The role and rise of the non-profit sector has long been a critical debate among the Left. INCITE!’s 2007 anthology, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, takes up these questions more comprehensively than ever before. As two women who have worked for NGOs, we have both struggled with the relationship between these organizations and our revolutionary politics. For fatima, working in a social service domestic violence nonprofit, primarily with women of color, helped her make the connections between the problems with social service and reform-based work and the need for revolutionary organization. She recognized the bandaid nature of the nonprofit system, which did not provide the possibilities for liberation in the way organizing does. For Alma, her relationship with NGOs is less clear. She recognizes the profound ideological problems presented by NGOS, yet at the same time feels they often provide alternatives that revolutionary organizations currently do not. She has largely worked in legally based non-profits, and feels these organizations are often successful in directly attacking massive civil liberties violations, such as Guantanamo and illegal surveillance.
One important observation we have made is that the forced implementation of neo-liberalism throughout the world beginning in the 1970s is directly linked to the rise of NGOs. Where the state had once been present in providing many social services, suddenly it was absent, and in its wake, populations were forced to independently provide for all aspects of their lives. Identifying a void that desperately needed to be filled, NGOs stepped in. In need of financial support to offer what the state once provided, these NGOs increasingly became funded by big businesses, wealthy families, and grants. Thus, NGOs are in many ways a product of neo-liberalism, as they attempted to do exactly what the neo-liberal state refused to do. In turn, the question we must ask ourselves is – Why did the Left fail to fill the void, as NGOs did, and provide alternatives and solutions to the devastation wrought by neo-liberalism?
Other women of color bloggers have pointed to the important contradictions inherent in the NPIC. Kameelah makes good points on how universities pass on middle class ideals and expectations. She says, “I left [college] feeling like I spent 4 years fighting to not become a reformist without the opportunities to radically dream.” Cripchick takes up important questions of nonprofits and the disability community, including “Can we actively and militantly include young people and…create an expectation of community instead of individual gain? What can a movement that is not dependent on the non-profit industry/social service delivery/individual-based philosophy even look like?”
The Internationalist Socialist Review has reviewed The Revolution Will Not Be Funded and argues that while this book has launched an important debate, it is also problematic in certain ways. That may certainly be true, but the approach of ISR review seems to have some problems of its own. They suggest that the alternatives offered in the last section of the anthology are not radical enough, with which we would certainly agree. But, while they grant that the Left does not have the organizational answers, they do not begin to pose or ask, what are the feasible alternatives for radicals and revolutionaries?
The way in which the ISR article takes up the questions of race and gender is also problematic. The question of gender is entirely absent and yet it is a crucial component of the nonprofit system. Overwhelmingly, women are drawn to staffing nonprofit organizations. And while these jobs are primarily middle class, as the ISR review points out, they are also attractive to working class women of color who can fulfill the very real need to make a decent living for themselves, either to support their families or to achieve financial independence from patriarchal families, while at the same time putting them in a position to effect tangible and immediate positive changes in peoples’ lives. This dynamic is something that has seriously weakened revolutionary and radical organizations, by suctioning off women of color with dedication and leadership skills into the nonprofit sector. For that reason alone, it is strange that this issue is not being taken up by revolutionary organizations who are questioning the nonprofit system and asking themselves how they can pose serious alternatives.
The ISR article also criticizes the “identity politics” of many of the writers featured in the anthology. While they correctly observe that the Rainbow Coalition, or middle class people of color “community leaders,” have co-opted people of color nonprofits and community organizations for their own purposes, this dynamic points to a class struggle in different communities of color that needs to be supported and drawn out given the specific race and gender tensions of those communities. Again, the ISR correctly observes that white supremacy should be defined more clearly in terms of its relationship to nonprofits. But when they say that, “Class is the natural and correct framework in which to analyze the problem of the NPIC,” they have disregarded the role of white supremacy and patriarchy in shaping the NPIC system as well as the debates surrounding it.
