Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during Nov/Dec 2010, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.
I WANT TO START BY SAYING THANK YOU to GIFT for all the tremendous work you have done to bring us together and to support us in becoming more sustainable as a movement.
I work for the National Domestic Workers Alliance. We organize nannies, housekeepers, and companions for the elderly— women doing the work in the home that makes all other work possible—for respect, recognition and basic labor standards.
There are 2.5 million women, mostly immigrant women of color, working in other peoples’ homes every day across the country. It’s an enormous workforce, and it has been excluded from the most basic labor laws since slavery. When I started organizing domestic workers in 1998, there were only four organizations nationally; today there are at least 33 domestic workers organizations in 17 cities. This year, we’re celebrating a major victory in the state of New York where, for the first time, domestic workers have won recognition and basic rights.
When we started the campaign to pass the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in New York, the Assembly staff said we were fringe radicals who would never get anywhere. I’m happy to say we proved them wrong! It took six years, but we passed a law that provides unprecedented protection for more than 200,000 working-class women of color. I’d like to share some of the lessons of those six years, because we think there’s wisdom there for both organizing and fundraising.
When we started our statewide campaign in 2003, we brought together domestic workers from across the city for a convention at SEIU Local 32BJ, the union that represents doormen in luxury apartment buildings. The doorman see what goes on in the buildings where they work—they know which apartments have domestic workers, which employers are abusive (because they are usually rude to the doormen too), and which domestic workers work the longest hours. Doormen often also provide the shoulder that domestic workers cry on when they are mistreated. We also found that many doormen have domestic workers in their families. After we decided to hold our convention at their union hall, we asked the doormen to help us reach the domestic workers in their buildings. Several of them said to me, “It’s about time you all started organizing. These women really need a union!”
Not only did the doormen help us turn out more than 200 women to the convention in 2003, they cheered us on for six years. They joined us in Albany and talked about the abuses they witness where they work. They paid for buses for others to attend hearings and actions. Their secretary-treasurer, Hector Figueroa, was one of our most outspoken union leader supporters. Last year alone, the doormen’s union contributed more than $12,000 to the campaign, and their staff and members as individuals contributed more than $1,000.
Lesson #2: Break out of narrow notions of self-interest— there is no such thing as an unlikely ally.
Another group that we reached out to early on were employers. We knew that in order to win, we had to show that it was also in the interest of employers to have standards. We thought it would be a challenge to bring employers into the campaign and that most employers would not join. But our friends at Jews for Racial and Economic Justice helped us reach those who would. Over the course of the six years, they built an Employers for Justice network of 150 families who organized in synagogues throughout New York City, journeyed to Albany, testified at hearings, and helped organize key actions to push the bill through. We even brought the children of domestic workers together with the children they care for in a children’s march for the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. They carried signs that read both “Respect my mommy” and “Respect my nanny.”
These employers also organized a Jewish communal meeting that brought together more than 200 people in an Upper West Side synagogue, including Jewish legislators and 16 rabbis from various synagogues. This meeting was pivotal in helping push the bill through the Assembly.
For Domestic Workers United’s 10th Anniversary celebration this November, employers will be honoring their domestic workers’ contributions to their households by purchasing tables in their nanny’s name at the anniversary dinner.
It is true that self-interest is important in organizing, but people are full of competing commitments and values. Rather than thinking about self-interest in terms of identity and experience more narrowly, what would it look like to think about it in terms of vision: whether people see their own hopes and dreams reflected in the vision for social change that you are putting forward? When we framed the campaign in terms of bringing value and dignity to the work that makes all other work possible, many people could see their vision for a better future reflected. That allowed us to build and fundraise for the campaign.
We rooted this campaign in the stories and struggles of domestic workers to maintain their human dignity in an industry and society that treats them as invisible and disposable. We found that not only were people moved by the workers’ stories, they connected their own story to those stories—whether it be homeless people and displaced workers who feel various types of exclusion, young people who were raised by domestic workers, legislators whose relatives were domestic workers, or professional mothers who struggle with work-family balance. We created space for everyone who felt connected to the issue to join the campaign and not only participate but take the lead in reaching out to others in their own circles. Once this happened, the campaign took on a life of its own. Within the contours of the overall campaign strategy, anyone who had the will could take initiative and ownership of a piece of work.
