Workplace discrimination runs rampant in movement organizations at a local, state and national level. As movements become more professionalized over the past thirty years, the internal structures and policies of many organizations increasingly mirror the worst patterns of exclusion and marginalization endemic to society itself. Both the movement, as well as the movement organization, is no utopia.
The movement organization is often a breeding ground for the perpetuation of -isms: racism, sexism, ableism, etc. in spite of a social justice mission that explicitly works to create transformation in the world.
There is no doubt that the "food chain" in movement organizations is quite deliberate: folks with the most complex bodies - brown, black, immigrant, disabled, working class, gendered - are usually at the bottom. The higher you go in the organizational hierarchy, the whiter, straighter, and/or male identified the leadership becomes. Let's be clear: this is pretty typical across movements, and is a system built over time and by design. Not so ironically, the movement organization often replicates all of the -isms it supposedly dedicates itself to fighting in society. We can only conclude from this that the movement, and the organizations that comprise it, are not exempt from perpetuating oppression even if they have a stellar mission.
It's time that we address this directly because we cannot work for justice if our workers are not treated justly.
We Have Lost Vision and Values
Over the past 30 years, movements have evolved from a collection of mission-driven organizing efforts and community groups accountable to a constituency, to non-profit organizations steeped in competition for funding. Foundations now define and drive the work of the movement while people with master's degrees in management run our 'movement' organizations. Our 'movement' is so stratified by class, race and education that we require, even demand, that a person has a PhD, J.D, or MSW after their name in order to lead and make a living wage in the movement.
There are tremendous costs to corporatizing and professionalizing the LGBT movement. The biggest cost of all is that we cease to be a people's movement dedicated to liberation and justice. Instead we have become a non-profit 'sector' focused on creating an elite class of leaders and organizations driven by corporate and foundation interests.
This means that there is a big difference between being a manager and being a visionary leader who has strong organizational development skills. Unfortunately, it is all-too-common to find managers in movement organizations that have very little experience at the grassroots level working across issues of identity and community. As a result, they are not grounded in the work or in their ability to match the mission of the organization to workplace practices that are just, transparent and fair. Being a transformational leader requires that we not only understand how to effectively meet the needs of the full breadth and depth of our communities, but also how to create workplaces that operate from a deep commitment to social justice values. This is what happens when movements stray from being mission-driven to funding-driven.
In the context of what we now call the "non-profit industrial complex" , managers who have a corporate mentality are more valued than visionary leaders who have both on-the-ground experience as well as an ability to effectively and fairly run the day-to-day operations of an organization.
Who Benefits from the Non-Profit Model?
Our sole reliance on the 501 ©(3) tax structure to create change will be the death of our movement. Yes, I said it and I mean it! Let us be reminded that the non-profit tax code was developed in order to ensure that the wealthiest 1% get a tax break when they donate to 'our causes'. The non-profit tax model was not designed to further our work or to help the movement be more visionary and strategic. It was designed to help wealthy people 'push money down' from their bank accounts, tax free, to the 'least among us'.
The more reliant we are on an inflexible non-profit model, one that is driven by a single-issue agenda and fierce competition for funding, the more we lack creativity, vision, and intention around our work and the conditions our communities require to create change. The non-profit model doesn't allow us to see that another world is possible. We must work towards building relationships with one another, inside and outside of workplaces, that are based on accountability, trust, and a commitment to our mutual liberation. The non-profit model further pits us against one another in a way that fuels individualism rather than building collective power. The dynamics of competition, power, prestige, and territorialism, all of which are the hallmark of the non-profit model, are playing out in workplaces all over the movement.
Defining new models and containers for our movement and building work outside of the non-profit model is not only strategic but necessary for our survival.
It is important to be concrete about how the dynamics fueled by the non-profit model show up in movement workplaces in discriminatory ways. If we are truly committed to a movement that is about justice rather than justUS, then we would make a commitment to truly building a movement and not a non-profit sector that replicates the worst of the policies and practices we are supposed to be fighting out in the world. Here are just some of the ways I've seen patterns of discrimination show up:
Can We Talk About Class!
Can we talk about class? Can we seriously, directly and honestly talk about the stunning economic disparities that often exist between individuals and organizations in the LGBT movement? What is most disturbing is that we rarely talk about this. We rarely talk about the fact that even though the LGBT movement receives a small amount of the philanthropic dollars in the US, it has replicated, at a much smaller scale, significant wage gaps in our movement organizations. These gaps typically serve to solidify hiring practices, organizational cultures and power structures that benefit the 'top' of the organizational food chain. Since the top of the food chain in the majority of LGBT movement organizations is often white, middle/upper-middle class, and able-bodied, it means that people of color, women, trans people, people with disabilities, immigrants, old people, and young people are often shunted into low/lower wage positions. This is endemic to how our movement is structured and works.
