By Erica Kohl-Arenas, author of The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty

This guest post is published in conjunction with the American Association of Geographers conference and in advance of Cesar Chavez Day

Kohl-ArenasWhile conducting research for my book, The Self-Help Myth, a California foundation program officer told me, “Foundations are bizarre beasts. They are created to solve societal problems by using inordinate amounts of wealth—wealth that is inherently contradictory because it was gleaned out of the inequalities that it proposes to address.”

Recent debates across the Twittersphere reveal how this grand paradox of philanthropy is unfolding today. The Gates, Walton, and Broad foundations claim to address inequality in educational achievement but advance competitive approaches that build market opportunities for private educational service providers while failing to improve outcomes for poor students. In settings such as New Orleans, disaster recovery aid has displaced low-income residents through partnerships between nonprofits, foundations, and private developers. The same story is playing out in the fields of global health, agriculture, and technology.

Without the explicit profit generating schemes evident in our current ‘philanthrocapitalist’ moment, major foundation initiatives of the twentieth century similarly avoided confronting entrenched systems of power and production by favoring individualistic and behavioral approaches to addressing poverty and inequality.

In my research I found that the Rosenberg, Field and Ford Foundations were interested in addressing farmworker and migrant poverty by supporting the historic California Farmworker Movement. Movement leader Cesar Chavez believed that addressing the inequities faced by farmworkers required collective ownership by farm laborers, strikes, boycotts, union organizing, and popular protest. Through highly charged debates that are documented in archived correspondence, program officers from these foundations tried to convince Chavez that grants to the movement could not include union organizing or confrontation with the agricultural industry. For example, in 1967, Leslie Dunbar of the Field Foundation changed his tune about funding the movement when he found out that it was affiliated with the AFL-CIO, America’s largest labor union federation.

Chavez pleaded to Dunbar that social, economic, and civil rights must be addressed together in a broader movement to achieve dignity, justice, and equality for farmworkers:

“Dear Mr. Dunbar… Your letter implies that our organization does not come within the area of your interests, which are civil rights, human relations, and child welfare. Somehow we are not able to draw the same conclusion . . . Our approach has been to offer a broad program of services, which build a base of membership cooperation from which to launch out in the direction of strikes for union recognition . . . In every action we take, we face tremendous opposition . . . Consistently our pickets have been arrested as a means of harassment. Our civil rights are disregarded daily.”

Yet the Field Foundation refused to fund any work in the ‘economic sphere.’ Eventually, Chavez incorporated nonprofit organizations (which he initially nicknamed “the Hustling Arm of the Union”) in order to channel funds to its service work. He ultimately retreated to these organizations, and moved away from organizing field workers, when the movement met major challenges.

Kohl-Arenas_NSGiven this history, what can be expected from foundations that intend to address inequality today, especially if they want to transform the systems and structures that produce it in the first place? To join the conversation, follow Erica Kohl-Arenas, author of The Self-Help Myth on twitter @EricaKohl

Erica Kohl-Arenas is Assistant Professor at the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy at The New School in New York.