs” of scholarship, such as writing, researching, critiquing publishing, require inherent privilege. These signs afford people an ability to be heard and recognized.

Personal Journey

My personal journey out of poverty, homelessness, and a life of marginalized otherness led me to identify this new definition of scholarship. Exposed to the revolutionary writings of Trinh Minh, I began to understand the privilege of thinking and writing itself. This was my truth, my struggle. I was a homeless child who had to drop out of school in the sixth grade to support my family; I did not have time away from earning a loaf of bread. More importantly, I did not have the privilege of knowing what I would be doing from one moment to the next. Had it not been for the innovative intervention of a civil rights attorney who converted my several thousand dollars of fines and jail time for being homeless into a community service assignment writing about my life, I would not have been able to express my ideas, my solutions, and my poverty scholarship. As a result, I was afforded the privilege to establish my vocation as a writer, turning my unrecognized street scholarship, which all poverty scholars possess, into a documented, understood, and “heard” tract.

POOR’s Methodology

In the first year of our organization, we developed the notion of poverty scholarship, which was inducted into POOR’s core practices with the clear realization that poor folk had to flip the power of media, voice, and authorship. Poor people are inherently denied a voice in the media, the creation of legislation, and academic scholarship. Consequently, it became POOR’s goal to listen, conceive of policy, and reassign authorship to folks on the frontline of poverty and racism. In our formal workshops and leadership meetings, we established our radical notions of poverty journalism.

We also decided that poverty journalism must include an attempt at solutions. For example, in the Homefullness issue of POOR (Volume 1), we discussed the problems that poor folks have staying housed as a result of gentrification, displacement, and crisis. The solution developed by the poverty scholars was to address those obstacles, along with the danger of isolation, and disenfranchisement. Understanding the strength of the “village” and the importance of equity to create long-term economic self-sufficiency, we proposed a sweat equity cohousing project. And using a small slice of the Arts Commission grant, we realized the idea in a small apartment in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco.

In the year leading up to the release of the Hellthcare issue, we conducted a series of six-month-long workshops with very low income youth, age 12 to 17, who were interned in group homes and closed mental health placements. We launched a formal collaboration with a Bay Area agency that ran locked placements and schools inside and outside the public school system for severely emotionally disturbed youth. Unlike our previous workshops for youth, these spanned a semester and included a series of literacy exercises that tied in with the kids’ curriculum and were part of their school day.

At this point, we instituted POOR’S multi- generational learning and scholarship model. Our belief was that all members of the community needed to learn, grow, resist, and heal together, overcoming our collective experiences of broken school systems and/or broken or disempowered families that had been impacted or destroyed by the crime of poverty and or racism. Each workshop included a media literacy and social justice component that questioned the unjust society of haves and have-nots, raising awareness of the system that most of these youth were caught in, and the mythologies of capitalism that they were being spoon-fed by the corporate media on a daily basis. We integrated hip hop, spoken word, and grafitti into every lesson, redefining what journalism and art are, and could be, talking about how some of the best are on the walls of our neighborhoods, and in rhymes and raps. As Eduardo Galeano has so eloquently said, “The walls are the publishers of the poor.”

“Who do you think makes your shoes? Do you think the workers at Nike are getting paid fairly?” These questions would open the discussions, inevitably leading to a critique of media messages and corporate product-pushing, opening the students’ minds to other forms of survival and success.

“Who Would Call Themselves Poor?”

Perhaps the most important thing we dealt with was the shame inherent in the life of a poor kid. A shame so powerful that a kid would shoplift or take part in some form of unsafe underground economy just to attain the right shoes. A shame that would make a kid lie about being homeless, so they wouldn’t be “the homeless kid” in their school. We created a safe space for kids who had been the abused and the abusers, who had bullied and been bullied, and who were so confused about who to be and what to be. After an intensive discussion, we proceeded to create a series of images and stories that paralleled what the adult participants of POOR were digging into.

We asked them to describe through image and story what “poor” is. Most of them described everything but themselves. Everyone who had experienced poverty was everyone else; this is oddly like adults, never realizing their own colonization, always finding it easier to act as though it’s happening to someone else. Those stories opened up the discussion further into more specific explorations of the issues we were dealing with. For example, how was their mother or father treated when they tried to get medical help at a county emergency room?

In another class we asked the question: What is “work”? This led to a fascinating examination of underground economies and economic survival through alternative means. The kids knew very well that if you had to live on welfare you would need to do some kind of “alternative” work.

The youth aced POOR’S empathy exercise, one that college students are routinely stumped by, a two-part question that asks, “What has been your worst financial crisis?” We then set up a virtually impossible scenario, one faced by most very low income parents: You are a single parent with three children aged one, three, and five. You just acquired employment, which was very difficult for you to obtain because you have no high school diploma and it’s a very competitive job market. It’s a 40-hour-a-week-job but you can only get childcare for 15 hours a week. This means you will only end up with enough money to cover the cost of your childcare and utilities, but not enough for rent. What would you do?

“There is no ‘legitimate’ solution,” the kids would immediately blurt out at every version of that quiz. “The only thing that mama can do is something that isn’t legal or ‘acceptable.’” The kids were poverty scholars and survivors. They had been there with their poor parents, making those impossible choices, diving into that vicious cycle. They knew that you did what you had to do to feed yourself and your children, and that might mean committing crimes of poverty. That year-and-a-half of workshops inspired me, terrified me, and brought me to endless tears. These kids needed us there for a lot longer, but the limited funding we’d gotten from a grant for the workshops ran out, and we had no money to stay on for free. In our last group of classes, they each gave us a book with their pictures, and pages filled with promises to keep on writing, resisting, and caring for their communities and families.

Solutions

The process of true integration, true recognition of poverty scholarship occurs in many ways. In media production, it means a through-line of involvement of the process and the ownership of a story. A story on homelessness in Alameda County should be co-authored by homeless poverty scholars in Alameda County. In service provision, it would mean that community-based, poverty, race, and disability scholarship would lead the discussion on service provision, school and healthcare systems. Solutions that truly “serve” folks, like schools that truly integrate families and community, would be proffered and established rather than 1.2 million dollar poverty pimp programs, county hospitals, and No Child Left Alive. In activism, it means the understanding that poverty, race, disability, elder, and youth scholars must lead the resistance movements against globalization, environmental racism, and economic justice. These movements must come from and speak to the direct experience. In academia, it means that truly grassroots poverty scholars are integrated into teaching and learning. Community models of teaching and learning are recognized, and poverty, native, youth, and elder scholars are credited for the teaching they are already doing in the community and neighborhoods with poor communities of color.

This article was first published in Race, Poverty & the Environment, Fall 2007.