Philanthropy, what have you done for me lately?

Several years ago a colleague asked me, “How did you know that fundraising was your work to do in the movement?” This brought me answers that would leave me forever changed.

I was ecstatic by this inquiry because it gave me the gift of reframing how I see my work: fundraising. And turned it into what it is: donor organizing. Crystalizing what I had been trying to make sense of. How does money, separate from reparations, fit into my goals and values of freedom, liberation, and self-determination for all Black people?

How does money, separate from reparations, fit into my goals and values of freedom, liberation, and self-determination for all Black people?

Still ruminating on this, I noticed that the fundraising activities and the uprisings of 2020 were intrinsically connected.

Alexis Pauline Gumbs taught me that Harriet Tubman was unsuccessful the first time she tried to escape slavery. And we know how that story ends. Harriet did eventually make it out, along with hundreds of others. Now, I’m not going to romanticize it. The response to them stealing themselves into freedom was violence. Repeatedly.

art by NIA Books and Things

It Harriet took several tries to succeed. I take this to mean that not reaching a goal on the first attempt doesn’t necessarily equate failure. There was a time when enslaved Africans thought the end of slavery in the u.s. unfathomable, but still it came. (Sort of. I mean, it did, but… Lookin’ at you 13th Amendment.) Harriet taught us that we’re already free, we just have to know it. Believe it. Live it.

Yet here we are. In a world where our Black and Brown siblings are incarcerated at devastating rates.

Where the only amendments the state abides are the ones that produce capital, commodify people, and poison our environment.

Where nonprofit funding is tied to institutional anti-Blackness reinforced by historic colonial practices that effectively destabilize Black communities across the u.s.

Where our ancestral demands for freedom echoes through and between the days, nights, decades, and centuries.  

Did you know that “[a]vailable data indicate that less than 2 percent of funding by the nation’s largest foundations is specifically targeted to the Black community” (The Case for Funding Black-led Social Change 2017)? Better believe we feel the effects of this devastating statistic. By “we,” I mean, our Black-led and -serving organizations.

Whew! If you thought this article was over seasoned before, well…let me tell you, this is where you might feel it gets spicy! 

From Twitter @_afrodiziak

Political education is essential. Critical Resistance shines a bright light in the dark corners of my movement work. Teaching me how the nonprofit sector operates as yet another industrial complex that reifies the objectives of the state. 

The state uses non-profits to: monitor and control social justice movements; divert public monies into private hands through foundations; manage and control dissent in order to make the world safe for capitalism; redirect activist energies into career-based modes of organizing instead of mass-based organizing capable of actually transforming society; allow corporations to mask their exploitative and colonial work practices through “philanthropic” work; encourage social movements to model themselves after capitalist structures rather than challenge them.

(Abolition Now! 2008, pg. 20)

This book was published in 2008, and yet a quote about a sector which moves at such a glacial pace, if at all, unfortunately resonates today.

Reflecting on the earlier question, I learned even more about myself and my work. I decided that as long as we are living under soul crushing capitalism, it is my responsibility to redirect resources to movements that benefit people like me. Regular-degualr Black people. 

I suspect that my participation in such a toxic system is sunsetting. Once we disentangle Black power and freedom from [Black] capitalism, I expect to find that my movement work has to change. I hope to be courageous enough to face it when it comes. Until then…we struggle onward.

How messed up is it that american families who’ve hoarded their wealth that was built upon genocide and enslavement would be the very same to create the play book that dictates paternalistic relationships with Black-led nonprofits? Operating from a place of disbelief and distrust in us, our programs; debating whether we have, what they deem, the necessary experience to accomplish our goals. As though we aren’t the experts on the complexities and issues in our own lives. Absurd!

These are the same foundations upon which nonprofits — hubs for community organizing, employment, and direct services — rely for funding to sustain critical programming that is practically ignored or severely underfunded by government entities.

No tea, no shade. Let me just say that right now. Because some of my friends and colleagues in philanthropy are reading this and likely just puckered up real tight. To all of y’all I say: rather than clinging to a dying, harmful system or your base defensiveness and fragility, consider where you hold power and what you can do, right now, to make the philanthropic landscape less tumultuous, dare I say supportive, for Black-led and -serving organizations.

If you could cancel that grant report now, that means you never really needed it. Stop it with the anti-Black assumptions that our orgs don’t know how to manage money. Do away with time-bound spending requirements so that we can prioritize building a reserve. Eliminate arbitrary rules that impose barriers to Black people’s work. Cut the suffocating oversight and trust us to do what we do best. Some of y’all are like helicopter parents that need to chill.

