Tag Archives: wealth gap

Privilege and Solidarity

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

HELLO.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please write to me and tell me what you think.

Tyrone Boucher
June 2007

tyronius.samson (at) gmail.com

MONEY STORIES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ACCOUNTABILITY AND OUR FEELINGS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PHILANTHROPY VS. WEALTH REDISTRIBUTION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shifting Power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taking Responsibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Letting Go

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE END…

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

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

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Web Resources

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

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

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

Millions for Reparations: Good information about reparations.

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

Class Action: Challenging classism.

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

POOR Magazine: Awesome.

Racial Wealth Divide: More about the racial wealth gap.

Critical Desire

by dean spade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More than Enough: Precarious Lives, “Mere” Survival, and Abundant Joy

by Kriti Sharma

“Can’t believe

How strange it is to be anything at all.”

-from “In an airplane over the sea” by Neutral Milk Hotel

 

The day I stop being astonished by my own aliveness might be a good day to die. It’s my great fortune and my only grace that such a day has not yet come. Good air rushes in through my nose and hugs my lungs, oxygen melting into my beating blood and warmly flowing everywhere, leaving no piece of flesh untouched. My body is a lively forest, an intricate, densely populated world. Each of my cells whir and hum in their quiet watery way, knit tightly with trillions of other cells, each miraculously complete and simultaneously a part of a greater whole. Like the cells, I whir and hum, jump and flow, open and close, stretch and breathe. Some fire makes it all crackle, some gravity holds it all together. Some mystery keeps this body alive. If I didn’t know what a body was, I don’t know that I’d have the creativity to imagine it. In its intricacy and enigma, its completeness and its vulnerability, it exceeds by far anything that I could dream.

Even on my most devastating days, when earth looks warm enough to sleep in forever or when fire seems a merciful ashy alternative to despair, there comes at least one moment when grace flashes like lightning into my hours. Every day, there is always a moment, at least one sudden, ecstatic moment when a simple exclamation rings clear in my mind like a bell:

Alive!”


Yes, emphatically yes! – “how strange it is to be anything at all.”

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If it is strange (lucky, mysterious, miraculous) to be alive at all, how much more strange (rare, uncommon, exceptional) it is to be alive and wealthy. The richest top 10% of adults in the world own about 85% of the world’s wealth. One would need total assets (disposable income, land, housing, durables, savings, etc.) of at least $61,000 (USD) to be a member of this Top 10%. The average member of this richest 10% has 3,000 times more wealth than an average member of the poorest 10% of the world. Members of this poorest 10%, who often teeter on the edge of survival for want of basic necessities, love their lives, I imagine, much as I love mine. I imagine them breathing as I breathe. I imagine them finding, even on their most devastating days, grace, gratitude and astonishment in their everyday moments.

One would need to have a “net worth” of at least $500,000 to be a member of the richest 1% of people in the world. Members of the 1% club would have on average about 13,000 times the wealth of the average member of the bottom 10%. Wealth disparity is often justified in mainstream U.S. culture as a “natural” consequence of “natural” differences in intelligence, talent and work ethic between people. But what person is 13,000 times more intelligent or talented than another? Who could possibly work 13,000 times harder than another human being? Is anyone 13,000 times more deserving? Certainly no one is 13,000 times more miraculous.

It’s a disconcerting, bewildering mathematics. I do this math not out of a love of numbers, but out of a love of people. These numbers tell one of many stories that help me understand my place in the world and my relationships to other people.

Money has been a part of structuring my relationships from a very young age. My first memory of money is of being four years old in New Delhi, and weaving through a plaza of thin, dusty men repairing shoes—old men with stumps for legs who walked masterfully on their hands, young men with arms missing or misshapen, boys with skinny bodies and muscular, tenacious voices. They sat in rows with their small metal tools in front of them.

“Ma, please give me something.”

“I’ll fix your shoes. Just a few rupees.”

“Have mercy.”

There were so many of them. At the time, I couldn’t count that high.

My grandmother handed me a silver coin to give to one of the shoemakers. I watched it fall into a callous, outstretched palm, then hurried away as fast as I could without tripping over sharp tools and missing limbs. Behind me came the voices of others, asking for money with greater power and determination than ever.

