I’ve been chatting about cause-driven publications with a pregnant friend, who needs her reading to be somewhat optimism inducing. I remember the easy despair of that time. Approaching motherhood is partly a time of fears overwhelming us easily, and we feel such a strong desire to birth our children into a reality which might, just a little, be worthy of all our dreaming.
Before I lent it to her, I read my copy of Nathan Monk’s “Charity Means Love: Transforming the Culture of How We Give,” so that there will be some basis upon which to have a mutual discussion after she’s done reading too. I’ve had it for so long, I thought, as I finished it, why didn’t I read it sooner? But I already knew the answer to that. Some books so easily and simply blow our hearts open, and, in the chaotic, endless, pandemic era grind, I wasn’t ready for that powerful sensation.
Put simply, “Charity Means Love” (which is a terrible title, but I get why Monk chose it) has started to repair all the parts of me that non profit work broke. I will be returning to it again so that my future actions can be more fruitfully guided by my deeply held beliefs.
I’ve always been awful at joining stuff, easily disempowered by group dynamics. Slowly, though, I’ve come to realize that it’s not “just how I am,” but a response to rarely getting my needs met in group settings. The onus is partially on me, of course. For various reasons, I (and I’m sure others) have little practice in summoning up the needed flex to speak those needs to a gathering of people, and I also tend to exhaust myself in meeting the stated needs of the more vocal group members, which too often get conflated with the collective goals. My resources fizzled out, the usual next step is to fall silent and vanish, vanquished by the unacknowledged labor, nauseated by the assumption that I have more to give, and suffocated by my own half delineated thoughts.
Writers with far greater eloquence than I have touched on how the power differentials in a group can shape such outcomes, which can appear inevitable, but are actually just everyone performing a tired, default script. People with privilege assume that they are the natural choice for leadership roles. People without such privilege work overtime to learn the “right” way to speak up, hoping for a moment to make a contribution. And the script itself takes over, becoming the relentless path forward. Because someone might have added a comma or a postscript, we think we have effected a transformative rewrite. Because a few marginalized people are at the table, we believe all is well at the read-through, not realizing that one of the legs of the table is broken, and the marginalized have been holding it up with their own muscle, allowing everyone else to flex with unconscious abandon.
Nathan Monk is a former priest (former because he sanctioned gay marriage in the Orthodox Church), and has worked extensively on issues facing the homeless. His book is therefore religious in its bent because he is addressing the systemic problems he has seen hamper the efforts of church led organizations. Even so, I found his writing to be relevant to secular institutions as well. And since my involvement has been with both religious and secular groups, it was what I needed times two.
First off, I want to say that families like mine can never prosper in single-cause organizations. We LIVE at the intersection of multiple identities, so even though we’ve tried and tried, we inevitably get our spirits mangled when we join stuff. It’s not so different from some LGBTQ BIPOC eschewing mainstream LGBTQ spaces because the default to whiteness is so damaging and exclusionary. Or BIPOC women fleeing feminist organizations because, well, same thing.
I’ve said it before, but merely saying that your organization is diversity friendly doesn’t mean that that’s how everyone will experience it. And if you never check your privilege and pass the mic and give up your coveted committee roles and all the things everyone already knows to do but somehow doesn’t, then you will just keep saying “We (we?) are the only ones who show up. Minorities don’t seem to want a public presence,” while blocking every attempt said minorities have made to course correct your methods. If we don’t speak up in ways you relate to, you have the luxury of ignoring us, and truly believing that we never said anything at all. Or that we were disrespectful of the usual rules of order.
Even now, I regress and tell myself that I am the failure, I am the reason that none of our efforts have borne fruit. Some of that self blame is thanks to societal reactions to the very marginalized identities I speak of. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that I should have been more forceful, more compliant; more strategic, more accepting of status quo; more available, more elusive; more positive, more forthright, etc, I would have built an intersectional community by now, with a pool, private beach, on site massage therapy, drop off specialized childcare, non-carceral crisis intervention, and healthcare centers and shops where, if we did have to encounter mainstream folks, they would all be well trained in allyship, and wouldn’t say or do anything to punish us for being abnormal or whatever, thus sparing us further anguish and tears.
Everything that Monk says about the stigma-driven approaches to serving the homeless resonated with me, and indeed, he states that homelessness itself lives at a crossroads:
“Domestic violence, discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community, failures within the public school system, environmental concerns, workers’ rights, and the list goes on in a never-ending cycle of injustice that brings the poor, the working class, and even the millionaire to their knees. All of these unique issues that seem to stand on their own all meet at the intersection of homelessness and poverty.” (178)
I have made a conscious choice to be somewhat vulnerable in this piece, which does not equate to me seeking advice on what else I could do, or how I could change myself. I also don’t want hugs or proselytizing. I want action and meaningful change.
