New Works in the Field

Alice O’Connor on Erica Kohl-Arenas’ THE SELF-HELP MYTH (2016)

Editors’ Note: Alice O’Connor reviews Erica Kohl-Arenas’ The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty (University of California Press, 2016). Kohl-Arenas recently participated in the inaugural HistPhil Exchange with Linsey McGoey.

Erica Kohl-Arenas opens her important and sharply-observed new book with a field note from her visit to organized philanthropy’s grand palaver, the Annual Meeting of the Council on Foundations. An ethnographer amidst the multitudes of foundation professionals in attendance at the plenary luncheons and break-out panels, she is moved by the stories of personal uplift and transformation narrated by the formerly addicted/incarcerated/impoverished or otherwise abandoned beneficiaries of foundation-funded projects who are featured speakers on the program. And by her account they are inspiring stories, of people overcoming incredible odds to get on what looks to be a path to middle-class stability and respectability. But she finds herself wondering why there is no room on the meeting agenda—or, evidently, in the work of the professional poverty alleviators in the audience—to recognize the everyday hardships of the low-paid food service workers who are putting their meals on the table, or the state of permanent economic insecurity to which they and countless others have been reduced.

This is the kind of question foundations find uncomfortable, and as often as not dismiss out of hand. After all, foundations have no real way of influencing the workplace practices of corporate employers or the wage standards of the market. But that is precisely Kohl-Arenas’ point. Foundations, she argues, are not exactly passive or innocent bystanders in the oft-recognized contradiction that defines their existence—the contradiction, that is, of institutions devoted to skimming the surplus of concentrated capitalist accumulation to ameliorate the inequities that concentrated capitalist accumulation produces. If anything, foundations perpetuate the conditions they claim to correct. Showing how is the aim of the book, titled The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty (University of California Press, 2016).

As a brief aside I should acknowledge here that a number of people would reject the notion of an inherent contradiction or paradox in the capitalism-philanthropy connection, albeit for very different reasons: neo-Marxists because it acts as a smokescreen for philanthropy’s essentially untroubled corporate, oligarchic agenda; free-market conservatives and new age philanthrocapitalists because market outcomes need no amelioration—if anything, foundations need to refashion themselves to be more in sync with capital markets and for-profit investors. The notion of a philanthropic contradiction, on the other hand, requires at least some openness to the idea that foundations are sincere in their desire to alleviate hardship and actually are in a position to do something meaningful about poverty and the growing economic divide. Kohl-Arenas is willing to take foundations at their word, but she also wants to hold them accountable for their role in perpetuating the myth that the way to alleviate poverty is to help poor people help themselves, while actively discouraging structural analysis, activism, and reform.

Most of The Self-Help Myth is devoted to showing how this dynamic plays out—and how it works to the detriment of poor people’s movements—in foundation practice and grantee organization experience. The book features three case studies developed from the recent (post 1960) history of anti-poverty and farm worker activism in California’s Central Valley, and based on a combination of historical research and ethnographic field work and interviews Kohl-Arenas conducted between 2007-09 when she was a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley. Though similar in some of the particulars, each of the cases captures a distinct, and extended, episode of foundation intervention to address migrant worker poverty, each at a distinctive “moment” in the long trajectory of agricultural restructuring and social policy reform. Each, too, gets at different aspects of how foundations exercise power in the grant making relationships they initiate—even when they are not entirely in control. And each presents us with a different stage in what, taken together, the case studies point to as a deepening entrenchment of self-help logic in foundation-funded anti-poverty programming. One constant is worth emphasizing: poverty has remained exceedingly high in the Central Valley throughout the period covered in these case studies, a period that has also featured peak industry profits.

