I spent the past month or so working with the National Center for Transgender Equality. I helped coordinate logistics for their annual Policy Conference and Lobby Day. It was a wonderful (if at times stressful!) opportunity to gain useful skills while doing meaningful work with an organization I respect. I also met lots of great people!
I’m back to being marginally-employed again, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the nonprofit industrial complex (NPIC — keep reading for explanation) and my involvement in it.
I didn’t enter “the workforce” until I was 21. Before that, I was mostly involved in black/grey market economies of various sorts. When I have been formally employed, it has mostly been either in service industries like making coffee or within nonprofit industries — first, as a case manager on the abortion hotline, briefly as a client advocate for sex workers, and then at NCTE.
While I am definitely part of and implicated in the NPIC, I have tried to remain critical about the strengths and weaknesses of the nonprofit model, and what nonprofit work can and cannot do. In short, nonprofit work can be valuable, but ultimately it can’t bring the truly revolutionary change this planet, and all of us, nees to survive.
This story begins at age 13: The year I discovered punk rock. In a generalized rebellion against conformity, mostly in regards to enforced sexual, religious, and gender norms, I drew circle-A’s all over everything… including myself. I didn’t really know that it was the symbol for a political philosophy called anarchism, I just knew that it was something that punks did that meant “the world sucks, and I hate it.”
My Grade 8 West Virginia Studies teacher, a totally butch dyke, read me (correctly) as a baby queer feminist and potential eco-radical. She gave me two books: Emma Goldman’s Living My Life and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond and Resistance to Civil Government. (She later also introduced me to Walt Whitman and Ursula K. Le Guin … I so totally owe her!)
I also committed my first theft: I stole a copy of Daniel Guérin’s history of anarchism … from the public library. (Hey, I was 13. I’m not saying I had a mature political analysis.)
These experiences, and others, exposed me to the idea that the dominant political and legal system primarily benefits the wealthy and powerful — and that, in order for justice to prevail, those systems should be abolished, not merely amended. My anarchist heroes criticized the failures of what contemporary radicals refer to broadly as “liberalism” — the idea that meaningful social and economic change can be accomplished within existing political structures or through legislative reform.
Dominant human cultures are wrecking whole ecosystems; turning billions of people into a disposable workforce with precarious access to housing, health care, food, and other basic necessities; creating vast disparities in wealth and power; disenfranchising whole populations; forcing people not perceived as “normal” to live in constant fear and anxiety; tolerating rape and emotional abuse; changing the climate of our planet; poisoning whole nations. From Afghanistan to D.C., people kill each other over resources and constructed differences every day. Add to this the fact that deregulation, privatization, never-ending (drone) wars, fossil fuel extraction, and so on have been embraced with equal enthusiasm by Democrat/Labour/Liberal Parties across the world.
In the face of such widespread violence, much of which has touched me on a very personal level, the promise of “gradual, incremental reform” has always sounded like a farce used by the ruling class to appease and distract the oppressed. For most of my life, I’ve believed that our world is profoundly wrong, and that we need profound (i.e., revolutionary) change to make it better.
Through high school, I got more into radical political theory. I watched black blocs take on neoliberal summit after neoliberal summit, read about the EZLN and the IWW, began attending demonstrations against the coal industry and the war in Afghanistan. When my family first kicked me out and I became a crusty homeless traveler kid, it was the anarchists who taught me how to find food, squat abandoned buildings, hop trains, and evade arrest.
I ended up living in canada for years, drawn by some of these very anarchists with whom I had fallen in love, landing in the relatively liberating radical queer communities of Montreal. I wore my black bandannas and marched into the clouds of tear gas and riot police at global justice protests. I sincerely believed that our low-level street warfare, propaganda, and vandalism would ignite a spontaneous insurrection. Somehow, we would topple the government and the oppressed would suddenly rise up and organically reorganize social relations to create a more egalitarian world.
Guess what? That didn’t happen.
It was empowering and personally liberating, and I still think mass demonstrations and militant self-defense have a place in struggles for social justice. But the destruction of the earth and most of its inhabitants continues unabated.
Like a lot of radicals, I got really bitter and burnt out. And unlike a lot of self-described anarchists, I had nowhere to go “home” to after that. I didn’t eat trash just to make a political statement, and I didn’t sleep under bridges just because it was fun.[*]
So when I didn’t have a family to go back to, I got tired of living like a hermit, constantly fearing arrest, and living in situations where (especially as an undocumented “illegal immigrant” queer trans woman with a panic disorder) I was always in heightened danger of physical violence and deportation.