Eventually, we had engaged so many people in the campaign that we created a membership program that allowed anyone to join DWU as a donor-member. Like worker members, they pay dues and receive updates and calls to attend events. Donor members each contribute from $60 to $1,000 per year. Our inaugural class of donor members last year included 15 people who committed to giving $1,000 over the course of the year.
Taking a step back, let’s think about what we are up against: economic and ecological crises at scales we are still struggling to understand. A fundamentally violent and unequal system that is deeply and historically rooted—that is run by the corporate lobby and fundamentally set up to fail the working majority of this country and the world, that criminalizes entire communities and puts profit before people. The rapid growth of the Right. The forces that we are up against are enormous, entrenched and incredibly well resourced.
Now, imagine for a second a social justice movement— with strong leadership and broad organizing among poor and working-class communities of color, united together with white working-class communities organized to scale—say we had all of the 11 million displaced workers in the economic crisis, and we had millions of students and youth in campuses around the country, and we had the millions of precariously employed professionals, and we had a movement culture and infrastructure that could hold anyone and everyone you meet walking down the street who shares our values, from San Francisco to Omaha, Nebraska, where anyone could join or contribute tomorrow and find a home in our movement. Imagine the force of that kind of movement directing its energy together.
Given what we’re up against, we’re going to have to build a movement like that in order to realize our vision for another world.
Like domestic work and organizing, fundraising is a labor of love. It is really, really hard, but we do it because we know it is fundamental to our survival and growth as a movement.
Like domestic work and organizing, there is tremendous dignity in fundraising. If we approach it as providing opportunities for connection and relationship, it can be as transformative and powerful as it is challenging.
As people, we spend most of our lives chasing love—we are completely committed to the notion that we need love, will find love, should be in love. Love helps us feel less alone in the world, it brings us joy, helps us feel connected. It’s also incredibly generative. It changes us, it helps us feel that the impossible is possible, that we can reach our human potential.
It’s been our experience in the domestic workers movement that, given the right conditions, most people will choose love and connection, to be a part of something positive.
It’s up to us to create those conditions and frame the work we do so that people can see their own human potential in it. We must create the everyday opportunities for millions of people to demonstrate—with their time or their money or both—their love for humanity, human dignity, and the earth.
I AM HONORED TO BE HERE AS a community organizer, a grassroots fundraiser, a comrade from the South, a former GIFT alum, and an artist and healer.
Thank you also for the land we are standing on and the people who have come before us—and gratitude for these intersections that have brought us here to this moment.
I am a poet, so I have taken poetic license in how I wrote this speech/poem.
I first wanted to look at the context in which we are doing our movement-building and moving community wealth to build our vision.
So many of us are countering the oppressive conditions that would have us believe—and internalize—that we are not valued to begin with
That we are not worthy of resources/infrastructure
That we are not worthy of money/wealth/safety/and our collective/individual well-being
Coming from a society that deems many of us less than human based on our gender identity, our physical ability, our political beliefs, our immigrant status, our race, our ethnicity, our sexuality, right down to our molecular make-up
Many of us are told we are something that can be bought, borrowed, or sold
In a society that values profit over people and individualized wellness over collective resiliency and communal emotional/ physical/spiritual/psychic well-being, we enter grassroots fundraising already combating the scarcity of knowing our movements and communities are already expendable.
That we are increasingly being taught to individualize and isolate our experiences of violence and oppression and to further isolate and decentralize our leadership, whether fragmented by region, rural vs. urban, intermediaries vs. organizers, large budgets vs. small.
Our capacity to be a collective voice has been shaken and uprooted inside of the nonprofit industrial complex.
What does it mean to raise money and community wealth inside of increased state violence and hyper-surveillance of our activism, our notion of families and our “family values”? What does it mean to take care of each other beyond generating cash capital, but also to generate food, safety, security, and wellness together? This is the state of things and the places of opportunities we are coming from.
