Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Empires of Illusion

By Les Adler

A quirky, but striking piece of public art, leavened with a twist of Central European humor, marks a downtown street corner in the Slovakian capital city of Bratislava.

One comes across it suddenly: a life-sized bronze figure in a hard hat or helmet, head resting on hands, partly emerged from a man-hole in the middle of the sidewalk. Is it a peeper peeking under women’s skirts? Is it a political satire on working life in this former Communist land, reflecting the old bargain that “we’ll pretend to work and you’ll pretend to pay us”? Is it a modern philosophical reference to Plato’s Cave? A playful reminder of the largely invisible underworld of pipes, sewers, power lines and workers it takes to sustain civilization? Perhaps just an artistic prank designed to add a distinctive flavor and draw tourism to this newly-independent, lesser-known half of the former Czechoslovak state?

Or is it, as I’m now thinking, a larger comment about the world of illusion in which we all live, and our only partly-successful efforts to pull ourselves out of individual or collective states of unconsciousness into the clear light of day or reason? Nearby Vienna, only a few miles up-river, after-all, was Freud’s hometown.

Often it takes a piece of absurdist art like this—or a view of staggeringly absurd political theater like Communism in its dotage or Washington in its current debt-limit manifestation—to stop people in their tracks and cause them to reflect on where we are and what we have become.

Like the statue in the sidewalk, we’re in constant danger of being ignored, trampled or even swept away in the crowded rush of unfolding events and ever more manipulated images surrounding us. But look more closely at his pose and what he might have to say to us. A thoughtful, even faraway look and the curve of a curious smile animate his face. His left forefinger is slightly raised, as if to draw attention to a point or object he wants to discuss that has just come to mind.

This is definitely not Rodin’s Thinker, fully emerged, naked, alone and lost in profound thought on his rock, but perhaps an equally recognizable human reference. It may be the anonymous individual, only partly visible or realized, taking time out to reflect, think, and most notably, engage in an ongoing dialogue both with unseen colleagues and with those of us willing to stop and listen.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

If Philanthropy is Strategic What About Nonprofits?

By Jill Blair

On June 22nd Chris Gates, Executive Director of PACE (Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement), wrote a blog post for TWI in which he argued that in this “new world” of “strategic philanthropy” nonprofits need to approach funders with an appreciation for their experience in and knowledge of the field – to consider philanthropy not just as a source of capital but a source of wisdom as well. He suggests that once upon a time there was a more patient philanthropic sector – willing to give a good idea and an inspiring leader a chance, but NOW the world has shifted to greater accountability and expectations for results.

Initially I found myself disagreeing with Chris…fundamentally – on the issue of the “good old days” and also the days since then. But instead of leading with argument, I will pause and offer the following.

Financial philanthropy (meaning giving away money – not just time) started in this country with wealthy men who turned their attention from wealth creation to social problem solving. And in that frame of the “good old days of philanthropy” Andrew Carnegie both defined the problem (lack of literacy and proper education) and the solution – libraries. One could argue, using Chris’ description of strategic philanthropy, that Carnegie paved that road one hundred years ago – he was the original strategic philanthropist.

Between then and now what we have witnessed is an explosion of nonprofit endeavors – many starting as volunteer efforts that converted over time into nonprofit corporate entities – with boards of directors and self-defined intentions for doing good. And at the same time, philanthropic institutions proliferated and professionalized. In this frame, the world began to divide between those who DO the work and those who PAY for it. Chris implies that in this same world the Program Officer plays the equivalent of a lending role (without the payback). In this world, and at that time, the foundation’s capital is used to underwrite the building of a social sector situated at least in theory to solve problems.

But time passed and the world has changed – or has it?

Over time nonprofit and philanthropic corporate entities have evolved. They evolved their understanding of the sector within which they were operating – a sector bereft of methods, manuals and measures of success; they evolved their understanding of the depth of the problems they were intending to solve – moving from symptom-based to systemic-solutions; and they evolved their understanding of their own capacity and contributions – with nonprofits beginning to resist the temptation to over promise and foundations beginning to assess their expectations and whether a more active and directive role might better position them for achieving success.