So here goes: if you are someone I have faded out from because you were uncomfortable with the fact of us accepting our trans kid, consider what the options were for him if we had not. Do you think I wanted these intersections for him? For him to run away from home and be unhoused and unsafe? So many people think of our kids as unnatural monsters and potential predators, and if you think that, you can stay out of my life. Do you think I wanted for him the grief of his parents shoving him back in the closet? Feeling despair that might lead to self harm? Can you understand that our acceptance was the only choice, but also freely given?
We don’t need your pity or your bizarre anecdotal theories. We don’t want any of your “normal” kids. You can keep them. I am seriously tired of some of the horrible things that people have said to me. This stuff is always said to moms. So now I will tell you: the things you said? They destroyed me. Every single time. Sometimes I dissociated for days at a time so that I could keep away how much pain they caused. And don’t you dare tell me that you were just trying to help. Work on yourself, because your poison is tangible. I don’t need anymore desi society kings and queens opening their venomous mouths and saying the usual self-congratulatory, preachy shit.
Monk does an amazing job of detailing the problems in charity groups–excessively harsh rules to qualify for services because of assuming that people are gaming the system; having to pander to big donors, thus risking mission drift; and falling into the trap of not actually working to solve the problem so that the work can continue unchanged and the organization can continue as is, just to name a few; the struggle between non profits and activists (this part blew my mind); and the possible solutions to how rigid charities can become.
I connected very deeply when he writes about setting such a high bar. One example is insisting on sobriety before the person can be housed. Or forcing them to attend religious programs so they can stay at a shelter. Monk talks about the idea of Housing First, where people don’t have to be perfect and clean and virtuous to have a place to live. The other issues can be worked on after the crisis of being homeless has been addressed, and this is possible when organizations work together to help people, rather than turfing them out onto the street after a requisite number of nights, either because them’s the rules, or because they ended up “failing out.” If our worry is money, well, the cost of jailing someone who slept on the streets should, in itself, move us towards more humane solutions.
“…we must bear the yoke with our brothers and sisters and lift the burden on our own shoulders as well, carrying it along with them…We must remove the notion that a person needs to reach a certain level of perfection in order to be worthy of our help and instead approach everyone with grace, accepting the same level of compassion that true love calls us to and echoing the message of grace and good news: Come just as you are.” (131)
Accessing services for autistic teens and adults is like this. Rules for adult day programs, for example, are designed to keep out those who need help toileting, might run off, and anything else that requires one on one care. Basically you cannot be “too autistic!” This forces parents into applying pressure on their teens to hurry up and be someone else, so that they don’t end up sitting at home with no plan once they leave high school.
Can you see the horrors perpetrated by a disability system that never has enough resources? It forces us into choices we never want to make. So many mothers who could never establish careers because there was little to no infrastructure to support that path. Families barely coping. Disabled young people isolated from an outside life that might have given them a sense of purpose. Parents who will finally get some rest when they die. Who postpone medical care for themselves. Kids like A pushed down a tunnel that leads mostly to institutional housing rather than being in a community, increasing the likelihood of loneliness and abuse. Would you want your kid to grow up and have no options? And this isn’t even charity, but a taxpayer funded pot that our household pays into just as much as you do. All this because kids like A cannot meet the high bar for less entrapping options. The only ones who can seek better would be the children of the wealthy. Inequity dogs the steps of the marginalized.
I want to end by saying this: No one WANTS to be in need of help or support that brings on the contempt and goalpost shifting of others. As Monk says, lots of homeless people drink because it helps numb the cruelty they face constantly. So if you have enough privilege that you can see yourself only as the altruistic benefactor in such situations, good for you. But even if that’s your role, you have an obligation to understand the people you say you care about. And that means you have to be willing to be told you’re wrong. You have to know that your money doesn’t necessarily mean you are the best person to make decisions for people whose lives you are far from. You might need to hire someone trained in that field to do the actual work. And not burn them out with useless media-hungry projects so that the actual cause becomes a side hustle.
There’s no way to know right now if I will ever put my family in such groups again. Most likely not. We have a deep love amongst ourselves that makes what we do easier. We do need more support than we have. I long for a truly inclusive religious community. And the pandemic has been an unending nightmare. But I need time and space to repair my aching soul after all the failures of the last umpteen years. And this I cannot do in groups where the ground is not stable.
Monk, N. (2019). Charity means love: Transforming the culture of how we give. Abbey Publishing.