Can philanthropy ever reduce inequality?


Open Democracy


This post originally appeared on Open Democracy blog. The original article can be found here>

The Ford Foundation’s new mission is to eradicate inequality. Will they learn from past mistakes?

‘Around the world today, the greatest threat to justice is inequality. Inequality is the byproduct of systems and structures…that have over many decades tilted the scales in favor of some, while limiting opportunity for many others. Here’s what we can do: Attack inequality at its roots.’ Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation.

Across the twittersphere philanthropy insiders are congratulating the Ford Foundation for its recent announcement to commit all grantmaking to tackling inequality. But is this move as new or as bold as many people think? Haven’t we been here before?

As a California foundation program officer told me in a recent interview, ‘Foundations are bizarre beasts. They are created to solve societal problems by using inordinate amounts of wealth—wealth that is inherently contradictory because it was gleaned out of the inequalities that it proposes to address.’

Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation. Credit: Joi Ito/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Past philanthropic efforts to address inequality have favored individualistic approaches over programs that directly confront entrenched systems of power, failing to advance any real structural change as a result. Why should Ford’s new mission be any different? Along with many other American foundations, they have failed to deliver on their promises at many previous points in recent history. Here are some examples.

In the early 1960s, tensions were rising in urban centers across the United States, including protests against slum clearance and calls for community control by Black and Latino self-determination movements. Ford’s public affairs director at the time, Paul Ylvisaker, knew that critiques of racial discrimination were at the heart of this growing turbulence. He also knew that his board of trustees would not accept the framing of any project around race.

So Ylvisaker developed what he called a ‘Gray Areas’ program to address the assumed behavioral barriers such as ‘juvenile delinquency’ that prevented southern Black and Appalachian migrants from assimilating in northern cities. Through Gray Areas, Ford funded organizations to form neighborhood education, leadership development, service coordination and resident-led safety programs.

According to several independent studies, the Gray Areas program cooled tensions and redirected local leaders towards improving their own individual behavior and away from structural change. In Oakland California, for example,programs were defunded when partners from the Black Panthers demanded leadership positions on the stakeholder committees that governed the project. In this instance, the limits presented by the Gray Areas program reflect the historic and enduring tensions that exist in the USA between racial justice and ‘racial uplift.’

Like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King towards the end of his life, Black Panther leaders in Oakland were interested in collective self-determination and resistance to social, economic, and political oppression in a ‘colonized ghetto’ under global capitalism. By contrast, American philanthropists from Andrew Carnegie to Paul Ylvisaker have promoted the tradition of individualized ‘racial uplift’ or ‘self-help’ that calls for assimilation, upward mobility, and ‘social responsibility’ among poor families and neighborhoods that are often pathologized.

In a surprising turn in the late 1960s, Ford Foundation president McGeorge Bundy did not shy away from race, and made a bold commitment to work with the Congress on Racial Equity (C.O.R.E.). However, through programs that called for ‘organizing the ghetto’ and promoted leadership development, Ford and C.O.R.E. cemented a more moderate conception of racial liberalism that is still in evidence today.

According to historian Karen Ferguson, the leadership training initiatives funded by Ford created a new cadre of neighborhood leaders who were acceptable to mainstream stakeholders while excluding radical variants of Black power—groups who ‘rejected the national democratic myth and individualist prescriptions for social reform in exchange for collective action and group based solutions to overcome…racial exploitation.’

In my research on foundation investments in the California farmworker movement, I found that the Rosenberg, Field, and Ford Foundations were interested in supporting groups to build a Chicano wing of the Civil Rights Movement. Movement leader Cesar Chavez was also interested in civil rights, but he believed that addressing the inequities faced by farmworkers required labor strikes, consumer boycotts, union organizing, and popular protest.

Through highly-charged debates that are documented in archived correspondence, program officers from these foundations tried to convince Chavez that grants to the movement could not include any union organizing or confrontation with the agricultural industry. For example, in 1967, Leslie Dunbar of the Field Foundation changed his tune about funding the movement when he found out that it was affiliated with the AFL-CIO, America’s largest labor union federation.

