Friday, September 21, 2007

Coopted by Foundations? (Community Organizing and Urban Education)

[To read the entire series, go here.]
Foundations like Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Ford have a corrosive influence on a democratic society; they represent relatively unregulated and unaccountable concentrations of power and wealth which buy talent, promote causes, and, in effect, establish an agenda of what merits society's attention.

--Arnove, cited in Barker, "Do Capitalists Fund Revolutions?"
Community organizing groups often pride themselves by their refusal of any government money. The general agreement among organizers on this issue rests on very good reasons, grounded on a long history of co-optation of organizing by governmental institutions seeking to eliminate grassroots resistance. During the 1960s, for example, there was a small window of time within which the government actually tried to fund grassroots collective action. This quickly pissed off the powers that be (especially the local powers that be that were most affected by empowered citizens) and the funding was quickly cut or shifted into more service oriented work. (Fisher's Let the People Decide gives a nice overview of this history). Today, nearly all "community groups" funded by government sources focus almost exclusively on "service" projects. "Community organizing" in organizations like these looks little or nothing like the kind of power focused collective action and institution-building I've been discussing in this series. And in part because these organizations are mostly "professionalized" at the higher levels, they are generally run by people who have little connection to the communities they are located in.

This is especially true for schools, of course. With few exceptions, the only "community" people in inner city schools are support personnel and aides in extremely marginalized positions.

While this refusal of government funding is informed by long experience, it has meant that most local organizing groups depend on foundation funding for their existence. Yes, organizing groups, especially those based in coalitions of organizations like the congregational groups I am most familiar with, try to generate funding out of their members. But without significant foundation funding, as I understand it, most would limp along at best.

This brings us to Michael Barker's just published pair of essays, "Do Capitalists Fund Revolutions?" (see Part One and Part Two). Barker's intent is mostly to focus on the ways in which foundation funding prevents radical social change designed to transform capitalism. I'm not exactly opposed to such a transformation if it could be made pragmatically effective and workable, but I'm not holding my breath. However, his articles draw together a range of interesting writings about the ways foundations often try to soften and de-radicalize the efforts to community organizing and other social action groups.

To extend somewhat on Barker's argument, as I have argued elsewhere in this series, "progressive" activism is grounded in the emergence of what was essentially a middle-class professional movement at the turn of the 20th Century. Stromquist's book on social class and the progressive movement, Reinventing "The People", focuses extensively on how foundations funding social change were integrally part of this middle-class "progressivism." And the middle-class progressives (who were, it must be remembered, an alternative to the communists and the union movements) were focused on the idea that social change could occur through the kind of measured dialogue that they, themselves, were used to.

Even for those of us that aren't necessarily pushing for socialist revolution (not that Barker, for example, is this simplistic--he's clearly not) this gives an indication that there may be something fundamentally anti-power and anti-confrontation about the most important foundations of our time (which, in large part, were the most important foundations then as well).

I wonder if one of the key issues about foundations is their tendency on the left to fund "projects" instead of long-term institutional structure, like the foundations on the right are more likely to do. Barker cites Guilloud and Cordery who note that "funders determine funding trends and non-profits develop programs to bend to these requests rather than assess real needs and realistic goals."

What if foundations on the left instead were more willing to endow local organizing institutions so that they had the independence to do what they thought needed to be done? This, it seems to me, could fundamentally alter the way community organizing groups operate. Instead of constantly grubbing for money and changing their "'product' to bend to" foundation "requests", there might be opportunities for more independent action.

What might such local endowed organizations look like? Along with a friend of mine, I've begun to imagine something like the old settlement house movement:
  • where multiple organizations could be housed, rent free;
  • where transportation and reimbursement and child-care could be provided to poorer citizens who might then be able to actively participate;
  • where a fundraising expert could be permanently sited to identify funds and help relieve organizers from spending so much time finding where there next buck would come from;
  • where service providers might also be sited so they could work to support citizens on the margins, again, so that they might actually be able to participate effectively in social action (this aversion to service is another key problem for organizing groups, even though, again, they have good reasons for it);
  • that might support interns from the local community on a rotating basis to bring local "expertise" into the building along with "professional" organizers.
Of course, this raises as many questions as it answers. But if someone gave an endowment of, say, 6 million dollars to a collaboration between multiple organizing groups in Milwaukee, only a portion of the interest of which could be spent every year, I wonder how it might change the depressingly limited status of social action and resistance in this community.

Thinking of education, specifically, it might allow the emergence of a permanent grassroots organization with the power to hold the school district accountable over the long term, instead of the kind of momentary and often not sustained engagements that have historically taken place.

(A good example of why this is a problem is the SAGE class-size reduction program that MOVE fought to bring to Milwaukee Public Schools. I have heard that a number of schools are starting to refuse this money because it isn't enough to actually make the program happen and the requirements that come with it saddles them with costs that they then can't really pay. We should be on this. We aren't. In part this is because we're caught up in other complex issues. Our group simply doesn't have the institutional resources to keep good track of what is going on in the moving target that is always the reality of an inner city school district.)

What do other people think?

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