Posts Tagged ‘local knowledge’

I Would Like a Place I Could Call My Own

Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

Not actually a song title, but a line from a New Order song called “Regret.” Which hopefully is not apposite.

When we got back home to the Upper West Side on Friday night, it was like nothing had happened. We went to dinner, and the bistro offered a “Limited Post-Sandy Wine List.” As in, they didn’t have quite the usual selection of French wines because of the hurricane, for some reason. (Distributor ran out of gas?) We walked around on Saturday, and it was like nothing had happened. After a week of anxiously watching the news and social media from California where we were delayed four days getting home, we got back, and it was like nothing had happened where we live.

What. The. Eff.

Sunday, I couldn’t take it anymore. Even though subway service was only partly back and it took me two and a half hours on public transport to get there, I went to Red Hook to volunteer, because Jesus, how could I not.

I’ve done a lot of volunteer stuff, but it’s almost always been related to the industry in which I work, nonprofits and philanthropy. I did a summer at ConnPIRG in college, where I was the world’s worst canvasser. In a week of knocking on doors, I got one donation – of stamps. I tried hard and clearly cared, so they took pity on me and let me work in the office the rest of the summer. I mean, what else did I have to do.

So yesterday was really one of my first experiences going door-to-door in a looong time.

When I was in grad school, I was involved in a study of associational strategies in Latin America in the post-labor politics era, which eventually turned into this book. I was involved the first couple of years (out of 10) and helped out with getting the surveys done in Chile. The gist was that in most of the 20th century, working-class folks in Latin America had two main venues for getting problems taken care of: labor unions and leftist parties, which were closely allied. There was an associational structure that ran through labor-based parties that helped people in times of need. (Like after a disaster – you see where this is going.) With neoliberal economic reform (Reaganomics in Latin America, crudely) in the 80s, and for other reasons, that associational structure was swept away. People thought NGOs would fill the gap, would create a new “interest regime.” This project tried to figure out whether that actually happened.

The idea that sticks with me in the wake of Sandy is “self-provisioning.” In the field research, we were trying to understand how working-class people solved problems in contemporary Latin American cities (we looked at Buenos Aires, Santiago, Lima, and Caracas). If they didn’t have labor-based parties to help them get connections to networks and get things done, were they using NGOs, or were they organizing things themselves (“self-provisioning”)?

Occupy Wall Street is self-provisioning. Or rather, Occupy-organized Sandy relief is self-provisioning, built on a structure of particular kinds of NGOs. In the research project, we distinguished between grassroots, community-based groups and professional NGOs. There was a world of difference, at least in Chile. It pretty much applies in the US as well, which I see from working with professional NGOs in my day job. What Occupy Sandy has done, from what I understand and observed in Red Hook, is to layer an Occupy infrastructure, particularly an online platform for attracting young professionals and hipsters, with grassroots, community-based groups. I signed up through a site dedicated to Red Hook, which was labeled as having been put up in part by folks from Occupy Wall Street. Through that, I connected with Red Hook Recovery, which was operating out of Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Development Corporation. Later in the day, I went over to Red Hook Initiative. The two groups were coordinating and seemed to be dividing up labor between them pretty well.

There were so. goddamn many. white people lined up to volunteer. Well, that’s not entirely true, there was racial/ethnic diversity in the group, but I don’t know how much economic diversity there was. It was a ton of people from outside the neighborhood coming in to help, because like me, they couldn’t not. And I mean literally lined up to volunteer; by the time I switched over to Red Hook Initiative, there was a line around the block at Red Hook Recovery of people waiting for volunteer assignments.

Over at Red Hook Initiative, everything was well-organized, but in an accessible, friendly, kind of chill way. Getting it done, but without any airs. (Type A-minus?) They’re in what looked to me like a former firehouse or garage – I picture a big roll-up door that was now closed. It’s on a corner, and there are two entrances, one to receive meals and get your volunteer assignments, and another to drop off donations and for residents to pick them up. I learned about RHI during my canvassing rounds in the morning with Red Hook Recovery, where we went door to door and asked people what their needs were. (One building had no electricity or hot water, and no one had come by the whole time.) Our team walked by it and it was thronged with people picking up donations. This seemed to be where a different kind of action was.

