frank news is dedicated to storytelling across all mediums. A space for debate, discussion, and connection between experts and a curious readership. Topics are presented monthly with content delivered daily.


Tatti Ribeiro
Clare McLaughlin
Want to share your story?
Become a contributor
Contact Us
December: TBD
No articles
No articles
No articles
No articles
No articles
No articles
No articles
No articles
No articles
No articles
No articles
No articles
No articles
No articles
No articles
No articles
No articles
No articles
No articles
No articles
No articles
No articles
No articles
No articles
No articles
No articles
No articles
No articles
No articles
No articles
No articles
© US National Archives


Individual Mobility is a Farce

by Erica Kohl
May 13, 2021

This interview with Erica Kohl, professor of American Studies at UC Davis and the author of The Self-Help Myth, was conducted and condensed by franknews

How did you begin this inquiry into philanthropy? 

I suppose there are many entry points to my career in looking at philanthropy. I was born in Berkeley in 1968 and raised by radicals. My parents were organizing all sorts of crazy projects, and have been involved in a lot of movement organizing over the years. 

I started working in the nonprofit sector in the Bay Area in the nineties. During that time, I had multiple moments of disillusionment with the confines of the nonprofit structure and the limits of working with private funders. I thought I was going out into the world and doing radical work, but I came against all of these limits in my early twenties. So, I found my way into research out of frustration, I suppose.

What specific frustrations led you in that direction? 

Two major organizing projects led me there. 

One was working in rural coal mining towns in Appalachia.  I worked through the Highlander Research and Education Center in Tennessee. I found my way to a small town called Ivanhoe that was organizing against the industrial model of development in rural Appalachia.

Tennessee Valley Authority. Appalachia Dam Project. US National Archives. 

I was working alongside popular educators and organizers and a fierce, amazing woman  Maxine Waller, the wife of a coal miner and so much more, to transform the town which was experiencing industrial abandonment. And then, about a decade later, when I was working with a farmworker organizing coalition in California, Central Valley. 

In both of these cases, funders, policymakers, experts, and nonprofit leaders from the outside were willing to accept and fund initiatives that told people to work harder, work more, and, generally, improve themselves. 

They built upon the long-standing myth of self-help. Entrepreneurship was very acceptable, but anything that took on industry was not. And both Appalachia and the California Central Valley are incredibly poor regions in the United States that have been defined by large-scale industry. Their poverty was produced by relationships of production, not by people’s poor choices or bad behavior.

What is the myth of self-help? Both conceptually and historically?

It underpins the age-old bootstraps capitalism. You can look back to Andrew Carnegie and the Carnegie Foundation to see this foundational philanthropic idea that if we help people help themselves, they won't want to confront industry. If they busy themselves fixing stop signs in their neighborhoods or improving schools for their own kids, then they will not confront the structures that are actually creating poverty and inequality. We get this American myth of individual mobility. We are told that if you just work harder, you can succeed in this world. 

We published an interview a few months ago that talked about how if you busy yourself with mobilization and getting better, you always think one day something will change for you. Why do you feel that there isn't this moment of realizing, I am working seven days a week, one hundred hours a week, and nothing is changing? 

Well, most social movements do grow from that collective recognition that the systems designed to serve us don’t work for most of us — and that the individual mobility script is a farce. You can look to most movements in this country and see that they grew out of this sense that the system wasn't built for us, so we've got to change it.

Your question though, initially made me think about angry white people. This idea of white exceptionalism is obviously very alive today— this idea that if I'm still struggling and I'm white, then I better find someone to get angry at, to blame. There is a lot of pain and anger in that failure, so poor, disenfranchised white people have been taught to turn to people of color, to immigrants as the problem. Or to some magical thinking that leads them to believe that the system or our society disadvantages white people — when in fact it disadvantages poor people. This moves much towards the radical white libertarian view. These are  ‘common sense’ myths that confuse people about their own best interests and hide the broader structures of capitalism that produce the problems.

Right. It does involve some sense of denial, but also I guess, a sense of accepting what you hear from the government. How has this self-help attitude been codified by leaders and policies? 

The eighties and nineties are a really critical conjuncture in cementing the self-help myth, and more broadly, the conservative agenda. 

It is also important to think a little bit further back to the sixties, to the expansion of the welfare state and of civil rights. Goldwater loses the election, and Johnson builds upon the ‘Great Society’ programs by increasing social spending.

Cochran, Jimmy W. [Photograph of Barry Goldwater]photographOctober 1964; ( May 14, 2021), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History,; crediting Midwestern State University.

He launches the War on Poverty, promotes, at least in language, community action, and control, and increases funding for other forms of social welfare support like Headstart. 

In response, the right gets quiet. They go back to the trenches and intentionally build not only a policy plan but an ideology that attacks the social infrastructure built from the New Deal to the War on Poverty. 

