Filler #3 (2015) submission – Kai
[AID-USAS Local #13 // Divestment Student Network // Pittsburgh Student Solidarity Coalition // Pgh Autonomous Student Network]
Fuck respectability politics. Social and environmental justice will not be achieved by some suits in an exclusive boardroom meeting. If you don’t recall, that’s how we found ourselves in this mess to begin with. If you organize within a “professional” or reformist or non-profit framework, you must also recognize the need for others to do revolutionary, explicitly anti-capitalist work. If you are a college student or otherwise not subject to the “real world” like myself and still trying to figure out your place in activism or radical organizing, I urge you to think outside of the non-profit industrial complex and explore ways of living and working that stretch your imagination beyond existing neoliberal and capitalist structures. It can be done.
In early July I shared a space in New York City with young organizers from 10 different states, all at varying stages of creating or growing a student power state-wide network. An organizer out of Philly that I met serendipitously months ago had reached out to me and another friend interested in establishing a Pgh-Philly connection in hopes of growing a more cohesive Pennsylvania-wide movement. A staff member from Student Power Network bought my Greyhound ticket from Pittsburgh to NYC Thursday afternoon – at 6:15am the next day, I boarded my bus. I arrived at the station in NYC around 5:30pm and immediately headed to the Murphy Institute where I was told most of the conference would be taking place. At this point I knew virtually nothing about who organized the meeting, who was going to be there, or the purpose of the weekend.
A charismatic 42-year-old man named Billy Whimsett helped to welcome everyone – Billy would become a large piece of the enigmatic puzzle I was introduced to over the course of the weekend that culminated in a number of presentations at the Ford Foundation intended to entice large-scale donors into funding this new model for a “grassroots” student movement.
I came to learn that Billy was an author, founder of several organizations and incubators, most recently Gamechanger Labs, and had fundraised over $10 million for politically progressive non-profits and organizations over the years. Gamechanger Labs was the incubator for Student Power Network, which was aiming to replicate state-wide student power across the country after Billy saw what was happening organically with the Ohio Student Association and the Dream Defenders in Florida. A sentiment I heard echoed from different people throughout the weekend was that Billy was a “complicated” character, whatever that means.
The weekend was generally relaxed compared to other intentional conferences/trainings – starting on time wasn’t strictly enforced and there was a lot of “structured unstructured” time where we could bring to the table specific topics/issues we wanted to talk about. I took advantage of this to create space to talk about respectability politics, making activist spaces more accessible and the dangers of the non-profit industrial complex and brainstorming ideas of how to circumvent that.
The first conversation dedicated to respectability politics and the accessibility of “activist spaces” turned into an impromptu people of color caucus where we delved into the dilemma of double consciousness and how it was necessary for organizers of color to be cognizant of how we act and adapt in accordance to ideas of professionalism and well, whiteness. The next conversation we had on how to deal with the growing non-profit industrial complex was ironic given the circumstances of the weekend – several of the folks there were recently full-time organizers who were dependent on grants and other sources of funding to get by.
The other young activists I met throughout the weekend were all on point – radical, militant, and unapologetic. I met several folks that I am sure I will cross paths with again in the near future and look forward to seeing all that they accomplish in the coming years. However, there was a weird tension I felt throughout the weekend because here is the reality – we need money. There’s not a lot of money in organizing. We got bills to pay, kids to feed, and other shit to take care. Although we’d like to dedicate all our time and energy to attacking the imperialist, capitalist, patriarchal system we live in, it’s hard when you don’t got money. One of the most common ways to tackle this is through grant writing and other ways of asking for money from those that do have it. How do we get that money without conceding to the existing power and influence that comes with having money?
After a weekend of learning and fruitful conversations, young organizers from each of the states where a student power network was growing presented on stage at the Ford Foundation in front of wealthy funders who we were told were “on the same page” in terms of our politics, but that was (and continues to be) a hard pill for me to swallow. The Ford Foundation is the second largest foundation in the country and is an organization that has the power to give out million-dollar grants without blinking. It was also created in 1936 by industrialist and capitalist Henry Ford along with his wife, Edsel Ford. Those in the audience, we were told, were once in the same boat as us – young activists dedicated to anti-racist, anti-capitalist organizing. They were now the people young activists had to woo to give them tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. Immediately it appears there is a glaring conflict of interest – my assumption is that to be in a position of that much money or power is that you play the capitalist game and that it’s in your best interest that the game continue. Here are young people on stage describing actions and organizing efforts in direct confrontation with the current system (that you are profiting off of) and their intentions to build a new one.
