**This post sat in my drafts folder for almost a year while some political entanglements loosened and I am now free to post.
I sat in a packed crowd in Seattle to listen to journalist and author Anand Giridharadas talk about his new book, Winners Take All: the elite charade of changing the world, and the toxic myth of “doing good by doing well.”
I didn’t know about this work or author until a colleague invited me to the event. She remembered that I had voiced a similar sentiment as a consternation related to working for a nonprofit with a mission to free people from poverty while depending on the largess of the mega-wealthy. Our organization’s new strategic plan includes a new initiative to address the systems that perpetuate poverty, rather than continue to simply apply balm to the wounds it inflicts. How this shows up in our work has, so far, taken the form of gathering interested employees to attend Advocacy Day at our state capital and adding a new fundraising position focused on monthly donors in a Bernie-esque effort to involve a more general population.
As I watched the room in a former church fill up, I commented to my friend that all but two people of color were literally on the margins. Front and center were older white people, like us, who got there early or had seating reserved for members of the hosting organization. When the host and Anand sat down for a public conversation, the room was quiet, polite, and responsive. Anand commented a few times that we were a sympathetic or easy crowd. He also said that, as a New Yorker, what he saw in Seattle was really bad – worse than what he saw in New York City – even disgusting in the hometown of the world’s richest company and man.
Anand, of course, isn’t just any visitor to Seattle. He’s an award-winning journalist and insider of many of the organizations he interrogates in his book (which is available on Amazon and sports a diplomatic blurb from Bill Gates). He knew about Bezos bullying our city council into repealing a unanimously agreed-upon tax that would have funded city efforts to address some of the damage Amazon has done. And he knew about the just-announced “gift” from the Bezos family to initiate another ill-informed attempt to address public education shortcomings. He also knows that many of the co-conspirators in our current wildly inequitable society, writ-large in Seattle, are good people who have created what most of us don’t want (see Abilene Paradox). They (we?) have swallowed the capitalist, Neo-liberal propaganda that says government can’t help with social problems, only business and capital can save us. They/we have tried to dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. The gravity-defying waves of wealth have washed over the unspoken taboo that continues shore-up the status quo.
The taboo that his book and other voices are bringing to the light of awareness, if not inquiry, is this: the wealthy have profited from the current system and they will not do – or tolerate – anything that disturbs that system. While the rich agree with and promote giving more, they will never agree to taking less.
I’m still afraid to post this; my ability to get my needs met is dependent upon monetary income that comes via organizations that may find this too uncomfortable to tolerate. Even though I no longer work for that organization, I’m still working for other organizations implicated by this premise. The work nonprofits do in social service is needed and fundamental to human health and well-being; and, just like other unpaid or underpaid necessary work (farming, childcare, emotional labor, etc.), the ability to continue to do it is dependent upon individual and corporate donations. As Anand so eloquently laid out in his book, this system of dependency is basically a form of selling indulgences to the rich. Donating to nonprofits functions as:
- guilt payments
- public relations
- a locked circle of the poor supporting the poorer
As long as the rich keep taking far far far far far far more than they need, we will not realize (make real) what we hope to leave as our legacy for children, like Greta Thunberg or Emma Gonzalez or Kelvin Doe : a verdant world that runs on sharing, not hoarding, and curiosity, not combat.
For all of us that can imagine a better world and want to behave as if it is already here, we are still deep within systems that force us to act in our temporary best interests at the cost to long-term change. And since posting this is still scaring me, it must be important. I choose to engage and connect with what may be on the other side.