I come from the communities of Black Georgia sharecroppers, Black Seminole Florida Tribal Nation, and Austrian and English immigrants. All of these communities were a model of grassroots fundraising, if you will, or what I would like to call models of community wealth and resiliency. They did not rely on the state to build their own infrastructure of survival and longevity.
What would it mean to transform our collective sense of well-being—by remembering and tapping into strategies of well-being and community wealth that consider how we take care of one another fiercely and love one another fiercely? That our collective resilience would extend much farther than our commitment to the nonprofit industrial complex. I stand before you as a healer who organizes with other healers around community accountability and ways to transform and intervene on state and communal violence. There is little to no institutional money—nor has there ever been—to support lay midwives to birth Black, Latino, Asian, and Indigenous babies at home; to fund root workers traveling across geographical borders to heal our communities; to imagine subsistence farming that would allow us to reclaim traditions that healed our communities through times of genocide.
In the South we have always had to be resilient in how we could imagine surviving on our own community wealth and resources inside of liberation, while a history of genocide and slave labor bled the South of our autonomy and economic infrastructure. It is one of the most resilient regions in this country, based on what First Nations and communities of color, working-class and rural communities have been able to sustain despite full-on destruction.
What happened after Katrina and Hugo is not a farce. You watched again and again—on live television—the systemic destruction of a region and its Black & Brown people. And now in the Southwest with abominable anti-immigration laws they are coming for us again in live view. Yet despite infrastructure and a slave labor economy that profiled on us—not for us—the South continues to survive.
I moved to the South in 1997 to learn about Southern political and cultural movements that consciously integrated practices of root workers, cultural workers, and rural working-class organizers as core traditions and practices of movement building in the South. I went there to understand what had been created and dreamed—to systemically challenge, transform, and regenerate the region. What became fiercely clear to me was a certain level of resiliency and humility of Southern organizing that I only came to understand after living there. Firsthand understanding that despite the attempt to erase and take away all land and practice from First Nations and through the enslavement of Indigenous and Black people there still swelled a significant sense of pride and survival—outside of organizational models—that requires a relearning and remembering of the importance of community wealth as the resources that we hold inside of our collective liberation.
A common belief amongst working-class organizers in the South is that if we all are poor it does not mean we cannot all eat. I’m sure this is a principle for many of us and I am stressing it here because it is the root of what resource building and resource distribution can look like. Within and outside of our fundraising models, where do we feed each other?
I got placed by the GIFT Training for People of Color at the Institute for Southern Studies, in Durham, North Carolina. The Institute creates a political and cultural magazine, Southern Exposure, which has become an archival bank of critical Southern media and has held the history of labor organizing and movement-building strategies for years.
A COMMON BELIEF AMONGST WORKING-CLASS ORGANIZERS IN THE SOUTH IS THAT EVEN IF WE ARE ALL POOR EVERYONE WILL BE FED.
Many of us in that GIFT People of Color training cohort peeled back layers of the insidious culture of wealth and worth that had defied and/or redefine our relationship to money in our movements, families, and communities. We wrapped ourselves inside of how-to-do house parties and also created a sacred space/altar in the room of our training that gave homage to the collective wealth of our people. We honored the many ways our communities had accessed wealth and well-being, whether through owning land as Black farming families or owning small businesses in immigrant communities, or honoring the musicians, nurses, doctors, lawyers, healers who kept our families safe and secure. And we also held the contradictions and the risks many of our families had to take to survive.
This was transformative—to heal from our legacies and to honor our peoples’ collective resiliency and wealth. This taught me a lot about giving beyond just the technical tools of fundraising. We committed ourselves to raising money but also to raising the awareness of how we have held wealth in our communities through stories, holding onto cherished memories and healing from violence in our lives. We recognized in that GIFT training that we were resilient in being able to take care of our own and to lift up our own survival as collective resources and wealth.
Here I want to rise up again the core belief inside Southern working-class organizing communities I learn from: even if we are all poor everyone will be fed.
