Lost Visions and the Non-Profit Industrial Complex

Re-curring thought over the past 3 years: “This non-profit world will take me over the edge one day.”

I feel so far away from the inspired, optimistic, 19 year old who travelled to Caracas, Venezuela for the World Festival of Youth and Students and learned about the work of activists and organizers around the world…individuals involved in indigenous land reclamation, freeing political prisoners, labour union organizing and Hip Hop activism.  I wanted to be a part of these movements that were recognized in that space to be so interconnected and inextricably tied to spirit, soul and ancestry.

That was where it started…but I don’t know how I ended up here…

Somewhere since then…I think it was somewhere in this youth-sector/non-profit/charity based monopoly that I found myself in, the vision was lost and replaced with time-consuming, spirit-draining, imagination-sucking obsessions: meetings, programming, service delivery, grants,  evaluations, collaborations, steering committees, stakeholders, de-briefing, funding reports, spending reports, monthly reports, budgets, staff meetings, board meetings, finance meetings and more meetings….bureacracy strangled the vision…

Don’t get me wrong.  Over the past few years, I have grown immensely and experienced some of the greatest joy anyone can ask for.  I have met some of the most incredible individuals whose words and stories, art and actions have altered my entire worldview.  I have had the PRIVILEGE to work with young people – build with them, challenge them, be challenged by them, trusted by them, trust them, cry with them, laugh with them, dance with them, eat with them, build community with them.  Rich memories have been built that I will hold for lifetimes:

Photo by Nabil Shash

my students being moved to tears while watching a documentary on Mumia Abu Jamal; sitting in a low-lit board room located on 110 Sudbury Street every Monday at 2pm cracking jokes with T-Rexxx, Drex, Gavin, Brian and 40; working with Hagler on his final assignment of high school on the couch in my office; doing cartwheels at the airport in Durban, South Africa with Kyauna while Sinotra posed in his grey track suit and Logik faithfully documenting every second (check video for proof);

telling secrets with Dahab and Muna when the electricity went out in our house in Nairobi; dancing till marks were left on the walls at the SWB AGM; writing curriculum while sitting in the grass at Christie Pitts park; burning marshmallows and telling stories around a fire at a retreat centre up north following a game of Lord of the Rings with Muginga and Nayani; re-enacting talk-show dramas with Khadra and Andrea in a hotel room in Oakland; singing “We Can’t be Friends” at the top of our lungs with the ladies of EOTO as we drove to Kingston; watching my student Kalin jump off the stage at our first show at York University; my talks with Kamiya and Isiah as I walked them home after class; freestyling ciphers after watching d’bi’s play with the OG’s…

So many experiences.

And now I am wondering about purpose, wondering why…I am here.  I have the richness of these experiences but I also am left feeling drained and cynical and a little lost.  And on top of that…I’m broke.  Why am I broke when I work this hard?  Where is all of this energy going???

In 2011, I wrote 11 grants.  11 grants.  Even if I was successful in every single one of those grants (which I was not), I still can’t believe I clocked that many hours of my life explaining why these movements should be invested in.  I spent hours explaining and contorting and re-articulating rather than doing and imagining and reflecting and creating.  When did I get stuck in the Non-Profit Industrial Complex?

I thought I would have to choose between the corporate world and the grassroots world, but my grassroots world has been co-opted by corporate culture and corporate frameworks — without the accompanying dollars.  This way of working makes me feel like a punk.  So why am I doing this again?  Why am I broke again?  How can I afford to be broke when I am currently going through a quarter-life crisis and have Ricky Neckles‘ words repeating over and over again in my head:

“Failure is not an option when you are your mother’s retirement plan.”

Real talk.

Failure is not an option when your mother and your grandmother and your grandfather travelled across the ocean to create a better life for you.  When my grandparents STRUGGLED and worked in factories and cleaned buses to create a better life for me.  When my mother sacrificed the discovery of her own dreams for a better life for me.  When I saw my mother struggle and get back up, struggle and get back up – when she personifies the layers of painful and enduring strength that it took to allow me to be in this place in this moment.  Failure is not an option. I promised my mother that I would take care of her when I get older.  Failure is not an option.

