In her book No such thing as a free gift, an investigation of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Linsey McGoey argues that social justice ideals are now dependent upon the good will of billionaires and their foundations who gained an immense power over global health policies, agriculture and education among others. The Bay Area has experienced a surge in the number of foundations these last years. In 2014, there were 2,900 foundations while 5 years later, more than 3,600 operated in this area. They gave more than $8 billion in grants and donations, first and foremost to education which represented more than $2 billion of this total.
A few years ago, I started studying philanthropy and capitalism as a master’s student in sociology because I was interested in the rise of foundations in France. In a country where the welfare state was (and is still) the center of all the discussions, the private gift for public purposes – it is a common definition of philanthropy – started to appear as a solution to the disinvestment of the state in the cultural and social affairs. It is in the realm of culture that philanthropists, building on family fortunes or on an entrepreneurial success, first started to intervene. But education remained at the time in the scope of the public.
I arrived in California four months ago. I came here to study the impact of foundations, nonprofits, and philanthropists on education and how they were building a new vision for public schools, especially with the movement of the charter schools. Even if the Bay Area has one of the greatest concentration of non-profits and foundations in the world, the urban landscape did not reflect this “burst of generosity”. One can find almost as many nonprofit organizations as homeless people: there are 28,000 nonprofit organizations and about 35,000 homeless persons. So, I started asking myself: what are the nonprofits doing? How could a ratio of about one nonprofit to one homeless person be possible? I thought of an example which might outline the reasons for this gap.
I work with a few nonprofits in the Bay Area which deal with the question of education. A lot of them have their headquarters in Oakland, so I started investigating this city and the relation of nonprofits to the exterior world, the street, the Bart, for example. And, I must say, they have an ambiguous relationship to this outside. For the ones who organize clubs, where students do all type of activities – games, podcasts, regular classes, – and develop new skills – confidence, entrepreneurship, the culture of the risk – the idea is not to improve the quality of public schools, to strengthen the community links or to democratize the learning of new technologies. Rather, they offer an escape route for the students who can then be socially mobile while the others are stuck with the bare means of public schools. The nonprofit spaces create new barriers between the inside and the outside. Thanks to specific resources, to luck or to a mentor, a few students are coached and have a chance to compete for the best colleges and the higher wages in the Bay Area. Once they have gone through the doors and the security of these shelters – rather than actual community spaces – they are as distant from the homeless people as the businessmen in the towers of deserted downtown San Francisco. Everything is done to protect these children from the violence of the outside. But in doing so, another form of social violence is re-created. Of course, nonprofits will argue, for a good reason certainly, that they use their means and do the maximum with these financial means. But what do they use these means for? They have massively funded the development of charter schools, a tool for the privatization of school whose flagship is Aspire Public Schools – it is ironic that they’re called public schools. They fund new digital tools and devices which extend the systematic report of the student’s activity and actually increase the ‘digital divide’. They promote a vision of school as a pathway to get a job, not a place where children can blossom.
Philanthropy and nonprofits rely on extreme wealth. It is no coincidence that the Bay Area has this concentration of start-ups, companies, and this proliferation of philanthropic gifts. I am still unsure if nonprofits are wrong in themselves or if they are only the surface of a deeper ongoing trend. But I am sure that most nonprofits’ workers are good-willed. It is not the question. Rather, I think that nonprofits will not solve any fundamental problems. Because they rely on financial fortunes, they are condemned to solve other problems like, let’s say, the digital divide. Or the educational divide. These are issues, for sure. But to answer these questions, we have to dig deeper, to the root causes of inequalities: private property and the ongoing racism. These are issues that nonprofits cannot address correctly because their existence is dependent upon the appropriation of the wealth. The capitalists are not going to shoot themselves in the foot. This goes back to a simple economic relation: a philanthropic gift can only take place if an individual or a company earn more than what they need to reproduce the means of their subsistence or the means of production. This means that the gift comes from a surplus. This surplus is the profit: contrary to actual grassroots organizations, the overwhelming majority of nonprofits rely on profit-making. And from this perspective, they contribute to inequalities and homelessness.
I believe that the root causes of inequalities lie in education and in how resources are distributed from a very young age. And, in the Bay Area, the children experience, from this very young age, skyrocketing disparities. Nonprofits select a few privileged and help them race to the top. This creates an enclosed environment contrary to the ideal of an open education. And the people left behind seem not to be worth consideration. I think it is time to imagine another school, a truly public school, freed from the influence of billionaires and their innovative ideas. There is no need to innovate in education: we need a radical disruption from the entrepreneurship and all those ideas. As Linsey McGoey argues, social and racial justice cannot be optional. The good will of philanthropists will not be enough.