Friday, March 16, 2007

The Fetishization of Failure

Earlier this week I mentioned going to San Francisco for an organizers' meeting. In 20 years of anti-poverty work, I've acquired some heretical opinions. This week didn't do much to alter them.

Once, long, long ago, I was 27. I believed change would come once the underclass stopped blaming themselves for their failures and started looking to each other for their power. Nothing seemed more worthwhile than helping to make that happen. I was down for building the revolution.

I spent a number of years propping up various leaders and organizing against the grain.

There was the wheelchair-bound Marxist who lived in a tiny room about three blocks from Boston's Federal Building. He'd send his personal assistant out for vodka first thing in the morning, and by noon or so he'd be headed toward incoherency. I saw leadership potential there but tried to always catch him while it was still morning, when he was only grouchy and paranoid.

Then there was Jack, the genius IQ former bank robber who taught himself to read Goethe in German while he was in prison. He was also a pretty decent jail house lawyer. I hired him to run the Homeless Civil Rights Project that I organized, and after he shot his ex co-director in the head and wound up in a spectacular car crash as he attempted to dump the body, he defended himself pro se at his own murder trial. He lost.

There was also Tim, an Axis II Clusterfuck B personality disorder leader-from-hell if ever there was. He threatened once to smash a computer monitor over my head. Eventually, he broke into our organization's office,stole the computer, and sold it for drug money. He was the project's Director. I hired him too.

Over the years, my fondness for handing power over to charismatic leaders who had done little to prove they could handle it dramatically waned. I grew jaded with organizing projects that were "homeless-led."

By 33, I was done with all that.

I decided that building for power for broad classes of people was more meaningful than "empowering" individual leaders who seldom measured up to the call. I decided that homelessness was something shitty that happens to people, and not an identity, and that while homeless identity politics might be an understandable response to institutional infantilization, it is a poor basis for building a movement.

I stopped hiring people as leaders because they were homeless. I stopped creating positions of power for others to abuse.

I began working through my own relationship to power, and grew to understand that it is not some sort of hot potato that has to be handed off before one gets burned.

Power can be used for both good and evil. And with power comes responsibility. I began working through the thorny issues that this involves, and I'm still working on it.

Poor people deserve respect, but they deserve competence too, especially in their organizers. And they need all the allies they can find. And they need us to stop idealizing poverty.

Whenever I see a foundation who thinks we should have 51% of our board be homeless people because that's the population we serve, I think, "You first."

In some circles, that makes me politically incorrect. Maybe I am. But at least I've thought it through.

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