I recently picked up Soo Ah Kwon's book Uncivil Youth: Race, Activism, and Affirmative Governmentality. Given my interest in neoliberal governmentality and racial/black politics as well as my work with various Baltimore youth-centered organizations I wanted to see how well Kwon dealt with the neoliberalization of youth activism. Kwon's work has a powerful section on what she calls "the non-profit industrial complex" (but I call the non-profit philanthropic sector[foot]Dylan Rodriguez defines the "non-profit industrial complex" as "a set of symbiotic relationships that link political and financial technologies of state and owning class control with surveillance over public political ideology, including and especially emergent progressive and leftist social movements" (The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, p. 9). He argues that it is the corollary to the prison industrial complex. I use the term "non-profit philanthropic sector" because this sector isn't an industry–the prison industrial complex, like the military industrial complex, produces. The military industrial complex produces weapons and weapons systems, as well as the various spaces the military is housed in. Similarly the prison industrial complex produces prisons, and incarceration systems. They are literal industries. The non-profit sector does not "produce".[/foot] that neatly connects to Baltimore conversations about the sector driven by a critique written by members of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle (LBS).
Beginning in the 1990s a number of non-profit organizations began to aggressively fund attempts to deal with "at-risk youth" for the purpose of properly "developing" and "empowering" them. Kwon properly understands these attempts as designed to problem-solve conduct, to in effect "fix" youth, and explores them using Asian/Pacific Islander Youth Promoting Advocacy and Leadership( AYPAL). Kwon worked with AYPAL and supports its goals, so the work doesn't damn the relationship between non-profits and youth groups. However she does unpack some of the politics involved in organizing youth.
Which brings me to Baltimore.
A few years ago in partial response to federal pressure Maryland's governor provided funds to build a prison in Baltimore for "youth charged as adults".[foot]Many of the identities we take for granted are constructed by a combination of language and state power. I am “African American”/”Black” in part because I SAY I am but also because of the census. The identity “youth charged as adult” is part of a broader effort to increasingly criminalize certain segments of the population, making it ok to punish them.[/foot] A number of groups mobilized against it, including LBS, the black student led Baltimore Algebra Project (BAP), white-led (now dispersed) Occupy Baltimore, and white-led nonprofit Safe and Sound Campaign. The critique I link to above was written in order to contest the way that Safe and Sound Campaign leadership attempted to situate itself as the leaders of the anti-jail movement, when at one time they attempted to compromise with the governor. They then used the individual incident to make a larger critique against the lack of a strong black presence within the Baltimore non-profit sector.
Kwon's work gives us a powerful framework to analyze the way any number of progressive folk (and here I include myself) in Baltimore seek to problem-solve black youth. Leaders of organizations like BAP and the Baltimore Urban Debate League believe youth don't see the connections between academics and empowerment, and as a result their programs make these connections explicit. Leaders of organizations like The Intersection believe youth aren't taught enough to advocate for their communities, and as a result they seek to teach youth advocacy skills. Leaders of organizations like The Inner Harbor Project believe the leaders of downtown spaces like The Inner Harbor (or Detroit's Greektown, or Cleveland's Flats, or St Louis' Laclede Landing, etc.) create and support policies that demonize youth in part because they only know these youth as statistics, and as a result they seek to put youth in dialogue with these leaders. And leaders of organizations like Wide Angle Youth Media believe youth don't have enough power to tell their own stories, and as a result seek to give them the skills to do so. In every instance the organizations identify youth conduct as problems that can be solved–youth can be made to act "right" if they do X, Y, or Z. And in every instance the organizations receive support from local and/or national non-profit organizations.
Now I support such efforts.[foot]in full disclosure I am on the Board of The Intersection, founded the Baltimore Mixtape Project as a way to both intervene in the youth prison movement and as a way to direct youth energies, and have worked with or mentored leaders of every organization I linked above[/foot] But in line with Kwon's work I recognize two things.