What does community wealth look like when we come from an understanding of shared power and collective well-being and resiliency that does not value one’s wellness over another’s?
I want to share two stories of collective wealth that redefine grassroots fundraising as opportunities for organizing collective wealth and well-being—wealth that is built from ongoing relationships and resiliency that does not default to the traditional ways we imagine around giving. These stories ask us to maintain a certain level of humility and a collective memory of the places we hold in our communities’ and movements’ survival that remain creative, open-hearted, and curious. These stories help us to imagine how we can network and build for our collective survival.
A South Asian woman lands in Durham, North Carolina in a South Asian immigrant community. She is a mother of three and committed to food and media justice. She also happens to be a fantastic chef. She cooks for close friends and family and they urge her to feed other communities and community organizers in Durham.
She is committed to building food justice, so she begins to work with organic and subsistence farmers in the community in the mid- to late-1980s—when it was less popular and less well known as a practice—and begins to gather all her grains, fruits, vegetables, and meats to support the local economies of this Southern city. She begins to cook dinner for the community.
Almost ten years later, her children have grown and she is still feeding the community with gorgeous plates of South Asian cuisine at $10 a plate every Wednesday or Thursday night; no one goes unfed if they cannot afford it.
She decides to open a little restaurant and asks the community to help her raise capital; she raises the $80,000 she needs from community individuals in three days. She will still supply community dinners and the community will still feed her with love and resiliency for being a consistent participant in the wellbeing of our collective lives.
After hurricanes Katrina and Hugo and other rampant storms that ripped up the Gulf Coast and New Orleans, many folks living within and mostly outside the region decided to give to larger state and federal programs that in the end did not equitably distribute money or resources to the Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities most directly struck on the Gulf Coast. Then, to make matters worse, developers swooped in to consume the drowned land of the storms’ wake and cordoned off areas that had been targeted in previous years as “ideal vacation spots” for newcomers and seasonal tourists. The world watched, traumatized, and passively just kept feeding the USAID money machine to feel resolved about the genocide they were witnessing—again in the Southern region.
And now we watch the devastation of the BP oil disaster— and we are still seeking and creating mechanisms to respond outside of state and corporate dependence.
A Creole woman from a city in Louisiana was raised to think about her collective wealth and resiliency always as a communal experience of well-being: that you do not do for yourself what you cannot do for many. After years of feeling helpless around the state attacks and violence on her Black family and other indigenous and immigrant communities on the Gulf Coast, she committed to becoming a lawyer in immigration law. She got into law school but would not be able to afford to come home to visit. Word traveled of her financial plight and the town decided to have a fish fry to bring her home to visit. This became an annual tradition of this
small Louisiana community until she graduated. And when she graduated, she kept close ties with home for several years.
After Katrina, she returned home with several huge trucks of water, chainsaws, and progressive legal services and scientists to help rebuild. She returned to give back to the community that had held her for so many years—and now she came back to hold them. This is community wealth and well-being.
How do we imagine and life up these stories as grassroots fundraising for our collective survival? What are our community remedies of resiliency?
The lessons here in these community wealth examples are many:
- Long-term relationships support collective and individual wealth and well-being
- Longevity and community accountability breed sustainability that can be amplified to unimaginable places
- In the midst of chaos and capitalism we are capable of transforming our human condition, and a lack of an economic infrastructure does not make us unable to change our outcomes or our will to live
I am now trying to raise money for three collectives predominantly run by queer women and gender-nonconforming trans people of color intervening on state violence, including the criminalization of midwives and healers in the South. There is no map for this on how to raise money and there never has been. We have done our work based on alternative economies and bartering, on growing gardens in exchange for birthing babies or giving remedies from homemade rue. We have built our movements on sustenance, not always dollars, and some of us have always been outside the confines of foundation monies—and always will be. Yet we will succeed and survive because when we are all well no one goes unfed and unfunded.
Cara Page is the Regional Coordinator and co-founder of the Kindred Southern Healing Justice Collective based in Atlanta, GA. She is also an organizer with Southerners on New Ground (SONG), INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, and the Atlanta Transformative Justice Collective.