COMM-ORG Papers, Volume 16, 2010
Non-profit over People: Have Organizers Stalled the Advancement of Social Justice?
Historic images of death-risking sit-ins, water-hosed nonviolent protestors, and fiery speeches against the brutalization of legalized apartheid are emblazoned in the collective conscious of contemporary organizers in the United States. Community organizing in the wake of the civil and cultural rights movements of the 60s and 70s looks markedly different in the 21st century.
Now when occasional stories of community organizing do reach the airwaves of the media, they are often short stories about how this or that organization organized a rally of hundreds and sometimes thousands around select issues.
I am one of the thousands of organizers nationwide who has been taught to anticipate the second coming of the human rights movement, waged through nonprofit organizations similar to the historic might of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Today, we are fighting to preserve many of the ‘wins’ that were supposedly achieved during the previous generation’s freedom movement. Most organizers nationwide are primarily organizing to preserve the rapidly depleting stock of subsidized or public housing opportunities, expand living wage opportunities for poor people of color, and wipe out the vestiges of institutionalized racism in schools, prisons, military, etc.
Young organizers like me enter the field of organizing employed by social justice nonprofits and often with herculean dreams of mobilizing millions of Americans to stand up against the continued legacy of social injustice1. More often than not, we are inspired by ideas of creating powerful coalitions akin to the political and public clout of SNCC, NAACP, and the Black Panther Party.
I learned from the many discussions had at various community organizers’ trainings that many of us operate from the astonishingly egotistical belief that we, the ‘organizers’ will create the change that previous generations haven’t achieved. We believe that organizers are the deciding factor that will navigate the American population to the next stage of the human rights movement. We still highlight the need for that ‘spell-binding, mystical’ leader with the galvanizing spirit of Malcolm X or Marcus Garvey to lead the people out of the darkness and misery of the urban ‘ghettos’ and into the halls of civilized integration with the educated elite.
Based on the contemporary legislative goals and victories of community organizations, we are largely fighting to mitigate not eradicate the hardship faced by people who happen to be poor and disenfranchised.
Perhaps in the American spirit of expediency, we organizers believe that our short-term goal of integration would be implemented sooner if we adopt the methods of the ‘enemy’ (e.g. public officials and corporations) and use it against them to garner public support, and hopefully implement our solutions. Taking our cues from corporate America’s pervasive marketing campaigns like Walmart’s Save More. Everyday Low prices and DeBeer’s Diamonds are Forever, we cling relentlessly to the pursuit of dreaming up that hypnotizing slogan that would convince Americans of the need to implement progressive or even radical changes to reverse the continued tide of discrimination and segregation.
We pull from military textbooks and we identify the ‘targets’ or in lay person’s terms, public officials and decision makers, that we conduct a ‘hit’ on to pressure them to implement our policy solutions. We adopt the organizational structure of for-profit organizations so that we can convince tax-sheltered foundations like the ones created by Walmart, Ford, and DeBeers that we are just as efficient, hierarchical, and mechanical as they are in pursuing our work for justice2.
Maybe the dream of creating the 21st century human rights movement propelled by a messiah-centered leadership followed by millions who were convinced through mass marketing campaigns has been deferred because we just haven’t found the right charismatic person yet. Or maybe our goals and underlying ideology of how to create a human rights movement is flawed and needs to be revisited and restructured.
Organizers of today continue to adopt the same tactics of movement building that serve the ‘elite’ of movement building—i.e. organizers—and not the masses of people who are overwhelmingly low-income women of color who fill the membership rolls of these community organizations. Organizers today still adopt the belief that the only change that must happen in society is to take place outside of them. The public officials, corporations, and even the masses of poor people must change in order for their definition of change to materialize.
We frequently say that ‘only if the masses recognize the need for them to have better schools, well-maintained homes, more-than minimum wage employment,’ we would be able to rally enough people to sustain a human rights movement that would be seriously recognized by the government and private industry. Our campaigns and vision for social change slowly overtime have become focused on reforming the ‘capitalistic’ system so that a few more of the people we ‘work for’ get access to shelter, food, or legal counsel services.
Based on the feedback of many organizers, one would think that organizes are immune from imperfection. Yet, if we look closely at the efficacy of community organizers we can see that there is room for collective improvement as well. Much of the organizing wins are primarily focused on the number of housing units created or preserved, how many laws were passed, and the number of people who attended our meetings. We, organizers, who generally believe in the elevated status of people over profit, have paradoxically elevated organization’s stats over people. Organizers and their respective nonprofit organizations rarely examine this contradiction. We organize for change to take place outside of our organization but we have adopted the same model of depersonalization that characterizes many of these corporate institutions that we think sully the name of democracy3.
Much of the legitimatized forms of organizing require organizers to become champions of mobilization with minimal emphasis on how to build healthy relationships with residents so that we organize together—meaning we learn, analyze, and build movements for equity and justice collectively. Instead, many organizers have been advised to ‘know’ more than the residents and we must decide what is best for campaigns and leaders— and in some instances broker deals for the campaigns on behalf of the residents ‘we organize.’