Take, for example, the reason why INCITE! launched this project to begin with. They had received a $100,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, who later revoked the funding after they reviewed INCITE!’s points of unity on Palestine. Given that the question of Israeli Apartheid exposes the contradictions of white supremacy on an international scale, the way almost no other issue does, forefronts the question of white supremacy in the ways nonprofits and foundations function. INCITE! had the integrity not only to refuse to liquidate their politics but to also actively and publicly take up the question of the disastrous effects of foundations and nonprofits on mass movements. Considering that the liberal anti-war movement during its height (which ISR refers to as a mostly white, nonprofit led movement) wouldn’t touch Palestine with a ten foot pole, this whole project speaks highly for INCITE!’s commitment to fighting white supremacy.
The question remains, what are the strong alternatives to the NPIC? What solutions can we offer? We have to ask the question- why are women and people of color attracted to nonprofits? How can revolutionary and independent mass organizations reproduce the benefits of a nonprofit job for committed organizers without the inherent problems? Liberals and the Right are highly organized and we will have to be, too, if we are going to build a strong radical movement. That won’t happen if we don’t understand and strategize around the consequences, both negative and positive, of the nonprofit system.
14 thoughts on “The Revolution Will Not Be Funded”
Thanks fatima and Alma for this contribution. As a woman who has also worked in the non-profit and NGO sector, I think an important point made by TRWNBF and other critiques of the NPIC is that they necessarily rely on the continuation of exploitation and oppression. Take, for example, my year-long stint working on the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. While individuals in the organizations had strong critiques of state-force, war-making, and (neo)imperialism, these critiques were silenced and over-ridden by a singular focus on banning landmines. While landmines kill an extra-ordinary number of people, almost exclusively people of color in the third world, and largley women and children, and working/poor folks, the existence of the institution was founded not on addressing questions of war directly, but instead on pushing states to adopt basically meaningless (un-enforced) promises to stop making one particular type of weapon. I ultimately had to leave the field of work because of the overwhelming feeling that my job (low-paid w/no benefits, for me, but with many people making 6 figure salaries at the top of the NGOs) was necessarily CONTINGENT on the continuation of war and violence, and the bolstering up of charities and other non-profits that provided aid. As a matter of point, many organizations that worked on the campaign provided direct medical support and prosthesis to survivors. At the end of the day, this does precisely what fatima and Alma call out; the individualization of the NGO/non-profit world. By focusing on helping a few individuals with big problems, inequalities and the power of the state increase. This is another critique that I think is very important to the NPIC–that NGOs and Non-profits have taken up the healing of the working class, so that capitalism can continue to thrive. Many ngos and nps focus explicitly on low-wage job placement, for example. While these goals provide very temporary but often effective bandaids, these organizations do nothing to support communities, self-sustainability, or anti-war movements from below.
Like Alma, I do see some legal service organizations as helping to push through reform goals that can lead to more power for communities; an organization I used to work for focused largely on anti-gentrification and supported tenants organizations. Other non-profits can provide support for movements, and perhaps this is the role non-profits need to take while revolutionary organizations and building the capacities to provide necessary services to their communities?
It seems important here to bring up the efforts of revolutionary organizations to build social service programs; specifically, I am thinking of the Black Panthers and the numerous “survival programs”. The programs provided food, education, and some medical care among other things. They were explicitly part of a revolutionary organization, and rhetorically for revolutionary goals. Unlike non-profits, they were at least meant to exist as ways to support future revolutionaries. However, many of these programs have since become non-profits themselves. A possible reason they were so readily co-opted is because they did work with people others were not willing to touch, and without a successful revolution, did end up doing a lot of the work of repairing people to participate in a way that was not contrary to capitalism.
If revolutionary groups take up caring work on a broad scale, how can they actively engage with/against NGOs/non-profits, as well as the state? With “services” relegated to the private sector, direct engagement against state oppression is more difficult–whereas movements like the Young Lords takeover of Lincoln Hospital in 1970 momentarily disrupted and reversed the hospitals racist and patriarchal functions it 1) was not permanent and 2) would it be possible to do the same at an NGO? Especially when it IS a place where many women of color go to find jobs and support their families in a time with few other options?