I asked about volunteering there, and had been told to come back at 4pm, that we would begin delivering meals. I got there around 3:45, and a group of people started gathering. By around 4:20 we were on our way. They said they needed around 50 to 60 volunteers, and they made that easily. We were briefed about what we needed to do, we broke ourselves up into teams, and each got a canvassing sheet. We were delivering dinner to homebound seniors, most of them in public housing. The sheet listed their name, address, how many meals they needed, and had space for us to note the answers to some questions we were to ask, like whether they needed their next dinner delivered (some didn’t), whether they needed medical attention (thankfully no one did), and whether they needed supplies (several did). A charming Irish dude briefed us on the task and how to do it, and off we went.

I’d only ever been to Red Hook a number of years back when the Red Hook Ball Fields food-truck spot was in its early-ish incarnation. They used to just be able to set up in stands around a soccer field, but eventually the city made them set up in more formal trucks/carts for sanitation reasons. We haven’t been back.

This is Red Hook, in the southwestern part of Brooklyn, not far from schmancy Park Slope and basically schmancy Carroll Gardens. It’s an industrial, waterfront/port area, and incongruously, the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal is there.


As you can see, it’s right on the water, so it got hit HARD by Sandy. On some blocks of single family houses, half a dozen of them had the waterlogged contents of their basements out on the sidewalk. Families and their friends were going through their possessions methodically, salvaging what could be salvaged and organizing the rest for disposal. We passed by one open basement door, and looking down, the water looked to still be at waist level.

Red Hook is home to the Red Hook Houses, what someone on site claimed are the largest public-housing projects in NYC. Looks like they may be the largest at least in Brooklyn – 30 buildings with around 8,000 residents, the majority of Red Hook’s population. More than half of the buildings were without power on Sunday evening. Thank heaven for the Flashlight app on the iPhone; I sure needed it as our team trooped up and down the stairs. Most deliveries were on low floors, but the first one was on the 12th floor. Good thing I took up jogging again recently! I won’t soon forget the trek up and down the darkened stairway – nor the man who held a door for us, or another heading downstairs who stepped out of the way as we were headed upstairs.

It actually reminded me of working on the survey in Santiago all those years ago. We did two surveys, one of individuals, for which we hired a local firm, and one of associations, for which we organized a team of undergrads to administer them. My colleague and I did the test surveys ourselves. We chose specific neighborhoods in the city, got to know them a little bit, and went out to grassroots organizations to do interviews. Some of them were in current or former “shantytowns”, places where people had self-provisioned and…wait for it…occupied land and just started living there. They pirated electricity and water at first, and some eventually got it installed officially. The feel of the streets around Red Hook Initiative and at the place itself reminded me a bit of the feel of some of the more well-established community groups in the more lower-middle-class (as opposed to working class, though notions of class are different in Latin America) neighborhoods in which we did the surveys. (Lest it be weird that I compare Brooklyn to a “third world” county, when I was in Chile again this spring, I heard on the news that next year Chile’s median income will officially reach that of a “developed country”. The news was reported as no big deal.)

So, we got our meals delivered (to those who were home) in a couple of hours, and went back to RHI to report in. We kept running across other teams on the way in. Lots of activity at RHI as folks who were ambulatory had come in for their evening meal. When we handed in our filled-out canvas sheet, we were sent to talk to a data person before leaving. (This warmed the evaluator cockles of my heart.) We deciphered the hieroglyphics for the nice lady at the computer, and were done. I walked back through Red Hook Houses, which by that point I had crisscrossed possibly a dozen times over the course of the day, and caught the bus to the subway station. A decent number of buildings had lights, and I heard the whirr of generators in a couple of places. One stretch of buildings a member of our team had noticed had white discoloration on the brick walls about a foot or so above ground level. We realized it was probably from salt water, where the level of the floodwater had gotten. And there was always one door where the water could get in to the basement. I thought about a woman we’d visited who had the place like a sauna, because she had been boiling water for a long time to heat the apartment, which smelled strongly of gas. She had said she was about to turn the gas off. I sure hope so. I zipped my coat up against the chill and hopped on the bus.

