By Jacklee [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons

May 3, 2018; Washington Post (Associated Press)

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation sent out an announcement yesterday about a major new initiative it is funding to address poverty. In the middle of the announcement, it had this to say about the importance of “narrative” consciousness about “the poor”:

The foundation will also attempt to change negative stereotypes that persist about poor people. Such narratives—that they are dirty or unpleasant—can be changed so that the poor are seen as “needed.”

To understand how objectionable this is, try replacing “the poor” with “Black people” or “Jewish people.” It’s not pretty.

Are we damning the whole effort before it gets started on the basis of what might be a horrifyingly badly written piece of copy? Not really; we have been left very skeptical of the Gates Foundation’s ability to respect others for some time, particularly as it applies to its multiple experiments and “Oops! Sorry!”s in the area of education, and Gates himself is making a connection between those efforts and this.

“Poverty is like education, where there’s not enough philanthropic resources to take on responsibility, but if you can show how to have a lot more impact, then the policies will benefit from that,” Bill Gates said about this initiative.

Before we are blown away by the size of the $158 million investment (over 4 years), let’s recall that the same foundation decision-makers, in concert with the Carnegie Corporation of New York, gave a cool $100 million to a nonprofit called inBloom that was designed to gather information about individual public school students in a central location. As Stephanie Simon wrote for Politico at the time, the outcome was exactly the opposite of what Gates had been trying to accomplish: “Moms and dads from across the political spectrum have mobilized into an unexpected political force in recent months to fight the data mining of their children. In a frenzy of activity, they’ve catapulted student privacy—an issue that was barely on anyone’s radar last spring—to prominence in statehouses from New York to Florida to Wyoming.” InBloom went belly up within a year.

Simon wrote then that the billionaire education reformers and public servants always just “assumed parents would support their vision: to mine vast quantities of data for insights into what’s working, and what’s not, for individual students and for the education system as a whole.” Tone deafness-R-us.

A good part of the rest of yesterday’s press release is devoted to how respectful the foundation intends to be of initiatives that come from communities rather than the foundation. And its work will be informed by the Urban Institute’s US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty, which includes some leaders we and many community activists fully respect. Well, I guess we will all see. In any case, if the Gates Foundation has to apologize again for not listening and respecting folk on the ground in communities, they already have the boilerplate ready.

Returning to the offending statement, here is the thing: When someone is promising to change a narrative when they have no capacity to interrogate their own belief systems, that’s probably not going to work.—Ruth McCambridge