Early in the pandemic mutual aid was exploding in communities. People were redistributing resources of all kinds, donating time and money and building community in really interesting ways. Prevented from our usual ways of gathering, we found other ways that connected us to the people we normally passed with a wave. Not because were were desperate for company, although I think there’s something to that, but because there were material needs that had to be filled and the ways in which we were limited forced us out of our usual places and into our communities. We started using apps and noticeboards to check on our neighbours. Caremongering groups formed on Facebook and for several months I picked up groceries for an elderly woman. We’ve since lost touch but I still think of her when I pick up her preferred cocktail tomatoes for myself.

A friend of mine cautioned us all against turning these organizations into non profits because non profits have to abide by certain laws which limit the things they are able to do and increase government awareness of the things that are being done. Surveillance and control is part of our bureaucracy. I think about this because I did turn my crowdfunding project into a non-profit, and it was something I went back and forth on for some time. When we decided to incorporate we chose not to be a registered charity, to forgo the possible benefits of being able to offer tax receipts because of the additional constraints on our operations.  Charities cannot be partisan, and so much of what Indigenous people do is interpreted as partisan.

Then a few weeks ago Chrissy Stroop made what remains the most astute observation of conservative abuse as anything I have seen. It keeps colliding in my brain with the concept of elite capture which is described and applied so perfectly in the book of the same name by Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò which I’ve talked about before.  And together these ideas have made me wonder if the comment my friend made about not letting our mutual aid projects become non profits was about more than state surveillance and control. If she was concerned about how that would change us, make us something we did not want to be. If she was concerned that instead of changing the world, instead of imagining new worlds, we would just build on crumbling foundations.

Conservatism leads to abuse because conservatism *is* abuse. It is the protection of hierarchy and unearned privilege at the expense of those without power, and the protection of institutions at the expense of the people who inhabit them.
Chrissy Stroop, Twitter post 4:42pm May 22 2022
This subgroup of people with power and access to resources describe, define, and create political realities. They (the elite) capture the group’s values, forcing people to coordinate on a narrower social project that disproportionately represents elite interests. When elites run the show, the interests of the group get whittled down to what they have in common with those at the top, at best. At worst, elites fight for their own narrow interests using the banner of group solidarity.
Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, Elite Capture. pp 9 and 32.

The collision of these two ideas keeps bouncing around in my mind because while it is easy to use them to point fingers at the obvious villains like Republicans and Christians, Táíwò is talking about the Black middle class. That forces me, an Indigenous woman, to look at my own institutions. The organizations that I am part of and the ones that I am forming. Because I think that insitutions inevitably drift into conservatism, those who run them inevitably drift towards elitism.

The Assembly of First Nations is a group in Canada that purports to represent us politically. They have their origins in a grassroots organization that became an institution and now they have suspended the national chief, a woman, who is concerned about corruption in the organization and is demanding an accounting of their internal practices. Although they may have done some good initially, and the jury is still out on that one, their current iteration is largely aligned with government and industry. Instead of pushing against the government for relationships guided by treaty obligations, they spend their time seeking to get the best deal for Indigenous people within the existing framework. Even when that deal includes extinguishment of land title.

I remember when the union I belonged to decided to take on a full time president. We were warned against this by other unions. Told that it would not be good for the union and that the president would begin to align with management and sure enough over time the president aligned with management. It makes sense, instead of being on the floor they were now spending most of their time sitting with us in HR while we got in trouble for this and that. Management refused to deal with stewards anymore, just the president further entrenching that relationship. Elite capture.

It’s easy to point fingers at the government and the church. They are valid targets and have a lot of answer for.  Harder to look at our own institutions and organizations, to see where we enact harm because it serves some greater good. Where we elites (and I include myself because I not only have various privileges but also because I sit on various Boards) make decisions that impact the people within the institution.

What priorities are we setting, and how are we forcing others to conform to them?

It’s liberating to think of this drift towards conservatism, towards elite capture as inevitable. You might think that it would be disheartening, that it’s a negative outlook but it really isn’t. It’s liberating because it means that I can look for it with the expectation of finding it and then do something about it. I don’t have to think that my organization is above it.

What’s interesting to me are the sacred clown societies and tricksters of Indigenous cultures and how their existence, baked into our belief systems and stories, works against this drift. In traumatized communities they can be harmful, when your world is precarious and uncertain an institution can provide a place of stability and care. So we need to be careful about what and how we disrupt our own institutions but they must be disrupted, and trauma can’t be an excuse to enact or permit harm.

The point is to change it.

That’s the title of the last chapter in Táíwò’s book.  The point is to change the world, not just interpret it. It’s a quote from Marx, and can I just say that a lot of the books I’m reading lately are quoting Marx in various ways? Interesting. Anyway, Táíwò also quotes Afro-Guyanese activist and intellectual Andaiye who said “old foundations are crumbling and new ones are not yet being imagined.”  It’s a warning, because things are falling apart and we spend so much time analyzing the disintegration that we neglect the work of imagining something new.  I know that I can easily get consumed by analyzing and interpreting the world, there’s just so much wrong to take stock of!  And it is important to understand history, to understand the stories we have not been told. It is, to quote Diane Di Prima, a living weapon in our hands. But it must be a weapon, and not just an intellectual exercise.

Imagining new worlds.

So I’m thinking about these new groups that I’m forming, and how we must work against that inevitable drift. Because we are imagining new worlds. Grassroots groups always do, before they get captured. So how do we avoid capture when the very structure of a non profit corporation creates an elite group?  Creates a reliance on funders and board members. Do we write our bylaws in a particular way? Create space for our own sacred clown?

I don’t know and if you have any ideas you can drop them in the comments. But since I know that the drift is inevitable I’ll be able to watch for it, and it won’t surprise me, and I won’t have to pretend it isn’t happening.

The point is to change it

The inevitable slide of institutions into conservatism