Op-eds, Opinions

Burt ’19: The undeniable politics of non-profits

Op-Ed Contributor
Thursday, September 7, 2017

“Black L–lives Mmmatter,” read one of my students, sounding out a sign I had hung in our room at Providence CityArts for Youth, a nonprofit arts organization where I taught classes this summer. “Miss Marielle, what does that mean?” she asked. “It means the police are shooting us and Trump says it’s okay,” her best friend, another 9-year-old girl of color, responded. This prompted the three of us to have a frank conversation about race in the United States and how they might resist police violence and President Trump’s racist policies through their art. This conversation — which felt like one of my most important teaching moments — might, strictly speaking, have been in violation of the contract I signed when I took this job.

This episode highlights a major critique of nonprofit organizations, such as CityArts. Nonprofits, as the title implies, generally do not make money from the services they provide. Instead, they depend on outside funders — donors, private grant programs, government-sponsored grants or some combination of the three — to cover their operating costs. But many of these funders, particularly those with government ties, aim to steer clear of politics in order to protect their reputations from shifts in political power. This forces organizations that engage with social politics to negotiate the disparity between the political implications of their work on the one hand and the pressure from funders to be apolitical and follow strict funding guidelines on the other.

CityArts is one of many nonprofits forced to toe this line. It is in many ways an incredible organization. It runs free afterschool arts programs and summer camps for Providence youth, with a focus on integrating social justice and arts education. The teaching artists demonstrate a depth of knowledge in their particular art disciplines and are trained to guide students to think critically about social issues so they can express their individual values through art. Though the diversity of the management team is somewhat lacking — the company is run predominantly by young, white women — they seem dedicated to their work and demonstrate genuine care for the youth they serve. CityArts’ main campus in South Providence is stunning: Its hallways are decorated with colorful murals and mosaics made by young artists. The studio spaces have large windows and are stocked with high-quality art supplies, including pottery wheels, several dozen Mac computers, 3-D printers, video cameras and a large collection of painting, sculpting and collaging materials.

To maintain these programs and resources, CityArts partners with various funders including AmeriCorps, a federal service organization often described as the domestic version of the Peace Corps. Troublingly, the values of AmeriCorps do not align with CityArts’ mission. AmeriCorps allows their members to be paid less than minimum wage, with the apparent justification that community workers should be in the same economic bracket as the people they serve. In other words, AmeriCorps believes you must live in poverty to serve people in poverty. This illogical rationale not only takes advantage of the labor of AmeriCorps members, but also contributes to the exclusivity of AmeriCorps programs. Folks who work for AmeriCorps overwhelmingly depend on another source of income — often, wealthy parents — while members without this support must work two jobs. (I can attest that my stipends from CityArts, that followed AmeriCorps’ guidelines, were barely enough to cover my rent for summer housing.)

While CityArts claims to prioritize diversity and equality, by accepting AmeriCorps subminimum wage stipends for their teaching artists, the organization discourages low-income folks from applying for this position. CityArts teaches young people that art is a valuable tool for social change but hypocritically devalues social justice artists by failing to pay its teachers a living wage.

Beyond the issue of wages, AmeriCorps’ strictly apolitical stance conflicts with CityArts’ commitment to social justice. In a training with an AmeriCorps representative, the summer teaching artists were told not to promote or denounce any political party or candidate. My cohort of liberal teaching artists was quick to question this instruction, particularly after the week of trainings we had just completed on how to engage students in political critique through art. In our political climate, we asked, where Republican leaders defend neo-Nazis, enact racist, xenophobic and transphobic legislation and work to strip low-income folks of their healthcare coverage, how can we possibly teach social justice without talking about politics? Tripping over her words, the AmeriCorps representative attempted to draw a line between political candidates and topics with political relevance. Her response, like any attempt to remain neutral with Trump as our president, came across as an attempt to exculpate politicians from their influence on broader culture.

After this contentious training, the CityArts staff reassured the teaching artists that they still valued our individual commitments to social justice and that politics are indeed inherent to this work. Yet we all signed a form acknowledging that violating AmeriCorps’ apolitical stance could be grounds for termination. Ultimately, we as teachers, not CityArts, bore the risk of bending AmeriCorps’ rules.

I do not blame CityArts for its partnership with AmeriCorps, a partnership without which they would not be able to run any of their phenomenal arts programs. But the conflict between the missions of these two organizations sheds light on certain systemic issues of the nonprofit world. First of all, labor in service of others deserves a fair salary; the work is exhausting, intense and performed by people who, as much as they care for the communities they serve, still have rent checks to pay and meals to buy. Moreover, it is time to recognize that community-centered work is inherently political. Folks who are working to ameliorate any problem in the United States, be it social, economic or environmental, are ultimately working to make up for government failure. As conservative politicians strip rights from Americans who are not white, middle class or wealthy men, the political aspect of working with underserved communities is all the more apparent. When organizations ignore the political nature of this work, they turn a blind eye to the structural causes of injustice.

Marielle Burt ’19 can be reached at marielle_burt@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.