Category Archives: equality

Coragem (Courage)

I was in Salvador last month teaching a class on NGO capacity building and grant writing, sharing everything I know about building community and structure around a mission that makes the world a better place.  On Friday, as all of the tools and tricks it takes to run an effective organization settled into the minds of class participants, one leaned forward and said, “Temos que ter coragem.”  We have to have courage.  She meant the kind of courage that would allow them to pioneer new ways of doing things, knowing that they will make mistakes in front of each other along the way.

Indeed, courage was on the minds of these women that day.  A discussion about program evaluation shifted from graduation rates to measuring any gain in self esteem that might come through education and social support.  They described trying to get young women to even consider taking a university entrance exam within a culture of presumed failure.  Each of the women in the room had taken the Vestibular at least twice—several three and four times— before passing, and the young women they work with know that it is uphill battle to learn enough to pass this rigorous exam.  Their dreams of achieving a university education required courage to march through the pain of endless study with no guarantee of success, foregone wages, and, for some, social stigma for even trying.

As it turns out, the inner demons that haunt young African-Brazilian women were in good company.  The night before, a police strike began, resulting in violence and looting in the neighborhoods to which these women were returning to that night.  By the time this conversation was happening, over eighty people had been killed, and the randomness of crime had uprooted any sense of public security for the poor residents of the city.  The fear of what might happen was written on their faces.  They left early to journey home on public buses, some traveling alone as far as the airport.

Courage was on their minds, and now it is on mine.  These women are working in a space in which they have to muster together personal, professional, and social courage, battling internal and external demons around every turn.  They have to lift the spirits of others when the same demons haunt them.  The success they achieve in these circumstances is heroic and humbling.

There I sat, listening to their discussion, aware of the divide between their experiences and my reality.  What was my role in this partnership? Encourage? No, encourage has someone else as its object.  It is passive, distant, and possibly condescending.  I was on a flight out the next morning.  Who was I to tell them to keep up the great work?

What struck me about my week in Salvador was how open these women were to learn and to teach, how they had made a commitment to social change and were in this work for the long term, and how they intuitively understood that their big societal issues were made up of many small problems, all of which could be tackled with the right resources.  They weren’t afraid to have the hard conversations.

Our alternative to encouraging them is to have courage with them.  We can be partners in hard conversations that cross cultural and power boundaries, giving each other the benefit of the doubt along the way.  We can challenge our own limits, professionally and personally, in solidarity with them.  And we can build a long-term community in which to learn, celebrate, and labor together through whatever demons come our way.  To make a difference in this world, they reminded me, temos que ter coragem.

Dear Graduate: Ideas on How to Occupy a Job

January is the month of new beginnings, and for students graduating in May, the start of job hunting season.  This graduating class’s senior year has been marked by Occupy events across the country, leading some soon-to-be-graduates to think about careers addressing what many believe to be our most pressing domestic issue: class inequality.  Indeed, this inequality is faced most by younger Americans, whose median income is a small fraction of that of “typical American households.”

I recently received an email from a 2011 graduate still looking for a job:

Dear Social Change Collaboratory:

My name is Tom, and I am a 2011 graduate of a good school.  I want to work for an organization devoted to working to address economic inequality and other related issues, and I was wondering if you knew any good organizations doing this.  I would appreciate all of the help you could give me because I don’t really know where to begin. 

Thanks you and best regards,

 The Obama generation is charged up to work for change, so where should they work?

Dear Tom,

Thank you for writing, and congratulations on graduating!  Welcome to the thrilling, perplexing world of adulthood.

You ask an excellent question.  People have occupied cities and posted yard signs declaring support for the 99%.   Many of us who haven’t marched have stood by expressing support for the frustration behind the Occupy movement.  Despite all of this fervor, however, the question remains: what are we going to do about this growing divide?

You ask about good organizations focused on this work. In reality, the road to finding a job working to end economic inequality is not necessarily direct—there are many organizations across many sectors doing this work.  Four questions to ask yourself before you decide on one.

1. Are you limited to taking the direct path to addressing income inequality?

In the most direct sense, economic inequality can be solved by reducing top incomes, raising bottom incomes, or closing the gap income, all else remaining equal.  (Hats off to my undergraduate degree in economics.)  Some ideas on careers that take you down this road:

Politics and policy:  Work for an elected official concerned about income inequality, or find an advocacy organization that addresses policy.

Small business:  Work in a small to mid-size business (or non-profit organization) in a low income area.  As Laura Choi notes, finding ways to support local business as they keep their money local helps to reduce income inequality.

Economics: Study economics to better understand the relationship between income and the economy.  This is the type of analysis economists do.

