It doesn’t even mean the work you are doing is actually good work, in the same way a white person working with youth of color in a service or philanthropic capacity doesn’t by any means disqualify them from being racist. One of the ideas we have to get beyond is the idea of someone being inherently moral or just or generally “good” because of the nature of the work with which they are involved.
First we should interrogate the colonialist history of philanthropy within the construction of the United States. One of our most violent, detestable presidents, Andrew Jackson, was also a self proclaimed philanthropist. Jackson (who referred to indigenous peoples as “savage bloodhounds” and “blood thirsty barbarians”) famously killed 800 Creeks, including women and children; he and his soldiers then made bridle reins from the flesh of the dead. Violence such as this led Jackson to the presidency in 1828.
As president, conveyed here by Ronald Takaki in his work “A Different Mirror,
“Jackson Claimed his goal was to protect the Indians from the ‘mercenary influence of white men.’ Seeking to exercise ‘parental’ control, he regarded himself as a ‘father’, concerned about the welfare of his Indian ‘children’. But if these ‘children’ refused to accept his advice, Jackson warned, they would be responsible for the consequences. ‘I feel conscious of having done my duty to my red children, and if any failure of my good intentions arises, it will be attributable to their want of duty to themselves, not to me” (Takaki, 1993. Pg. 82). Takaki goes on to quote Jackson as saying, “Humanity has often wept over the fate of the aborigines of this country, and Philanthropy has been long busily employed in devising means to avert it” (82).
What we have to understand is that the very need for service work and philanthropy comes out of capitalist and colonialist contexts. The same people in positions of power within these philanthropic industries historically either directly construct(ed), or benefit from, the context of oppression and violence which necessitate services in the first place.
In the case of Andrew Jackson he very literally committed some of the worst atrocities against indigenous folks in our country’s history and then later positioned himself as a caretaker over the same people against whom he committed calculated acts of genocide. The colonialist model of philanthropy: destroy a people’s way of life, then make them dependent upon you for their continued survival, be both villain and savior. This is the spirit in which American philanthropy was born.
Let’s fast forward to today. I worked for a non-profit serving homeless youth in Minneapolis for nearly six years. These were some of the best years of my life working with some of the best, most caring people I have ever met. I also met some of the most selfish, self-serving, and low key racist individuals serving primarily youth of color. This reality must be interrogated. First, the stats: around ⅔ of homeless youth in MN are youth of color, the youth we served at the specific shelter at which I was employed were, at any given time, about 85% youth of color (most often black youth). The administration and board shared roughly an equal percentage of white representatives-this statistic matches the national pattern of nonprofits which see around 84% of leadership as being white. The fact that the demographics of administrations are almost exactly inverse of the demographics served should be reason for pause and deep reflection.
I once was speaking with a youth about oppression and racism, this particular youth was a 17 year old, queer black womyn. She said to me she had never experienced racism. I asked her how many youth were at the shelter (20), I asked how many were black (at the time all the youth living there were black). I asked her why there weren’t any white youth there, her answer was that white people were better at making money. I asked if that were really true, and if so why might that be? Was that inherent to white people or had there been certain historical advantages in place which assisted white people in their acquisition and proliferation of capital and material wealth? After a long conversation of unlearning, mapping and remapping local and national histories this young person came to see that the very fact she lived in a shelter, in which not one other white person lived, as an experience of racism. Thus, the shelter’s very existence was the result of capitalism and systemic racism, not mere unfortunate, un-identifiable, events in the lives of individuals tied neither to past nor present racial and class politics.
One of the things I heard many white administrators and board members say about our work was that we hoped to “work ourselves out of a job one day”. This was said most at fundraising events; it was a nice idea, one that was fun to say and fun to believe. I even said it for my first few years of working there. I even believed it. However, the work was responding to the effects of systems of oppression. The work was not addressing, pushing against and re-imagining the systems which result in the majority of homeless youth being queer youth of color. The work was direct care work with youth experiencing homelessness, with survivors. That work needs to be done, and will need to be done for the foreseeable future, and is work I will likely return to in some capacity. However, the questions of “who should be doing this work?” and “how should this work be done” must be asked, additionally we cannot pretend this work is inherently actively engaging in a radical reimagining of a society which requires service work. A society which requires a homeless shelter is an inherently unjust society.
A service organization which depends upon unpaid internships and volunteers (who can afford to be unpaid interns and volunteers? Generally young, privileged, often white, college students or just as often elderly, retired, white folks) rather than investing in paid employment for the immediate community is an organization not dedicated to reimagining systems necessitating service work, but one which positions the “clients” as capital and job creation for the ruling class. The organization serves as a means to further advance the financial and professional lives of its interns more so than its clients. A service organization dependent on money from rich donors outside of the community is not committed to reimagining systems as the ruling class is positioned again as the gatekeepers to wealth and socio economic advancement, rather than developing alternative funding sources within the community committing to the proliferation of the local economy. A service organization whose administration is not, at the very least, representative of the immediate community it serves is not dedicated to reimagining systems necessitating service work as decisions made are still made from a disparate positionality, one which must report to wealthy donors before those it "serves". These notions might be a grim and pessimistic way to view non-profit work, but it is the reality. No one enters the work with these intentions, but doing work and how the work is done is where the difference lies in defining whether or not one, and the work, is truly good.
Thus, I do not position anyone as inherently good for doing “good” work, least of all those of us who benefit most from systems of inequality. Especially when that “good” work can, and often does, quite literally reify the power dynamics which created the need for that work in the first place.
I routinely witnessed and pushed back against white co-workers working harder for the white youth we did serve, or youth of color who fit more conveniently into a white, middle class respectability realpolitik. I saw white staff fighting to keep a white girl housed despite her sexually predatory behavior, while having just pushed for putting three black youth back on the street for smoking weed on the shelter’s property. I saw white staff, and staff of color, position vocal, rambunctious, disruptive youth of color as violent and disrespectful while positioning vocal, rambunctious, disruptive white youth as “having been through so much”. The latter statement was not untrue, but it was equally true of all youth though often unequally applied.
Now, put any one of us as social workers at a dinner party and when it is discussed what we do for work, we will each be championed as “selfless” or “generous” or “courageous” without any inquiry into how the work is being done. The subject matter of a lesson plan or the nature of the work does not transcend pedagogy or interpersonal relationships. Some staff members were very much selfless, generous and courageous-are those I look up to most in this world-and they did the work in a way that truly fought back against institutional, ideological, interpersonal and internalized pillars of oppression which constructed the social ecology requiring the work; on the other hand, others were closer to the opposite of all that and behaved in a way which reified these systems and power dynamics, and yet to the world we were all doing equally “good work”. We were all “good”. Though we weren’t, not all of us.
Michael Lee is a Norwegian-American writer, performer and educator. He has received grants and scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, the Minnesota State Arts Board, the LOFT Literary Center, & the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council.He is an Ed.M candidate at Harvard University. You can help support his writing HERE.