Kohl-Arenas’ first case study takes us back to the heady, if troubled, days of farm worker organizing and federal War on Poverty spending in the late 1960s, when, amid heightening internal tensions and industry attacks, movement leaders turned to private foundations for much-needed support, in the hope on the one hand of shoring up the movement’s legal/worker rights infrastructure and on the other of building its capacity to provide community-based services and training for its members. In a discussion that highlights the protracted negotiations and a few tortuous letter exchanges between United Farm Workers (UFW) president Cesar Chavez and Field Foundation program officer Leslie Dunbar, she shows what great lengths the then-leading lights of Great Society philanthropy (including the Ford Foundation) took to make sure their funding did not support anything that could be tied to labor organizing or otherwise overtly “political” activities—here replicating the proscriptions imposed on federal community action funding as well. At one point, Field arranged to funnel money for UFW legal support through the hardly apolitical American Civil Liberties Union-affiliated Roger Baldwin Foundation, in order to prevent foundation funds from supporting AFL-CIO-affiliated lawyers. The money got there but the message was clear: labor rights were not civil rights, and they were off limits as far as foundations were concerned. Although she acknowledges the long-brewing tensions between trade unionists and community-service organizers within the movement, Kohl-Arenas argues that foundation pressures only deepened this divide, by pushing Chavez and UFW-affiliated organizations to segregate their social welfare from their economic justice activities, and eventually to channel more and more of their own energies and organizational efforts into the kinds of politically neutralized service and educational activities foundations were willing to fund.

By the time of the second and third case studies, in the late 1990s and 2000s, foundations were intervening more directly to rechannel and redirect movement priorities, this time with multi-million dollar initiatives of their own design. This was the era of the philanthropic collaboration, as Kohl-Arenas succinctly reminds us, when a number of prominent national foundations announced high-profile, multi-year, and sometimes multi-site initiatives that involved numerous grantee/”stakeholders,” often coordinated or otherwise guided with some sort of training or technical assistance by a designated intermediary, that aimed to demonstrate philanthropy’s power to leverage high-impact, lasting, consensual social change in problem areas where more limited interventions had failed. Best known among these were the various community change initiatives that targeted economically depressed, mostly urban neighborhoods around the country with the promise of greater comprehensiveness, more inclusion, better information systems, more attention to economic development and more fully articulated “theories of change” that could in turn be translated into measurable “benchmarks” for purposes of evaluating their impact. These privately-funded initiatives took on outsized significance amidst three signature features of the millennial political economy: ongoing retrenchment in public support for low-income programs and communities, the vast expansion of private philanthropic wealth, and rising economic inequality.

The initiatives Kohl-Arenas studied were shaped by these trends. But as projects of California-based foundations with significant ties to local industry, they were also keyed to what, in the increasingly divisive politics of immigration reform, was emerging as common, if not exactly politically neutral ground between agricultural employers and migrant labor: immigrant rights and what would come to be understood as a mutual interest in promoting “pathways to citizenship”—so long as they didn’t broach issues such as wages, employment practices, or workplace democracy. In one especially telling quote from a program officer involved with immigrant rights work at a major foundation: “I would never attempt to bring a grant proposal to my board that speaks of challenging economic inequity through direct action organizing, labor, or welfare rights, or holding businesses or major industries such as agriculture accountable. Such proposals have been known to cost many a program officer their jobs.” (p.91) Notably, one reason Kohl-Arenas is able to report such frank testimony is that she disguises the identities of the foundations, program officers, grantee organizations, and the initiatives themselves. This is in keeping with the Human Subject protocols of Berkeley and other major universities, but it is also a tacit acknowledgement that in the foundation world, speaking truth about power can come at a price.

More central to Kohl-Arenas’ point, though, is to show how the foundations in these case studies exercised power through softer controls, first by reframing the issues around their own rather than farm workers’ priorities, then by drawing local service and advocacy organizations into elaborate, process-oriented collaborations that often distracted them from their own core organizing missions, and finally, more fundamentally, by making their own dubious theories and logics the price of admission—only later to pull the plug when the initiatives did not produce measurable results.

This is what happened in the second, and most fully-realized of Kohl-Arenas’ case studies, an immigrant participation and civic engagement initiative that ran from 1996 to 2003 with $5 million in annual funding, and drew dozens of local grassroots organizations into its orbit before the foundation announced that it was downsizing and shifting away from immigrant rights work in the wake of 9/11. Kohl-Arenas offers an especially acute critique of the widely influential ideas about social capital and civic engagement underlying this initiative, which put a premium on network building, leadership development, cultural diversity, and social integration while actively discouraging any kind of confrontational organizing or acknowledgement of structural inequality at all. She also draws on her interviews with the community-based “stakeholders” to show how the shift to a strategically circumscribed vision of immigrant rights drew them away from their economic justice work. At the same time, she makes it clear that the grantee organizations did not passively buy in to the foundation’s framing, but tried to adapt it for their own purposes while also educating funders about the needs of their communities. The same can be said about the initiative’s chief program officer (and others Kohl-Arenas interviewed), who actively sought out ways to get funds for grass roots organizers on the sly, by translating their work into “fundable” projects without compromising their basic aims.