What I like about this form of self-provisioning is that it built on existing infrastructure. In the middle part of the day, I wandered around kind of aimlessly, looking for something to do between canvassing and food delivery shifts. I had come all that way, I was going to stick it out. In a park between the two organizations, there was a staging area for a FEMA delivery truck. Volunteers (I kept missing the chance to do this part) most likely drawn there through social media by Occupy-connected groups, coordinated by people from the Mayor’s office in orange caps, offloaded water and blankets and staffed tables to distribute them to residents, who lined up under the direction of NYPD and dudes in combat fatigues (National Guard? Army Reserve?) who went with the two camo humvees parked nearby. I also saw one guy in a Red Cross T-shirt. I did some research on disaster relief for a client a few years ago, and this sounds like what it should look like. Coordination, different groups knowing their roles and playing them and getting stuff out to people quickly. I kept missing the chance to help out because the trucks had been offloaded, the lines had moved through, and people had gotten their water and blankets.

Occupy was only a small part of the story at that park, from what I saw, but they clearly helped to get a lot of people out to Red Hook Recovery and Red Hook Initiative to help out. And those folks did stuff that FEMA wasn’t going to do, and that the Red Cross didn’t need to do (they focus on sheltering, generally, anyway).

So NGOs in Latin America may be a different sort of interest regime, emerged in the wake of labor-based parties. Occupy Sandy seems to be a different sort of…kindness regime? Do-gooding regime? Community engagement regime? Whatever the label, I saw it working – not on its own, but tapping a clear audience and turning it out in large numbers to an area that needed the help. I was honored to have done my part.

Now go vote. Electoral politics still matter, whatever the merits of self-provisioning.


City of New Orleans

Thursday, September 20th, 2012

I’ve been busy blogging on RE: Philanthropy, the Council on Foundations’ website. Here’s a recap of my posts from the community foundations conference last week:

Non-Superstitious Use of Data: The Missing Link between Your Business Model and Your Revenue Model”

Another Kind of Grantee? Entrepreneurs and Journalists as Change Agents”

How Two Community Foundations Balance Head and Heart while Navigating the Path to Impact”

Only a Fool Would Say That

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

This has to be the most bizarre case of “I told you so” ever, but here goes.

Interesting piece in the NYT (hat tip to Bowen Chung) about a speech at a Tea Party convention where Sarah Palin (!) trotted out an coherent (!!) set of ideas (!!!) that actually make sense (!!!!) and some of which I agree with (the ! key just broke). As I wrote exactly a year ago today:

I think the privileging of local knowledge is a bipartisan issue, or a cross-cutting cleavage, one that elements of left and right can agree on.

From the right: lefty-liberal plans for social engineering are based on the fallacy that human nature is perfectable, and subject to rational planning and persuasion. But the truth is man is flawed by nature (or by original sin), and top-down approaches don’t take into account local realities. “Unintended consequences” are the inevitable byproduct of social engineering, and can be avoided by greater reliance on market dynamics. It’s hubris and folly for a central government to try to plan an economy, much less dictate cultural norms that have developed idiosyncratically over time in local communities. As Ronald Reagan said, “The ten most dangerous words in the English language are, ‘Hi, I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’” (Quote from this New Yorker article, toward the end.)

From the left: the corporatization of culture, food, and everyday life are a homogenizing force that threaten to erase the diversity that make our communities and nation great. “Grassroots community organizing” is a way to empower everyday people to make their voices heard and have a positive impact on the conditions of their lives through obtaining changes in policy, whether local, state, or federal. To be a locavore is to reject the evils of factory farming, which is an environmental disaster, an animal-welfare nightmare, and a public-health time-bomb. Eat local, know your farmer, avoid GMOs, celebrate the diversity of a specific place.

What they agree on: Top-down solutions are bad, bottom-up initiatives are morally and practically preferable.

Now comes that word that Sarah Palin argued, at a Tea Party event, that there’s a permanent political class, that it’s in the pocket of big business and big government, and that “corporate crony capitalism” is choking economic and political progress in this country by keeping small business down.

I doubt that as the author goes on to suggest, these are signs of a political realignment, but geez, wouldn’t that be something?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to deal with the pigs that just flew out of my, um, symbol for the Democratic Party.

[post title/song title in honor of the great Steely Dan concert we went to last night.]