I wanted to leave the place quickly. I was on my way to school. I had a pretty yellow dress, and hair done in careful pigtails. I felt delectable, good enough to eat, good enough for anything.

But by the end of the school day, I was usually spent. There were crayons and singsong, teachers who scowled at me and rapped my fingers with rulers, mean girls who tugged my pigtails and called me “Fatty”.

At bedtime, I would argue with my grandmother.

“I don’t want to go to school tomorrow!”

“Do you want a bedtime story?” she warned.

She knew my weaknesses: sweet milk and bedtime stories. Annoyed and defeated, I would sulk in silence for a few minutes, then nod my head almost imperceptibly, still frowning.

“Good. Do you promise you’ll go to school?”

A minute would pass. “Promise,” I would say in a soft, grumpy mumble.

“Make sure you keep your promise,” she admonished gravely. “Promise-breaker: shoemaker.”

This is my first remembered experience of money. It seemed to define my place in the world as the giver of money and not the receiver. As the bright-faced child in a pretty dress on her way to school. As the one protected and blessed, moving through crowds of thin, dusty people. As a student who is always just one broken promise from being a shoemaker. In short, as someone who is part of the professional middle-class—kept high above the “lower classes” by a tightrope of conventional morality and institutionalized education. How strange it is to be a student and not a shoemaker. And how precarious—how oddly, mythically dependent upon my ability to keep promises and to go to school.

Around this age, my grandmother also taught me about reincarnation—how living beings are souls who wake up in bodies somewhere in the universe as mosquitoes or mice, mushrooms or demigods, students or shoemakers. Everybody I saw, I would think, “Maybe that was me once.” I’ve kept and cultivated this feeling of precariousness throughout my life. I know that it’s chancy out there. I don’t know how many beings I’ve already been. I don’t know what miracle of a body I might inhabit next.

******************************************************************

Those bedtime stories I bartered with my grandmother set me up to become a fast reader. I was the first kid to read in my kindergarten class. It was then that I was labeled “gifted”. And, in fact, I was gifted, in the sense that my grandmother gave me the gift of her time and energy to read to me every day. I was gifted to have books, time, attention, and education. If I was gifted, the gifts came from somewhere and from somebody, but the psychologists who tested me and asked me questions behind closed doors didn’t seem interested in where the gifts came from, only in whether or not I had them. I passed all of their tests, I guess, because I was accelerated a grade.

I walked to elementary school every day from the trailer my family lived in in a mixed working- and middle-class neighborhood in the Northwest Territories of Canada. My parents immigrated from India to Canada and worked as architects for the territorial government on designing public projects like schools, hospitals, street design. We moved many times in my life, from apartment, to trailer, to townhome, to a large single-family home, and finally to my parents’ “dream home”, which they designed themselves. The changing houses mirrored my parents’ steady rise in seniority through various government jobs, and was concurrent with my own upward mobility through school, going from one “high achievers” class to the next, collecting “leadership experiences” and “enrichment opportunities” voraciously along the way. By age 15, I was quite the fast-talking wheeler-dealer, armed with a sparkling resume and glowing references to sell anyone on the idea that I had great “leadership potential” and would “make a difference” in the world.

How strange it is to be “exceptional”. This goes without saying—“exceptional” is one of the very meanings of the word “strange”. I mean strangely unnerving, disconcerting. I loved being “special”, even though I knew it divided me from others, even though it fueled competition and fanned destructive jealousies, even though it made my confidence brittle and thin—a teacup on a roller-coaster, sometimes high, sometimes low, always on the verge of breaking. Though I attended mixed-race, mixed-class Canadian public schools my entire life, my closest friends were other solidly professional middle-class overachievers who also had strong attachments to being “special”—that is, to gaining the approval and support of authority figures, excelling in mainstream institutional academics, and “being leaders” in clubs, student governments, and community groups. I was in high school before I finally figured out that I was not alone—that, ironically, I was part of a class of people who felt exceptional!