Chavez’ response to Dunbar shows how the limits set by foundations run counter to the strengthening of multi-faceted social movements:

‘Dear Mr. Dunbar…Your letter implies that our organization does not come within the area of your interests, which are civil rights, human relations, and child welfare. Somehow we are not able to draw the same conclusion.

Our approach has been to offer a broad program of services, which build a base of membership cooperation from which to launch out in the direction of strikes for union recognition…In every action we take, we face tremendous opposition. On a local level this comes from the growers themselves in concert with the power structures they control…On higher levels we run into political opposition…and unified opposition from state organizations of growers…Most of our needs are those of workers either ‘outside of the law’ or discriminated against by the law. Consistently our pickets have been arrested as a means of harassment. Our civil rights are disregarded daily.’

Yet the Field Foundation refused to fund any work in the ‘economic sphere.’ Neither would Ford, or even the Rosenberg Foundation, a longtime movement ally. A 1965 Rosenberg report on self-help housing programs explained that ‘Almost everybody approves if farm workers decide to build houses for themselves; not everybody approves if they decide to go on strike.’

Eventually, Chavez incorporated nonprofit organizations into the movement in order to channel funds to its service work. He retreated to these organizations when the movement met major challenges, including repression at the hands of growers and other unions that were more amenable to compromise.

These examples show how foundations have avoided confrontation with systems of power and privilege, and in some instances have produced new relationships of inequality. More recent research shows how the same story is unfolding today. The Gates, Walton and Broad foundations claim to be addressing inequality in educational achievement but advance competitive approaches that build market opportunities for private educational service providers while failing to improve outcomes for poor students. And in settings such as New Orleans, post-Katrina disaster recovery aid has displaced low-income residents through partnerships between nonprofits, foundations, and private developers.

Given this history, what can be expected from foundations who intend to address inequality in the future, especially if they want to transform the systems and structures that produce it in the first place?

The most common approach in U.S. philanthropy tells people to gain mainstream skills or change purportedly bad behaviors in order to secure more upward mobility within the current economic and political system. This may lessen inequality slightly but does nothing to get at the ‘roots of the problem’ signaled in the Ford Foundation’s new mission statement. Meeting that challenge requires system transformation, and transformation must be democratic to be real—calling on all people to analyze their own relationships to power and privilege whether they are foundation program officers or activists on the ground.

Historically, this is how people have gained dignity, equality, self-determination, and ownership over the process of social change. Detroit based activist Grace Lee Boggs, who turned 100 years old on June 27th 2015, believes that in the face of unfathomable abandonment and abuse at the hands of major social institutions there are clear limits to the kind of reformist politics that are practiced by most American foundations. She calls instead for full-scale cultural renewal.

Boggs and a growing network of ‘solutionaries’ are recreating the very notions of work, education and safety in ways that are both individually satisfying and collectively beneficial. They are doing this by protesting against unjust institutions and by creating new cooperative systems that are owned by, and operate in direct service to, local communities. It’s an approach that is similar to the early motivations of Cesar Chavez, whose vision was to bring pride, critical consciousness, mutual support and cooperative ownership to people whose potential was limited by their backbreaking work and a dominant culture that didn’t recognize them as full human beings.

Will foundations support this kind of work, and the enormous changes it requires in how they operate? Can the Ford Foundation attack its own power and privilege in order to put people back in the driving seat of social change?

Accepting that challenge implies wholesale changes in governance, accountability, decision-making and the culture of philanthropy. It also requires full trust and support for the independent, broad-based social movements of our time: #BlackLivesMatter and #Fightfor15; movements against the privatization of public schooling, mass incarceration, and unchecked capitalist development; and struggles for immigrant, transgender and indigenous rights, global labor and environmental justice, and community-based cooperative development.

Throughout the last 50 years, foundations have made unsuccessful attempts to reduce inequality, following the reformist route into individualistic programs and expanded market opportunities. By contrast, ‘attacking inequality at its roots’ requires the wholesale transformation of American society.

Are foundations brave enough to accept this task?

Many of us will be watching.

Erica Kohl-Arenas is an Assistant Professor at The New School in New York City. Her forthcoming book, The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty, is published by the University of California Press.

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