So now…how do my 19 year old activist self and my 22 year old educator/coordinator self and my 24 year old artistic self and my 26 year old don’t want to be broke and feeling like a punk self re-define what it means to be successful?  What is the new vision?

***Recommended Reading: The Revolution will Not be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, Edited by Incite! Women of Color Against Violence***

Dedicated to the era created in the city of Toronto by a visionary group of young people.  There will be books and movies inspired by the era we created.  I am sure of it.


Filed under Politics

9 responses to “Lost Visions and the Non-Profit Industrial Complex

  1. Chris

    What is it exactly that you had in mind when you set out down the non-profit path? What vision, ambitions, goals, purpose, etc.? What did you ultimately want to accomplish? I have thoughts on this topic but want to first make sure that they’re relevant to your situation.

    Also, perhaps related, have you read Muhammad Yunus’ “Social Business”? It lays out the framework for a paradigm shift when considering the profit/non-profit dichotomy. An excellent read.

    • Hey Chris, thanks for the question. I always thought that the non-profit world would be an interesting space to translate my politics into tangible form. Lost Lyrics was kind of an accidental creation rather than intention. It was never my plan to be the creator of programs that empower but rather to to help shape spaces that transform communities into self-determined agents of mobilized change. I hope this makes sense. I have not read Social Business. Thank you for recommending. I will definitely check it out.

  2. Comments from Facebook:
    Kim Smith:
    Passion, beliefs, love, and dedication all make us and breaks us. I can relate. Thanks for this 😉
    Mali Docuvixen:
    Non profit is where the trickle down effect happens within Capitalism.. So those of us that are looking for transformative change, there will be inevitable disconnect.
    Revolution will not be funded. Excited to read..
    Paulina O’Kieffe:
    Wow. Your words are very loudly echoing in my head over and over again. “failure is not an option when u r ur mothers retirement plan ….. Or your daughters entire future”. Excellent post Amanda.
    Hibaq Af-Jannah:
    I echo similar sentiments!!!!!! Thank You Amanda for putting into words what I have been thinking for far to long..
    Abi E:
    word! enjoyed this read! ur words speak volumes…. loved the quote “failure is not an option when u r ur mothers retirement plan”… thanks for sharing and putting into words how i have felt for years!
    Lucho Granados Ceja:
    Working in this sector, despite it being all the things you say here, for me is still a way to pay the rent. It can be draining but at least my job has a positive impact on people.What makes my life rich and meaningful is all those hours I work and don’t get paid, in other (Spanish) words, “mi militancia”. I agree, failure isn’t an option, not just because of my parents or my yet-to-be-born children but for all of the exploited masses.
    Muna Jimale:
    Indeed! I’m sure they will write books and movies about our disillusionment. 😦 But, if anyone can find a way to marry their passion to a-means-of-income Job and turn back the pendulum to when this work was a labour of love it would be YOU!!!xoxo Oh btw I love that pic, I think we’re on the steps of Cara Eastcott’s place in Kensington market. I’ll never forget the summer of 2008 !!
    Sedina Fiati:
    i hear you! i feel you. i feel bad too as my mother continues to work so hard and in relation to her, i spend many a day “working” from my bed. i have become bitter at the age of 30 about the non profit industrial complex which in addition to not compensating well enough has also bred some unwell individuals who have no business being leaders….i digress. anyway, i made a conscious decision to do less running around and more time for me. can the work be done with less frenetic activity? let us continue to explore other options of funding that are not energy draining grants and other models of work that incorporate spiritual, physical and heart well being. i don’t have the answer, but i am 100% inspired by the work you do! i am also interested in how we can find an alternative to the non profit industrial complex.
    Kehinde Bah:
    I really appreciate how much you put your feelings out here in the open, and shared this with all of us so honestly. This is how many of us feel, and I suspect that there are more than a few people (in other sectors) who feel the same way. At 32 I feel as though the world tells me to stop being idealistic, that doing something from my heart doesn’t have real value. If ‘they’ had it their way they would make us forget what freedom is, and stop encouraging our peers to believe in it. But if ‘they’ really had the power to do that, I would’ve given up already. They’re lying to you. Our parents struggled so we would have freedom, its not any easy thing to give away. If it isn’t those that don’t want you to think its possible, there are still others that, having already capitulated to the system, passive-aggressively resent you for holding out so long. But without these breakdowns, there is no breakthrough. Just like those before us who were able to struggle, defend, innovate and create avenues that didn’t exist before, it began when they had enough of doing things the way they’d been told. I truly believe in your sentiment in the last paragraph. The next wave of youth leaders won’t tolerate the conditions imposed on them by the complex, and we can’t model it for them. Whatever is threatened with extinction must evolve in order to survive. Is there a way we can wean ourselves from ‘they tools’ (language, dependency, measuring our worth with mere stats) and create prosperity using the tools native to all of us (empathy, care, love, respect, nurturing)?
    Danny Tamayo:
    I hear you Amanda, I’ve been out of the loop for a minute as to youth initiative since we first met. I loved the energy, but I’m talkin strictly about myself here, I had to do me. It’s good to help others but don’t make yourself the price. People are gonna hate on what I say, but it’s the truth. It is what it is. I agree with marrying gettin paid, with helpin, I have no doubt of all people you can do it. You should do with your time what you want because it is your time, you can share it if you wish or just have it for yourself. Nothing wrong with making time for the most important person in your life….you.