Time After Time

Friday, April 29th, 2011

So it’s been a year since I started blogging. I read over my posts from that past year last night, and thought about threads I’d like to continue in the coming year, and those that I’d like to summarize and try to say something more definitive on.

To continue:

To summarize:

To possibly begin exploring:

  • The role of philanthropy in a democratic society based on prior international experiences like Eastern Europe and Latin America, amid the lessons they hold for the Middle East.

And there’ll be more in the last category, for sure….

Sounds like a plan!

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

I’ve written previously on agriculture vs. engineering as a metaphor for social change. I’m thinking that one way this applies to philanthropy is in the pursuit of innovation.

When too many funders in a given nonprofit ecosystem only want to fund innovation, and not enough fund what’s already working, the ecosystem gets out of whack. There’s a nobility and an inherent value in supporting community resources – soup kitchens, senior centers, arts groups – that make up the fabric of civil society. These groups aren’t necessarily trying to solve problems in a way that makes replication and scaling a kind of moral imperative – if you’re solving this problem and it works, aren’t you obligated to try to solve it more and more places for more and more people? Instead, they make everyday life a little better for broad groups of people.

Every garden, every ecosystem, needs these kinds of plants, these kinds of organizations. But what happens when all the funders want to focus on what’s innovative, on an exotic new hybrid or breed? Who watches out for the health of the ecosystem as a whole? Who guards the gardener?* Or makes sure that the gardener exists?

*A spin on the classic question of political science, “who guards the guardian?”

Empire State of Mind: What’s the quintessential New York foundation?

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

Back to the song titles for post titles. Great issue of New York magazine this week, all about what’s the quintessential New York…fill in the blank: athlete, musical, building, TV show, etc. They got panels of celebrities and experts in each area to debate; half the fun was reading people debate what criteria to use – tenure, attitude, level of success, etc.

Which got me thinking, what would be the quintessential New York foundation? Of course there’s the New York Community Trust, but a community foundation is too easy. And New York is such a global city – is it Ford, or Rockefeller, players on the global stage? How about Open Society Institute, featuring a living donor who moves between spheres of influence – finance, politics – in a way that resonates with this town that’s the center of so many things? Is it Bloomberg’s anonymous-but-not-really largesse that until last year was funneled through the Carnegie Corporation? Or is it the Brooklyn Community Foundation, the scrappy upstart carving out a space in the shadow of a big kahuna?* Or the North Star Fund, raising money from the community to give to grassroots, social-justice causes, reminding us of the New York that most of its 8 million people inhabit?

There were two criteria that stood out for me from the New York magazine articles: that when you describe it in a single sentence, you have to use the word “New York” (by that light, Seinfeld is the quintessential New York TV show); and/or that it has to be the best at something (by which criterion Babe Ruth is the ultimate New York athlete). For a New York foundation, I’d say that you want something that captures the grandeur and ambition of the city, the sense of being at the center of it all and yet interested in everything. I’ll cop out for the moment and say that I don’t know that there’s one foundation that really captures that right now. If anything, Cory Booker’s efforts in Newark, funded by Zuckerberg’s $100 million announced on Oprah are more of that scope. Maybe Bloomberg when he rolls out his family foundation after leaving office will have that swagger. Once Jay-Z name-drops a foundation in a remix of “Empire State of Mind,” we’ll have our answer….

*Wow, that was a lot of incompatible images in one sentence.

(Disclosure: the giving circle of which I’m a part, the NYC Venture Philanthropy Fund, has had its donor-advised fund housed at both the New York Community Trust and the North Star Fund, and I’ve worked with Ford, Rockefeller, and OSI funding at an intermediary and/or at my current job.)

What’s mine is yours…maybe

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2010

On some level, my mission on this blog is to talk about the intersection of philanthropy and politics in a way that gets beyond pat political talking points. So for instance, I’ve looked at the way the privileging of local knowledge happens both on the right and left, and some important differences in the way they interpret that idea.

Along those lines, I think it’s important to acknowledge the truth a talking point that sometimes gets rehearsed in discussions around the nonprofit sector. And that’s the idea that small for-profit businesses are actually doing more good for the world by generating jobs for people.