2. Quick fix or long term impact?

Limiting one’s scope to income inequality keeps one’s solutions in the realm of transactional change.  Taxing the rich (at the modest rates proposed), raising the minimum wage a few cents for the poor, or any other simple transfer of money or monetized benefit doesn’t fundamentally change how society works.  (Taxing the rich at high rates or raising the minimum wage significantly would, but that would just be un-American, right?)

Real social change happens once you take the inverse of a societal negative and turn it positive.  Indeed, once you get beyond raising or lowering actual incomes, addressing income inequality gets obscured into a range of job descriptions that rarely mention income or inequality.  These solutions set out to transform some element of society with the assumption that advocating for new laws, building stronger safety nets, or educating marginalized children and families will expand opportunities, thereby raising the lowest incomes.

Social change:  Work for one of the thousands of organizations focused on social justice issues, community development, or political advocacy.

Education:  Get school experience through AmeriCorps or through work at an afterschool care program.

3. Local or global?

Income inequality is not just an American problem.  Impoverished communities around the world face their own versions of income inequality, both domestically and within the context of external aid being imposed on them by large aid or governmental agencies.  We here can do a lot to help people around the world.

Organization support:  Non-profit poverty alleviation and social change organizations have staff members to raise money and expand their communities.  In Washington State, Global Washington has a directory of them.  In other states, contact your local World Affairs Council and ask if they have a directory of internationally-focused organizations working within that region.

Advocacy: A number of organizations work to end poverty by advocating for greater money or awareness about poverty alleviation.  ONE and RESULTS are two such organizations.

Philanthropy:  Philanthropists are foundations are paying closer attention to issues of equality in their giving.  Grantmakers Without Borders is a leader in taking a social change approach to giving.  Its job board includes organizations across the country and worldwide.  The Foundation Center’s job board also lists philanthropy-related opportunities.

 4. Work or volunteer?

Over the years I have been asked by several mid-career professionals how to break into international non-profit work.  After I hear what they are current doing, I get salary envy.  You really want to leave a well paid, challenging job to earn close to nothing, to live on soft funding year after year?  A lot is accomplished through volunteering and board service.  Graduates, ask yourself whether you could achieve your goals by earning a good salary and dedicating your charity dollars and extra hours to community leadership.

Volunteer:  Nearly every social service non-profit, food bank, shelter, after-school program, etc. needs volunteer support.  Contact your local United Way or any of the organizations linked above to find out ways to jump in today.

Lead:  Non-profit organizations rely on volunteer leaders and board members.  Take a volunteer experience one step further by become a leader.  Great programs work with young people on how to be a effective leader of a social project,  Seattle Works being one example.

Innovate:  If you can’t find the right match for you, think about creating something new.  The Equality Trust, based in the U.K., provides a list of ideas.

Tom, good luck finding the right match for you, and do stay in touch!  I can’t wait to hear where you end up.


A Square Peg in a Round Hole

As the Occupy movements become more formalized, some of them have created structure around their protest and have applied for tax-exempt status.  In Seattle, members of different committees wear different color armbands, and the fundraising committee solicits donations to pay for sleeping bags and food.  Different committees serve different functions, much like a well-established non-profit board of directors breaking down into strategic plan-guided subcommittees.

How non-profits create structure around a community wanting change is captivating to those of us who love both structure and community, but what stood out to me was the protester who stood in protest of this formalization, angry that their local Occupy group had gone mainstream.  The whole point was to fight the status quo, he suggested.  Filling out a lengthy government-issued tax document in the midst of a protest against government policies and unfair taxes seemed contradictory to him.

This tension between the fight for significant social change that allows for equality of opportunity and the reality that someone has to fund that fight is common within social change organizations.  (One of my favorite books discussing this tension is The Revolution Will Not Be Funded.)  Non-profit leaders balance the organic reality of working for transformational change while having to define their work with the rigid requirements imposed through IRS reporting forms and charity navigators.

Dan Pallotta in his new book Uncharitable: How Restraints on Nonprofits Undermine Their Potential makes a very compelling case for how both government requirements and philanthropic culture impede the efforts of non-profits to make real and lasting change.  He takes on the big questions that cut to the core of how non-profits function.  He believes that efficiency measures are ineffective and unfair, giving examples from his own work creating large AIDS awareness events and campaigns.  He argues that the concept of overhead is fictional, and that our focus on keeping it to 20-percent or less distracts us from the real issues that drive our work.  He concludes that only a shift in culture would allow non-profits to operate differently.  In reading his arguments, I could think of many more examples to make his points.