First I recognize that we all are attempting to problem-solve the behavior of a population we view to be either unruly or somehow incapable of governing themselves without our aid. They have to be literally "civil-ized" or somehow modified to be more "civil" or more politically-minded. For example the assumption (MY assumption) undergirding the Baltimore Mixtape Project is that kids are making hip-hop but for one reason or another aren't making the "right kind" of local hip-hop–the kind that could easily be used in service of a political movement designed to stop the school-to-prison pipeline.
Second I recognize that in this neoliberal moment non-profit philanthropic organizations "invest" in organizations the same way investors invest in stocks. Because the organizations themselves are non-profit, philanthropic organizations don't expect a "profit" in the same way. They do, however, expect a payoff…and that payoff is usually measured quantitatively. Foundations interested in youth development for example, usually expect fundees to show how their program helps student academic achievement levels, or helps student self-esteem. Because youth organizations are usually cash-strapped, leaders are forced to hustle and grind for philanthropic resources and given what the philanthropies want they often have to figure out exactly how to fulfill their requirements sometimes to the detriment of their own political desires.
And in line with LBS I also recognize that the philanthropic foundations, the decision-makers of these foundations, and many of the leaders of the non-profits themselves, are white while the youth organized (as well as the neighborhoods they reside in) are predominantly black. This truncates the ability of blacks to deploy nationalist strategies and tactics to fight against white supremacy.
The governmentality framework Kwon and I deploy in our work suggests that there is no space above politics, above power. Every attempt we make to govern, to change conduct, is going to involve power dynamics. If all of the groups above no longer required philanthropic support they would still be engaged in attempts to govern youth conduct. Similarly if none of the groups above existed and youth had to fend for themselves they'd STILL be either forced to somehow govern themselves either as individuals (they'd problem solve their own behavior in one way or another) or as groups (gangs deploy techniques designed to get youth to govern themselves according to the dictates of the gang).
Furthermore, I believe the lack of black philanthropic/non-profit leadership in Baltimore is a significant problem. Racism is still a pervasive life-shaping force in the Baltimore metropolitan region and black people should have the capacity to organize and work as they see fit.
However with that said I don't believe there is one "black agenda" but several. In fact one way to define black politics is to define it as the struggle over various black agendas. The solution LBS poses–giving resources to black experts/organizations to deal with black community issues, does not take the politics prevalent WITHIN black communities into account.[foot]Some of the Great Society programs of the sixties gave resources directly to black elites. The end result was the creation of an often co-opted black broker class that hoarded the resources they were given. See Stirrings in the Jug. And while I don't agree with the compromise Safe and Sound attempted to make with the governor I undersand this decision as a long-term term interest decision as opposed to a short term interest decision. The youth did not want a jail at any cost, and had no intentions of working with the governor or any other political actor over the long term. Safe and Sound did not want a jail, but were willing to compromise on how big the jail was, because they DID want to work with the governor over the long term. What's important to note here is that making the leadership of Safe and Sound leadership black instead of white does not substantially alter this calculus, though making the leadership young rather than old might.[/foot]
Given this I'd make the following suggestions. First that we be attentive to the way we think about youth, or any other discrete group of people we are interested in working for and with, particularly when we attempt to engage in civil youth projects. Second that we work to create space for youth (or again, any other discrete group) to organize themselves as they (rather than we) see fit. Along these lines, white non-profit heads need to develop succession programs that enable the black youth they organize to take over their programs (or develop their own). However black non-profit heads need to develop succession programs that enable the working class youth they organize to take over their organizations. I explicitly had a succession program in mind when I created the Baltimore Mixtape Project because I knew that it needed to be led by people who better fit the demographic.
And finally, I've got two thoughts about the philanthropic sector. Those working under the assumption that philanthropic organizations are part of the problem need to think through ways to develop revenue that don't rely too heavily on Kickstarter or other crowdsourced social software applications.[foot]I’ve successfully used Kickstarter in the past, but Kickstarter itself is a neoliberal project that requires individuals to monetize their personal networks.[/foot] Those working under the assumption that the race of philanthropic organization leadership is more problematic need to develop ways to put more blacks in decision making positions. Both routes require long term planning.