I just wanted a job and a house and health care and a family and the basic shit that most working-class people want. Fuck the revolution.
The Politics of the Possible
By this time in my life, I had landed in the center of nonprofit-dom: Washington, D.C.. That’s not why I came here, though. I chose D.C. as my home because I was nearly deported from canada, I had friends here, there are organized trans communities and accompanying health care infrastructures, it’s bike-friendly, and because I love the DIY hardcore scene.
I spent the first few months here doing what I had been doing for years: sex work, shoplifting, scamming, and dumpster-diving. But I knew I couldn’t afford all the things I needed — hormones, mental health care, laser, etc — doing this. So, like a lot of radicals, I saw nonprofit careers as a good compromise: I could continue doing work that benefited my communities, but also get paid for it so that I could take care of myself.
If I couldn’t change the whole world, I thought, I might as well try to help as many people as possible along the way. And if I can pay my bills at the same time, that’s great.
My own experiences perhaps mirror what happened to north american social justice movements more broadly since the 1960s and 70s. Radical mass movements once proactively shaped national political discussions in a fury of euphoric uprisings. Then, the Left was so fiercely beaten down by repression and reactionary movements that we now settle for whatever narrow change we can accomplish via piecemeal institutional reforms – a “politics of the possible.”
Defining the NPIC
It was also around this time that I first encountered a sustained critique of the nonprofit industrial complex, in the form of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence’s anthology The Revolution Will Not Be Funded. (A really amazing book that I think everyone should read.)
The non-profit industrial complex (or the NPIC) is a system of relationships between the State (or local and federal governments), the owning classes, foundations, and non-profit/NGO social service & social justice organizations that results in the surveillance, control, derailment, and everyday management of political movements.
As Lisa Duggan explains in The Twilight of Equality?: Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics and the Attack on Democracy, organizations dedicated to litigation, lobbying, media education, and community service provision had existed as the “practical wing” of mass social movements (but still very much embedded in a “movement culture”) since at least the 1950s. For example, feminists established grassroots women’s health clinics and lobbied for abortion rights. The Panthers had community meal programs. The gay liberation movement tried to reform anti-crossdressing laws.
But during the 1980s, social movements receded and gave way to a resurgence in neoconservative / neoliberal agendas. These groups fragmented and disengaged from class/economic struggles. Instead of demanding the downward redistribution of wealth in order to achieve economic justice for all marginalized people, they began focusing only on identity politics: demanding rights for their particular (sub)culture and, once granted by the State, settling for a reformed “multicultural” capitalism.
The mutual struggle by all oppressed people for economic equality became replaced by the reformist goal of cultural equality between different groups. Revolutionary politics gave way to single-issue identity politics. This, of course, left both the State and capitalism — which both allow/require some groups of people to have more power and wealth than others — to continue existing completely in tact, while also appeasing the opposition and thus fit nicely with the goals of the corporate ruling classes, who were only too happy to help.
The underground clinics went into business with government money, the meal programs became funded by corporations and divorced from politics, and the gays decided that all injustice would end once they could get married. Feminism, Black Power, and Gay Liberation declined, and we were left with NARAL, the NAACP, and the HRC.
Further Unpacking the NPIC
The NPIC was able to “de-fang” social movements and national liberation struggles in a few different ways:
(1) In exchange for the ability to receive tax-exempt donations, the State/NPIC forces social service/social justice organizations to adopt a capitalist structure modeled after corporations. Making grassroots groups adopt corporate structures removes the threat they had once posed by demonstrating the existence of more egalitarian counter-models.
(2) The NPIC creates organizations that require a great deal of specialization and education to manage, making them less accessible to poor and working-class people. Leadership becomes centralized in professional activists and service providers, and decision-making becomes undemocratically top-down.
(3) Accepting money from wealthy donors, governments, and corporations gives the ladder the ability to say “we care about social/environmental/racial/etc justice”, effectively giving them propaganda to draw public attention away from the inequalities and atrocities they regularly perpetuate and profit from.
(4) The NPIC ensures that social movements are accountable to their funders, even at the expense of the communities for whom they claim to be working. I have seen firsthand how much authority “philanthropists” have over the day-to-day operations and political priorities of the organizations they fund.
(5) Nonprofits all have to write constant reports to funders explaining our “realistically achievable” goals and to quantify how close we are to achieving them. This encourages us to stop dreaming grand schemes to transform the world, and to focus on pleasing board members.
