Seasons of Giving: Changing How We Donate

I was making eggs and bacon when someone rang the doorbell. I skulked in the shadows of my foyer while I waited for my father to come downstairs. He hesitantly creaked open the door as he was greeted by a white man wearing a haphazardly placed, purple NorthFace hat that was thrown over his shoulder-length hair.

“Hi sir, I would like to talk to you about the fight for sustainable energy. We are taking donations this holiday season to help make New Jersey a greener state by encouraging our senators to invest in renewable energy.”

My dad responds skeptically, “Okay…so do you want me to sign something?”

The bed-head responds, “Well sir, we are actually looking for a donation of 75$. And if you could also write a letter to the senator using this template that would be great.”

My dad retorts, and they are going back and forth, until finally my dad concedes and says, “Sure I’ll write the letter.”

After observing their conversation, I emerge from the shadows, and ask, “What was that about?”

“I mean I care about sustainable energy, but do they really expect me to just trust some random man with a flyer and give him 75$? I have no idea where my money is going, for all I know he could be scamming me.”

Rightfully so, my dad is frugal with his money. As a Black American man he understands the importance of maintaining our fiscal capital, both historically and practically. Given slavery and racism and all, I’d be hard-pressed to simply hand over my money to the first white man demanding support for water or air or endangered species or whatever. White people have a  habit of milking us for all we’re worth, and when we reach monetary stability, we know that we have to cling tight to it. But beyond the racial context, this man was trying to guilt my father into a donation, which left bitterness as a byproduct rather than empathy. This prompted me to think about all of the forms of donation that we have the opportunity to participate in on a daily basis.

Hurricane Harvey compelled Americans to come together in a marvelous collaborative moment to give all they have to those in need, but then America lost steam. Hurricane Irma came around and we were fresh out of money, and fucks to give. And now as the holiday season comes to a close we have another wave of compulsory giving that is about to die down. Americans often suffer from a fat case of donor fatigue. We hop onto fads of generosity, but we lack stamina, and as a result people in need get left in the dust every day.

As a black woman with economic privilege I find myself constantly negotiating what I should and shouldn’t donate. Because as I noted above, I come from a family who believes that we don’t owe shit to white people. Why should I give up what my family had to fight systematic oppression to get? But at the same time I am part of a black family who has significantly more to give than our black counterparts living in poverty. Is it our duty to donate on behalf of black people? Whenever I cycle through this internal conflict my acts of donation are always colored with guilt and uncertainty. But maybe this is because I have a limited scope of what donation is.

I’m hoping that I can re-imagine what it means to donate something for two reasons: 1. To continue to give back without exhausting my own resources 2. To make donating about trust and empathy rather than guilt, by having a deep understanding of the community I’m donating to.

Broadly, I’ve always viewed a donation as an act of giving money to those in need, without receiving anything in exchange. However, as a grew up this definition has become problematic to me for several reasons, mostly relating to capitalism.

When I perceive donations as exclusively monetary I reduce social issues to arbitrary values. As a result, people and communities become charity cases rather than human beings. I give them my ten dollars to make my guilt go away, but I haven’t participated in anything meaningful. I’ve barely felt sympathy, let alone empathy.

In fact, I usually donate money in reaction to something. I’ll see a harrowing story about human trafficking on the news. Donate. Another shooting of an unarmed black man. Donate. Wildfires igniting on the Front Range. Donate. I just throw money at problems as they pop up on my timeline. I don’t engage in any proactive effort. I merely responded to a conflict with money, and it doesn’t change the fact that lives were already lost and trauma was already incurred.

Further, using money to make donations gets personal. The greedy individualism of the American dollar consumes me, and I’m stingy. Sure, those people need this money more than I do, but I also worked hard for my money. My capitalist instincts are seething at the thought of an investment with no return.

Unfortunately capitalism doesn’t just disappear overnight, and I would love to be wealthy enough or socialist enough to give money away without batting an eyelash. But that’s not my reality, and I’ve still got to maintain my own survival while also finding ways to engage generously with my community.

With this in mind I’ve brainstormed some new ways to think about donating that still allows me to maintain survival in a capitalist society while doing the work on a daily or weekly basis.

Emotional donations: Many people underestimate the power of emotional labor. For example, it requires emotional labor for me to explain to someone for the millionth time, that washing my hair once a week is actually healthy for my natural black hair texture. Rather than get in argument with someone who thinks my hair is dirty, I’ve had friends step in and take over in the conversation to take emotional stress off of me. This may seem small, but daily emotional exhaustion can add up. If I can donate that same amount of emotional labor to someone else who just needs a break, they don’t have to carry that with them for the rest of the day, week, and even year.

Physical Donations: This can be interpreted in the literal sense by volunteering with my body, by lending a hand at a fundraising event or working at my local garden. This may also mean that I help out the single mother who lives down the street from me, and offer to pick up her kids from school once a week. This also means using physical privileges to help others. For example, there are white allies who attend protests and act as barricades between black protesters and the police, knowing that police treat black bodies differently than their own. I can use my straight passing privilege to physically protect my outwardly queer friends, or even just make them feel safer in certain spaces. This video below is a great example of physical and emotional donation.

Social Donations: This one is huge. I believe social capital is just as important as fiscal capital, and they are often linked. Social donations are particularly important to me because many people in the black community are familiar with the ways that white people have kept us from attaining social status by excluding us from social networks like country clubs, ski resorts, swim clubs, greek life etc. Everyone knows this is where all the action happens. This is where CEO’s, politicians, and influencers get together and decide the fate of the world. Networking is an amazing way for me and others to pass on prosperity. Even if my dad isn’t the CFO of Walmart I can still donate my social connections to people looking to enter into a certain industry, or help them find a place to live.

Consumer Choice: I can donate without donating at all. Meaning, I can simply be more thoughtful about what services I’m paying for, and where I am getting them from. I can shop local, shop black, shop queer, shop women, shop single dad, shop sustainable. Without traditionally “donating” a dime, I can funnel money into the communities that need it. This is also an excellent preventative, rather than reactive measure. Instead of donating to impoverished low lying communities after they’ve been hit by a flood, I can give them my dollar by shopping at the local bodega, which provides them with more capital to potentially buy insurance or buy a backup generator in preparation for such events. I can use what I have to infuse wealth into a community that needs helping lifting itself out of poverty instead of waiting for tragedy to strike.

Overall, each of the forms of donation I listed above, require some form of proactive element. They require a sense of engagement, and thoughtfulness that make donations more personal and community oriented. And they require consistency. They don’t necessarily correlate with any specific tragic event or seasonal change. These are daily and weekly donations that spurn from personal growth, kindness, and motivation. While this blog post certainly centers my own personal reconciliation of “donation” I know there are at least a few people out there who are having some of the same dilemmas that I am. Maybe if we can consciously rotate and interchange all forms of donation, we’ll have better longevity, and a broader scope of resources to offer those in need while still maintaining our own needs and self-care.




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