Still, there were limits to this strategy, given the narrow boundaries of the foundation’s “civic participation” frame and the strictures against criticizing the agricultural or any other industry. Near the end of the initiative, the grassroots collaborators were resorting to donor-friendly bus tours to draw outside funding for their work; in its aftermath, the chief program officer lost his job. The self-help logic lived on, though, as we learn in Kohl-Arenas’ third and final case study, of a $50 million farm worker aid project funded by another area foundation starting in 2006, that promised to fight poverty by bringing farm workers and growers together in collaborative “partnerships” based on commonly-agreed-to goals—in this case defined as keeping big agriculture in business, while taking modest steps to address workers’ health and welfare needs.

Of course, it is tempting to conclude that this last case study is just another example of philanthropy doing capital’s bidding, with its embrace of neoliberalism’s now ubiquitous “win-win” premises and insistence on rationalizing everything, including so-called “asset-based” models of community change, in market terms.   Kohl-Arenas acknowledges as much, but to her credit she avoids taking this or any other over-determined line, preferring to argue from a theoretically informed, but ethnographically grounded perspective. Thus, without denying that it was structurally tilted toward industry interests, she argues that what turned out to be a much watered-down mutual aid initiative stemmed not from top-down neoliberal designs but from the efforts of basically progressive program officers to negotiate support for farm workers in terms their boards—and industrial growers—would approve. In the process, they built an extraordinarily elaborate program based on what I would argue is the myth not so much of self-help as of the market, and its role as the ultimate arbiter of social value and the common good.

Indeed, my one quarrel with Kohl-Arenas’ broadly persuasive and well-documented analysis is that it exaggerates the ubiquity of the self-help myth. Instead, I would suggest that the common theme linking these case studies is that activists and in some instances program officers come up against the boundaries of liberal reform in their respective moments—including its current, neoliberalized iteration—with its attendant conviction that poverty can be seriously addressed, if not outright eliminated, without seriously challenging the structural and institutional underpinnings of inequality embedded in social policy and political economy. If anything, what this sequence of philanthropic case studies reveals is just how dramatically narrowed those boundaries have become, and the role of big, well-heeled foundations in reinforcing and helping that process along. This is not to deny the currents of self-help ideology running throughout the history of liberal reform. It is, though, to draw a sharper distinction than Kohl-Arenas’ framework allows between foundation efforts, however convoluted and indirect, to assist farm worker organizing in the 1960s—including the struggle to extend New Deal labor protections to agricultural workers—and the voluntaristic “partnerships” of the new millennium. Something major happened in the way philanthropy positioned itself to address poverty in the decades separating the case studies in the book, and it cannot be explained as a variation on the self-help myth.

So can organized philanthropy do anything meaningful about poverty and inequality? That seems to be the question of the hour in foundation circles these days, as the biggest among them, Gates and Ford, announce major plans to take those issues on, albeit without much mention of whether, or how, the structures of capitalism, public policy, or workers’ rights fit into the mix. Meantime, as indicated by the success of an avowedly social democratic presidential candidate and the movement activism Kohl-Arenas mentions in the conclusion to her book, that conversation is already well-underway, and it raises the kinds of questions foundations find uncomfortable, but that they will need to answer if they want to be relevant to the coming debate.

-Alice O’Connor

Alice O’Connor is Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She has written extensively about the history of philanthropy, and is the author of Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S. Historyand Social Science for What? Philanthropy and the Social Question in a World Turned Rightside Up among other publications. Before joining the UCSB faculty in 1996, she was a program officer at the Ford Foundation and the Social Science Research Council in New York, and directed a small nonprofit in Washington, DC. 

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