The professional middle class seems to me to be just that—a class of people who feel exceptional. We often see ourselves as part of an educated elite that is more skilled, talented, creative, and intelligent than the majority. We’re not just special—we’re specialists. We aspire not for “jobs” but for “careers”: long years of increasingly specialized training, networking, and status-building that peaks to a climactic “lifetime achievement” around middle-age, followed by what is hoped to be a decades-long, comfortable retirement. And we strive to achieve it all by “the sweat of our brows”—or rather, by the brilliance of our brilliant minds, our irreplaceable talents, our painstakingly cultivated expertise, our unique and visionary leadership.

Many people who identify as out of the mainstream, and/or radical, and/or revolutionaries may scoff at such ambitions and assumptions – this white-bread, homogeneous script, this tired normalcy. A good number of us grew up professional middle class and are “recovering” from the experience—often by denying class privilege at all. In my experience, however, class attachments die hard. As suspicious as many radicals who have grown up professional middle-class may be about late capitalism, many of us still believe that the jobs (and sometimes careers) we hold in the capitalist system will still promise us security, fulfillment, and the chance to make a positive difference in the world. We may feel that though capitalism exploits and disenfranchises the “poor” and the working class, that we as professionals can still be fulfilled by well-paying, interesting, and meaningful paid work under capitalism. As a result, we may maintain strong attachments to paid work, feeling it to be a particularly important source of self-worth and fulfillment. We can conflate our status within institutions with our status as people. And often, the more we feel our paid jobs give us, the more we fear we have to lose.

As academics, artists, teachers, professional non-profit workers, social workers, doctors, lawyers, consultants, and more, we aim to use our institutional education, skills, and privileges for “good and not evil.” We seek out and pursue careers where we can be creative, and “do good work” through our paid jobs. And we do do important, meaningful work through these jobs, and do our best to push boundaries and bring about social and institutional change through the various institutions where we are paid to work. That said, I don’t think that the for-profit, non-profit, or government sectors will ever pay anybody to abolish private property, create local collective economies and decision-making bodies, or establish self-determining communities on land re-claimed from the State. Without this crucial work that demands a fundamental restructuring of the very institutions that create and perpetuate wealth disparity in the first place, wealth and meaningful work may be available for the few, but they will probably not be available for the many.

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After years of searching for the perfect career, the career that helps me “reach my true potential” and “use my gifts”, the career that allows me to develop the specialized skills I need to be crowned an “expert professional” who deserves to be “taken seriously”, I’m slowly giving up on the professional middle-class career ladder. This is another way of saying that I’m giving up on capitalism to provide me with meaningful paid work to which I can bring my whole self. This doesn’t mean that my paid work doesn’t relate to the rest of my life, or that it doesn’t support me in certain ways. It’s just that I cannot count on it for my sense of self-worth, and I can’t use it as a proxy for projects that fundamentally challenge and undermine capitalism. I do what I need to do to survive under capitalism, and focus my energy on whether or not my paid work can sustain myself and my community in the unpaid, revolutionary and transformative work that we do together. The question that seems most crucial to me now is not, “How am I going to have meaningful paid work to which I can bring my whole self?” but rather “What is it going to take for all of us to have meaningful work to which we can bring our whole selves?”

True to my class upbringing, I’ve tended unconsciously to value my labor above the labor of others. As a professional middle-class person, I’ve always been given a disproportionate amount of status and praise for my talents and skills. That doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t be given respect and admiration for what I can do—it means that everyone else deserves the same respect and admiration. Yes, I can write essays, talk pretty, and set up science experiments. I can also cook, clean, and do dishes. Some of my skills are valued more highly than others. But labor is labor is labor – everyone’s work is essential and honorable, and everyone’s work counts. The systematic perpetuation of “cheap labor” around the world is a lie based on the notion that some people’s time, creativity, and life energy are worth less than others. My attachment to having a certain type of “professional” work has been at least partially based on the idea that I have creativity and skills that should be respected and rewarded through status and money. Fair enough, but who doesn’t have creativity and skills, and how many people are emphatically not widely respected or rewarded nearly enough for their brilliance—garment makers, drug dealers, sex workers, farm workers, shoemakers? Giving up on capitalism means to me questioning the notion that I am somehow more entitled to a certain type of economic sustenance and social respectability than others. To put it more strongly, it calls into the question the idea that I am entitledmeaningful paid work to which I can bring my whole self in a world where practically no one can find such work.