Or, as INCITE! explains:
The state uses non-profits to:
- Monitor and control social justice movements;
- Divert public monies into private hands through foundations;
- Manage and control dissent in order to make the world safe for capitalism;
- Redirect activist energies into career-based modes of organizing instead of mass-based organizing capable of actually transforming society;
- Allow corporations to mask their exploitative and colonial work practices through “philanthropic” work;
- Encourage social movements to model themselves after capitalist structures rather than to challenge them
The once-threatening mass social justice movement that sought to achieve broad revolutionary change became fragmented into numerous corporate-sponsored, hierarchical organizations. Each organization is made up of educated, upwardly-mobile professional activists. They each work only on their “issue” (abortion access, trans equality, union organizing, domestic violence, sex work, prisoner rights, etc) and constantly have to make reports to the rich and to the state.
This is why the DC Trans Coalition, the grassroots community organization focused on the liberation of trans and gender-nonconforming people where I have made my home and dedicated the bulk of my organizing efforts to since moving to D.C., has affirmed our commitment to voluntary action. According to our Guiding Principles, we do not accept funding from corporations, governments, or foundations of any kind, because we strive to be accountable only to our communities. (But neither do we attack those organizations who do accept grant money, because we recognize that a lot of important work wouldn’t get done without it — see below.)
The NPIC and Queer/Trans Politics
In the context of queer liberation, the NPIC also has a lot to do with the assimilationist bent that mainstream LGBT movements have adopted.
Not too long ago, Gay Liberationists were being led by queer people who were trans, working-class, of color, and gender non-conforming. They held as their goal the complete transformation of society. They critiqued the nuclear family, sexism, war, religion, normative masculinity/femininity, and saw themselves as allied with all liberation struggles. (For examples, read the book “Smash the Church, Smash the State: The Early Years of Gay Liberation.”)
Now, our “leaders” (at the least the ones recognized by the NPIC and the corporate media) are wealthy, white, cis, homonormative men who seek only equality with their straight counterparts within the existing capitalist / patriarchal / white supremacist / cis supremacist order of things. In an effort to assimilate into straight culture and show mainstream america that they are “just like them”, they are quick to distance themselves from poor trans folks of color and other marginalized queers.
Thus, we get a “movement” that has spent decades fighting for inclusion within an imperialist army. Gay Pride, once a celebration of queer and trans resistance to police brutality and state violence, now is funded by and profitable for beer companies, tourism agencies, and municipal governments. Where we once dreamed of the end of coercive gender systems, we now dream of shopping at “gay-friendly” corporations.
Inside the System
So how did I end up working for nonprofits? First and foremost because, like all working-class people, I need a way to make money. Given my hippie education, skillset, various marginalized identities, and where I live (D.C.), nonprofit work is the easiest kind of work for me to find outside of the black market and/or service economies.
Unlike porn or coffee shops, nonprofits (sometimes) pay living wages. I often encounter the assumption that everyone who works for a nonprofit, especially for political ones in D.C., are well-to-do “Washington Insiders” who have no idea what being poor is like. That describes a lot of D.C. nonprofit workers, but clearly not all. Like most people, we’re just trying to get by.
Me on the steps of the u.s. capitol during Lobby Day
But also, I really do believe that nonprofits can achieve worthwhile goals. A lot of people depend on direct service nonprofits, like HIPS, the peer-led sex worker advocacy organization where I previously worked here in D.C., for basic survival tools like condoms and food. Even the policy-oriented nonprofits have achieved a lot of important changes that have tangibly improved people’s lives.
Just to name one example, trans activists all across the country (including both paid and volunteer organizers) have amended laws to allow trans people to change the gender marker on our ID documents. Will this bring about a radically different society in which all people treat each other with love and respect? No. Will it dismantle the gender binary and allow trans people to self-determine our genders without having to select from an arbitrarily imposed binary? No.
Will it help a whole lot of binary-presenting trans people live safer, more fulfilling lives where they don’t constantly have to worry about being outed or fired? Yes. Does it ever-so-slightly help move the popular discourse on trans people slightly in our direction? Yes. And will more of those trans people, once freed from the daily necessities of fearing for their own survival, then have the material conditions they need to better and more freely engage in political organizing? Yes.
