I’m a huge fan of Vu Le and his blog, Nonprofit AF. But I was disappointed by a recent post.
The title of the piece was “Nonprofits and philanthropy and our bad habit of ‘both-siding’ inequity and injustice.” It was prompted, he notes, by invitations he’s been receiving to participate in debates pitting adherents of his own preferred “community-centric approach” to fundraising against the “traditional donor-centered” approach.
But he’s “not interested in these debates. There are no two sides.”
According to the Community-Centric Fundraising organization’s website, the model “is grounded in equity and social justice. We prioritize the entire community over individual organizations, foster a sense of belonging and interdependence, present our work not as individual transactions but holistically, and encourage mutual support between nonprofits.”
By contrast, Le argues, the traditional donor-centered approaches
have revolved around the comfort of white donors and thus have been allowing them to avoid grappling with systemic injustice rooted in slavery, colonization, and capitalistic exploitation of the poor and marginalized that perpetuates wealth and power hoarding among rich mostly white people, which fuels many of the problems we’re trying to fix.
Characterized this way, it’s easy to see why he believes any debate would be a futile exercise in “both-sidism.” He then goes on to cite approvingly a colleague who opens a racial-equity training session this way: “We are not going to spend time and energy debating whether white privilege is real or if white supremacy exists or whatever. You’ve had plenty of opportunities to learn that stuff. If you’re still in denial about it, this is not the space for you to work that out. We are here to agree to actions we need to take.” Le then adds, “Let’s all be more like that.”
He thinks that “we need to recognize and uphold some essential truths,” which should be off-limits to “both-sidism.” These include the statements: “racism, white supremacy, white privilege and toxic masculinity exist;” “Black, Indigenous, and women of color are most affected by systemic injustice;” their groups are under-resourced due to the “pervasive whiteness inherent in philanthropy;” and so forth.
Now, in spite of linguistic similarities, I don’t believe that Le is in the thrall of Critical Social Justice Theory. That approach, very much evident on campuses and in the culture today, challenges the legitimacy of rational debate itself.
As James Lindsay writes in New Discourses, critical theorists like Alison Bailey believe the usual way we “settle scholarly disagreements are part of the hegemonically dominant system that, by definition, cannot be sufficiently radical to create real revolutionary change.” If revolution is your goal—and for many Critical Social Justice theorists, it is—then rational debate as such is a mug’s game. In Audre Lorde’s words, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
Le, by contrast, gives us a tangible list—albeit a pretty sweeping one—of topics that are now designated “essential truths” and therefore beyond debate. Hearteningly, that suggests yet other topics remain open for discussion, and perhaps even amenable to the “master’s tools.”
Still, his determination to rule out discussion of some important issues for philanthropy is disappointing. I was drawn to his website in the first place precisely because it pried open discussions that had long been considered closed by establishment philanthropy.
Even though it surely imperiled funding for RVC, the Seattle-based nonprofit he founded, Vu Le raised critical questions about standard philanthropic practices like exhaustive and burdensome grant applications, reporting requirements, and evaluation demands; the heavy reliance on formulaic, mechanistic devices like theories of change and logic models; and grants too small, restricted, and limited in duration to come close to making the substantial changes foundations expect.
With a puckish sense of humor combined with piercing argument, he has helped produce dramatic changes in the way foundations approach grantmaking. He has skillfully wielded the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house—opening up, rather than closing down, conversation about its long-accepted practices. It’s sad now to see him exhibiting the intellectual intransigence he once challenged.
His new-found exasperation with “both-sidism” has less to do, I suspect, with a commitment to revolutionary theory than with impatience—the sense that now it’s time to move beyond abstract debate, and get on with the business of actually establishing social justice.
After all, as The Chronicle of Philanthropy reports, some $5 billion has been committed to that cause in just the past few months, and on terms far closer to the demands of community-centrism than ever before. So it will not seem peculiar for the nonprofit sector to put aside debates about social justice as an end, as Le urges, in order to get on with the development of now-well-funded means to establish it.
This project, though, necessarily draws philanthropy deeply into the realm of politics. After all, that’s where the sweeping systemic changes sought must be pursued. Foundations have ample legal leeway for political engagement, of course, subject only to a handful of easily finessed prohibitions.
But within American politics more broadly, the question of social justice is by no means as settled as it is in philanthropy. Some not-inconsiderable portion of the electorate, for instance, may not be ready to accept the portrait of America as embodying “systemic injustice rooted in slavery, colonization, and capitalistic exploitation of the poor and marginalized that perpetuates wealth and power hoarding among rich mostly white people, which fuels many of the problems we’re trying to fix.”
In philanthropy itself, as Le demonstrates, it’s becoming much easier to tell such unenlightened people to check their privilege and shut up. But when philanthropy turns to face the American electorate, that approach is not likely to be as effective. Imagine the racial-equity trainer’s words directed to everyday voters:
We are not going to spend time and energy debating whether white privilege is real or if white supremacy exists or whatever. You’ve had plenty of opportunities to learn that stuff. If you’re still in denial about it, this is not the space for you to work that out. We are here to agree to actions we need to take.
Of course, politicized philanthropy, at least theoretically, knows better than to use that sort of language outside plush foundation conference rooms. But in a sector where basic questions of social justice are now considered closed and undebatable, the ability to engage and persuade a still uncertain public becomes a lost art. It’s too easy to lapse in public into the sort of dismissive and disparaging language that philanthropy now finds utterly unobjectionable in private.
That’s what happened four years ago, of course, when a careless Hillary Clinton let slip her understanding that voters without her well-developed sense of social justice are “deplorables.” The Democratic Party, to whose success political philanthropy is largely dedicated, is determined to avoid that sort of gaffe this year. It has nominated a reputed moderate candidate for president. And in just the past couple of weeks, it has begun to tap the brakes a bit on the agenda around systemic injustice, which at first seemed so politically potent, but has since proven somewhat unsettling to voters.
But the party operatives entrusted with the task of cooling out the rhetoric of social justice over the next two months need to know that there’s $5 billion in philanthropic gifts now en route to political activism. Some considerable portion of that will be devoted precisely to heating up the rhetoric of social justice. It will be spent by groups that are, as is Le, increasingly impatient with “both-sidism,” and the aggravatingly tepid language of persuasion it necessitates.
Yet average, persuadable citizens often still want to hear both sides. The side that’s convinced those voters suffer from white supremacy—whose speech deserves to be shut down rather than refuted—may find it difficult to recover the skills necessary to make a larger, public argument.
I’m still going to read—and no doubt enjoy and learn from—what Vu Le writes. It saddens me to think that what I have to say will be dismissed as futile “both-sidism.”