Neither Radical nor Revolutionary: The Preservation of Privilege in Social Justice Activism

If you’re poor, like I am, you’re probably used to losing out on opportunities to make money because of your poverty. It’s a fucked up catch-22 that I still find maddening. I’m sitting here on Facebook, looking at all the joyous posts and check-ins at the conference I was supposed to be presenting at last week at the Woodhull Sexual Freedom Summit. I was scheduled to present a workshop on the divisiveness between the anti-trafficking movement and sex workers rights. But then I lost my job as a human trafficking advocate after being publicly outed as a sex worker, lost my income and couldn’t afford the airfare from Seattle to DC- let alone the lodging and other expenses. So I lost out on that opportunity. Not because I did anything wrong, but because I’m poor. Which in this world, essentially means you’ve done everything wrong. Recently, I presented at another social justice conference related to promoting sexual freedom and because I had to spend almost one thousand dollars total just to be able to go and present at the conference- including registration fees, airfare, hotel, etc.- I wasn’t able to eat the whole three days I attended the conference. I had literally spent every last dollar just to be able to present at someone elses event (unpaid). This is indicative of a larger problem in social justice activism; the preservation of privilege.

My intent in bringing up this issue is not to cast criticism or judgement towards these nonprofit organizations or foundations who hold such conferences, but to open up a dialogue and call into question what most of us low-income activists just accept as “the way it is”- that if we want to go present our work somewhere, we wont receive any financial help to do so. If I could not attend a conference because my poverty was a barrier then these nonprofits really aren’t producing any different outcomes than, say, a corporate Microsoft or Amazon conference. In this case, it’s really just about talking the talk of guilty, over-educated, liberal white people so as to mask a more covert means of maintaining capitalistic inequity and preserving privilege. It looks different than corporate American greed on the outside and everyone pats themselves on the back for being so hip and cool and progressive, but take a closer look and it’s really just a rose by any other name.

I have worked in the fields of social services and public health for more than a decade. So no one knows better than I do that nonprofits do not have much money at their disposal. I know were I to ask these conference organizers directly why they do not offer more financial assistance to attract more low income folks to participate, they would say “we have no money.” Yes, I get that. Truthfully though, it is unacceptable for organizations to further promulgate systems of inequity simply because it’s inconvenient for them to do otherwise. If there “isn’t money” to include poor people, then maybe they should re-think the purpose of holding a social justice conference that doesn’t include poor people? There is always a way to do better, and as someone who has worked for, with and even co-founded a nonprofit organization of her own- I’m sorry, but it’s not that there’s “no money” it’s that these agencies are simply choosing not to utilize their monies thoughtfully and in the most ethical ways for the communities they claim to be serving. Frankly, this is bullshit. Social work in America is a pedagogy based around credentials and degrees as proof of one’s worthiness to participate in the process of change in marginalized communitites. Thusly, by this definition of merit, folks most on the margins are not allowed a voice in modern day activist work. Power is actively being conserved and withheld through an artificial merit based system created by white generational wealth and privilege around who deserves to be heard.

Why do folks on the margins need money and multiple college degrees in order to be taken seriously as an authority on their own lived experience within their own community? Because it makes the privileged folks who make the rules feel more comfortable with the idea of us having a voice? Probably. We’ve jumped through their hoops and they give us a treat and a pat on the head. These nonprofit organizations need to be made accountable not just for making more opportunities available to folks on the margins, but also for re-thinking how we choose to value voice and authority both on and within marginalized communities. It is the difference between talking ABOUT social justice and BEING about social justice. There needs to be effort made by these organizations to acquire more funds. Additionally, these organizations need to actually seek out hidden voices- voices who have not had the chance to be heard, let alone made popular. I know so many brilliant fellow trafficking survivors and sex workers who have immensely valuable things to say but because they are homeless, transient, destitute and barely surviving — they don’t get these opportunities. That is wrong. It is also something we can actively work to address. So as a community of social justice activists- especially those of you who have greater financial stability which allows you more of a platform — it is your responsibility to step back and advocate for making room for others on that stage. I’m not saying that no one who presents at these conferences struggles with their finances-I’m sure many, if not most do. I’m also not saying that the activists who can afford the cost of presenting are not worthy of doing so. The point is that the way the system is set up right now in social justice activism, being heard it is still a privilege not afforded everyone and money is still a huge factor determining how much someone can participate in these grander conversations around social justice. The aims of these nonprofit organizations when they’re assembling speakers for a conference needs to be towards making space for the folks most adversly effected by the policies these social justice conferences seek to address.

I am poor, I’m formerly homeless/on the verge of homelessness again, a sex worker, trafficking survivor, recovering meth addict and alcoholic, survivor of intimate partner violence, rape, incest… and what I know is that all the power to change the social structure of oppression and marginalization is WITHIN every single person living that truth every day on the margins of society. Social justice movements should be looking directly to folks like us as the real impetus for change. So stop talking about us, stop looking past us as not worthy of participating in conversations that effect us the most. Stop facilitating strandards for participation in social justice activism that favor those who are the most privileged in society. And most of all stop pretending like the responsibility to address inclusion and access are a burden.

“If it is inaccessible to the poor, it is neither radical nor revolutionary.”
- Origin unknown