Revisited: Am I a “Poverty Pimp?” (Written in Oakland in June)
by Max Cadji
NOTE: As we watched Occupy Oakland be dismantled, we remembered this essay on poverty from an activist there. It seemed worth rereading.
I heard Davey D, a local media activist and political hip hop host, use the term, and I was really taken aback by it.
The phrase really says it all, someone who is getting rich by riding the moving story of the nation’s poor, or as one urban dictionary defines it, “Any social worker, do-gooder, social service agency or faith-based organization who comes into a hood not their own and plays at being the savior to folks that don’t need savin’.”
I am an urban horticulturalist and organize around food sovereignty and food justice locally in Oakland [California] as well as in Madagascar. Being that most of my work falls under the nonprofit umbrella, I realized that if I wanted to get projects “for the community” funded, then I needed to learn how to tell a story and beg for the crumbs fallen off of the corporate plates of foundations created by the Rockefellers, Gates and others. This begging also is known as grant writing.
So after finding a mentor and reading a book, I was capable of telling the story of the “urban poor,” who disproportionately suffer from diet-related diseases such as type II diabetes, heart disease and hypertension, in contrast to our more affluent brothers and sisters. I recently read a book about environmental justice and added to my repertoire asthma, cancers and the whole gamut of afflictions that the urban poor face. I got my rhetoric down for the communities that I was trying to advocate for:
“53 liquor stores, 14 fast food restaurants and no grocery store;”
“One out of three children in California suffers obesity and the percentage is higher for children of color;”
“There is approximately one liquor store for every 450 people in West Oakland (The Flatlands) and one for every 7,000 in Piedmont (The Hills);” and so on.
So now all I needed was a camera and some shots of overweight kids eating Hot Fries, a few poor folks pushing shopping carts and rummaging through garbage bins, and footage of freeways and neighborhood liquor stores. Then, finally, my portfolio would be finished.
After scouring the web for foundations, I narrowed down my list, wrote my outline and summed up the harsh conditions of the poor people of Oakland and digitally put out my cardboard sign and started begging for money for a story that wasn’t my own. All the people I interact with on a daily basis in North and West Oakland became a statistic, and to the foundations they were all the same “poor people of color.”
That is when I knew that I was what Davey D was talking about: a poverty pimp.
The wealth, passion, history and diversity of the communities I thought I was advocating for was summarized in a five-page document with charts, metrics and statistics with no humanity nor humility. In fact, I was asking the same corporate foundations whose founders became rich off of the exploitation of the poor for crumbs to help mitigate .05 percent of the social mess they caused (urban pollution, intense extraction of natural resources, exploitation of the working class, etc). One thing lead to another and I found myself writing grants to General Mills, reading requests for proposals for community food security projects from ConAgra, and asking for obesity prevention money to put in clinic-based garden programs from Dryer’s Grand Ice Cream.
So what does this mean for me? I have recognized that I may be a poverty pimp, which is the first step toward turning my life and career around.
My second step was to buy some Flip cams and have the people I work with and for tell their own stories via digital media. Finally, my last step was to educate myself about the history of foundations and how they operate by reading American Foundations: An Investigative History by Mark Dowie.
After reading this thorough critique of American philanthropy, the game and hustle that I’m engaged in makes a lot more sense when you realize the power and control, secrecy and sheer lack of democracy that American foundations operate under. In fact, did you know that foundations only operate on the interest they earn on their original endowment? Their portfolios, decision-making process and investment strategies are hidden from the American people and shrouded in secrecy and hypocrisy.
Take for example the investment portfolio that the Gates Foundation has in oil-rich Nigeria. The $35 billion Gates endowment invests heavily in an Italian Oil firm ENI. This firm’s oil flares in the Niger Delta have caused, as one local doctor puts it, “an epidemic of bronchitis in adults and asthma and blurred vision in children.”
So as the Gates Foundation tries to immunize Nigeria’s poor, they also fund these efforts through investments in external corporate entities that blanket their target communities in environmental injustices, polluting the air and the ground water and creating fertile grounds for disease to spread. This is just one example of foundations’ sleight of hand.
I don’t like to unfairly focus simply on the negative, as I often get my kicks as a pure pessimist. Through further research I learned of some innovative foundation leaders and granting models such as “flow funding,” which allows people working on the ground and in the streets to recommend programs for foundations to fund rather than having communities that may have not mastered the grant writing language have to jump through the hoops. I also learned of foundations such as Aokandi that fund racial justice initiatives, as well as funds that are distributed by community-guided granting boards.
I feel like we need to bite the (foundation) hand that feeds us and ask more questions and point more fingers, but then again we all want to get paid. When we really get down to it, the money is right in the neighborhoods we are working in.
Pimpin’ for six-digit grants can be partially averted by communities canvassing and raising money to meet community needs. Just look at the most successful self-funded institutions in a good portion of the affected communities, often the religious centers. Take look at the facts and see who really gives a larger percentage of earned income and you may not need to look further than your next door neighbor. There is a tremendous amount of wealth and social equity to build independent community-driven institutions outside of the foundation funded, nonprofit industrial complex.
“Hello my name is Max Cadji and I am a poverty pimp.”
Though I have come to say this, I have been challenged by counterparts in the movement with another, slightly different definition from an urban dictionary of a poverty pimp: “Any self-appointed minority leader, who extols the perpetual poorness of their ethnicity, yet is quite well off stemming from their efforts.” In this context, however, I am not a poverty pimp — just a misguided, privileged do-gooder.
A former coworker told me, “I love you Max, but you’re not rich. Is making any money at all off of this process poverty pimping?” These are great questions and things to chew on while in the game. I have taken my first step towards my recovery, and I challenge those working as advocates and allies in the nonprofit sector to look in the mirror and ask themselves “Am I a poverty pimp?”
Max Cadji is the founder and Executive Director of Phat Beets Produce.
*Oakland Local is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media and capacity-building organization that promotes civic engagement and discourse on local issues. Beyond their editorial work, they offer hands-on media training and serve as a capacity-building tool to help low-income and under-served communities make their voices heard online.
Photo by Cynthia Samuels