In this “new world” we have more and more philanthropic institutions that not only focus on very specific problems, but consider themselves to be part of and therefore responsible for solutions. In this “new world” we have more and more nonprofit corporations that broker the world of problems and solutions by serving as intermediaries – platforms for capacity-building, research, knowledge management and service delivery – agile and willing to apply expertise across any number of issues (problems and questions) in order to produce positive results (solutions and answers).

Is this a paradigm shift for philanthropy or are we witnessing philanthropy returning to its roots of both defining the problem and the solution? Is this a paradigm shift for nonprofits? Perhaps it is –perhaps nonprofits are moving from mostly mission-minded to mostly mercenary.

Back to Chris’ post…he urges nonprofits to reconsider their relationship to this “new philanthropy” where funders are coming to the table not only with a bucket of money but with a point of view. I do agree with Chris. We are in a moment of transition if not transformation in the social problem-solving sector – and the burden is on nonprofits now to find themselves in this new world – to discover, perhaps rediscover, their purpose, power and possibility.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power

By Pia Infante

James Tracy, TWI community member, has co-authored a new book that offers, among other tenets, a call for uncommon conversations and unlikely allies.

The following are a few thoughts from James about the project:

Can you tell us a bit more about James Tracy?

I was born in Oakland and mostly raised in Vallejo, CA. I was an accidental activist pretty early on. One day, a few friends and I cut school and snuck out to San Francisco for a punk concert that never happened. We stumbled upon a clergy led anti-nuclear demonstration in front of the Federal Building. That night the ABC News ran a story about a "Punk and Priest" protest, prominently featuring all of our mugs. I was suspended from school for a few weeks but spent that time the public library studying protest movements and social change. Upon returning to school, I organized my first group Students and Teachers Against Nuclear Destruction, and then went to the next anti-nuclear demonstration as an officially chartered student group.

What are the inspirations and motivations for your new book? How did the project/collaboration come about?

I first heard about the Young Patriots Organization through one of my mentors, Malik Rahim, a former Black Panther Party member from New Orleans. He recalled seeing a bunch of white guys with Confederate Flags on their hats running armed security for Chicago Panther member Fred Hampton. He said he figured that if they could learn how to move beyond racism, there was hope for the rest of us as well!

I originally just wanted to write an article about the Patriots, but as I dug around, I found out about the other fascinating groups of working-class whites who were organizing alongside radical (activists) of color. It was my goal to interview the rank and file, not the leftist icons. At some point, I envisioned a Studs Terkel-like book of oral histories, but it quickly evolved into political creative non-fiction. It turned out that someone I was acquainted with, Amy Sonnie, was working on a similar project. We decided to team up and create a book together. It's been a winning combination ever since.

The groups we write about were part of an experiment in the New Left. How to build an inclusive class politics that was not race blind? How to organize a community many wrote off as hopelessly racist and expected to be the shock troops of reaction? With the rise of the Tea Party movement today, these questions are just as important now.

In a media-saturated, message-prolific, often overwhelming marketplace of ideas, why a book?

A book is not the best way to grab someone's attention anymore. However, if someone reads a book, I believe that the ideas stay with them for much longer than a television show or website. We're looking forward to figuring out ways to spread the discussion through other medium as well. There's just no way that a writing team made up of a Librarian and an Adult Education teacher will ever completely abandon books! The renowned filmmaker Ray Santesbian is making a documentary on this subject due out in a few years. Rising Up Angry veteran Mike James is planning a book of photos. In the fall, Amy and I are going to be on the road for weeks on tour, and making a ton of radio appearances.

What's the golden nugget message in the book?

Political consciousness is shaped by the efforts of those who want to change the world. No one is born reactionary, or progressive for that matter. If we want to move the dial, we need to take risks by reaching out beyond our comfort zones and build real alliances.