Here's another way of risking something: opening ourselves up to alternate ways of using financial privilege that work towards social justice AND begin to heal our own social wounds.
One dominant model of philanthropy is what I call "help at a distance." It's people with financial privilege giving money to organizations that do the legwork to help people or causes that don't have financial resources. I've been a part of this type of philanthropy so I'm speaking from personal experience. Let me preface my comments by affirming that yes, these types of philanthropies can DEFINITELY help make the world better.
But I have two concerns about how this philanthropy works:
- The funding strategy may or may not include dialogue with the people who stand to benefit from the funding. And I don't just mean feel-good dialogue, I mean dialogue with teeth, in which the people who stand to benefit financially have just as much deciding power as the people who are running the funding structure.
- The person donating the money is usually disconnected and distanced from interpersonal relationships with the people who are being supported financially.
This second concern is my focus here. It turns out that people like me, people with privilege, need connection--just like all other humans. The problem is that American society works hard to convince people like me that once we've got material comfort, then we're set. BULLSHIT. Go watch "Born Rich." Come back and keep reading.
The traditional model of philanthropy does nothing to challenge status quo of people with financial resources being personally disconnected from people without financial resources. I think that until people from different classes are in meaningful dialogue with each other, there won't be any major shifts toward equity in America--no matter how much money wealthy people donate to charity. In traditional philanthropy, the giver usually remains disconnected and the fundamental expectations of society remain unchanged: don't connect with people who are different from you.
We see the results of this expectation today, where most politically-mainstream American people with financial privilege don't connect face-to-face with people without finances for anything beyond superficial, passing conversation. We've been expecting rich people to just magically increase their empathy for poor people without speaking with them, hoping that they will then give more out of a sense of moral obligation. While I agree with the moral-obligation argument, there's a huge swath of wealthy Americans who don't buy it. Do we give up on these people being part of a social justice movement, or is there another way to inspire them to risk more?
This is where I see possibility for revolution--connecting people across the financial spectrum for nonjudgmental, honest dialogue. In my personal experience, such dialogue can lead to an expansion of the terms "wealth" and "poverty" to encompass things other than just money.
That would be a radical societal shift.
Based on our actions (as individuals and as groups), here are mainstream America's definitions of the terms "wealth" and "poverty":
Wealth = having money which means not having problems (despite Biggie's best efforts)
Poverty = not having money, which means having only problems
If this is the accepted dynamic, with money being the only value that makes up "wealth," how can we expect mainstream (liberal, centrist, or conservative) financially wealthy people to view financially poor people as having value? If financially poor people are seen as having no value to society, that's where the paternalistic philanthropic view comes from: "I have money, so I am more important than you because you don't have money. You are to be the recipient of my generosity, so be thankful."
What if instead, people with wealth approached philanthropy with a commitment to being open to internal change at the same depth as the change they wish to make in the outside world? In that situation, everyone involved stands to benefit, and everyone stands to give.
Now, everyone involved is speaking as humans with their own wounds and assets. Now everybody is ready to give of their gifts, and everybody is ready to receive for their needs. Now philanthropy is a two-way conduit.
And that leads to life-affirming connection with people who are different from me. Now we don't see each other as class caricatures. Now I'm risking connection by acknowledging my own poverty and committing to finding the wealth of the person looking in my eyes.