No strings donations: Breaking the cycle of privilege’s rules

A few months ago as I was walking with a friend, she was telling me about people in her home country who had even less money than she does. She was telling me about them because I had given her some money and she wanted to tell me about who the money was helping. I had a physiological response to her sharing the details of this with me. I desperately wanted her to stop. I’m still confused by this response, but am going to tease out some aspects of it here.

On the one hand, I come from a culture where we “don’t talk about money.” Talking about money signals a crassness, or, more accurately, a lack of the right kind of culture. While I didn’t grow up with enormous wealth, I grew up with people who did and I learned their language. I learned enough to know what it would take to be a part of their circles. I spoke their language with varying degrees of success.

As I’ve been practicing recovering from my addiction to whiteness, I’ve become more aware of all of the unwritten rules of speaking the language of class—and this is a cross-racial issue, though white people are more likely to be very wealthy and it’s white people I’ve known in this socioeconomic class. I wasn’t even aware that the rules were woven into me. They dictated how I moved in the world, and to a large extent they still have an impact. Even just thinking about writing this post made me feel tension in my gut, like I might be doing something shameful. I’ll get in trouble. I’ll lose access to networks. I’m not sure what else I’m afraid of, but my body has me on alert. I’m breaking a class rule, even though I’m not a part of that Super Rich class. I’m talking about money and I’m talking about the language of the moneyed class.

Another reason I flinched when my friend told me about the good results of the money I shared was because I didn’t want to feel like there were any strings attached to my gift to her. People in the upper socioeconomic classes frequently ask organizations and individuals to “sing for their supper.” I didn’t want to be one of those people. I gave the money to my friend because I had it to spare and wanted to share it.

Donors to nonprofit organizations or individuals can be very controlling about their donations. I’ve seen donors ask that recipients of financial assistance write thank-you notes to trustees, for example. Maybe that seems harmless to you, but what it does is enforce the power imbalance. You (recipient of funds) are beholden to me (donator). Individual donors often require special meetings with nonprofit management before they will make donations, too. In fact, this is very common. It’s a part of the donation process most people don’t even question. Executives in nonprofits regularly need to “court” wealthy donors. What is this courting process?

In my experience, when someone donates money but wants to be sure they have a say in how it’s used, there’s a level of white supremacy culture that is playing a part. As a white person who comes from a background of financial stability I have recently uncovered fear that real justice will mean I have to give away all of my family’s money. I have only begun touching on this fear in an embodied way. (My personal bank balances don’t show a whole lot of money to lose.) The fear lives at a deep, deep level. Existential. Cellular. I understand the urge to want to control what happens to money I donate. I think that’s why my friend describing the use of the money made me so uncomfortable. When I share money, I want to do it differently than whiteness wants me to. When I share money I do so with trust that the recipient will know best how to use it.

If you are among the class of people who has the option to share your financial resources, what do you expect of recipients? Do you trust them to use the money you share in a way that will have the most impact? If you don’t trust them, why don’t you? Are you asking people or organizations to sing for their supper? If you are, what need are you really trying to meet?

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Image by lucas Favre via Unsplash

Lessons from a virus: The political is personal…and the empire is crumbling

We are living in interesting times and I don’t mean that in a good way. This new coronavirus is spreading across the globe and here in the United States, it is safe to say that the current administration is uniquely unqualified to handle the threat that COVID-19 poses to our citizens and to our very way of life. 

As the number of infected people rises, we have an administration that is hell-bent on stumbling at every stage of this growing pandemic, and a leader who is steeped in ignorance, narcissism—with no one on his team who is willing to speak truth to power (even if they wanted to, which I presume at this point most do not). As Americans increasingly realize that they are on their own, we hold to the childish belief that our standing will protect us from the greatest harm along with a year’s supply of toilet paper and hand sanitizer. 

