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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.

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