In a certain sense, it doesn’t matter what I do—it matters what we do together. For example, I could work in any capitalist institution—corporation, university, non-profit, etc.—and share my income with members of my community to sustain them as they do the radical, necessary work that no institution would fund them to do. In that case, if someone were to ask me, “So, what do you do?”, I could say, “I work at such-and-such institution,”—but in a sense, the question would be irrelevant. The question of “what I do” wouldn’t make sense without considering what it is that my work is making possible for others. I could say, “I do paid work at such-and-such institution and that sustains the radical collective work of which I’m a part.” That’s a more complete story, because it highlights what my work makes possible for all of us. I shift the focus from myself, my status, my employer, and the institution where I labor and turn the focus to my community, our shared projects, and the new institutions we’re making together.

Who will sustain us to do the work that no sector will fund us to do? We will have to sustain each other as we’ve always done—like family. I would say that most people in the world work in this way. When asked why they do the work that they do, I suspect that the answer most people give is, “To take care of myself and my family.” Though work can be a source of pride, joy, and meaning, many of these benefits come from the fact that our work makes it possible for our loved ones to survive. We could expand the conventionally narrow definition of family by creating economic arrangements where we take turns holding paid jobs to support one another in doing unpaid movement work. Instead of growing attached to our individual advancement in particular careers, we can turn our attention to discovering how to ethically share resources like land, food, and wealth amongst not just our blood kin, but our revolutionary family. These economic arrangements may make new things possible for future generations—who are, after all, our family, and should be taken seriously as such.

We each make choices as best we can—we buy certain things, we form certain relationships, we take on certain jobs. To what extent do we really “choose” our paid work under capitalism? We are all caught up in coercive systems that are beyond the control of any individual. This is part of why the term “liberation” resonates so deeply with folks with radical politics, because we are people who recognize coercion when we see it, and long for ways out. The term “collective liberation” rings even more deeply, because we’re not interested simply in the end of the coercive situations that we face as individuals, but we want an end to coercion for all, and we recognize fundamentally that in the long-run, the liberation of one is dependent upon the liberation of all. It doesn’t really matter whether we’re praised or blamed for our choices—that’s not where our attention need be focused. What matters is what becomes created through our choices. How do our choices help us survive and thrive under difficult conditions? How do they help others survive and thrive?

Every day, we face difficult questions about what “collective liberation” really means. These questions are exacerbated by the systematic dissolution of common resources. More and more often, I hear my friends expressing their fears of aging and of “not having enough” for retirement. These questions become intensified—more deeply felt and more painful—because every day the precariousness of the State and of the Market and their inability to sustain human beings is becoming more fully revealed. Social Security will not come through for us in our old age, even for those of us who—aided in part by our class privilege—have worked steadily in State-recognized institutions throughout our lives. Employers won’t support us. A great many of my professional middle-class friends and acquaintances are deeply fearful for their futures, and have reacted to this fear by putting money away for themselves for retirement. The question of how people will be cared for in old age makes vivid the complexities and realities of collective liberation. Are we in this together? What would it take to ensure that all of us were taken care of in our old age? What is made possible when each of us puts money away for ourselves? What is made possible when we own resources collectively? How does it feel to fight for universal elder-care when everyone’s lives (including your own) depends on it? How about when almost everyone’s lives—except for the minority of people of which you are a part—depends on it?

In Connaught Place, the old shoemakers slept under thin blankets on the pavement. What would it take to ensure that all of us were taken care of?
 

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Growing up in North America, I’ve been heavily exposed throughout my life to a ubiquitous and incredibly powerful set of mythologies about the so-called Third World. As a descendant of immigrants from a so-called Third World country, I’ve been more attentive to these mythologies than most North Americans, and have experienced them as painful, violent, and misinformed. The Third World is constructed as a mythical place that is stunningly homogeneous, despite the fact that three-quarters of humanity lives there! The names and faces are different, but the underlying realities of Third World countries are presumed to be the same: the Third World is a poor, wretched place, full of poor, wretched people living poor, wretched lives.