They create new ideological tools to cement the idea that the Great Society has created this bloated, bureaucratic state and that has created a very racialized culture of dependency. 

Conservative academics, theoreticians, politicians, and foundations — which we don’t focus enough on in philanthropy research — start touting this idea. The Heritage Foundation, for example, produces its Mandate for Leadership. These were a series of reports that served as a roadmap for policies that would disinvest in the welfare state, reinvest in the police state and in the military state, and loosen up corporate laws and controls. They wrote a pretty simple prescription that Reagan ended up adopting.

President Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher dancing in Cross Hall during a State dinner for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the United Kingdom. US National Archives. 

The Reagan-Thatcher era cemented a new ideology against poor people, against so-called ‘welfare mothers’ evoking racist stereotypes, and against a ‘bloated state’. This enabled concrete policy shifts against social spending and against racial justice organizing and policies. 

At the same time, anti-immigrant sentiments came to the forefront. You have the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 passed by Reagan that sought to take away all public benefits from immigrants. 

You also see disinvestment from poor communities and communities of color and reinvestment into policing, whether that be in the form of stop and frisk in urban areas, deportation in the Central Valley, or mass incarceration across the country. Those policy shifts are connected to the ideological project that convinced people that folks just don't know how to take care of themselves and that they are a threat to civil society. 

And then we move into Clinton, a self-described “new kind of Democrat.” In retrospect, a lot of his policies, particularly politicking policies, doubled down on conservative ideology. How does nonprofit and philanthropy change from there? 

Right. From Clinton through Bush, there was a through-line where the nonprofit sector came in. We have gutted our welfare state, but we still have people in need. And the needs are growing and becoming increasingly visible. Clinton and Bush both talked a lot about pluralism and the responsibility of civic institutions to come together to solve our problems. This idea of a responsible civil society can have a very rosy glow to it, right? Yes, we need to all roll up our sleeves and help out. That sounds great. 

But, at the same time, this was the founding of the so-called ‘shadow state’. Nonprofits are being paid privately to do what the public institutions should do. This quiet reorganization happens.  

Movement organizations begin seeking funding, not from the public or from members, but by twisting their tongues and writing grant proposals to private foundations. They lean into this new civic engagement framework of the eighties and nineties, rather than mass organizing against the system. Though organizing of course does continue on many fronts. It never stops.

The Clinton and Bush-era really ushered in this idea that we can all get along and do this together. It’s not bad per se, of course, we want to be civically involved and we want to help one another. But this becomes the dominant new narrative, and private funding becomes the dominant means of deciding what gets funded and what doesn’t.  Many organizations that took a more direct or more confrontational approach to organize real change were defunded or left behind.

The nonprofit industrial complex is thrown around a lot — how do you define it? 

I think that the term, “nonprofit industrial complex” can easily be misunderstood as a kind of monolithic, top-down, controlling cooperative force of private foundations that force non-profits to do things a certain way. That is a misread. 

The idea of the nonprofit industrial complex builds upon the ideas of prison abolitionist scholars, like Ruthie Wilson Gilmore and others, the idea of the prison industrial complex. It talks about how, basically, if you imagine a birdcage there are multiple bars holding the burden. It’s a system that contains freedom, that contains working, living, dreaming, otherwise outside of the system of dominant capitalist control, that whenever you try to get out, another bar is there.

The nonprofit industrial complex refers to all the things that have happened since the fifties that have confined the kind of work that people organizing through the nonprofit sector can do. There are obviously certain laws and rules about philanthropy tax status that creates the world we are living in — but beyond that, there are more subtle notions and norms. 

Capacity building, for example, is a buzzword in nonprofits. Basically, a funder will say that they are going to fund you to build your capacity. That usually comes with certain kinds of understandings of what a board of directors should look like. What kind of people should be governing your organization? Do they have to have certain credentials, certain kinds of status, certain kinds of sectoral expertise? You might be building someone's capacity away from serving a more radical mission by requiring certain kinds of people to sit on the board.

Another thing funders often do is they don't fund really small grassroots organizations unless they've been proven to be worthy of funding and are trustworthy. So they want to see other funders fund them first. Rather than just saying here's some resources to do what you have to do to create change, they say, well, first you need funding from a community foundation. And then you need a $50,000 grant to prove to us you can manage it the way that we approve of before we can give you the $250,000 grant. 

[Inside the Office]photograph1960~/1969~; ( May 14, 2021), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History,; crediting Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.

Another whole area we could talk about would be professionalization — what's deemed as acceptable for nonprofit staff members, how they think, how they feel, how they behave.

