Blog: Amplify

May Day, Occupy, and Philanthropy

Today is International Workers Day, celebrated around the world as a commemoration of the 1886 Haymarket Massacre. Although President Grover Cleveland moved our Labor Day to September because of worries about the radical connotations of May 1, the day remains an important rallying point for labor, immigrant rights, and now the Occupy movement.

The many battles that organized labor fought throughout our history center around a simple issue-how we allocate profits between workers, managers, and capital. We heard at this morning’s plenary about the shrinking middle class, and thanks to Occupy Wall Street income inequality has become a part of our national conversation. Occupy’s mobilization of thousands of people in hundreds of cities to strike, march, and speak out are a continuation of a long history of struggle.

What relevance does this have for philanthropy? Our resources come from the same economic system that sets labor standards, CEO pay, tax rates, and investment regulations. Foundation endowments come from human and natural capital, the production of which ended up in the hands of a privileged few. At this conference I have heard very little conversation about where foundation resources come from and what this means for our grantmaking. This limits the credibility of philanthropy as a moderating and humanizing force on free market capitalism. (A notable exception is the Northwest Area Foundation, which has decided to focus significant resources in Native-American communities through whose land the railroads that funded the foundation passed.)

In an earlier blog post I shared my doubts about spaces like the Council’s conference to address the pressing issues of the day. I’ve been pleased with the level of discourse about social and racial justice and the limits of philanthropy’s current strategies, especially during the opening plenary, this morning’s discussion of America’s “vanishing” middle class, and Emmett Carson’s remarks. I met some great people thinking deeply about transforming the field. I also met others that didn’t seem to see past their immediate strategies and institutions. There is a lot of progress to be made, and I challenge all of us to engage in more vigorous debate and open ourselves up to critique and accountability from outside the sector.

Leaving this conference, I feel conflicted. I am confident that my work at Social Justice Fund is creating important change, and I know that coming to a conference like this helps forward our mission. I see all the passion and good intentions of everyone in philanthropy while recognizing the shortcomings of the field and serious mistakes some have made. At the end of the day, my heart is with those people out in the streets.

Zeke Spier is executive director at the Social Justice Fund.

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