How to Break Up With the Non-Profit Pyramid Scheme. For Now.
I’ve only been out of work for 11 days at this point.
Yet I awake each morning to an attached PDF, an embedded link, or a “heads up” on some new job. Through the morning haze, it’s typically the first alert I see on my phone. For some asinine reason, everyone finds grounding in their inboxes at 8:18 am. Everyone remains so productive despite the collapsing infrastructure around them. Everyone remains enamoured with the normalcy of labor.
For some reason, everyone that “cares” about me worries about the prospects of me finding another job as The Pandemic™ drags on. No one can stomach that I’ve saved money. People seem unable to hear that I’m done for now.
Hidden misery loves and longs for company.
More often than not these job leads come from former co-workers. It’s telling that these tips come from white folks who were former supervisors or bosses. Even more tellingly, these leads never come from white men and rarely from co-workers with marginalized identities other than Black. The emails promise to put in a “good word” for me. They promise to provide a “sterling reference.” Are these offers belated reparations of some sort? Perhaps it’s guilt surrounding their own job security historically supported by my labor.
The salaries they’ve earned are always 30, 40 or 50% higher than the ones I’ve earned. The executive directors that never offer to vouch for my industrious work earn more than double. It’s often white and Asian women who receive those director titles. After 15 years, I’m lucky when I’m bestowed a managerial title over coordinator or assistant. The data I’ve crunched goes into their landmark grant reports that shift the narratives of nonprofit fundraising.
During team meetings, I’ve calmly said things like, “Haven’t you noticed? Out of the 32 children in our afterschool programming at James Lick, 24 of them no longer live in San Francisco. Most of them now have addresses in Vallejo or Antioch.”
“What does that even mean?!”
I would get in trouble for rolling my eyes during such exchanges.
If an organization’s mission was “to help young people develop critical thinking, creative expression and essential learning skills” you’d think its development director would have critical thinking skills. If so equipped, such a director would understand that the population they served was being rapidly displaced, gentrified, and priced out to the edges of what one would call the Bay Area during a grant cycle. You’d think, out of fear of justifying another round of funding, they would want to elaborate on this “troubling” trend to the Hewlett Foundation.
But because some people’s critical thinking skills remained undeveloped, I would eventually be forced to attend therapy in order to keep my job. Some people felt I was being hysterical, overly concerned with something none of us could control. It would be a year later, and the hiring of a white dude with a masters from Columbia but ZERO experience that would finally prompt my departure.
Meanwhile, the former executive director from that workplace has occupied a very comfortable role as program officer in performing arts at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for the past 6 years. I’m guessing the Hewlett Foundation doesn’t care about the whole story. It isn’t important to have any direct impact on the lives of the oppressed as long as data and anecdotes make for entertaining powerpoints. Proximity to oppression makes for spectacular tax write-offs.
My experience reflects the countless number Black and Brown folks who reasoned that the Non-Profit Industrial Complex® was a safer, more fulfilling option than participating in corporate America’s shenanigans. The first wave of diversity and inclusion, a trend that swept social justice-focused organizations ten, twelve, fifteen years ago, tantalized us. We became enamored by the possibility of giving back to those faces, those communities that looked like ours.
Guilt often motivated us, too.
Exiting the labor sectors that employ the majority of Black, Brown and immigrant populations can gnaw at a person’s conscience. We don’t flip burgers in a hot kitchen. We don’t organize boxes in warehouses where suggesting a bathroom break is taboo. We’re not driving empty buses, hyper-commuting to support a society in tatters. We aren’t emptying bedpans as nursing assistants, caring for those that cycle into intensive care units with little chance of exiting alive. We endure every microaggression, burn sage, get tarot readings and hold on for that office closure between Christmas and New Years as if it’s a raft.