Thanks for this. I’ve been meaning to read that book for a while but had sort of forgotten about it. I’m curious, do the authors consider unions as part of the NGO sector? I ask in part because the post mentions mass organizations. I’m not clear in my own head about the terms, maybe they’re not opposed but not always overlapping. I ask in part because I recently read something about how the labor movement in the US has hit close to (I think just under) 50% women membership, the same piece talked about how unions make a difference for women more than men – the wage gap in unionized vs nonunion workplaces is smaller. I can find the piece if y’all want. I think that’s important stuff, and I still have big problems with the mainstream labor movement, I don’t know yet how to square all that.
Sorry, I’m rambling off topic now so I’ll stop. Anyway, thanks again for this post.
(I’ll give a forewarning – I’m using the term NGOs as an umbrella to refer broadly to NGOs, non-profits, NPIC, etc.)
I wanna piggy back off of a good point that CG raises. CG says that her job at the anti-landmines NGO was “contingent on the continuation of war and violence.” The same could be said about patriarchy, in two related ways. On the one hand, similar to CG’s experience, NGOs that focus on “women’s rights” (usually in third world countries) from liberal politics get stuck in a cycle of reinforcing the very institutions that perpetuate or at least allow abuses against women. They wanna be for women’s liberation without ever really liberating women.
On the other hand — and this is especially pertinent for revolutionary organizations who prioritize being majority women and women-led – NGOs have often acted as a “brain drain” of sorts, drawing women away from radical or revolutionary politics and organizations. The proportion of women in NGOs blows out of the water the proportion of women in most revolutionary organizations I’ve seen around. This too often means, as fatima, alma, and CG point out, that women are slaving away for liberal organizations to earn an income, with little time or energy to participate in other organizations or other organizing informed by more radical politics. There are a lot of reasons for this and NGOs aren’t the only cause. But it does bring to mind a few questions:
How and when will larger numbers of women get the political and theoretical experience and training that revolutionary organizations can provide if they are drowning in NGO work for now? This will be decisive when future movements break out. Are “progressive” NGOs able to provide some level of training in this sense? What will rev orgs need to do to develop women organizers and women leadership both inside and outside of our own orgs as we deal with this “brain drain”?
If NGOs don’t always provide concrete gains for women who work for them, then why are they seen as more appealing to be a part of than revolutionary organizations?
One other thing. I would add to the main argument of the post that NGOs are filling a gap that unions have also contributed to. I’ve been reading recently about labor history in Texas and IWW and other radical union organizing here and across the Southwest. Some of that history exemplifies that unions, in their best moments, have functioned as fighting organizations of rank & file workers that contribute to the social fabric of the neighborhoods and families workers are coming from, either by demanding and winning financial gains from employers and/or by pooling the resources of workers themselves to provide a variety of social services, housing assistance, entertainment, etc. The underlying premise inherent in this can tend towards a union-as-“social worker” type dynamic, or it can tend towards breaking down the barrier between workplace and community.
In our current era when, as fatima and alma pointed out, neoliberalism has gutted the resources and infrastructure available to the working class, the huge union conglomerates have been only too happy to sign the dotted line for concession after concession, eroding the livelihoods of workers further still. The union bureaucracy was a central force in attacking the self-activity and self-organization of workers from the 60s onward, defining the role of the union as a partner to management, a lobbyist to politicians, a corporate negotiator, a patronage network, etc. – all roles which undermined the power of workers to secure, maintain and advance their own power both over production as well as their own communities and community resources. Caring for the community, well that was the state’s job; wages and sick time were the union’s business. As unions ceded the community as a site of struggle in conjunction with the workplace; and as unions’ economistic demands have ceded political struggles to management, they have increasingly become impotent to fight the same state disinvestment that NGOs came to respond to.
Which leads me to Nate’s question: are unions part of the NGO complex? I would say no, though I haven’t thought of the question in this way before, mostly because the historical basis for unions and NGOs is different and thus each has played different (albeit at times overlapping or similar) roles under capitalism. Am I over-simplifying the relationship?
Super interesting conversation!
I think NGOs can be attractive to people because there is the presumption that concrete gains are made, while radical/revolutionaries are struggling for these huge things, like ending occupation or war. While that rarely happens for larger issues (ie environmental policy), operating a soup kitchen or an after school program or something does have concrete and visible benefits — even if those benefits are employed to mitigate unrest and class consciousness.
By stepping in for the incredible weak left the past 30 years NGOs have supplanted the Left in many areas with tangible short-term progress. One of the real gains of these programs in the sixties was the sense of community that was built up, from which arguments about larger struggles could emerge. Any sense of community is almost completely absent from working class life today. People are unbelievably isolated and atomized, and the places they can look for immediate respite are, unfortunately, not provided by many organizations today like the Panthers were then.
I don’t want to undervalue a political framework that can actually make sense of the world, but I think that has to work in tandem with combating the incredible isolation people feel and the pervasive under confidence in the power of struggle to provide victories for working people.
This is a key discussion. Jason, I agree one of the reasons folks are attracted to the NGOs is they appear to provide immediate “concrete” solutions to problems in our communities. Most revolutionary organizations right now are so small and lack the numbers, the money, and the community infrastructure to resolve these problems. As groups grow, it’ll become more and more possible to integrate direct responses to our communities’ needs with broader community struggles, the way strike committees have organized folks to provide food, medical care, etc. as Lauren pointed out above and as Jomo pointed out in an earlier post on the Teamster’s strike in 1934.
I also think that as revolutionary organizations like the Panthers disintegrated this kind of work got separated from other aspects of radical organizing and became sucked into the nonprofit/ social service realm, giving a false sense of radical legitimacy to the Nonprofit Industrial Complex. Advance the Struggle has an important critique of how this played out in the Bay Area: http://advancethestruggle.wordpress.com/2009/07/15/justice-for-oscar-grant-a-lost-opportunity/. Many of the non-profits who helped the cops try and control youth of color who rose up against the police murder of Oscar Grant claimed to be descendants of the Panthers. In the Bay apparently there is a culture of radical nonprofits claiming to be revolutionary but ultimately discouraging militant actions. Maybe the same could be said for feminist nonprofits… the degeneration of militant women’s organizations during the counterrevolution of the 80s meant that social service functions these groups once did got cut off from the broader radical agenda, giving some “feminist” window dressing and legitimacy to non-profits that are actually drawing women away from more radical organizing against patriarchy, capitalism, and white supremacy.
On a personal level, I can say that non-profits generally don’t succeed at solving the “concrete” and “immediate” problems they claim to solve. I work as a high school teacher through a non-profit program that provides instruction and credit retrieval to youth who were expelled or dropped out of the public schools. Some nonprofits are bourgie and isolated from the working class – they take folks from the class, including women of color, and pull them out as token representatives or managers of the class. At my job we have the opposite problem… we are right in the middle of all the drama in the neighborhood and are often on the verge of drowning in it. We are doing “concrete” work that is very down to earth and accountable to the community. But the amount of concrete work to do completely overwhelms all of us and is far greater than our organization is prepared to deal with, especially since we are constantly facing budget cuts and increased demands from the District to do more with less.
All the problems our students walk into the door with are products of the system itself and can only be solved through mass mobilization. For example, we’re constantly dealing with fights, sexual violence, mental illness, etc. which prevent folks from learning, but there is no alternative to the police in place in the neighborhood and folks rightfully don’t snitch so we’re left with no way to deal with shit and then some retaliates and it just gets worse.
That’s why there is no alternative to building revolutionary organization…..everyday I see there is a concrete need for revolutionary alternatives right away. My friends and I sometimes joke that the revolution better come by Monday or we’re screwed. Every day that it’s delayed means tragedy for the folks I work with. Some folks say working at nonprofits can give a sense of success to working class people, women, and folks of color who would otherwise be cut off from that. But I think the only way that higher ups in the nonprofits can insulate themselves from all this daily tragedy and feel successful and powerful is if they separate themselves from the folks they “serve” and basically accept as daily routine a certain amount of death and destruction for the objects of their service. And that’s a sad and ugly way to live.
Hey fatima and Alma, thanks for starting off this key discussion. I have also been involved in the NPIC and it has been a big part of my own politicization and transition into revolutionary politics. My involvements have ranged from social service, domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers, to more progressive anti-deportation non profit groups. It was also through countless internships and volunteer opportunities within the NPIC that I learned skills that are now essential for organizing.
There are some points I would like to add to this discussion. They are not direct responses per say, but something to add to the conversation.
1) It is important to distinguish the NPIC into a spectrum with its own left and right wings. They have varying degrees of connections with the state. As such, they also have different ways of articulating their politics wrt patriarchy and white supremacy. The more conservative organizations, I think we can more easily agree to denounce. However the more progressive organizations are harder for revolutionary organizations to distinguish themsleves from cos the critiques of the state are present. The difference however, is that I would say, NPIC are more susceptible to popular fronts than revolutionary organizations are. This is because I think strong theory and study of past movements are key for the discussions on popular front vs. united front and even progressive non profits do not emphasize the study of history and organizations beyond rhetoric.
2) What fundamentally distinguishes the NPIC and revolutionary organizations for me, is the role of the working class in the liberation of society. If we agree on the point that homeless folks, folks facing domestic violence, unemployed workers, imprisoned folks, need strategic alliances with other parts of society for their liberation, the question is: which class of society is it? The political ideology of the NPIC is that it posits the middle class as the source of such liberation. Yes, it is true that we will have working class folks join the organizations per say, however, more often than not, the ideology and philosophy of NPIC seldom recognize labor and other working folks as the source of power to change society.
In my own experience as a queer woman of color working in a homeless youth agency, I saw queer youth who were homeless because of the homophobia of their families, be channeled into job employment agencies, learning to be good workers and submitting to the discipline of the workplace. For the non profit I was in, this was seen as the way out of the situation. The middle class blindspots of these organizations made it impossible for them to see that working at a Starbucks, or Safeway, was simply another form of oppression for the homeless youth in our program. Often times, folks dropped out of such programs and returned to the streets as sex workers and drug dealers cos, they were able to make more money, in less time, with less supervisory oversight. The risks and dangers involved in such street work was seen as an easier alternative to waged labor. The only way the middle class non profit ideology could understand this phenomenon, is by saying that the youth were lazy, or didnt have enough skills etc. They had no way of understanding how waged work that they were channeling the youth into, is also class oppression. One question I think we have to take up is: How can we start shifting the analysis, and put agency for change in society, on the alliance between such folks and the working class rather than the middle class?
3) Why the proliferation of NPIC? My first politicization came from experiences with the domestic violence social services. The revolutionary left has failed to coherently provide a way of dealing with gender oppression. The proliferation of the NPIC is also a failure of the left in embracing queer, gender and sexuality, disbailites rights as fighting programs, beyond just rhetoric. The class reductionism, of the revolutionary left need to be called out and changed before we can tackle the NPIC.
4) Progressive non profits have put focus on women of color, POC leadership; Unlike the more conservative and mainstream non profits that tokenize POC and other oppressed people. progressive non profits have actually made oppressed peoples’ leadership a KEY component of their organization. This is in contrast to white male dominated revolutionary organizations. Oppressed people who are in revolutionary groups need to show that revolutionary organization is not just a white man’s domain. It is what liberated our people through third world, anti-colonial struggles. We need to reclaim, innovate and build on that legacy.
Yes, thanks for writing and posting this. I just want to expand and clarify on what Mamos posted (thanks for linking to the excellent Advance the Struggle piece).
In the Bay (as in NY, from what I know), there is an exceptionally thick layer of nonprofits, and even of what I would call “radical” nonprofits. These come, for the most part, from a single source: STORM (the 1990s POC-led communist grouping that included, e.g., Van Jones). The Ella Baker Center, School of Unity and Liberation, Youth Uprising, Burns Institute, POWER, and more all have their roots in STORM.
But despite being some of the most radical nonprofits, these groups nevertheless held the people back (or attempted to) during the Oscar Grant rebellions. (there were some individual exceptions.)
See especially this description of what went down in Oakland on Jan 14th of last year: http://www.counterpunch.org/maher01162009.html
The danger, I think, arose not just from their connections with the state, but equally from their belief that they, and they alone, spoke for the community. This is part of what makes them so dangerous.
Interesting points Geo…. a lot of us read your piece last year when the Oscar Grant uprising was happening and it’s a great analysis. In Unity and Struggle some of us have been reading about STORM to think about how to ensure that our work remains focused on building majority women and people of color leadership. They were able to do this to some extent which is good but it sounds like they had some serious flaws as well. I wonder how much their orientation toward building nonprofits stemmed from their understandings of Maoism and New Democracy. Did they advocate building a popular front between middle class and working class people of color to fight racism, putting working class people of color insurgent organizing on hold? Were there debates in STORM over these kinds of questions?
I’d also be interested to find out what kind of debate happened in the nonprofits inspired by STORM when their leaders took such an objectively pro-cops stance during the Oscar Grant uprising. Do ya’ll think there is a chance that some of these folks might be getting disillusioned with the non-profit industrial complex? Do you think some might be more open to building revolutionary organization after these experiences?
Your analysis really shows the differences between the Bay Area and Seattle. Ya’ll have a lot of self-proclaimed revolutionaries down there who dominate coalitions but end up betraying working class people of color in the process. We have very few consistent coalition partners who are willing to organize and sink roots in our communities here so noone is even claiming to be the sole representatives of the community from a more conservative perspective. Recently more class struggle anarchists have been getting involved consistently which is good. The more social democratic and liberal groups haven’t started moving against budget cuts until very recently (the past month or so). So in the past when we have tried to start coalitions with these various groups we often end up spinning off new organizing projects instead, with circles of individuals who come around us from different political tendencies who don’t have other groups to affiliate with in the context of a broader coalition. We’ve had to experiment with very flexible and at times ad-hoc forms of organization. In other words, we don’t have groups like SOUL or POWER in the mix here and the folks they would attract are coming around us even though we have different politics which creates opportunities for growth but also challenges.
It seems that Advance the Struggle and Bring the Ruckus are trying to animate the left wing tendency inside the various coalitions against police brutality and budget cuts in the Bay Area. Now Unity and Struggle and Democracy Insurgent are trying one more time to BUILD these coalitions in Seattle while also staking out the left wing within them. We’re trying to welcome nonprofit folks and ethnic student group members to get involved consistently while at the same time making necessary critiques of their approaches. It’s a tricky process where we constantly have to navigate the terrain between popular frontism on the one hand and ultraleft sectarianism on the other.
In any case, the work ya’ll are doing down there and this discussion about the nonprofit system offer a lot of insight for what to look out for once coalitions here finally do get off the ground.
Yes, studying STORM’s legacy is crucial, and the central question seems to me to be: how did a POC-led “revolutionary communist” end up almost entirely caught up in the NPIC? I assume you’re reading the “STORM Summation,” which is interesting but seems to leave a lot out (I don’t know the rest of the story).
It seems to me like a few of their issues included: 1.) unnecessary secrecy and security culture; 2.) concretely when it comes to their breakup, a lack of a policy to handle sexual assault; 3.) when it comes to the NPIC aspect, a sort of subterraneous vanguardism that was never fully recognize (and only hinted at in the “Summation.”
I think this vanguardism combined problematically with some elements to their approach to race, etc., so that ironically, there was a sort of deference to POC communities (a kind of “tailism”) that may have privileged certain voices (i.e. middle class) over others alongside an excessive vanguardism toward others.
This manifested during the January rebellions as a simultaneous deference to “the community” or “the people of color” who are most affected by police violence, alongside a vanguardist insistence that the CAPE coalition leaders knew best what was to be done, when it was time to declare victory and go home.
I do know that the internal debates within CAPE, prompted by our critiques, were heated, and led to CAPE splitting, with a more radical wing (New Years Movement) attempting to continue work. They then fell off, and nothing was going on until Raider Nation Collective organized a Oakland General Assembly structure which has continued work into the present, with participants ranging from the RCP to the NYM (i.e. former CAPE folks), the NOI, and Advance the Struggle.
In other words, some folks have come out of CAPE with a definite recognition of the errors of the organization, and hopefully with a cognizance of what led to those dangers (i.e. middle-class non-profitism).
Thanks for that summation, that’s very helpful to get a sense of the dynamics. I haven’t read about STORM beyond the summation document but the analysis you put forward sounds plausible. We have also experienced that kind of tailism where activists defer to communities of color but then define those communities based on what the middle class self-appointed leaders say. The General Assembly work sounds promising – best of luck with that, we’ll definitely be following it closely.
I also just wanted to clarify/ qualify my previous comments about our organizing here in Seattle. I didn’t mean to be shitting on other revolutionaries in Seattle when I said that noone was consistently trying to sink roots into the communities we’re a part of. I’m not trying to say hey look we have a working class base ya’ll don’t so fuck you. In fact, various Left organizations in Seattle ranging from Trotskyist to Anarchist are doing important work around health care, queer liberation, transformative justice, and other issues so they don’t have the forces to consistently fight with us against budget cuts. The problem is not a lack of will or commitment or authenticity, it is a lack of organization… the few organizations here are stretched thin and so are we, there is so much work to be done, and new organizations urgently need to be built in many different communities on many different issues as the economic and political crisis deepens. I was trying to contrast that material reality to the situation in Oakland where the scene seems to be saturated with Leftist organizations clustered around the Non Profit Industrial Complex that claim to speak for various communities, holding back more militant possibilities. I just want to make it clear to comrades from other tendencies here in Seattle that folks in DI want to work with ya’ll and build a coalition and we’re not trying to brag about our work at your expense. We don’t want to “own” this work – in fact, for it to succeed as many people as possible will need to get involved, including folks from multiple political tendencies.
Like Jomo I also have experience working in a youth homeless non-prophet. I saw and see the scenario described all the time where very poor or homeless youth scramble to get the small number of available low wage jobs that still don’t pay their rent and then get yelled at or arrested when they decide to sell drugs instead so they can have a livable income. For those folks, I agree with Mamos – it’d be great if the revolution came on Monday, or even Tuesday would be fucking great.
But in the meanwhile I wonder about the question originally posed by Fatima and Alma -“How can revolutionary and independent mass organizations reproduce the benefits of a nonprofit job for committed organizers without the inherent problems?” I recognize that this is maybe unrealistically ambitious, mostly because of numbers, money and time, but given that just about everyone who posted on this has or currently does work at an NGO – what about NGO workplace organizing? I’m always impressed by the ridiculous corporate structure of medium sized and larger NGO’s where the bottom rank workers of the NGO get completely micromanaged and the scenario CG mentioned where the bottom level workers make a tiny fraction of what the administration makes. I’m not trying to say ‘if you can’t beat them join ‘em.’ But since so many women of color work in the NPIC, maybe radical workplace organizing would bring some of them over from the neo-liberal dark side? And since so many NGOs have some kind of access and considerable resources in oppressed communities, more democratically run organizations could be a good step?
Does anyone know of work like this that has been tried, either unsuccessful or successful – Santa Fe also has a pretty thick layer of NGO’s. Does The Revolution will not be Funded tough on this? Obviously I’m new at this – I’d really value a hindsight perspective to think about before trying something on my bosses.
I’m not aware of any examples of workplace organizing inside nonprofits but I think it’s a great idea that should be pursued for all the reasons you lay out. It could be combined with organizing among folks who “receive services” from these nonprofits. During the Depression, unemployment councils organized unemployed folks and I believe there were even strikes among folks who were working for the state as part of the New Deal job creation programs. Nowadays, lots of unemployed folks and low-income workers work at nonprofits for stipends, especially youth in employment prep programs. They are treated like objects of charity, not like workers. It’d be great if they could organize into labor organizations and if nonprofit workers could also organize themselves and fight in solidarity with the folks receiving services.
I think these kinds of strategies will also be necessary over the long run to stop state, municipal, and county budget cuts that will effect many non-profits. The usual pattern when these cuts come down is that the executive directors of the non-profits go to city council meetings and plead for money, sometimes bringing up a token “client” to tell a sob story to get more money at the expense of other programs who are doing the same kind of humiliating pleading. As a friend who was then one of my students said, they get up there and say “little Timmy fell down a well and we saved him, so give us money.”
When I’ve gone to these hearings with my students they and I have both framed the struggle against cuts as a structural issue, as a social justice issue, pointing out for example that the county should stop cutting funds for education while they’re building a 200 million dollar prison.. It would be great if this kind of approach could be developed into a sustained organizing effort across multiple nonprofits so they can’t divide us against each other.
Casey and Mamos,
In my own non-profit legal services work, one interesting dynamic has been in small unionized shops, where administrative workers who were mostly women of color w/kids/non-heteronormative family responsibilities were in the same shop as lawyers. In this workplace, administrative worekrs and lawyers and paralegals were facing extreme speed-ups, in part because we were working to catch all of the “timmy’s” shoved down the well by New York City (the organization worked for folks fighting gentrification, and w/mental illness and job loss). Materially, both lawyers and admin staff needed to end the speed ups to do their jobs, and successful gains were made for admin staff by fighting together w/lawyers over the same demands.
While this workplace organizing was a small example of success, it did not attempt to address the inherent problems many have already laid out in the NPIC. To expand on Mamos’s point about the potential strength of “organizing among folks who “receive services” from these nonprofits”. This would mean organization would be to move out of the union-based shop model, and expand organizing to the people seeking advice/help from the non-profit, so n/p workers breaking from their roles as social service providers to struggle with people who had formerly been their clients. Former clients would have to become leaders in this struggle–I haven’t fully thought this out, and honestly I think, for the reasons discussed, having a liberatory n/p is an oxymoron…But, if we build strong communities, they can push to Take Over resources currently held by n/ps, in order to control themselves how these services/state and federal monies will be used; if n/p workers can take on this struggle as workers themselves, it will mean the type of workplace organizing that happened at my org, and that I think casey suggests, with the understanding that it is only a starting point.
Great point! I think bringing the class struggle to the NPIC and raising the contradictions within it is also an important way of approaching this issue. I used to work for the Y and it was bitterly ironic cos in our meetings some of the staff who worked in the shelters were saying that they themselves also utilize the services of the Y even as they were supposed to be the “service providers” on the other side! So much for the mission of trying to “help” women and kids through these services when its wages and benefits werent even meeting the mission! We needed a union! My immediate co-worker and I floated this idea but never got down to doing it seriously because of some of the challenges:
1) our work space was fairly isolated from one another. it differs from non-profit to non-profit, but ours was a small branch out on its own and we didnt meet with the other branch staff (and so couldnt build up trust and rapport sufficiently) except at meetings mediated by the bosses.
2) class consciousness at the workplace — my immediate co-worker at i saw our direct supervisor as our boss, but it wasnt always so for other co-workers. the sense of — we are in this together to help the youth, gave this pretentious sense of unity, as well as a presumed sense of everyone being on the same page politically to “save the youth” in a top-down manner. the emotional trauma and stress in a small workplace also meant that people had to rely on one another to get through the day. our boss was a part of that process and i think it became hard for everyone to see her as a managerial figure. There was bitching about the boss, but its a different thing to organize
3) the “sacrifice”/”philantropist” mentality at non profits — u are supposed to be doing this out of the kindness of your heart so how can u complain if you dont get paid enough? you should be working extra hours cos it’s your PASSION! to help the poor and oppressed — i would say many people i worked with bought into this and took it upon themselves to “solve” the situations their “clients” were facing.
4) if you get paid more, you are taking money away from those you are serving.
5) How do we make this class struggle at the NPIC workplace also a struggle with the folks that workers interact with, so we dont create this division between employed and unemployed folks? [Mamos and CG talk about this above]
In relation to that, who is a common enemy for both? What demands in addition to wage demands, can go along in the campaign?
To be honest, I know folks in the social services who actually have a lot of disdain for their “clients.” Its a middle class way of looking at the situation we are in from the lens of neo-liberal attacks as fatima and Alma have pointed out.
6) Clarity in organizational form
There are such competing pressures within the NPIC that are unconducive to workplace organizing and solidarity w those on the other side of the social service counter. Whether its a unionizing committee, or an independent labor organization, I think clarity is best achieved in the initial steps, through articulating some points of unity
Anyways, excited to discuss this more w you!