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Decolonizing Charity

I’m about halfway through the anthology The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, edited by INCITE! Women Of Color Against Violence, and deriving its cheeky-yet-serious title from Gil Scott Heron’s poem.  Andrea Smith (scholar and Native activist) rocks it out in the Introduction, delineating the historical rise of foundations in the U.S. (Rockefeller, Ford, Mellon), and how their efforts to ‘keep the peace’ and ease the pinch of poverty often facilitated their own corporate (strike-breaking, union-busting, tax-sheltering) interests.

Since coming on board with Buddhist Peace Fellowship, I’ve been wondering to myself what it means to be part of nonprofits these days, to officially join the ranks of professionalized organizations that try to do good.  Clearly, good needs doing.  We can all agree on that — especially as engaged Buddhists attuned to the suffering in the world.  And yet, as the testimony from World Banker Milanovic  shows, common definitions and strategies for good can vary wildly.  Can contradict each other, even.

I would love to hear from any of you who might be experiencing similar struggles, questions, and frustrations about the limitations of charity, these whip-smart industries dedicated to ameliorating poverty without whispering a word about inequality.

Don’t get me wrong, community work is vital.  It’s not like we can just take the high road and refuse to engage with immediate suffering.  But how do we also organize for the long haul, for peace and justice, for revolution?  Is there room for that in our organizations that do good?

Asking these questions isn’t easy.  It involves taking up a magnifying glass to examine certain patterns we hold dear, patterns that may give us pleasure and a sense of safety.  (Fortunately, this exercise in daring examination of ephemeral pleasures may feel familiar to us as Buddhists!)

Even the Civil Rights Movement.  How much did it rely on a premise of citizenship, patriotism (even the tortured patriotism of Black America), the foundational American Dream of Manifest Destiny, a perfectible settler colonial state, the expanded “city on a hill,” already blessed with all the right ideals, if only it could summon the courage to stick to its promises of “liberty and justice for all?”

Well, as long as you’ve got your citizenship papers.

And even then, if you’re a prisoner, well…

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Comments (2)

  • Jeff

    For those of us who believe a truly humane and just society cannot arise within a capitalist economic framework, the practical question of how to improve living conditions in the present is fundamental and not easy to answer.

    To cite a personal example, I am very active in a nonprofit group organizing for a universal health plan that would exclude private insurance companies from their current inefficient and costly middle man role. These huge corporations were instrumental in shaping Obamacare into the industry-pandering legislation it is today and will employ all their vast resources to protect their parasitic grip on our health system.

    Needless to say, taking them entirely out of the picture will be an uphill battle, requiring a coordinated political campaign by thousands of committed activists, lots of publicity to convince millions of voters, and enough pressure to force our government to ignore for once its most powerful lobbyists. All that’s gonna cost beaucoup money. Which means fundraising not only at the grassroots level but also from foundations and major donors for the kind of support it will take to enact legislation in the State of California.

    Not exactly my revolutionary cup of tea, but comprehensive health care is another basic, unmet human need that shouldn’t have to wait until we are finally able to recreate equitable social relations from the ground up. I do think that as we fashion incremental systemic reforms with the tools we have, we’ll become stronger and less dependent on today’s crop of more-or-less coopted institutions. Taking the long view here.

  • david

    This website and some of the articles and comments project the feeling the authors are tortured and consumed with social change, at so many levels, so many “projects”, so complex, with subtle nuances.

    With two equally matched opponents, (which BPF and a lot of social change groups are not-with respect) the more efficient and organized structure usually dominates.

    Unless you are extremely talented, focused on a limited mission, and have grass roots traction, (and others) the corporate structure will be hard to destroy. It may implode on its own through moral design mismanagement, but that’s not a win for the other side, more a dysfunction of the system which intelligent corporations will study and apply the lessons to the next venture.

    Jeff I respect you vision and gusto, but the route your going, within the system puts you at an immediate disadvantage. Obama care will destroy inexpensive, immediate, and private medicine. Most doctors will be on a salary for a hospital or corporation, and the care will be doled out, low tech, and long wait times. Or the care will be high technology, immediate, and cash only.
    if you want to “cut out the middle man” you have to know your staff needs (old, pre or post preggo, kids, trauma impending bike riders) and make a deal with a local doc or hospital for care.

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