Charity versus Solidarity: Follow the Power

Isaac Hollander McCreery, 1 September 2014

A personal note

My good friend Lydia is a choir director in Chicago. She works at ten elementary and middle schools around Chicago. When I sang in her choir, while we were both still undergraduates at Oberlin, her aptitude for engaging with the choir, at once working with the group as a whole and with each individual, personally and lovingly, took my breath away. Now, two years later, she brings that same love, connection, aptitude, and energy to hundreds of students around Chicago, many of whom have very little stability in their lives. In fact, she said, while we were meandering through the upper class jungle of North Chicago, choir is too often the only stabilizing force in her students’ lives.

She said to me that she loves her work, but also that it leaves her deeply, deeply exhausted.

I sympathized with the feeling, as David Foster Wallace puts it, of fatigue, “day after week after month after year”. 40 hours a week—or more, as it often is—is a lot, no matter how brilliant you are or how committed to and inspired by your work you remain. But as we talked more, the feeling she was articulating clarified as something different. Her work isn’t tedious. No, that’s definitely not it. In fact, she says she gets so deeply involved in her work that she doesn’t really feel tired until the long day is over. While she’s standing up, directing, listening, coaching, there isn’t anywhere else her mind is: only there, with her students, and with the music.

But her work drains her, she said. It occurred to us that, maybe she didn’t have the anything that acted as a pillar of solidarity, the way that the Lived Experiences Commission of the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness did for me this summer. I consistently relied to my knowledge that the Alliance turns to its Lived Experiences Commission as a voice in the discussion of how to end homelessness in Chicago. Does Lydia have something like that she can rely on? Is her work charity, or is it solidarity? Put another way, is she a part of something bigger, a movement or a community working together to shift power?

Charity or solidarity?

Charity is shifting resources while entrenching power; solidarity is shifting resources and power together. Placation is shifting resources in order to keep power where it is; revolution is the result of solidarity.

Let’s jump straight into some examples. Here’s what the World Bank says it does:

The World Bank Group has set two goals for the world to achieve by 2030:

  • End extreme poverty by decreasing the percentage of people living on less than $1.25 a day to no more than 3%
  • Promote shared prosperity by fostering the income growth of the bottom 40% for every country

The World Bank is a vital source of financial and technical assistance to developing countries around the world. We are not a bank in the ordinary sense but a unique partnership to reduce poverty and support development. The World Bank Group comprises five institutions managed by their member countries.

This description, you’ll notice, focuses solely on shifting of resources, and mentions nowhere the shifting of power. In fact, the World Bank names itself as “a vital source of financial and technical assistance”, a phrase that explicitly acknowledges its power, and implicitly hints at its intention to retain that power.

I’m not going to look deeply at the workings of the institution itself, but consideration of the Bank’s history wielding structural adjustment policies or it’s insistence on sovereign immunity and other imbalanced governing policies, it’s hard to see much energy being put toward shifting power. You might say that it’s shifting power by shifting resources, but it’s not even doing that: it tends to loan rather than grant, and its loans often leave countries in worse financial shape than they were before.

Compare the World Bank to GiveDirectly, an organization that directs unconditional cash transfers to some of the world’s poorest. It’s a surprisingly radical way of giving money: yes, the organization retains some power, (they are the ones who call the shots on who does and doesn’t get cash, based on their analysis of how poor a household is,) but they have nothing to say about how the money gets spent. No structural adjustment here attached.

What about a less controversial organization like the Peace Corps? Here’s their mission statement:

To promote world peace and friendship by fulfilling three goals:

  • To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women
  • To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served
  • To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans

In this case, the resources being provided are people, not cash. The need identified here is “trained men and women,” but rather than attempting to train people in foreign countries, it “sends Americans abroad to tackle the most pressing needs of people around the world”. There’s no shifting power in that part of the mission.

The second and third goals are more nuanced. They explicitly name the power shifts that the Corps is attempting: “promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served”, and “promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans”. The former focuses on shifting power toward Americans, I think, while the latter tends the other direction.

The Peace Corps, then, like most organizations and work around the world, positions itself somewhere in both the charity and solidarity camps, though I think it leans much heavier toward charity than solidarity. The United States retains all executive power: “As a federal agency, the Peace Corps reports to the Congress and the Executive Branch”, and not to anyone else.

A note about leadership

The Peace Corps is a great example of an organization that, like so many others, refuses to take the most important step towards solidarity: leadership by the served. Consider the easiest example, the civil rights movement in the United States. Who was leading that? Do we think of white folks in the North who were concerned about black folks in the South? No, of course not. We think of folks like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. The white folks were in solidarity. Power was shifting.

None of the organizations I listed above are led by those being served, and it’s a hard thing to come by. Some speakers that came through Oberlin in the last year or so stick out in my mind:

Getting behind projects like these is solidarity. Getting behind a community garden that is run by wealthy folks to deliver food to a food pantry is charity.

Another personal note

I started this essay by discussing the personal toll that charity takes on us, and I’d like to return to that. I’ve found solidarity work exhausting in my own life, but I’ve found that charity is a different kind of exhaustion. When I’m in an environment where the people who retain power are not the people who are supposedly being served, it wears on my faith in the work. I feel like the work I’m doing is unsustainable, or even backwards. Generally, if a project isn’t actively shifting power, it’s entrenching it.

So, I’ll leave with a few questions I’ve been pondering recently.