Charity, Solidarity, and the Holiday Season, part two

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Today’s post is the second in a three part series about the complicated relationships between charitable giving and the work of charitable organizations, especially during the holiday season. 

Our guest blogger Luke discusses below his own frustrating experiences of being caught in the middle of charitable giving without relationship, and other ways in which charitable work makes real solidarity difficult to realize.

The holiday season is now behind us. This is too bad, because for many of us November and December are the months when we donate to those in need, when we seem especially aware of injustice, pain, and suffering in our communities. It’s also an occasion to reflect on the relationships between giving, justice, and the ways we contribute—or don’t—to unequal societies.

I was fortunate enough to work as a truck driver for an organization that supports street-involved youth in one of Canada’s biggest cities. My job at this time of year was busy, but extremely rewarding. Food, clothing, toys and furniture were donated en masse. Our organization, and, more importantly, the street-youth we supported, depended on the generosity of the community–the Christmas rush. And, every so often, the “Christmas rush” created opportunities for interactions between rich and poor.

In the months leading up to Christmas we went to schools, businesses and homes to pick up donations that were to be stored or delivered directly to those in need. I was always accompanied by one or two street-youth who worked on the truck with me and helped collect and deliver cans of food, winter clothing and furniture. I’ve always been fortunate enough to be on the donating end of charity, and in those moments of donating never actually got to know those I was donating to. Growing up, I helped collect cans or donate care-packages to families affected by natural disasters, but none of these actions ever brought me into relationship.

Spending hours in traffic with my co-workers meant that we had nothing to do but talk, and these conversations were a social work degree in understanding the perspectives of life on the street. It was often during the “debrief,” after we picked up a donation, that these perspectives came to light.

One particular story stands out. Someone in one of the wealthier suburbs of the city was re-modelling their kitchen and so they were replacing their fridge. They decided to donate their still-quite-new-fridge to our organization, which we always gladly accepted, so we could help furnish apartments of the youth who were served by our organization.  We—meaning me and the two street youth who worked with me on the truck—went to pick up the fridge. Our interaction with the donor, as we picked up the fridge, still sticks out in my mind.

The donor was surprised to have street people in her house. She was visibly uncomfortable, I can only assume based on my colleagues appearance, and made no effort to hide her careful surveillance of their movement through her home. I was tempted to ask the donor if she could carry a fridge and steal a T.V. at the same time. I resisted the temptation. As we moved the fridge down the stairs she expressed terror that we would wreck her wall, her antiques, her (probably?) expensive paintings. As we sweated, we learned from her to “be careful,” and to “watch out,” and to “carry the fridge correctly.”

I thought I was maybe being too sensitive, but as soon as we were all back in the truck my co-worker immediately said “What was her [redacted] problem”? He then criticized the “way” she was giving. “Does she [really] think she’s saving the world with that fridge? We just provided a free service and unloaded her guilt.” I’m paraphrasing, and this is the G-rated version of what was said, but the point is clear. And while I know that my colleague probably sounds ungrateful or ignorant, in that moment his concerns felt right, and compelling. We had a relationship, though different lived experiences—not unlike the difference between me and him and the concerned donor.

I eventually came to a simple conclusion about charitable giving of this sort: being nice is important. I know this sounds completely naïve, and probably also irrelevant to issues as complex as homelessness and poverty. Who cares whether or not donors are “nice,” so long as they donate, right? From the perspective of my co-workers who would be receiving these donations, donor’s behaviour mattered—just as it obviously mattered to donors that my friends looked, talked and smelled like street kids. Being nice meant eventually recognizing the common humanity between donor and recipient—‘us’ and ‘them’—and understanding that economic difference between people is often arbitrary and usually wrong. I’ve gone back to school since then, and a lot of stuff I’ve been reading discusses how personal relationships are the first building block to constructive change, so I guess finding any way for rich and poor people have a space for conversations is a good start.

Fostering space that allows for authentic relationships is important and might be a diplomatically viable option to change hearts and minds. I say diplomatically viable, because I know that it’s so hard for non-profits to be political. In some ways I felt like a middle-man between rich and poor, and I think this was true of my non-profit generally. The higher ups and the organization would wine and dine with the city’s elite, in order to keep afloat the organization with its many million dollar budget. But relying on donations means that neutrality and diplomacy are really important–lest our funding dry up.

Equally troubling is that non-profits are constantly in this weird place where they need to show what types of changes their making in peoples lives, while continuing to demonstrate the dire situation of the people they are supporting. If homelessness was put away, we would have been out of work. I totally understand that non-profits need to raise money to benefit those they are supporting, but too often they seem to choose to be polite, instead of political.

House of Friendship talks about ‘walking with,’ and meeting people where they’re at—without judgement or condescension. This is, I think, an admirable guiding principle, and however difficult to achieve in practice, worth always aiming towards, though it matters profoundly why you think someone is poor. If you think someone is poor for arbitrary reasons and that wealth and a person’s value are not linked, it changes the way you give and how you approach poverty and social injustice. But there is a very practical benefit to giving from an approach of solidarity, in addition to the positive feeling a person might get out of donating. So many of the donations to our organization were of absolutely no use. We took all sorts of suspect donations—clothes for old folks, stale food—in hopes of connecting with potential donors who would eventually give money to our organization that we could put towards things that were actually needed by street youth. If those that donated were primarily concerned with what was needed from the perspective of the street youth, and not part of the donors desire to show their wealth, real change in people’s lives became more possible.

So why do we donate? To what end? Does it matter? For a discussion of how individuals and non-profits might, can, or should explore more solidaristic work, stay tuned for the third and final installment in this series next week.

 

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