The truth in that is that the nonprofit sector doesn’t have a monopoly on the production of social goods. All three sectors – public, private, and nonprofit – produce different kinds of social goods (defense/security, jobs, services, to name a few) in different proportions, and it seems to me that where communities get out of whack is when the proportions aren’t balanced – when there’s too much of some social goods and not enough of others. I’m reminded of an article in New York magazine earlier this year about communities upstate where juvenile-detention facilities are located: an excess of security that creates jobs but not sufficient inclusion/opportunity.

At the same time, it doesn’t make sense to think of different sectors only in terms of one kind of social good they produce. As Sean at Tactical Philanthropy likes to point out, nonprofits employ a lot of people too, there are plenty of jobs there. I guess the idea would be to take a more holistic view of the concept of “externalities,” which in economics are the side effects of economic activities. A coal plant produces energy but also pollution, which reduces air quality; the reduced air quality is the externality. Such a bastion of capitalism as the Harvard Business Review has started writing about the internalization of externalities from a corporate-social-responsibility and leadership perspective.

I wonder if there’s not also a role for the intentional socialization of externalities – understanding them in local communities in the context of who pays for them and who tries to alleviate them when they’re bad. Picture a lumber town with a small environmental nonprofit that’s a chapter of a national organization trying to work with a town council that’s dominated by the chamber of commerce, which is filled with folks sympathetic to the lumber mill. How does such a community find balance in the production of social goods – jobs, environment, governance? I don’t know that we have a good way to think through those issues, and communities across the country are dealing with them in the wake of significant budget cuts. May be worth taking this topic up again in the New Year….

As I mentioned yesterday, abbreviated publishing schedule these last two weeks of the year, Tuesday and Wednesday only. See you next week, and enjoy the holiday!

Attack of the Kohnasaurus

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

My pal Sally Kohn at the Movement Vision Lab has been crushing it lately in a series of op-eds from a progressive perspective on, of all places, venturing into the lion’s dens with thoughtful, unapologetically progressive, well-reasoned arguments. The comments section of her posts are a horrorshow, but this is fighting the good fight, and I applaud her. Go Sally!

Her latest is about 3 areas of common ground between progressives and Tea Partiers. One I would add to the list, as I’ve been saying, is valuing local knowledge over centralized administration. This is a variation on a point Sally makes, that Tea Partiers mistrust centralized power in the form of government, and progressives mistrust concentrated power in the hands of big corporations. The flipside of that is, both sides like local, grassroots efforts and organizing. Locavores and loco-vores? OK, that’s cheap and a bad pun. But I continue to think the privileging of local knowledge is a bipartisan issue that hasn’t been explored sufficiently. Hopefully Sally’s work can help create an opening in which to have that conversation.

Fall into the gap (local knowledge, part 6)

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

Foundations are good at funding where the private sector and the government aren’t. So they fill gaps.

But who fills the gaps in the places where foundations don’t fund?

Is there a way foundations could leverage local knowledge and local modes of dispute resolution to create a penumbra effect in places where they fund – reach a certain community directly, and then indirectly reach linked communities (perhaps via engagement in a rule-setting process)?

Local knowledge (part 5, Nobel Prize-winning edition continued)

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

Yesterday I wondered about local modes of dispute resolution and what they might mean for philanthropy. Here’s the money quote from Nobel Prize-winner Elinor Ostrom:

When users are genuinely engaged in decisions regarding rules affecting their use, the likelihood of them following the rules and monitoring others is much greater than when an authority simply imposes rules.

She’s writing about how to protect forests from overharvesting, an example of the tragedy of the commons, where a resource that benefits all is gradually depleted because no one individual has enough of a disincentive to stop infringing upon it. But the language and the insight are much more general. And they’re based on “a long-term interdisciplinary, multiscale, international research program.”

What can foundations learn from this? The interesting term in the quote above is “rules.” Consciously or not, one of the ways that foundations exercise power is by establishing rules for who they will and won’t work with. That rule-setting power is an important part of foundations’ independence, but what if a foundation were willing to cede some or all of that power?

Where this gets into dispute resolution is in “monitoring others.” If a foundation wants to build a field, it may not be enough to create incentives for organizations to work together; there may need to be a joint rule-building activity that empowers organizations to engage in setting the rules and in monitoring them. Interesting to think about what this might look like….