Another example is the policy work I’ve done in D.C. around the incarceration of trans people. The u.s. and canadian penal systems are essentially warehousing entire marginalized populations. Reforming jail policies to ensure that trans people have access to hormone therapy and safer housing within the prison system hardly does anything to address the underlying economic inequalities that have produced our swollen prison populations. However, that certainly doesn’t mean that such policies are valueless.
Although I respect the fierce anti-authoritarianism of the north american radical left, the thing I am most often frustrated by (besides the tendency toward machismo and hetereosexism throughout the anarchist milieu) is the purist attitude that we should never engage with the state. I often encounter a nearly dogmatic assumption that “revolution = good” and “reform = bad”, as though these concepts are easily delineated and mutually exclusive.
I don’t think this is at all helpful; reforms can help people live better lives here and now, and not merely in some hypothetical post-revolutionary future. None of us are “outside the system” anyway. If I learned anything from my college cultural studies education, it’s that even our very agency and subjectivity (self-awareness) is simultaneously constructed by and constitutive of “the system.”
While establishing grassroots organizations and institutions capable of challenging elites for power is of the utmost importance, we must also fight together with people in their struggles to transform the conditions of their day-to-day existence within the confines of the present system. Reformists view a change within the existing social system as an end-in-itself, while revolutionaries view reform struggles as one step towards the radical transformation of our society’s dominant values and governing institutions.
A reform can be characterized as “non-reformist” if it:
- Addresses the needs that people currently experience.
- Propels the development of revolutionary consciousness.
- Empowers people to continue to seek further gains.
- Galvanizes people to win sought gains and simultaneously advance the encompassing broader program it is a component of.
The Politics of the Impossible
I no longer view revolution as an event, but rather as a process. This process must include people working on a variety of levels to build power, improve our lives, create alternative infrastructures of mutual aid, and develop smart critiques of the dominant culture.
Lobbying to change laws is useful and important. But the really revolutionary act is bringing together a group of people who have been historically silenced, institutionally discriminated against, and culturally marginalized to speak out and demand to be heard. So many of us have internalized messages of our own weakness and irrelevance that it truly is powerful to demand any change — even a small legislative reform.
My day job doesn’t define me or the limits of my politics. I can accomplish many things both in an office and on the streets. If nothing else, having a steady paycheck (if I ever have one) will allow me to engage in other forms of political action. I tend to think that the most revolutionary work I do is emotionally supporting my housemates, lovers, friends, and comrades through the difficulties of living in a world that is designed to suppress our existence.
I’m sure my time with the NPIC is far from over. And that’s okay with me; some of the most satisfying work I’ve ever done has been with nonprofits.
I have to admit, on several occasions I have found myself wearing fancy clothes (that I almost certainly bought from a thrift store) and schmoozing with crowds of mostly white, wealthy, “important” people and felt extremely alienated from the work I was doing. Especially because of my age and class background, I often feel like I am looked down on in those spaces.
And anyway, my heart is with the girls on the streets, in the high schools, lock-ups, and health clinics. I’m willing to suck up to politicians. I know how to be a diplomat in order to get what is best for me and my communities; but I know where I’m most comfortable. And perhaps someday I can find a nonprofit gig that involves working with and organizing directly with the communities I come from.
Reform, for me, is mostly about the opportunity to organize my community. We might get together over one small point (say, to lobby for the government to add trans people to the human rights law, or holding the police accountable after a cop beats up a trans woman). But the truly revolutionary act occurs when I can get a group of oppressed people in one place — whether at an informal DIY potluck, a grassroots community Town Hall, in a social service clinic, or even in the halls of Congress — to realize our common struggles and start believing that we are stronger when we act together.
But, in the meantime, I also think those working within reformist nonprofits need to be more aware and transparent about the limitations of this work, the histories of appropriation that gave birth to the NPIC, and their relative privileges as paid organizers. I also believe that we must actively work to rebuild coalitional, confrontational politics that are not afraid to dream for the total transformation of our world. In the meantime, it is the least we can do to try as hard as we can to remain accountable to our communities, and never to corporations, the State, or any other colonialist institutions.
We must rediscover our imaginations, our truly grand visions for a new world.
* By the way, there’s nothing wrong with having a family to go home to, and I don’t think any of the radicals who had financial resources should feel guilty about it. I wish I had had that. The only thing I find annoying are the people who were homeless/jobless “by choice” (the folks who didn’t want to work because they didn’t want to be part of capitalism, or whatever) and then acted all self-righteous or judgmental toward people who did have jobs/homes. In my experience, these people were usually white/cis/straight dudes who didn’t have medical bills, transition needs, etc.