We, as organizers, frequently say that we believe in the power of the people to instigate the change that we want to see but if we compare the number of people who are directly affected by the issues, to the number of the people who hold leadership positions within these organizations, another contradiction emerges4. Perhaps pulling from the same playbook of corporate America, many community organizations fail to employ the residents from affected communities. Many explanations have been offered to explain this lack of grassroots leadership development: there are not many people from the community that want to do this work; many of these people lack the vision and tactics that college-bred organizers have; they don’t have enough organizing history; and/or they are not professional enough to handle the rigors of running an organization.
Community organizations, and many of its organizers, are startlingly pursuing the option of self-aggrandizement over their widely held beliefs of collective justice and self-determination. Perhaps this phenomenon has occurred because many of us have adopted the Darwinist competitive spirit and we feel the immense pressure to ‘beat out’ like-minded organizations in pursuit of the covetous title of ‘best community organization’ that would be sought out to receive meager funding from corporate foundations. Or maybe the publicly abhorred offense of institutionalized racism and capitalistic greed has infiltrated the walls of community organizations?
Increasing evidence suggests that the answer to this question is yes. In a race to ‘legitimatize’ the work of organizers, many community organizations have turned to corporate foundations to sell their labor-power so that they may eat and survive in a capitalistic economy. In turn, corporate foundations, which are overwhelmingly controlled by the ‘white elite,’ offer their advice on the organization’s campaigns, leadership, and mission.5 The micro-management role many corporate foundations have traditionally played in community organizations has had a direct impact on why human rights movements have been stalled.
Many foundations and community organizations share an ideological bond: a belief that America needs incremental reforms that do not threaten the material status quo of the elite and middle class. Due to this shared belief, organizers create narrow campaigns and we organize in silos and isolation. We find ourselves organizing in direct competition with each other when we don’t collectively present our demands as a comprehensive and radical vision for change. With this fragmented approach to organizing, we highlight individual ‘wins’ (see above) and praise the role that the organizer played in achieving the win over recognizing the role and importance of the ‘masses,’ particularly the role of women of color.
We organize as a means to promote our own self-interest. At best, we may organize for three years and transition into positions of authority to dictate the direction of the organization. We organize because we aspire to be leaders of organizations, not necessarily contributors to movement building. Many of us organize to stay employed so we create incremental campaigns that often undermine the role of leadership development that would allow our people directly impacted by these injustices to practice collective determination.
Because of this nonprofit industrial complex, we have created a cult of organizational preservation. We record our success not on how we have progressed to the next stage of the human rights movement but whether we brainstormed and passed a law that may or may not be enforced with funding, how many members we recruited, how much money we have, or how many media hits we got that year. We assume that this work cannot be done without a paid staff, hierarchical organization, and paternal leadership.
We haven’t progressed to the next stage of the human rights movement because we are not collectively honest about our vision for change. Perhaps many of us prefer the status quo because we have been able to sell our labor power to organizations supported by corporate foundations and look ‘noble’ while organizing. Maybe we prefer the status quo because we secretly endorse the bureaucratic tactics and behaviors of corporate America and the government, as suggested by our organizational structures and lack of grassroots leadership development. Perhaps most of us prefer to imperialistically impose our ideas of change upon the masses we organize to increase our organizational power instead of co-dreaming with our people.
We must answer for ourselves whether our unilateral adoption of traditional processes and structures can lead us to the radical change many of us believe is possible.
Where is the radical dreaming that must supplement our grassroots organizing? While we may live in a culture that stymies the growth of new ideas, we cannot be wedded to our jobs more than we are devoted to advancement towards our human rights. We must build alternative models for successful organizing that is inclusive.
There is no quick fix to the long-standing struggle to reverse the infiltration of traditional values and dreams that permeate the human rights movement. But the first step could be that organizers collectively realize that organizing for human rights is a life style and not merely a paycheck or a fast track lane to organizational stardom.
1 Perez, Amanda H., “Between Radical Theory and Community Praxis: Reflections on Organizing and the Non-Profit Industrial Complex,” The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, Ed. By INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence (2007).
3 Kivel, Paul. “Social Service or Social Change,” The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, Ed. By INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence (2007).
5 King, Tiffany Lethabo and Osayande, Ewuare, “The Filth on Philanthropy,” The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, Ed. By INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence (2007).
About the Author
Rosemary Ndubuizu is a native Californian with
ethnic roots in Nigeria. She spent four years being a culturally lover of
the District. Rosemary adores the persistence, tenacity, and fearlessness of
DC residents. She was honored to organize with them for over three years.
Rosemary began her lifelong pursuit of systemic, political retributions
against inequity and injustice and communal demonstrations in love while
studying in college—and presently practicing—the wonders of community
organizing, the current frontier of movement-building. Rosemary will join
Rutgers’ Graduate Community to pursue her studies in the Women and Gender
studies in Fall 2010.