“Wretched lives” are “base”, or “meaningless” lives, bare and akin to popular conceptions of animal life. American psychologist Abraham Maslow developed a theory about human needs known as “Maslow’s pyramid”. He said that people can’t fulfill their “higher needs” (need for transcendence, beauty, self-esteem, love), unless their “lower needs” (need for food, shelter, physical safety) are met first. This idea is common and influential in mainstream U.S. culture, and is expressed in phrases like “just getting by”, “eking out a living”, “bare existence”, “mere survival”. These phrases all echo the sentiment of Maslow’s pyramid, which is that people whose lives are particularly precarious—that is, people who are particularly close to death by hunger, thirst, cold, disease, war, etc.—are unable to have meaningful creative, spiritual, and intellectual lives. The intelligence, talents, beauty, power, and leadership qualities of such survivors are constantly called into question. They are treated as silent, miserable masses, too weak and uneducated to be able to make decisions for themselves. They are “merely surviving”, meaning they don’t have the time or energy to devote to the “higher” pursuits that make life meaningful and worth living.

Let me be plain: everyone’s life is precarious. We are all very near death. At any moment we could dissolve or snap in two. What separates the “merely surviving” from the “flourishing and thriving” is the intensity with which one feels, experiences, and knows one’s precariousness and fragility. Starvation, homelessness, and perpetual violence bring human beings close to death, and to a particular kind of death—death by systematic social negligence. Someone has to be the “collateral damage” of a system that funnels resources to a few and away from the many—it might as well be Rajni or Raheem, or Bob or Bernadette. In a generous, abundant world that provides more than enough for all, these are preventable deaths that just weren’t prevented. Such deaths are conventionally framed as either regrettable but necessary (“it’s just the way things are”, “there’s not enough to go around, so someone has to be sacrificed”, “it’s human nature”), justly deserved (“the fittest survive”, “maladjusted and backward people don’t make it in the world”), or ungrievable (“they live miserable, meaningless lives”, “there’s too many of them anyways”). Those of us who are not as precariously perched on survival’s edge may conjure up such stories as consolations, perhaps to shield ourselves from grief. Ultimately, however, such stories betray a failure to take these lives seriously as lives—as real lives, full lives, livable lives, miraculous lives.

A deeply felt sense of the tenuousness of one’s own life certainly doesn’t preclude the possibility of a rich and meaningful spiritual, interpersonal, and intellectual life.“Mere survival” is never “mere”—survival is gorgeous, hard-won, and miraculous. To be alive at all is a sacred honor, and no small feat. And there’s nothing “mere” about the creative visions, talents, skills, knowledge, and wisdom that those on the edge of survival possess and enact through their days. These are precious lives that are emphatically “worth” living…but I think I’m tired of this game of assigning living a particular “worth”.

Yes, at any moment, we could dissolve or snap in two. I know this because it happens every day to so many, and for the oddest reasons: just because people didn’t have “enough”. Not enough of the food, the water, the air, the shelter, the land, or the simple peace that is necessary to continue surviving. These are common things, abundant in the world and abundant in my own life. I will never understand why so much faith has been invested in my worth—my “talents” and “expertise”, my “leadership skills”, my usefulness, my simple right to be—and yet so little of this faith has been invested in others. The question of whether or not I should live has never come up as a question. What determines whether we look at a person and see them as brilliant or as burdensome, as beauty or as blight? Bright-faced and blessed, I moved through crowds of thin, dusty people—but it could all have easily been otherwise, inverted, upside-down. Promisebreaker, shoemaker.

I see human lives as precarious in the immediate sense (we could die at any moment) and in the cosmic sense (we could have been born into any body and into any situation). In between those two time scales is a third kind of precariousness—the precariousness of our current social, political, and economic conditions. The economists tell us that the value of the U.S. dollar is falling rapidly. Some economists are forecasting that the value of the U.S. dollar will fall below that of the Chinese yuan relatively soon. What would happen if hundreds of dollars couldn’t buy a loaf of bread? That’s when, as Chief Seattle insinuated, we realize that we can’t eat money. Then what shall we eat, and how?