On the flipside, there are regional funding partners who I’ve spoken with, asking, “What do you need?” and “We’re already doing X, but I think we can make Y happen, too. What do you think?” and “You asked for X dollars, we’re giving you more.” 

Admittedly, the outpour of support a year ago, coupled with the willingness to open up purses a bit wider was overwhelming. 

I recall taking a moment to celebrate with my team the increase in revenue and do some more internal, long term planning and (re)organizing. Then I realized something else. The money had always been there. There has never been an ethical reason that the Black-led and Black-serving organization where I used to work should be as chronically underfunded as it was.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’ve learned a great many things in my time as a nonprofit fundraiser. Not least of all being that I live in an area (like nearly all of us do in the u.s.) where there actually are enough resources for everyone, they’re just not distributed equitably.

Turns out, there has always been enough dollars to fully fund the vital work happening everywhere. Unchecked anti-Blackness accedes and reinforces scarcity time and again. This is changing. Somewhat. I find myself wondering how lasting, or not, these changes might be.

George Floyd’s daughter Gianna said, “Daddy changed the world!” Danged, if she wasn’t right about that.

In Portland:

Mulugeta Seraw changed our world.

Kendra James changed our world.

Keaton Otis changed our world.

Quanice Hayes changed our world.

Jason Washington changed our world.

Dominique Dunn changed our world.

Tete Gulley changed our world.

Aja Raquell Rhone-Spears changed our world.

We are forever changed by all of the Black people in Portland, Oregon whose light was extinguished by police, the state, and vigilante violence. The above list is not comprehensive. Our world is forever altered when another one of our beloved siblings is severed from this life by a system that denies Black people’s humanity.

I’m reflecting on the events of last year. The intensely racialized twin pandemics, the police violence and the virus. I find myself thankful for the people in the thick of it; who manage to make light on socials. I appreciate their bravery, their humor, their relentless pursuit of justice in a time where it’s too slow going, if at all. I’m thankful for all of the people collectively risking literal life and limb to advance the humanity of Black people. 

In response to non-Black protesters’ treatment by police when marching for Black Lives, someone pointed out that when you start to play on our side, you also start to get a taste of what it’s like to be Black around here. State violence and all. 

Still, I’m thankful for protestors. (Organizers are the GOAT, tho.) Direct action and other kinds of front line activities are not my work to do in the movement. And not just because I have an auditory processing disorder that would make it nearly impossible to give or receive directions in an organized, loud, and often chaotic environment, but because I have been called to do other work in the movement. 

To me, my work is simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. 

I’m concerned about it because I’m unsure when #DefundThePolice will stop trending (if it hasn’t already in some parts of the world), and I wonder when words like carceral state will lose their buzz in philanthropic board rooms and meetings. Because you’re not seeing people being spirited away in unmarked vans, you’ll think our issues have been largely resolved. I’ll admit, I’m worried that a time will come when your trustees are no longer interested in the freedom-dreams of Black people in Oregon.

But, you know, I have anxiety and can always find a reason to wring my hands in distress and dismay.

So, while I lie awake, racked with the psychological terrorism that comes with being Black in the u.s. (for the record, James Baldwin was not wrong, and I am, in fact, “in a rage almost all of the time.”) I give myself over to the reality that when our beloved freedom-dreams come to fruition, we will be ready.

When national news is disinterested in local police gassing and brutalizing our loved ones, our neighbors, our coworkers, our elders, and friends. We will be ready.

When your board members’ tongues cannot perform the curves and pauses required to speak about us, our liberation. We will be ready.

When the guilt-driven, reactionary giving of non-Black people to Black causes begins to wane, we will have activated other resources, mutual-aid, and interdependency. 

We are ready. Black people been ready.

Now is the time for you to be brave.

Art by @handsomegirldesigns

As Black people, we have no other choice. Each day that we choose to wake up and be present to whatever comes our way in a world that tries its damnedest to bury our fury, pleasure, and presence is a gift we permit you to witness. (*cue Solange*)

Don’t allow the simple truth that Black Lives Matter to fall out of vogue in a year or two. Because we will still be here. Bet. Struggling toward and achieving freedom, liberation, and self-determination while we dismantle, change, and build systems under which all Black people will live free.

Samantha L. Taylor (that’s me!) is a Black queer weirdo who’s just trying to survive and thrive in the Pacific Northwest. You can find me online everywhere @samanthaleeonna. Oh, also, my views are my own.

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