Indicators of freedom from “12 Years a Slave”

I went to see “12 Years a Slave” the other night, but was a little apprehensive about going, given what I’d heard.  To keep it together I decided to take notes as your faithful scribe of “just philanthropy,” on  those indicators of enslavement or loss of freedom that I noticed.

It’s a long list because the film, exploring the enslavement of Africans in this country, is so thorough.  In it, enslavement is marked by the loss of those freedoms below, noted in the order I saw them.  The film makes clear that to not have these freedoms is to be dominated and oppressed.  To not have these freedoms is to be in prison.  To not have these freedoms is to be enslaved.

One can argue that many of these deprivations are ordinary or garden variety offenses inherent in the human condition, relatively petty actions that maybe most of us have experienced at least a little, and don’t really rise to the standard of “official slavery.”  But when any of these is part of a persistent and insistent pattern of not just one but several of these deprivations, then that approaches the condition of slavery.  And it rises even more to the condition of slavery when this pattern is enforced by legal, customary, or institutionalized authority.

At the very least, these “indicators of freedom” are aspirational, goals for the future, being about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” that we as Americans care so much about:

To be permitted to make a home where one wants, and to eat where one wants

To be permitted to work where one is able, and to be rewarded

To be permitted to learn, and to express oneself

To be permitted to love whom one wants, and be loved back

To be permitted prospects for advancement, for improvement, for living a better life

To not be denied knowledge of where one comes from, or be forced to pretend otherwise

To not be hurt by another’s hand, and be free of beatings and worse

To not be denied fair treatment in any or all dealings

To not be denied the opportunity to friend, or to be befriended; to care for, and be cared for

To not be denied the freedom to go where one wants, unafraid and unfettered

To be free of risk of kidnap and being held for ransom or sold into slavery

To be permitted to live, not just survive

To live without fear of death by another’s hand

To not be brutalized or demeaned, and not be required to brutalize or demean others to save oneself

To be known for who one really is

To not be separated forcibly from one’s family

To not be required to forget one’s children, or one’s parents

To not be lorded over by anyone thinking himself superior

To be able to use one’s talents, and to profit from one’s honest labor

To feel the satisfaction of work done well

To share in the bonhomie of one’s colleagues

To be permitted to escape the depths of despair

To not be made to vanish from the sight of one’s loved ones

To not be hanged within an inch of one’s life, by anyone for any reason

To live as an exceptional free man rather than an exceptional nigga

To understand the Lord’s will in a way that incorporates love rather than the dominating ambitions of another

To not be required to be a party to another’s merriment if you don’t feel like it

To make a break for freedom – and make it!  — to escape the curse of the Pharaohs

To be comforted in this life

To not have the sanctity of one’s own dignity be violated

To be able to write a letter, and to send it without fear of interception or theft

To not be required to destroy one’s own means of salvation

To know God’s blessings, even as one’s life is ending

To understand that what is true and right in the eyes of God, is true and right for all

To not be required to suffer the moralizing of ignorant fools

To be united, or re-united, with what is rightfully yours

To have the world recognize that what you built, you built, and to receive fair compensation

To know one’s own children, and grandchildren

To have those who have transgressed against you know the meaning of their actions

To believe in justice and rescue as if it is possible

These are all knowable and observable indicators of freedom.  People can agree on how much they do or do not prevail  in their circles and communities.  They inform a framework of social indicators useful to advancing a more just philanthropy, and a more free society.

Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D. / Effective Communities Project / December 16, 2013
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Drive-by evaluation

Returning from a month-long road trip to Los Angeles and back, putting 6100 miles onto our homey little Vistabule teardrop trailer, traveling mostly the blue highways of the West and staying mostly in county or state parks and US Forest Service or BLM campgrounds, we offer this purely impressionistic evaluation report on the state of the country.

The West is magnificent, grand, thoroughly tough and awe-inspiring – even in places where there are human settlements.

It’s challenging for human beings to live peaceably and fruitfully on the land and with the land, but there are hopeful signs everywhere that more and more people are trying, individually and severally, to do so.

Thank the balance-of-powers-that-be-so-far that a total rape of the West has not occurred, through apparent affirmation of the enormous public interest in keeping these lands well-stewarded.  Public land and private land both, it seems to us in our limited drive-by assessment, are increasingly managed with an eye toward sustainability.

It doesn’t look as though gigantic faraway intrusive and disregarding corporate interests have completely captured the West (though I’m probably naïve).   But to the extent that they have not, we must have civic groups and nonprofit advocacy organizations to thank for maintaining vigilance, pressure, and accountability.

Networks of social of environmental indicators that actually measure the qualities of our lives and environments can be seen in snippets of local and regional newspaper coverage, with a tendency to improved reporting.

We feel grateful to have such an opportunity to explore this exceptional country.  As is evident, we feel both hope and fear, optimism and pessimism for the future.


Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D. / Effective Communities Project / May 20, 2013

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The way we think about charity is dead wrong

In his TED talk, “The way we think about charity is dead wrong,” Dan Pallotta, activist and fundraiser, makes many interesting and provocative points about the dysfunctional nature of our society’s “philanthropic market.”  I cheer him on.

He points to five ways that the non-profit world is explicitly kept on the sideline and rendered ineffectual by the attitudes and practices of the for-profit world.  Non-profits are forced to endure…:

  • dysfunctional compensation practices that don’t reward genuine productivity that makes a difference;
  • virtual prohibitions against advertising and marketing, throttling resource development;
  • non-rewards and even punishment for taking risk, especially to develop new revenue streams;
  • prohibitions against taking time to build the infrastructure and momentum before rewards are demanded,
  • denial of profit even when plowed back into the organization, starving the sector of growth and idea capital.

These restrictions on nonprofits, imposed by traditional donors who ask innocent-seeming questions that limit support for overhead, have the effect of stifling deserving nonprofits in their pursuit of solutions to big social problems.   The nonprofit world wants these points made loudly.  If the general public understood these realities about nonprofits and the handicaps they labor with, there could well be a surge of support for the work nonprofits do, and a restructuring of the non-profit/for-profit misalignment for the better.

Pallotta creatively traces this dysfunction to the operating assumptions brought to this country by its first immigrant populations, Puritans and Calvinists, who lived and left a legacy that combined piety, ambition and shame, a combination giving rise to American philanthropy, a form of penance, he says.  If we want to make headway with the causes we fight for, we have to go beyond those inherited cultural strains and re-imagine the possibilities.

Pallotta suggests that if we could get philanthropic contributions “up to scale,” which he defines as contributions at 3% of GDP rather than 2%, the level it’s been stuck at the last several decades, 50% more resources would be available to tackle society’s problems.  And we could get there, he says, if society knew more about and fixed the dysfunctions of the non-profit/for-profit schism.

Perhaps so, but I worry that he carries forward the same mistake as our Pilgrim ancestors, assuming that money is the root of all solutions.  Is it really the case that all that’s needed is more money?  I’m not so sure.

Look at all the money held by private foundations and community foundations, all raised in the last few decades on the promise of solving these problems.  Billions.  Throw in public money and we have major mass. Yet the same huge social problems persist, and are perhaps even worse.  Why would making charitable organizations more massive be better, I wonder?  Please let’s not think that just by throwing more money in their direction we can say “problem solved” or “mission accomplished.”  Possibly, shockingly, perhaps heretically, social problems are worse because of the way we throw money at them. 

A key, I think, to fanning the flames of change Pallotta wishes to fan, is to shed light on yet another dysfunctional schism, one that operates within the world of institutional philanthropy, between grant-making foundations and grant-receiving nonprofits.

Grant-making foundations create terrible choke points in the supply of charitable dollars. Individuals give money in the hope of solving important social problems, but institutions (foundations) hold the money, investing it in questionable commercial operations that work against their very own missions, creating beautiful offices for themselves with wonderful salaries and perks, acting more like banks than like partners in problem-solving, and releasing only a trickle of cash on terrible terms to do the important work.

The donating public (most Americans), even the well-to-do donating public, doesn’t differentiate foundations from nonprofits – both are philanthropic charities in their eyes, which is largely true in the eyes of the IRS, institutional charity’s governing authority.   Yet those two sides of the philanthropic world operate at odds with each other every bit as much as the for-profit and non-profit worlds do.

Many of the inequities Pallotta points to actually stem from the practices of grant-making foundations.  It’s the private foundations, corporate foundations, and even community foundations that ask those inappropriate questions about overhead that keep nonprofit salaries low, that put nonprofits on short time lines that inhibit risk-taking and innovation, that prohibit taking in enough money to plow back into R&D.  It’s at these choke points where change must happen.

I’m not saying that nonprofits know exactly what to do to fix the problems of breast cancer, homelessness, and hunger (to draw on the same issues Pallotta cites), because they don’t yet – largely because, I believe, they’ve been denied the real opportunity to push out on these fronts.

Most people are terribly misinformed about the realities of the nonprofit marketplace, as Pallotta suggests.  If the public knew more about how the right hand (foundations) squelches the left hand (nonprofits) they would demand change.

I credit Pallotta for raising these issues, especially in articulating the historical forces that perpetuate how the profit-making side of our society’s consciousness (and marketplaces) continues to marginalize, demean, and dismiss its benevolent side.  But the goal has to go beyond that of raising more money, it has to go to investing in and testing workable solutions, just as the for-profit world is permitted to do.

Otherwise all we’ll have is a bigger nonprofit economy and the same high problem rates.

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Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D. / Effective Communities Project / March 26, 2013

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