Challenges to the Non-Profit System

Challenges to the Non-Profit System

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May 13, 2007

As promised a couple days ago, here’s the first of a number of writings I’ve found that offer critical insights, analysis, and alternatives to conventional organization and activism.

This one in particular, is an excerpt from a paper written by Paula X. Rojas, titled “Are the Cops in Our Heads and Hearts?” You can read the full version at the Zapagringo blog, or find it in the new book The revolution will not be funded.

Challenges to the Non-Profit System
These new organizing models pose some important challenges to the non-profit system. First, they challenge the notion that hierarchy and centralization are required to do mass-based political organizing. In the current non-profit system, organizations, particularly those that have a scope extending beyond the local level, tend to be based on a hierarchical governance model of an executive director, board of directors, and on down. People often argue that collective and horizontal decision-making structures are inefficient. And to the extent that they do work, many activists insist that they work only for local organizing projects or projects that are small in scope.

However, in some recent Latin American experiences we see horizontal structures for very large groups, groups much larger than any current movements in the United States. Generally these movements hold asambleas populares (popular assemblies) to determine political agendas through consensus. They are used by the Zapatistas, the MTD in Argentina, and many others engaged in struggles for autonomia. Grounded in an underlying principle of direct collective power, these practices are used to avoid power cementing in certain people placed in representative roles. People gather locally, in their community or neighborhood, on a street corner or somewhere else public and easily accessible to discuss and reflect on issues that need to be decided. What seems like a facilitator’s nightmare–a large, sometimes very large group of people without a set agenda–becomes a space to practice how we want to live collectively. They may then select rotating representatives who will meet in another popular assembly to share what is going on throughout the movement. These non-permanent representatives take these ideas back to their original popular assembly, where people then report to fellow community members and gather feedback. Popular assemblies are very inclusive–even children can participate if they are interested. Sometimes, the decision-making can be slow: this process went on for a year in order to lay the groundwork of the Chiapas uprising of January 1, 1994. During the Zapatista negotiations with the Mexican government, they took a pause of several months to consult with their thousands of members before moving forward. However, similar horizontal non-centralized processes have also been used to make almost spontaneous decisions that led to the shut down of entire countries. These processes were used to make very quick decisions to shut down Argentina in 2001 and to force out the President of Bolivia in October, 2003. In other words, horizontal decision-making can be done on a mass scale (11).

These models demonstrate that every day life is political and that everyone can participate politically. Political work is not outside your struggle for subsistence or in an organization’s office or center, but in your life. For example, some of the MTDs in Argentina set up collective kitchens, whether in joint community spaces or in the homes of MTD members. Also popular in Bolivia, this kind of shared “domestic” space became one of MTD’s most important organizing fronts:

The tendency was for the non-state orientation of domestic spaces to extend as a form of action into very broad public spaces. The rupture of the “domestic wall” brought with it, to the surprise of the protagonists themselves, the novelty that public space was occupied using the articles and practices associated with domestic space (pots and pans in Buenos Aires; rumor-mongering in El Alto). Thus in Buenos Aires neighbors came to the assemblies – in the local squares – with their domestic animals and with chairs from their houses, while in El Alto they watched over their dead in the dusty streets built by the community (12).

This contrasts strongly with the frequent habit of US non-profits to show their ownership over a issue or a particular campaign: to be considered engaged community members must go to their office for training or attend their events. But for some movements, political education does not necessarily take place in a building; instead, it is integrated into the organizing itself. For instance, Brasil’s MST centers education, including political education, in its work, arguing that one cannot build a movement among people who are not actively engaged in learning. This is in the context of a movement that is 300,000 families strong. Given the instability with which people in the landless movement live, education must take place “on the run,” in whatever conditions people are living under. So the MST developed Itinerant Education, an education system available for all children and adults based on Paolo Freire’s principles of Popular Education that work toward liberation, not indoctrination.

“The Movement of Unemployed Landless Workers of Brazil (MST) that gathers homeless, tenants, rural workers, squatters, and small scale farmers is without a doubt, the most powerful social movement of Latin America” according to Marta Harnecker a Chilean political writer, analyst, journalist and researcher who has spent the last 30 years gathering and disseminating the experiences of popular struggles of Latin America from La Habana, Cuba. Nevertheless, as movement leader Joao Stedile points out, “it’s evident that both the right and the left have not been able to correctly interpret the political character of the Movement.” But the MST has no intention of becoming a political party, focused instead upon on-the-ground commitments to centering everyone’s education, the development of settlements that model the world they are trying to create, and a spiritual grounding that points to unlearning internalized social practices including an active “gender” sector and monthly rituals called místicas (mystics). The “gender” work includes safety patrols of MST members with machetes, trained in “gender” issues that intervene in domestic abuse situations and bring them to community accountability sessions. This organizing work breaks with the traditional revolutionary mold, and centers activities that most non-profits could never dream of getting away with.

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