I read Pallotta’s important book with the protesters in mind.  There are many powerful reasons to create a structure around a community wanting to effect change.  Structure allows for better communication, professionalized staffing, holistic tracking of impact, and intentional learning across constituencies.  Those people with the colored armbands can specialize and build skills that allow them to better serve more people.

That structure in the United States, however, is one of an IRS-approved non-profit with all of the requirements that go with that.  By agreeing to take tax-exempt money, non-profits agree to report their overhead on their 990.  (How they do so remains a bit of a shell game.  Palotta cites a 2004 study that determined that nearly half of charities report zero fundraising expenses.)  Movements do give up something when they go mainstream.

As that protester noticed, fighting for a new way of doing business within the limitations of institutions created to reinforce the old way of doing business can pose challenges and contradictions.  It can feel a bit like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, or trying to force rigid requirements designed long ago or for another purpose onto a holistic community that is making a difference in unpredictable ways.


“Public bodies must tackle these inequalities in a concerted and sustained way. That is what this duty will require. They will need to think strategically about what more they can do to address socio-economic disadvantage individually and with their partner organisations when they decide their key priorities, set their targets and plan and commission their services. That goes directly to the heart of the matter….  We have made clear in the wording of the duty that we want to see real change with tangible, measurable outcomes.”

– Baroness Royall of Blaisdon, March 2010

What started three weeks ago as a group of protesters occupying Wall Street has spread to other cities and other forms of protest. People are registering their anger at growing economic inequalities, though not making any specific demands around which solutions could take shape.  (Smashing the Wall Street bull is probably not something around which most of us would rally.)

In the absence of clear demands from the protesters, the natural reaction is to jump in and suggest some.  (Nicholas Kristof did in his column; blogger Jason Karsch provides another list on his blog.)  However, while “protecting banks from themselves,” regulating Wall Street, and instituting a financial transactions tax is all enticing stuff for further thought, I wonder what would happen if protesters shifted their thinking from what they are against to what they stand for.  They are against corporate greed and growing inequality.  They are frustrated by stories of high CEO salaries and bailouts as so many Americans and others around the world suffer.  The remedies that I have heard, however, fall short.  We continue to think small and dance around the edges of any lasting shift in those elements of our society that lead to greater equality for all.

Let’s take the inverse all of the challenges facing us and our world and imagine what society might look like.  What does the opposite of unfair tax code, loopholes, unbalanced pay scales, and disempowerment look like?  In turn, what kind of legislation would affirm and expand those elements of our society that we value and aspire most to have?

One answer can be found across the Atlantic.  The Equality Trust in the U.K. has worked tirelessly for legislation that recognizes that we are all stronger when we all have equal opportunities to succeed.  The Equality Trust has conducted rigorous research and study into equality and has provided considerable evidence to show how all members of society are better off in societies where they is a higher level of equality.  A year ago this weekend, the Equality Act took affect to provide an Equality Strategy that sets out a vision for a “strong, modern and fair Britain.”

The Act is built on two principles of equality – equal treatment and equal opportunity.  In reality, only the first principle was enacted in 2010, forbidding discrimination on the basis of many of the same characteristics as disallowed in the U.S.  The socio-economic duty provision addressing income inequality was not approved.  However, through the work of the Equality Trust and others, 101 MPs in the British Parliament have now expressed support for the provision.  Equality Trust continues to push legislation that builds “a stronger, fairer and more cohesive society where equality is for everyone and is everyone’s responsibility.”

The Equality Strategy, when fully implemented, would force all decisions about legislation and government spending through a filter that asks one question: What impact would this have on equality?  It resembles a strategy screen used by civic leaders to create criteria to guide strategic decisions in advance of those decisions, allowing them to respond in real time to the dynamic nature of their work.  The beauty of a strategy screen is that it allows leaders to be forward thinking, not just responding to past legislation but setting up a values-based framework by which new legislation can be measured.

As Georgetown University professor of history said, “Rants based on discontents are the first stage of any movement.” It is natural for a movement to start in protest, and we can get for the most part universal agreement on what we don’t want in our world: poverty, lack of opportunity, and generational wealth consolidation.  However, keeping the fight as one against negative aspects of society forces us to create solutions in the margins, tweaking tax code or legislating CEO salaries.  It is a lot harder to get agreement on what we want— equality, shared responsibility so that all members of our society receive opportunity.  Only by fighting for the inverse of the bad can we achieve lasting good.

I applaud the protesters for taking a stand and registering their concern about the growing divide that plagues our nation, as well as world.  Now that they have our attention, it is up to us to enact a practical agenda that holds our elected officials accountable for rebuilding our communities with the most fundamental of American values: equality of opportunity regardless of race, gender, class, or tax bracket.