Originally published at philanthrofiles.org
Here I am sitting at an international funder’s conference as a human rights philanthropist, listening to stories of environmental destruction, and of loss of culture, dignity, and life at the hands of corporate greed and government avarice. Let’s use the word everyone in this room uses as if they just smelled rotting garbage: capitalism.
I am a white woman of wealth and privilege due to the success of smart investment, and luck. Outside the walls of this conference, our society seems to have great veneration for wealth and material accumulation and, as much as I don’t want to, I include myself in this statement. But how does that fit with my role as a funder of social justice and human rights?
I am deploying my personal wealth to support and stand in solidarity with people who face and fight oppression and inequities on a daily basis. The very same dollars that I earned in the capitalist system are being used to break that system down, one grant at a time. I see my contribution as a responsibility and not merely as a means to feel better about myself. However, here is where disdain creeps in: my giving does makes me feel good and sometimes even better about myself. What does this say about me?
Coming out about this contradiction makes my heart pound with anxiety. I don’t want to be judged for the origins of my wealth; I just want to be loved for giving it away. My secret hope is that if I show my solidarity, then no one will question how I’ve come into my “dirty lucre.” “This green paper pouring out of my pockets means nothing to me… really, I swear.”
After years of graduate school and living off the small income from my various research jobs, my husband landed a position as an investment manager in San Francisco. It was during the great start-up bubble of the 90s and in 1997 we hit pay dirt. The party was on! Our family enjoyed all the benefits of new found wealth. When you’re happier than a pig in shit, you don’t really care where that shit came from—you’re just grateful for it.
Although I’ve come a long way since then, no matter how much I give, there’s a voice in my head that tells me that I have no business in social justice work because my resources were earned from the very messy capitalist system that has brought the world so much harm. Even if I rightly claim, “I grew up poor too”, it comes off as patronizing.
Hiding my wealth in social justice circles has become exhausting. My feelings swing from indignation born of imagined judgments of me, to heavy guilt and the desire to divest our personal portfolio of all that is harmful as if to make the money clean.
At the cost of being judged and condemned, I’ve decided I will not be less than who I am. There are comforts and some behaviors that I’m not willing to forgo and can’t find a reason to. I know there are ways I perpetuate an unjust system and some of my actions may very well mean I use my philanthropy to justify this contradiction.
You can call it whatever you like and not long ago I would have wilted at any judgment. But recently, I have begun to be more at ease with my life and my choices. Life is full of contradictions, and with age I’ve grown to embrace mine and feel more accepting of others’. I no longer hide the fact, for example, that I consider myself a fervent feminist who loves hip hop music, some of which is highly misogynistic. I’m a social justice philanthropist who holds fast to certain creature comforts that few activists can enjoy. It’s not either/or, it’s both/and. For this moment, I can live with myself.
So here is what I promise to do. I will continue to interrogate how I “show up” for the work by rigorously reflecting on my own power and privilege. To the best of my ability I will not wield my privilege over anyone but instead will work with intention to diminish it. If I want my funding relationship to be more than transactional it is up to me to listen to partners with an open heart and mind, learn about the context of the work, and not take up space talking about myself.
Being in solidarity with my partners involves not only financial support and leadership development but also walking with them through good times and bad. Sometimes that means going to a protest together, a police station a clinic to hold a hand or a home for an evening of storytelling. Standing with partners means asking not “what can I do for you” but “what can I do with you.” Accountability works both ways and I intend to take the bitter with the sweet
Life is full of paradox, and over time I have discovered that life and work are far more interesting and stimulating when I accept instead of resist. At the very least, I believe I can be a social justice funder and human rights defender who is full of contradictions and lives a life of solidarity in a way that supports myself and others to live and work in service of generosity, respect, and love.