Of course, given the growing insanity around the handling of the pandemic and with this being an election year, many are focused on the idea that if we can just get rid of Trump and his bumbling group of sycophants that order will be restored. That if we can coalesce around a single person, we can return to when things were good and when we had a leader that didn’t legislate by tweet and who used his manners. 

Yet that belief, should it come to fruition, will leave millions of Americans out in the cold. In 2016, the year Trump was elected, the poverty rate in the United States was 12.7%, and the last figures that I can find for 2017-18 put the poverty rate at roughly the same rate, give or take a point or two. To be clear, the poverty guideline is $26,200 annually for a family of four in the United States. The wage that is truly needed to live in almost every corner of the United States is significantly higher than the poverty guidelines, which means a lot of Americans are living hand-to-mouth. 

Despite the media spin, the gig economy is not just something that young people finding their career path are participating in. Have you noticed the median age of your Uber drivers or  Grubhub delivery people? I have and increasingly, they are people who look a lot like me. Middle-aged and older people who are cobbling together a living with jobs and gigs where there are no benefits, no retirement, no raises and no futures. Even for those of us who are “making” it, many of us are working multiple jobs that are referred to as consulting or creating revenue streams. A nifty little way to hide the fact that our “comfort” requires a lot more than 40 hours a week. When my husband and I split up in 2015, BGIM Media was born out of the necessity that I could no longer afford to write and speak for free or the occasional honorarium or tip. 

While we have heard daily blathering for years about the strength of the markets, and social media most certainly presents an image of many Americans living well, the truth is, many of us are not living well and our lives are simply about daily survival. But self delusion and American’s naive faith in the possibility of everyone moving up keeps most of us from acknowledging this uncomfortable truth. 

In a country built on the myth of meritocracy and boot straps, personal failings are seen as singular and the result of the individual; as a result, we rarely hear about those people. Yet their numbers are reflected in the number of uninsured people, the increasing numbers of people who are putting off necessary healthcare, the rapid increase in crowdfunding for necessities, rising student loan debt and the proliferation of how student loan debt is squeezing people as schools continue to charge astronomical prices. 

A decade ago, when my son entered college, his school—a small Catholic college in northern Wisconsin—was charging $39,000 a year including room and board. The only way that he was able to attend was via a debate scholarship that shaved off half the price along with family help and loans. When I graduated from DePaul University in 2001, I left with a BA and $28,000 in student loan debt, and I thought that was bad enough.  Of course, that was before attending graduate school where my debt soared far beyond that. 

We have also created a society now where a high school diploma is virtually worthless and increasingly companies want applicants to have multiple degrees for positions that do not pay a living wage. I experienced this in 2008: With a graduate degree, I took a position where my starting wage was $14 an hour and at that point I had almost six figures worth of student loan debt. However, it was a position that would move my career and I had a husband who did earn a decent salary, so I could afford the gamble. It still hurt, it still left me falling behind, and most people don’t even have that “luxury” that I did.

I grew up poor. Occasionally, we had a good year and we could be considered working class but my childhood was not the stuff of middle-class memories. When I was in fifth grade, we spent six months living in a homeless shelter. My childhood memories have one common theme: material scarcity. Times so hard that occasionally we could not afford toilet paper and ate tuna mixed with mustard because there weren’t enough pennies in the sofa cushions to buy mayonnaise. 

My early adult years were marginally better because I married up. In fact, both of my marriages are what would be seen as marrying up. I married into families that were not poor. Thus, access to resources via marriage allowed me to chart a different course than what a poor, Black girl could ever usually imagine. 

However, as income inequality has grown, there are fewer opportunities to mix and mingle across class or economic lines. In other words, we live not only racially siloed lives, we also tend to live economically siloed lives in a country that feeds us a false narrative of what we could be, if only we worked harder. Rather than a country that actually provides a basic living to all people or at the very least, some healthcare that is accessible (not simply “affordable,” mind you, because affordable is often still not accessible). 

As a result, we have a country that is conditioned to vote against its own best interest under the guise of maintaining the status quo and what is realistic. Rather than what is in the best interest of our citizens. 