There is also the busyness of one's time and effort and labor. And there are many nonprofit grassroots organizers I've interviewed, who said, you know, we were doing amazing work. We were on the ground. We were working with people. We were understanding the needs of the community. We were pushing for changes, but then five years in, when we became successful and received so much more money, I had no time to get out of the office. I know one organization that decided to scale down the size of the organization, so they could actually just go out into the community again. 

The idea of a nonprofit industrial complex is that there are all sorts of ideas and expectations and relationships and structures that keep one from doing work that really challenges the structures that create inequality. 

It points out the irony in the critique of government as a slow, bloated bureaucracy. Philanthropic organizations can be just as slow and bogged down. 

Absolutely. After about a decade and a half of working in the nonprofit sector, I became very frustrated and tired with the lack of deliberative work of learning and thinking and deep analysis about the issues. We were always so busy getting the next grant, trying to write the next report. It was so much busywork. It's a certain form of bureaucracy that really didn't allow for the deep analysis that is at the heart of movement building. 

Do you think our dependency on philanthropy, or the tendency to make heroes of large philanthropic organizations will ever go away? 

I have so many different and maybe sometimes conflicting answers to that question.

One of the things that I have learned from my research is how there are many successful, effective movement leaders who understand their work with foundations as a hustle. For example, I found archives of the meeting minutes of the United Farm Workers where Cesar Chavez calls nonprofits the “hustling arm of the union.” 

Screen Shot 2021 05 13 at 11.43.31 AM

Dolores Huerta stands with her United Farm Workers (UFW) colleagues outside of a hiring hall. Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

He was conscious of receiving money for certain things, knowing that that money wouldn't fund other things. For example, private funders, including the Rosenberg Foundation and Ford Foundation would fund leadership development for farmers, and they were critical in doing that. But, of course, they were out when there were strikes and violence on the picket lines. 

Use private funding where it is useful and recognize its limits.  

Foundations are creatures of capitalism. They're only set up to do certain things. There are key limits that they have. Are you willing to take on industry? Are you willing to take on capitalism? When the issue becomes about stopping industry from abusing workers, what will funders do then? Those are the hardline questions. 

I will say that, today, there are innovative funders that are giving away money with fewer strings attached. They are basically saying, “do what you need to do.” A lot of them are millennial funders that are not trying to build big foundations with endowments and the traditional sense of trustees, but rather trying to build quick movement funds.

The last five years or so has seen a resurgence of the critique of philanthropy and the big foundations. And in a way, that is easy. They are the easiest targets. They are institutions of big money that were made in industry. 

But, a lot of the politics of power and the drift away from the core mission, happens within smaller nonprofits and movements. Often after a leader becomes big, they become the face of the movement, and they become more removed from the base of people they were initially organizing with. It’s not an intentional abandonment, but it is a drift that comes with operating at different levels. I recently published an article in Boom Journal with Erika Grajeda. We looked at domestic worker organizing and how attachment to national campaigns often makes local grassroots serve national organizing campaigns and lose touch with what is going on in their own local community. These scaled up movements are ones where the question of power and organization are really fraught. 

I want to touch on the Central Valley – how are Central Valley workers organizing post Cesar Chavez? 

The Central Valley is still one of the poorest regions in the country.

Junior League of Fresno. Children in Need Drive. 

And the agricultural industry still dominates the area, especially the Southern San Joaquin Valley, as a major economic driver. The levels of farmworker poverty have not gotten much better since the days of the farmworker movement. A majority of field workers are immigrants increasingly from indigenous Mexico, many of whom don’t speak English and also speak limited Spanish. 

The abuses of the industry and the living conditions and the worker’s experiences have remained the same. And with the drought and with COVID, California farmworkers were impacted even more. The year before last, the Southern San Joaquin Valley was having water drives, these huge events for farmworker communities to come get water, to drink, and to bathe. Flash forward two years later, and we've got forest fires that have kept most people indoors, but farmworkers are outside working the fields, impacted by fires and smoke. And then we had COVID on top of that.

I don't think that labor organizing is very strong. If we look back to the disinvestment in the welfare state, the disinvestment in immigrant rights, and the reinvestment in policing and ICE, it doesn’t create a very good context for labor organizing. It leaves us with a predominantly undocumented labor force who are already afraid for their health, their wellbeing, their safety, and their jobs. 

Labor organizing is not strong, but at the same time, movement organizing around immigrant rights and climate change has increased. So, the United Farm Workers does not have a very high membership in union members, but there are many more grassroots organizations in the Valley that are starting to work together and build a strong coalition for change. I wouldn’t say that there is no organizing, it is just regrouped organizing. 

Do you feel hopeful about change, particularly with a new administration? 

I think any president is only as strong and capable as the movements that pressure them. 

Biden will only do what he's held accountable to do. The movements that enabled the Bernie Sanders campaign, and the other more radical candidates, are much stronger and much more organized than they have been before, so it remains to be seen.