Tag Archives: strategies

On crisis and community

I’ve seen more cops on my block in the past 24 hours than I have in months – a series of fights and muggings have brought them out in ever-increasing force, reminding me vividly that I have been wanting to write about violence, about crisis and trauma in communities, and all the ways we deal with those things. I’m thinking about this in the context of the US Social Forum and the Allied Media Conference on the horizon, the convergence of so many queer/POC/women-led groups doing powerful anti-violence work (lots of links embedded towards the end of this post), and also in the context of my own relationship to violence and safety as a white person, as a trans person, as a person with class privilege, as a person read as female, as a survivor. Continue reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

The following offers a glimpse of our ongoing dialogue.

—Tyrone Boucher

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

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

Tyrone: Can you talk more about community reparations?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reflections from a Homownersexual

BUYING

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

We and our various friend-housemates were white flamboyantly-gendered queers moving into a neighborhood that was 99% working poor African-American. I had been living for a few years in the Baltimore Ave area of West Philly, where gentrification is a major issue, but where the neighborhood has also been home to a mixed race and class community for a long time. Though the southwest Philly neighborhood I had lived in is majority African-American, there are also a number of African and Asian immigrant communities, multiple white communities (in this case I mean sub-cultural communities), and the income/class breakdown of the neighborhood changes dramatically from block to block. It was easier to feel like part of a big community of lots of different people in my Baltimore Ave home, even if that was rationalizing. In the house we bought, it was immediately clear that we were outsiders and probably invaders. We bought the house because we knew the only white people in the neighborhood, a couple with a great reputation among their neighbors which helped people feel a bit more comfortable with us, but we still had a lot of answering to do. Though we eventually built real (if not deep) trust with many of the folks on our block, we often felt open hostility from people in the general neighborhood throughout the time we lived in this house. I’m thankful for the relationships I built on that block, but if I had it to do over again, I would not move there – the ongoing feeling of being an invader in Philly’s Black community never went away. I saw very few white people in that neighborhood in the five years I lived there, but it wasn’t just about race, it was also clearly about class. We were from a range of class backgrounds, but as a household we didn’t fit the class makeup of our neighborhood any more than we fit it racially.

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

SELLING

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

We envisioned our perfect situation for selling the house: African-American folks engaged in community organizing and with enough income that chances of them losing the house to bank foreclosure (=developers get the house) were low. We made a clear commitment to each other that we would not sell the house through word of mouth in our white subculture. This was really challenging because our white neighbors, who had told us about the house in the first place, felt an entitlement to move their friend into the house, and this friend was really offended
when we turned down his offer of $100,000. The house ended up sitting empty for a few months while we negotiated with the eventual buyers, and this made the white neighbors and their friend really upset.

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

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

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

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

We made donations anonymously through donor-advised grants via a community fund, after meeting with a kick-ass anti-gentrification activist to pick her brain about where she thought these grants would be most useful, and what amounts made sense. We chose to give anonymously because the buyers are members of some of these groups and it felt show-off-y and weird to publicly give their money to their organizations. I wanted the story of the grants to be told in Philly, but not to feel I was doing it for approval or credit. The community fund put out an announcement about the grants that came from the sale of a house and received a large number of donations in response!

The answers aren’t cut and dry, but I really hope that people think about these issues when buying or selling a house:

Where is your money going? Are there ways to fund movements/people involved in movements for social justice with those big chunks of money that go to lawyers, realtors, contractors, moving companies?

Who are you asking for input or advice about this process? Are there ways that you can connect with activists in your neighborhood or city, so that the choices you make are informed by more than your own perspective? Is anyone challenging you?

Who understands and shares your political commitments? Lots of people will tell you that you are nuts if you diverge from the path of wealth-accumulation and hoarding resources. Even if you feel sure of your position, it really helps to have supportive allies.

Can you buy or sell through word of mouth rather than paying a realtor, and that way keep the sale price lower and the process less commercial?

How do you choose your lawyer for the final sale paperwork? Do you need a lawyer?

How much could you spend/earn for the house? How will your sale price impact the home-owners and renters in your neighborhood?

Are you making a profit? What happens to that money? Is there a way to move some or all of that money into movements for housing justice or other liberation movements? How much money did you put into the house? How much do you “need” or “deserve” to keep?

Current tax laws make it unlikely that you’ll be paying taxes on income from the sale of a house. If taxes really worked as a form of wealth distribution (which of course they don’t), how much would you be willing to pay?

If you do keep some money from the sale of your home (as I did), where does that money live? Do you earn interest? Under what circumstances would you be willing to spend it or give it away?

This is my personal experience of the process of buying and selling a house, but I’m sure there’s lots more insight out there. I’d love to hear feedback and insight from others.  There’s a lot more questions, too, but I hope these are a helpful start.

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

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