Therefore when people do speak up about inequity with any level of anger, it is off-putting. We don’t like angry people. Yet not feeling our anger and expressing it is yet another way that the system of whiteness keeps us all trapped, regardless of our respective races. 

Frankly, in a country with the level of resources that this nation has, there is no reason for the increasing homeless camps that proliferate in cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco. People should not have to put off healthcare because they cannot afford it. We live in a country where for millions of school-aged children, their only reliable source of meals occurs at school. 

This coronavirus only makes even more clear how large the class and economic gap is in this country. Americans are currently being advised to stay home if they don’t feel well, and to consider working remotely. Yet, paid time off is not universal and millions of low-wage service workers and gig workers, these very unseen and necessary people don’t have that luxury. 

I have friends in the service industry who are scared shitless about the coming weeks and months and yes, they go to work when they don’t feel well, because as a friend told me last week, she needed the shifts to pay her rent. While some of us have the luxury of stocking up on toilet paper and bleach wipes, others are scrambling just to pay the rent and keep the lights on. And honestly, if they don’t go to work because of illness it’s not just lost wages for a few days—it often means they get fired.

As someone who grew up with no pot to piss in or window to throw it out of—and as a first-generation college graduate who has had to financially help family countless times—I will stay angry about the way we treat our fellow Americans. As anyone who struggles financially knows, survival is day to day and while Trump may be a madman poised to destroy our nation, even the ability to worry about that threat is a matter of privilege. Your Uber drivers may not care for Trump but at the moment, they just hope to earn enough to make a profit today. 

This is a divided nation and it’s not just a matter of voting on the left or right. We are a nation where millions struggle and are not seen. We have created a country where, just like with racism, we can choose what to see or not see. Yet our inability to not see others harms everyone and has created a system of both racial and economic apartheid. Our collective survival and growth will require us to see everyone and to consider our shared needs as a society. 

Hard times and hard moments can destroy us, but they can also be the catalyst for great change if allowed. The challenge will be moving beyond the me to the we. 

If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

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Reparations matter and are relevant (and doable) now

Today’s offering is a guest post from Kathryn Terry of Reparations Roundtable™, a group of white and white- presenting folks dedicated to the educational and direct giving aspects of reparations work (for more on her and the group, see info at the end after my usual giving/support blurb). – BGIM

I am a reparationist. A white-presenting woman who firmly believes in the redistribution of wealth and resources to Black Americans in order to address the deep harm they have suffered at the hands of white supremacy culture. At the hands of us…white people. Black Americans’ generational wealth was (is) stolen by white Americans, and the damage from that theft of resources reverberates endlessly via institutional racism and white support of it. 

I am a reparationist because I have learned over many years that it doesn’t matter if we personally didn’t participate in the actual theft of resources from Black communities. It doesn’t matter if our families were/are lower or middle class going back generations. “But my family is poor and we never owned slaves” is not an inoculation, in any way, against upholding systems of oppression that we think we benefit from (we do, unfairly). We are white, and therefore have been upholding white supremacy culture, the foundation of institutional racism, since we created it. From slavery to Jim Crow to redlining to the school-to-prison pipeline to unjust sentencing to do you get what I’m saying? Reparations are owed to Black Americans. 

This weekend, like every weekend and most days of the week, I’m raising funds for Black women and femmes and their children. I belong to a direct-giving reparations group, and every dollar we raise goes to supporting Black people in crisis. We don’t operate the way nonprofits do, generally doling out small amounts for a very narrow group of needs and/or people on a one-time basis. We provide support with critical living needs for as long as people need it. Our goal is moving people from crisis to stability. There’s never enough money, but I hope and believe we are making a difference in the lives of the Black women, femmes, and marginalized genders that come to us for assistance. 