Let’s assume that these wealthy funders are all on board with revolutionary change and tearing down the capitalist system. Even at the most basic level of the exchange taking place, the principle behind it is assuredly self-defeating and perpetuating the very power dynamics we aim to change. Here are young folks having to explain to rich (mainly white) funders why the work they’ve done is worth their time and money.
Look at what we’ve done, and lend us legitimacy and give us the power to continue because you, with your money, can determine what history will look like. It’s in your hands.
One major issue with this relationship is the narrative that is being told and how history will be remembered. The climate justice movement regularly erases the work of indigenous people and other people of color because of the overwhelming white narrative. An example of this is an article that was posted covering a march for Jobs, Justice, and the Climate held in Toronto on July 5th. The article named a bunch of the high-profile “climate leaders” present, such as Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, describing him to have “Done more than almost anyone to put climate change on the agenda, leading the charge…” While McKibben has been on the forefront of denouncing climate change, so have countless others (read: PEOPLE OF COLOR, INDIGENOUS PEOPLE, LOW-INCOME PEOPLE, all of whom are disproportionately affected by climate change and are disproportionately paying the cost of an extractive, exploitative economy), but because of McKibben’s status and power through money, he will be the one remembered as leading the charge ten years from now. We must intentionally change the narrative or run the risk of perpetuating the very system we claim to be fighting.
We need not only a redistribution of wealth, but a redistribution done in a radical way. Not a redistribution where those already with money and power and voice are setting the precedent for what a new system would look like. We need funding for revolutionary organizing but must be conscious of how that funding affects our organizing and actively explore ways to challenge traditional models and methods of exchange. With grants, there are often deliverables and tangible results that the recipient must meet and point to in order to justify to the funder that the recipient is doing what they are told. Funding changes the narrative in more subtle ways as well – organizations must cater to certain grants by choosing language carefully and at times even changing their priorities in terms of campaigns, strategy, etc. I’ve heard grant writing described as an art – one must craft a request in such a way that it promises to meet criteria set by the funder but still stay true to the goal that the recipient sets out to achieve. This is a slippery slope. We can see how monitoring language here and there becomes a larger issue when it begins to affect the messaging as a whole.
At the 2015 US Social Forum in Philadelphia, PA, there was a workshop regarding legal aid for future actions at the 2016 Democratic and Republican National Conventions. One of the speakers was a lawyer who was committed to defending protesters and activists. When asked about his opinion on certain tactics used by protestors and what he thought would be most effective, he clearly stated that it was not his role to say. He went on to explain that he stands behind the movement and in order to do so requires trust in organizers and their judgment; he recognized that we each have a role to play in the larger fight for social justice. His role is to guide activists through the legal bureaucratic bullshit and freely deferred questions about organizing to those that were on the front lines. This reflects trust in others in the movement and humility through recognition of our individual roles. Similarly, if we could establish funding in such a way that large sums of money were not given in a coercive manner or as a symbol of power, it could instead reflect trust and solidarity. However, until that day comes, I will be suspicious of large foundations that are notorious for advancing neoliberal and imperialist agendas while professing to be socially progressive. The revolution will not be funded.
How do we move forward from here? What does it look like to challenge ideas of corporatization, privatization and capitalism in the way we organize? I’m not sure – I’m just starting to ask these questions and explore. Thankfully, there’s a wealth of much more experienced folks out there who are and have been actively exploring avenues through worker cooperatives, intentional collective living spaces, and alternative solidarity economies. It’s overwhelming to be sure, but exciting to struggle with the fact that the legitimacy of the rules we live by now are entirely dependent on us being complicit; we need creativity and imagination to start making up our own rules.
“It’s good to see Ford finally putting money back into Detroit,” an organizer from Michigan began his pitch. And it was good to be reminded of why we’re in this mess in the first place.
Not convinced in the dangers of the non-profit industrial complex? Check out the comic / zine,“Non-Profit Industrial Complex” Or the book it’s based on, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence