So, I’ve been trolling Craigslist and other online listings for work since I recently moved back to Austin. And I absolutely hate being unemployed and looking for work. Its a type of stress that is not fun to deal with. Anyway, I found this ad for this organization called The Texas Campaign for the Environment that said they were looking for community organizers for an environmental justice campaign. My interest piqued, I applied.
A week later someone called me for an informational interview. The person I interviewed with was this very energetic white guy who talked about empowering communities through grassroots activism. I thought that this was something I could get down with so I agreed to go on an observation day.
I’m paired with this white woman who has been at this organization for 8 months (I noticed that none of the folks who I went out with had been there for longer than a year). I followed her around as she knocked door to door and gave the rap.
“My name is blah blah blah and I’m here with blah blah blah and we are here doing a fundraiser and letter writing for such-and-such campaign. The daily house hold contribution for a year is 60 and strong supporters give 120. Giving money is how you get involved.” Insert small talk throughout.
I noticed that the letter writing was often secondary to securing the donation. Giving the money is what allowed these folks voices to be “heard”. Half way through I knew that I had been lead here under false pretenses. This was not community organizing and none of these folks were being empowered by emptying their checkbooks. We were not organizing communities or getting them involved in activism or showing them how they can create systemic change. We were not mobilizing collective action.
We were knocking on doors in a mostly white, affluent neighborhood. We were knocking on a neighborhood that does not need empowering because most of the folks there are already in power. But the demeanor of the white lady that I was tailing changed whenever a person of color answered the door. One particularly striking example of this is when the door was opened by a tired looking Black man (the only Black man we talked to). She gave her usual spiel but instead of saying that the standard contribution was 60, which she has said for every white person, she said that the standard contribution was 52, with stronger supporters giving 102. He gave $25.
An icy rage seeped through my body.
As coolly as I could I asked, “Why did you tell him 52 when you’ve been telling everyone else 60?”
“Oh, I just had this feeling that he wouldn’t give anything if I said 60.”
Here was this white woman, who considered herself an activist, thinking that she was empowering communities and organizing folks for collective action when all she was doing was getting donations to support a non-profit. Here is a white woman who thinks that she is progressive and working towards justice when she is, in fact, perpetuating the very systems that she is supposedly fighting. You can’t empower communities and be racist to the folks who need the most empowerment.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not surprised. But what frustrates me is that this is what passes for activism. This is what the mainstream thinks will bring change. This type of non-profit, and the non-profit industrial complex in general, does nothing to challenge and interrupt systems of power because its existence is predicated on the subsistence and support of the system. Non-profits such as this are selling a product just as much as any business. But what they are selling is not tangible, it is not a consumer good in the usual sense of the term. What they are selling is the assuaging of guilt and the luxury of not being accountable to the continued degradation of the planet. Give us your money and you too can be safe in the knowledge that you are not responsible for destroying the environment.
Non-profits like this create activism into a consumer product. It co-opts the language and discourse of community organizing so that folks are duped into thinking that they are creating systemic change. They “organize” such-and-such amount of money. We win campaigns by getting folks “involved” at the small price of hundreds of dollars. They “empower” communities by making sure you get at least $150 a night. Non-profits like this are the Wal-Mart of activism.
Non-profits like TCE take the fire out of our movements. They away our radical vision for a just and equitable society. They take our struggle, butcher it and wrap it in hypnotic wrapping paper and sell it to mainstream,”liberal” consumers.
The work that they are doing is important but the method that they use will do nothing to fix the root of the problem. Because, ultimately, the revolution will not be funded.