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…