  3. 2 Wellies

    Hey Amanda

    Thnx for sharing this, being the doom monger that I am I can telll you that as a 32 year old it gets worse, when I first started working in this system a youth worker said to me “for every sucess expect at least 30 failures”. I naively thought she was talking about the young people, now I know what she meant.

    In terms of answers I have thousands upon thousands but am so beatdown I don’t have the energy to chase or fight for any of them. I do however, feel the winds of change, communities are smelling the bullshit and with this stupid austerity tip our global leaders are bent on, we don’t really have a choice.

    The amount of people I know who have lost loved one’s, lost income, lost their health and lost their mind serving the counter-revolution is heart-breaking but I feel Not for Profits are hanging themselves on the promises they cosmetically committed to but never fought for.

    We just need to be there to catch the ball when they drop it and give it back to the people, the people who can tell you what they want to make their community a better place without having to fill in a survey.

  4. ‘failure is not an option when you are your mother’s retirement plan’… should be etched in stone.

  5. Hey Amanda, Im not much of a social media person, but your post etc always get me in, feel you about this non-profit dance -prove our selves jig they want us to do, and I was in Venezuela with you and remember that energy myself. I asked myself those same questions and now with 2 kids I feel even more motivated to work smart not hard, social enterprise or whatever we want to label it is the key, have a business idea to back the community works and get paid, communal living helps as well to negate the money that goes just into living and not saving, get smart with what little money you do have, the jar system ( bun the interact) and stay out of malls but I digress. The way will be made clear sistren, the ancestors are with us all and you inspired me to re invent my artistic self and through the works you do. feel free to connect and share with the POR AMOR movement for anything. If anything I will keep you in my meditations and prayers, as the awakening is now upon us and the world is shifting and moving and so are you, move with the change and trust the way will be made clear, you are to smart, too dedicated and too beautiful a spirit to fail………
    Tanika aka iNsight of POR AMOR

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  8. Sef

    I just came across your blog and this post is everything! Even though this comment is late-I would love to hear about your thoughts on this one year later. I just finished reading “The Revolution will not be funded” and I’m still wrestling with everything that I’ve just learned and trying to ask the right questions. Thank you for your post!

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