Breaking The Backbone of Our Movements
I have seen women, people of color, young people, and trans people serve as the backbone of their movement organizations. They have provided leadership, developed vibrant programs, and organized efforts and campaigns. They have been creative, innovative, and responsive to the needs of communities most at the margin of the movement. Their labor has been essential to the success of our organizations, yet they are often the least paid and have the least access to institutional power. In spite of the fact that they make movements move they are often not considered to be leaders who have the potential to contribute more to their organizations. They are "good enough" to do the back breaking community and administrative work, but they are not good enough to lead. I've seen every excuse in the book for this including:
- "They don't have enough fundraising capability".
- "Building the capacity of the movement/community is very different thanleading. Do you think they will be able to make that transition?"
- "Can they represent an organization and make decisions that are best for the "organization" or decisions or will their loyalty remain with the community."
- "Do they have the skills to supervise people?"
Adultism Makes Movements Move?
I have yet to work in a movement organization where critical masses of young people are worked to the bone in the 'name of the cause.' They are told that they must pay their dues, or that they are too young to lead and have a vision of their own. Yes, there is something to be said for gaining experience and insight over time, yet why is it that across movements young people are doing the back-breaking work of the movement with very little access to decision making or institutional power?
In any other context we would call this an abuse of power. In a movement context we call it paying dues.
What is unarguably true is that the vision and energy of young people has made movements move. All you have to do is to look at the movements of the 60s to know that the most cutting-edge movement-building and organizing work was happening because of young people in their communities or college campuses. History teaches us lessons from which we sometimes refuse to learn.
Union Busting: A Favorite Past Time of the Movement Organization
My all-time 'favorite' form of non-profit-industrial-complex-fucked-up-ness is union busting. I still have a hard time wrapping my mind around the reality that many movements, including the LGBT movement, are steeped in anti-union sentiment. How do we even pretend to be committed to social justice of any kind if we are not committed to fair and just workplaces? How do we even pretend to be committed to justice of any kind of we do not support the workers right to organize? It's simply beyond my comprehension!
Union busting and the ongoing pattern of management preventing workers from organizing in the first place is all too common in movement organizations. This is even true in organizations whose mission statements espouse a commitment to the labor movement and the rights of workers to organize fair and just workplaces. I've seen it time and time again and there is a gulf of contradiction between what we say and what we actually do to workers when they begin to organize in movement organizations. The punishment for organizing for fair wages, hours and working conditions is often swift and harsh. Let's be real about it people!
Accessing The Movement Workplace
It is typical for many 'social justice' organizations to refuse to sponsor immigrant workers. It's no secret that many of our LGBT movement organizations lag behind in ensuring domestic partnership benefits. It is all too common that our LGBT workplaces are steeped in anti-family sentiment and lack family-friendly health and workplace policies. It is almost universally true that most LGBT organizations are not physically accessible to people with disabilities, and do not have disability justice policies and health care coverage. It is far too common for LGBT organizations to lack gender-neutral bathrooms or health insurance coverage that addresses the health needs of all LGBT people.
Yes there are economic implications for all movement organizations as it pertains to ensuring the fullest possible access. Yet, what does it say about our movement when 'movement executive' pay is prioritized over ensuring that everyone across the movement has a living wage and bigger, broader, and deeper access to the work? What does this say about our movement?
Moving our Movement Forward
Taken together this beginner's list of concrete examples should be a call to action. Collectively we need to understand that we cannot fight for workplace fairness for all LGBT people if our movement workplaces are steeped in discriminatory workplace practices.
The movement has never been an oppression-free zone. History tells us that movements and movement-leaders have always engaged in what Audre Lorde called "using the masters tools to dismantle the masters house." Let us be reminded of Bayard Rustin, a primary architect of the Civil Rights Movement, whose life and work was consistently undermined, attacked and marginalized from within movements because he was gay and Black. The words of Dr. Martin Luther King still ring true today "in the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends."
We must begin to have a rigorous and honest conversation across the movement about workplace accountability, privilege, power and fair working conditions and wages. Together we need to develop a transformative vision and practice for a just and fair movement. This is what building a complex LGBT movement that is rooted in interdependence and justice is all about!