We are the lucky ones that went from all-white Advanced Placement classes in high school to all-white board meetings. At the same time, we’re neither trusted with the purse strings nor with how to make programming actually effective for the minoritized communities we hail from. We’re only allowed to have any power once we’ve been molded into complacency. We work long hours for marginal wages supporting some white gay or curly-haired white woman’s need to perform solidarity for a six-figure salary. We’ve been lambasted by the beacon of hope, Barack Obama, for getting arts degrees in an artless society.
We’re offered fewer choices than those who receive science or business administration degrees. And most of us know at this point that it was foolish to believe we could change a structure from the inside.
We’re continuously called upon to do a blog post, manage social media presence or pull a whole podcast out of our asses. We’re pressured to recruit labor from our Black and Brown communities. The meager pay is, of course, matched by an absence of benefits. We fear that there will be consequences if we fail to line up those bodies, collect the appropriate data points to justify the cause. If we fail, our own jobs, those depressing wages, those health benefits with the high ass deductible, the commuter checks we’re issued when it’s obvious all of this work can be done remotely, will be stripped away.
We’re told to smile for headshots, to mime forced happiness for fundraisers that parade Black children in front of white donors, occupying the kids juice boxes while the donors dine on caviar. This spectacle will, somehow, solve education inequities. The year-end fundraiser preys on the fiscal reality that everyone is looking for a tax write-off. Those dollars will bring an end to mental health disparities. Somehow, magically, the brown-nosing letter that expresses extreme gratitude for a fifty-dollar donation will take the corporate control out of our food systems and “build a movement to transform our food and farm systems from the current extractive economic model towards community control.”
I log into the current balance in my checking account.
I re-evaluate my current expenses and bills.
I think of the dog-sitting I was asked to do.
I remember there was that offhand astrology reading I need to schedule with a friend’s mom.
I stumble out of bed, peel a banana, dump some strawberry jam on top of some yogurt.
I don’t respond to those emails about some new fresh hell for 4 or 5 days.
I face inevitable reality with dread.
Even though what I’ve described is the obvious endgame to the charade that is America ,I should be able to parlay all of this experience into a new job in a few months. Rent continues to average $1,695 for a 1 bedroom in Oakland. I really should fix my Corvair’s door. A radical socialist future is not right around the corner. I have my doubts that it’s possible in my lifetime. No one really wants to fuck someone unemployed and damn near 40. I lethargically comb through my resume in the intervening days, seeing all of the tasks I’ve performed 15 years deep into this field. What is obsolete? If I were honest with myself, all of it is obsolete. The industry itself is obsolete.
I’ve seen so much more direct care done by a community that understands how to give people resources to survive, no questions asked, no means testing. We’ve seen mutual aid mushroom into true social security. We’ve seen direct communication do more for Texans in the last few weeks than any power structure or nonprofit can do. We’ve heard the CEO of GoFundMe say we’re in a deep crisis while our president won’t admit the same. In a weird twist of fate, I’ll trust a businessman before I trust anything a politician says these days.
When unburdened by a grant application process, by compiling the needs of humanity into a database, we do pretty well handling our own damn business. The puritanical whiteness of the nonprofit industrial complex seeks to penalize those who have not adhered to this strict system just as violently as corporations and its twin sibling the U.S. government. It’s more important for me to share what abundance I have, me learning SQL 12 years ago doesn’t put food on the tables of those who need it the same night.
I know the kind of honesty about my own uselessness in a new world is rare. Saying publicly that a whole industry that employs millions is a classist, racist crock of shit is dangerous. I’m putting myself in the same type of danger as the people who got reduced to mere data points on a grant report. The faith I have is that it can be temporary. I can also hope more people can see it for the crock of shit it is. A few more might share what spare singles they have to tide everyone over until we truly can overthrow this madness.
Time Capsule or actual human being, who knows. Laurence Jones has been sifting through ephemera of the past seemingly forever, spinning vinyl for you, taking film photography and entertaining you with instagram posts of the decrepit old cars they own. You can find previous writing by them at djlarsupreme.com and medium.com