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Robin Hood Was Right


Cynthia Peters

The

Newtown Florist Club in Gainesville, Georgia was a group of African American

churchwomen that brought flowers to the sick. After a while, they noticed that a

lot of the sick had gotten that way because of environmental problems. The

Newtown churchwomen made a connection between the disease in their community and

the fact that they lived on top of the old city dump, as well as played host to

numerous emission-producing industries. In addition to delivering flowers, the

churchwomen began offering “toxic tours” of their neighborhood to visitors.

They sued local polluters, convinced others to reduce emissions or relocate,

and, while they were at it, sued the local school district for violating civil

rights laws.

They

went from providing a service to trying to understand why people needed the

service in the first place. They received support for their efforts from a

social change foundation called Fund for Southern Communities.

The

Newtown Florist Club is a quirk in one way: they got money. There are thousands

of church-, community-, and school-based efforts that might make the connection

between their charitable work and the root causes of the problems they are

trying to address. But they are not likely to get funding. Of the $19.46 billion

given away by private foundations in 1998, only 2.4 percent of that total was

dispersed by foundations committed to social change (according to an article by

Noy Thrupkaew in “Sojourner,” May 2000).

This

has got to change, say Chuck Collins, Pam Rogers, and Joan P. Garner, the

authors of “Robin Hood Was Right: A Guide to Giving Your Money for Social

Change,” a new book produced in conjunction with the Haymarket People ’s

Fund. “On the surface, social change movements appear to be spontaneous bursts

of energy, a sweep of people, outraged, rising to demand a change. But in truth

they flow from careful organizing, massive public education, sustained

agitation, and at times inspired collaboration across the divides of race,

gender, and class. These movements are driven by human energy, intelligence,

courage – and money.” (p. 39)

If

you are cynical about social change, pessimistic that your support will have a

meaningful impact, or immobilized by guilt or ignorance regarding management of

your money, the “Robin Hood” authors are sympathetic, but they want you to

get over it. Whether you are wealthy or just comfortable, you should use your

resources to support social change. Your money and time should go towards

organizations that are addressing the root causes of inequality and oppression,

rather than dispensing Band-Aids to the disenfranchised. And they wrote this

book to show you how. It is well written, concise, full of social change stories

straight from the grassroots, illuminating quotes from progressive donors, and

plenty of concrete advice about everything from the nuts and bolts of hiring a

financial consultant to the emotional issues connecting self-worth and net

worth.

Even

if you barely have a net worth (in the financial sense), this book has a message

for you. Writing in that hard-to-achieve tone that mixes passion and

matter-of-fact common sense, the authors argue that you should give. Give money.

Give time. Give a lot if you have it. Or give a little if you can. Giving is a

sensible choice, they argue, even though injustice can sometimes seem

insurmountable, because organizing works. And well funded organizing works

better.

But

don’t give of your time and money indiscriminately. Specifically:

Aim at root causes, not symptoms. — Build collective responses, not individual

solutions, to problems. — Change attitudes, behavior, laws, policies, and

institutions the better to reflect values of inclusion, fairness, and diversity.

– Insist on accountability and responsiveness in such institutions as

government, large corporations, and universities. — Expand democracy by

involving those closest to social problems in determining their solution. (p.

36-37)

It’s

a big agenda, the authors acknowledge, and one that will be hard to hold onto if

you don’t develop ways to sustain yourself and remain hopeful along the way.

This is where vision comes in. “Analysis helps us understand what’s wrong,

how it got that way, and, most important, how change can occur. Imagination

enables us to envision new possibilities.” (p. 61) What a rare pleasure it is

to come across this reminder in a progressive book on any topic! Surely,

indignation, anger and sadness motivate us to fight injustice, but vision

reminds us of what we want to affirm, fight for, and achieve. Vision nurtures

hope, and hope sustains lifelong activists.

One

of the strengths of this book is that it “connects the dots”: it

persuasively makes the case that radical social change giving is the right thing

to do and then it tells you how to do it. Chapters on socially responsible

investing, giving to foundations, and direct giving include practical

information all couched in the authors’ political commitment to diversity,

democracy, and radical social change. Thus, if you decide to donate your money

to a foundation, and let the foundation give it away, the authors want to make

sure you give to a progressive foundation – one dedicated to “Change, Not

Charity,” one that takes leadership from grassroots community by staffing its

board with local activists, and one that makes decisions based on thorough

information (not insider connections). This is an important point. Not only do

we want to support organizations that build democracy; we want to give money

away democratically. Progressive, community-led foundations are one way to share

the power and decision-making capability that comes with wealth.

While

we applaud the growth of democratically-run social change foundations, let’s

keep asking questions about how money gets spent on the left. Although 2.4% is a

small fraction of the whole, in 1998, it amounted to $46.7 million – all

funneled through social change foundations. Whom and what did that money go to?

Did it help build an infrastructure – such as alternative media – to support

a movement? Was it used efficiently by democratic organizations that do NOT

recreate class, race and gender imbalances?

From

personal experience and anecdotal evidence, it seems to me we have lots of small

groups putting disproportionate amounts of energy into fundraising – only

successfully enough to scrape by and continue the cycle of small budget

constraints and crisis management. What do Robin Hood’s recipients think of

his distribution methods? Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect to hear honestly

from those who depend on Robin Hood’s good will, but in an ongoing effort to

democratize the process, we should create ways for movement people think more

strategically (and then be heard!) about how money circulates amongst us,

whether we support each other or compete for it, and how we might create a

structure that allows us to spend less time fundraising and more time

organizing.