We can no longer pretend that we’re doing good by going to auctions, sponsoring families in foreign countries, or purchasing something that gives a percentage back to society in some capacity. These are all elements of a philanthropy built on a broken economic system, a system that benefits some while punishing others. It is a system rooted in inequity, that favors the already powerful, that has found a way to hide behind ‘doing good’. We all know that the road to hell is lined with the tears you shed at that keynote speaker’s talk on ‘poverty’, ‘homeless children’, ‘the uneducated’. Not often enough do these speeches prompt us to ask ourselves, not only why these circumstances exist, but what role we play in supporting these circumstances.
And why would we ask these questions? They highlight complicity and poke holes in the foundation on which we stand. There’s comfort in everyone believing that the emperor is wearing clothes. As soon as someone begins to doubt it, and calls attention to it, it forces a new conversation. It forces a level of inquiry into what we believe is right and true. And these conversations disrupt. They hold up a mirror and invite imagining a different way of doing business, which, let’s be honest, is hard work. It’s much easier to go about the day, heads down in our own business, and then send off our donation or post a frustrated call to action on Facebook.
But there is a growing movement of people who are beginning to understand, not just that the emperor has no clothes, but holy shit, none of us have clothes. Now, those that have been fighting for their basic rights have known this all along, and have been cautiously and courageously trying to point this out. The problem is that many of us who make it our job or our passion to ‘help others’ or ‘heal the world’ have been kidding ourselves by assuming the problem is out there somewhere.
Because after all, we’re good people, doing good things. But what if those good things were doing more harm? What if we were pawns in a system, the yes men to the emperor, unaware of our folly?
This is uneasy territory, not merely because it makes us uncomfortable to consider our actions flawed, but because when you’re immersed in a system (and are being taken care of by that system) you can’t see otherwise. To do so would be to undermine your own safety and security. However, once you witness your nakedness (this power and privilege that allows you the ability to ‘help’ others) you step into the difficult duty of posing the questions to others. Have you worked harder, or been kinder? Are your children more deserving? Your appetite more evolved? Is it only you that would enjoy a summer vacation or health care? Are you just lucky or blessed?
If you are ready to step outside of these circles, you’ll begin to find the truth tellers. Those people who are willing to risk alienating the world they know in order to create a world rich with possibility, but full of uncertainty. My journey into this conversation deepened immensely when I had children and realized that my love for them is a universal experience for parents all over the world. Yet I get to sit on the sidelines of a soccer game, pick up groceries at Trader Joes, get a pedicure, listen to the news and shake my head, without ever being truly afraid of having my babies taken from me. I can feel the grief of it deep in my chest, the way all parents do. But not really. Not in the very tangible way black and brown mothers do. And this is privilege.
This privilege can also be my power if I am self-aware enough to see through the guise of ‘doing good’. If I can use my privilege as a resource, and show up in the conversation with a listening voice, in order to make a different world. We are past due on a new conversation. One that questions everything we believe to be true about our world and our society, about our families and ourselves. A conversation that invites more voices in, and truly listens to the pain and joy and varied life experiences. These are conversations that take courage and community, and quite frankly a bit of faith. What will happen if we look down and realize we aren’t wearing any clothes? What if we realized that philanthropy is dead?
To understand our role in the philanthropic system of inequity is to first step back and recognize that, philanthropy, at its core, means to love humankind. If you love humankind, you love the families trying to get over the border. You love the heroin addict living in the tent along the highway. You love the single mother working her ass off to provide for her children. You love the ocean and the mountains, and all the animals and plants that live there, because they sustain us all. And we, all together, are humanity. There are no exceptions to this rule: you love. And in this love you see a vision of a different way of living, for each one of us, every living thing. And in seeing you recognize that you can no longer continue doing things the way you’ve been doing them.
Philanthropy needs a refresh. It needs to break down the falsely constructed walls between the haves and have-nots, between those that get to attend the auctions and those that benefit from them. It is painful to realize you’ve been complicit in a game that is rigged against others, especially if you felt you were part of the solution. Yet it’s only when we are able to acknowledge this that we can begin to heal the severed part of us and construct a new system.
I don’t come with textbook answers, or simple instructions. Humanity is messy and mean, just as it is ordered and kind. But I do know the way in is through connection, solidarity, and humility. It demands we lean down low and listen to each other, cultivating our belonging to each other and the earth by working together on things that matter. It is the dawning of hive philanthropy, a way of being in the world that allows resources to flow where they are needed. The work has already begun. Now we need to find each other and elevate our voices so that the hum of our hive vibrates a new philanthropy into existence.
Long live philanthropy.