“What you’re saying may get you a foundation grant but it won’t get you into the Kingdom of Truth.”- Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Since 1981, I have been serving New York’s most marginalized, disenfranchised, underserved and oppressed children, adults, families and their respective communities, all being of low/no income and of color. These communities have experienced intergenerational, institutionalized inequity and exclusion that continues unabated.
The nonprofit human services community, from the conglomerate mega agencies, to the settlement houses and smaller community based agencies has historically existed to alleviate the suffering of these communities and ultimately empower them to enter the so-called “mainstream of American society.” Yet, in actuality these agencies are merely appendages that ultimately support our current toxic socioeconomic system.
In New York, they offer the veneer of being advocates for equality, opportunity, gender parity, social, economic and racial justice, et cetera. They make these pronouncements in their mission statements, galas, newsletters, annual reports, etc.
These pronouncements are in lock step with our so-called “progressive” local political leadership, contrary to the fact that New York has historically been an epicenter of structural inequity, segregation and oppression, nationally and globally. We only need to walk the streets of our City to witness the homelessness, mental illness, substance misuse and overall suffering and despair, due to the persistent poverty our most vulnerable residents experience on a daily basis.
The overwhelming majority of these agencies are structured via the for-profit, corporate, Wall Street organizational/business model. They have adopted for-profit titles like “CEO and President, Vice President, CFO, COO, etc.” They are structurally hierarchical, patriarchal and unequal. The salary and power differentials between the CEO and the frontline staff are stark, creating dehumanizing, disempowering work conditions.
A cursory examination of the federal tax returns of several “brand name” agencies reveal CEO base compensation as high as over $500,000 annually while their frontline staff, mostly of color and female, being in the $20,000 to $30,000 range, annually. According to a 2015 report jointly done by the Fiscal Policy Institute, the Human Services Council of New York and The Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies regarding the salaries of the nonprofit human services workforce: “Over 50 percent of the workforce made less than $31,000 annually, 30 percent made close to $22,000, with 82 percent being female and 75 percent being of color.” Can this be construed as the human services version of a “plantation economy” or “sweatshop”?
If this is the case, certain questions arise, for example: how can we transform the nonprofit human services community from this unacceptable, unjust yet normative scenario that exists within their organizations? How do these agencies begin to move away from the toxic philanthropic relationships with Wall Street that they obsessively covet? These relationships exist as a means to maintain our morally bankrupt socioeconomic system that enriches the very few at the expense of the overwhelming many.
One avenue that can be explored to counter this dominant model is the creation and adoption of a humanistic, trauma informed, anti-corporate, anti-white supremacist business/organizational model. Throughout my career, I have sought to develop such a model, based on the practice principles of humanism, collaboration, cooperation and consensus building with all stakeholders, externally and internally. We can use these principles, as well as others from the worker cooperative community, to create human services organizations that will foster authentic democracy at work and in our communities, allowing for a more equitable and just New York.
Ralph Dumont is a New York born and bred Latino of African and Indigenous origin. He is a social worker that has served for over 30 years in the realms of substance misuse, homelessness, mental illness, HIV/AIDS, child welfare and services for older adults. The last 13 years he has been the executive director of two community based organizations.