Our circumstances can change very quickly. It’s not just that those of us who are not “merely surviving” could have been among the “merely surviving”, it’s that we may yet in our lifetimes become among the “merely surviving”. If we took this realization seriously, we might work with even greater care, determination, imagination, and empathy to transform our societies into loving places that cherish the living very, very much.

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In one sense, the question of “what is enough?” is a deeply personal question. In another sense, it is a properly social question. When Karl Marx wrote, “From each according to ability, to each according to need,” he also meant that the question of what constitutes a need is determined collectively, not simply individually. It would be one thing for each of us to look deeply into our hearts and wallets and decide how much we as individuals need—that is, how much we receive, how much we keep, how much we give away. It would be another thing for all 6.6 billion of us to commit to making sure that every person has what they need. In this case, what each of us keeps, gives, or receives would be decided through that collective commitment.

Making this commitment would be a decision. If we are each other’s people, this is not something that we will discover, but something that we will decide. We won’t necessarily “find out” through DNA testing or genealogical research or travel or even dialogue whether we are a people. We will decide that we are a people, and then make decisions accordingly to help one another live.

The Dalai Lama wrote something that astonishes me more and more the more that I think about it: “We inhabit the same universe because we share a common karma.” This implies that something essential to our development as beings requires us to inhabit this planet together. It means that, unfathomable as it may seem, every last one of us actually belongs here. It implies that we are not a random group of living creatures, but a particular group of creatures thrown together, and there is some clue hidden in our togetherness, some great riddle that will take the collective energies of every last one of us to solve.

We are the living – a motley crew, a tattered and tired bunch. How lovely we are, we miracles against entropy, withstanding gravity’s heavy pull and wear. How are we here, and how can we continue to be? What is it that keeps us alive? On one hand, this is an impossible question: who can explain aliveness? It’s a trickster that exceeds language, always bleeding over boundaries. Yet it can also be as simple as a children’s song: food, water, sleep, shelter, art, air, love, and time.

The beautiful thing is that there’s nothing better than the things that keep us alive– no joy comes close to the joy of having these things. There’s that good air again, greeting my nose. There’s that gracious feeling—the astonishment of feeling my breath and knowing my aliveness again for the first time. It doesn’t get better than this. Nothing brings more joy than what is shared, common, and free. It is always more than enough.

December 2007

 

Privileged with Cancer

by Libby Goldberg          

It’s been four months since I was diagnosed with a rare form of ovarian cancer and six months since my long-term partner and I split up. Needless to say, thirty-one has been a fucking hard year for me. Less than five percent of women with ovarian cancer have my type, germ cell, and most of those who do are between the ages of fifteen and twenty. My diagnosis and treatment have impacted my life in deeper ways than I have words to adequately express, both negatively and positively, and I have faced enormous challenges. One of the major factors contributing to my ability to successfully meet these challenges has been my class identity. My recent experiences with cancer have provided me the opportunity to more viscerally understand the individual and institutional privileges I have access to and have inspired me to share this understanding with others in similarly privileged positions. Early on my process with cancer, I made the decision to use all the angles I could, however unfair it might be, to take care of my body and to save my life. While this decision feels like the right one, my experiences have continued to feel complicated and riddled with questions. What does it mean to be a radical with access to the best medical care in the country? What privileges are okay to use? Can I still be part of the “movement”, even though I belong to the owning class? What is the best way to leverage the resources I have towards social change? For those of us whose fire inside burns stronger with the possibility of a just world, where every human need gets met, where we are collectively liberated from oppression, I am hoping that my story will encourage discussion and action. Continue reading

Accumulation vs. Redistribution

by Holmes Hummel

How does money pile up in the hands of a few?

My great-great-grandfathers accumulated wealth by claiming as their own the productivity of stolen land, captured people, and institutions organized by and for white Christian men. By contrast, the wealth inherited by my generation is accumulated today through investments in branded corporations that handle all the messy transactions of the global economy on “our behalf” as shareholders, paying dividends on the same types of systems that generated proceeds for my family’s lauded patriarchs.

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