As white people, once we open our eyes to how much damage whiteness and racism have done to Black people and communities, how can we deny that reparations are due, and that it’s long past time for them to be paid? For me it’s not possible to ignore the deep inequity created by centuries of racial oppression, so it feels inevitable and natural that I found my way to reparations work. I have always cared deeply about injustice. I have always wanted to bridge the deep divide between myself and Black people, who literally have no reason to trust anyone white after hundreds of years of oppression. Working alongside, and at the direction of, Black women organizers for the last two years in reparations work has been a privilege that I don’t take lightly. I try to be a consistent anti-racism ally and accomplice. It takes work, and a lot of that work is self-awareness and unlearning deeply ingrained racism. If you’re thinking right now “But I’m not racist”, I’ve been there. It’s our knee-jerk reaction to these conversations, and we can get past it. We are all racist and the difference is, what are we doing about it? What are we doing to change ourselves and society? What are we doing to heal the damage that our collective racism has inflicted on Black people? 

A big, impactful thing we can do is to get involved in reparations work. Seek out anti-racism and reparations groups you can join and learn with. Pay Black organizers and anti-racism activists by subscribing to support their work, whether they have a Patreon account or just feature their pay apps in their social media profiles. They deserve to be paid for the education they’re providing and the labor they’re giving to educate white people. We all deserve to be paid for our work. Budget income for reparations giving, help other people raise funds by sharing fundraisers. 

I urge people to seek out the truth about racism and the daily lived experiences of Black and brown people, get past the feelings that it will bring up in you, keep pushing yourself when you feel guilty or defensive or angry that this is what is true, and not what you believed the world to be. The point of learning is not to make us feel guilty or ashamed; it is to bring us to an awareness that Black people have been living under systems of oppression that center whiteness, that we are a part of those systems, and that we must actively work to dismantle them. Reparations through direct giving smashes the paradigm of capitalism and it’s built-in racism, putting dollars directly into the hands of Black people. 

It took many years for me to get to the point of aspiring to and working towards being actively anti-racist. It feels so much easier to allow ourselves to continue in our blindness to how racist the world around us is—our families, our friends—but we as white people are individually and collectively racist. To face that is to accept that yes, even you yourself have been racist during your life, whether you meant to be or not. Our intent doesn’t matter; the results of our action or inaction do. If we’re not actively seeking to dismantle racist systems of oppression, we are passively upholding them. Inaction in the face of great injustice is racism, too. 

There has been enough discussion about reparations. What is really needed is for us to come together and do the work of reparations and anti-racism. We do not have to wait for a law to be passed, for years of studying how and when and who reparations should be paid to; we can begin the work ourselves. Direct giving as reparations is the model for white and white-adjacent people to do the work of dismantling institutional racism, and we are always looking for other white people to join us. You can find our group, Reparations Roundtable™, on Facebook, and on Twitter @ReparationsR. 

Sincere gratitude to Shay for asking me to write this piece. I have been reading and following Shay’s anti-racism work on her website, Facebook pages, and Twitter for a few years now and I have learned so much from her. I appreciate the opportunity to engage with her community, learn, and grow together. I hope if you’re reading this that you also support Shay via her Patreon account. The education that Black women have been providing to us for as long as I can remember is worth supporting with our dollars. Her anti-racism work is not free. We shouldn’t think of it as free.  Ultimately, reparations is really about freedom. In the words of famous activist and Civil Rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” Believe it, and let’s get busy.

If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

Comments will close on this post in 60-90 days; earlier if there are spam attacks or other nonsense.

Today’s guest poster, Kathryn Terry, is an active member of Reparations Roundtable™, a group of white and white-presenting folks dedicated to the educational and direct giving aspects of reparations work. She is also an advocate for children and adolescents, active in public school mentoring programs for the last several years. She loves writing, singing, dancing, and building community with people who are intent on becoming anti-racist and working to dismantle institutional racism. You can find Reparations Roundtable™ and join the group on Facebook, follow on Twitter @ReparationsR, and you can support Black women and femmes directly via their Patreon at