Last year my family moved to Tacoma, Washington, after 17 years of living in Oakland, California. The decision to move was a heart-wrenching one.
My partner and I had spent our entire adult lives in Oakland. We’d built a vibrant community of friends, most of whom were involved in movement work to advance racial, economic and gender justice. We were part of a local group called Baby-buds, a queer women of color community that supported each other through the process of having children. Our kids were growing up together like cousins. We love Oakland. However, as rents skyrocketed, we could no longer afford the standard of life we wanted there.
Gentrification had finally pushed us out.
On our last night in Oakland – a full year before BBQ Becky and Permit Patty – we went to our favorite Ethiopian restaurant on Grand Avenue with some members of our Baby-buds crew. It was a lovely summer evening, and we were enjoying ourselves.
Suddenly, a white woman at the table sitting next to us turned and snapped at our friend’s 6-year-old son, who had flipped the light switch to a small lamp on the wall behind him on and off. One of his moms calmly told the woman that they were happy to tell him not to flip the light switch again but would appreciate her using a kinder tone and addressing them rather than their child. The woman was incensed; she glared at us and spat out her words, “You should know better than to let your kid play with a light switch in the first place. No one should have to tell you that.” She threatened to call the police on us and then proceeded to finish eating her plate of delicious Ethiopian food, apparently oblivious to the fact that threatening to call the police was a threat on our lives – particularly for the Black people at our table.
Gentrification is infuriating and, for the communities and cities we love, heartbreaking.
The gentrification of cities involves affluent white people moving in, sometimes because they are attracted to the culture, i.e., the “ethnic” food, etc. The trouble is, they often don’t like the people of color who created that culture.
So they call the police on us (in Oakland, this included an attempt to shut down a 65-year-old Black church because the singing was “too loud” and to ban the playing of any musical instruments without a permit around Lake Merritt, a popular spot for drumming).
They displace us (between 2000 and 2014, 31 percent of Oakland’s Black population was pushed out, an indicator of a similar trend of push out among other groups of color).
And they engage in theft and appropriation of the culture.
Before you know it, there are white women donning saris and putting their image on their own line of “artisanal” Indian ghee. There are white hipsters opening soul food restaurants. The restaurants look OK from the outside, but something isn’t right.
There are raisins in the potato salad.
The gentrification of movements is no different.
In recent months, I have noticed it picking up steam as, particularly in this treacherous political climate, strategies that have been used for decades by people of color are finally gaining the attention of funders.
Black women, in particular, are killing the game. They are literally preventing entire states from plunging over the Roy Moore-esc cliffs that the majority of white voters (including white women) are trying to drive them over. These women launched #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo, two of the boldest movement moments of our time – movements that are changing the weather, culturally and politically, in this country.
Women of color are running for office in record numbers – and winning – with some of the most courageous platforms we’ve seen, dispelling the myths that candidates must water-down their messages and pander to white swing voters in order to win.
Women of color-led organizations in particular, such as BlackPAC, Texas Organizing Project, New Virginia Majority and CHIRLA have spent years honing year-round voter engagement approaches that treat voters not just as a tactical means to win elections but like, well, people, i.e., whole people deserving of candidates and organizations that bring an integrated race, class, gender and decolonization analysis. They make voters actual partners in the long-term, shoulder-to-shoulder work of transforming material conditions and the balance of power toward social justice in neighborhoods, cities and states. They have focused on talking to voters directly, and they have prioritized the New American Majority (people of color, millennials and single women).
Yet organizations led by people of color, especially women of color and particularly Black women, are seeing precious little of the surge in philanthropic giving that has occurred post the election of 45.
As these strategies gain traction with funders, well-funded, white-led organizations that dismissed these approaches and the people of color who developed them are now declaring to funders, “Look! we have a new innovation!” They are announcing that they will no longer just run TV ads during elections; they will knock on doors and talk directly to people. They will no longer ignore women voters, voters of color and young voters but, instead, will reach out to them. Some are Elvising and Columbusing, claiming full credit for major wins like those in Virginia and Alabama that were clearly delivered by Black women.
These movement gentrifiers are essentially telling funders, “Everything that people of color-led organizations can do, we can do it better and … at scale. So don’t fund them. Fund us!”
Some funders are responding affirmatively. It can be a relief to check the “diversity” box without ever having to change who you are writing a check to, without having to deal with the minefield of implicit bias and outright racism that keeps foundation staff and trustees from trusting people of color organizations with money and without having to pull back the curtain on the allure of scale to find that big numbers often lack the depth of relationships in a community that translates into the real power to win in the short- and long-term.
The problem is this: There will be raisins in the potato salad.
There are entire movements in this country, with hundreds of thousands of people in their ranks that were founded expressly because people of color could not express their boldness and brilliance within white-led movements. Excluded worker organizing (such as domestic workers who were left out of 1935 National Labor Relations Act), environmental justice and reproductive justice, nearly every social justice sector has a people of color-led wing of the movement that was created for this exact reason.
The idea that philanthropy can simply fund people of color via white-led organizations and fuel the boldness that people of color are generating is false. At some point (as has been proven again and again), there will be white leadership telling people of color to not talk about police brutality or to tone it down on immigrant rights or to go silent on transgender rights because they don’t want to spook white swing voters. At some point, there will be raisins in the potato salad.
Aside from being ineffective in moving the needle on social change generally, this funding approach only reinforces white supremacy.
A helpful parallel is this: Hundreds of years ago, women were not allowed to obtain credit. Eventually, the law in the United States changed to allow banks to require women to have their husband or another male relative cosign their loan or credit application (this was permitted until 1974). Very few people today would point to the shift to this cosign situation and declare that it afforded women real freedom or self-determination. If we can see the problem with that, we are capable of seeing the problem with funding people of color-led work underneath the sign-off authority of white leadership.
Now, should white-led organizations working for justice engage people of color? Yes, particularly if they want to win. Are there some that are doing so in authentic and respectful ways and that are even deserving of funding? Certainly. But to say it is highly problematic for white-led organizations to be the majority of what philanthropy supports in order to reach communities of color is an understatement. It is a stark manifestation of white supremacy.
What can funders do or avoid doing?
Let’s stop bankrolling the gentrification of movements. Let’s fund toward the liberation of all people. And when it comes to freedom, liberty and potato salad, let’s enjoy the real deal.
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