4 Organizations That Screw the People They Claim to Help
I worked in what I guess is called the "social work" industry for about three years after college, and during that time I met a whole shitload of kind, smart, hard-working people who had dedicated their lives to making the world an objectively better place in exchange for virtually no money or recognition -- people like teachers, counselors for the homeless, and ... whatever you call a person who teaches 16-year-old-kids coming out of prison how to write a resume.
But I left, and once I did I realized that a lot of the kinds of social justice-y activism that we see and hear about in our day-to-day lives and on the Internet are really different from the actual work that gets done. And while I don't pretend to know how to solve the world's problems, I have a pretty good idea of what won't do that. For example, I'm pretty sure you're not going to get very far ...
Being Exploited by Evil
Have you ever seen people on the street with clipboards asking for money for an organization you've never heard of? Did you briefly wonder if you were being scammed? Well, I'm here to lay your worries to rest: If you were the victim of a scam, so were the kids asking for your money. Also, the organization they thought they were working for. So you were all getting fucked! Hooray!
See, idealistic, activist-y young folk are probably the most likely people to get scammed, because the one constant in this world is that any opportunity to make money will immediately be swarmed by a marauding band of vampiric squid-demons. One of the worst of these hellish cephalopods is Grassroots Campaigns Inc., a company that's found a niche as the middleman between nonprofits and idealistic college kids. And once it settled into that niche, it did what squids always do: stole everyone's money.
GCI doesn't actually pay either group. They pay the kids they hire minimum wage (or sometimes less, allegedly) while expecting them to work criminal fucking hours collecting donations. And then, once those donations are amassed, they rarely manage to find their way to the nonprofit they were collected for because, as a for-profit business, GCI is just better at screwing people over than a nonprofit ever will be.
How do they get away with it? Because it's all done in the name of activism. They know they can make people work long hours ("Saving the world is hard work. Aren't you tough enough? Aren't you devoted enough?") and they know they don't technically have to pay their new employees a living wage ("You didn't get into this business for the money, did you? Don't you know that money corrupts everything it touches?"). Most of their employees are working off the vague, directionless guilt that comes with getting a liberal arts degree, so they're pretty much begging to be roped in and abused for what they were told was a good cause -- basically, they want to be the submissive in a BDSM relationship of finance.
The satisfied look of a woman who can't even make the minimum payments on her student loans.
These guys offered me a job at one point, and through a weird combination of luck and cowardice, I just barely managed to escape their seductive snares. Also, I googled their name, and at the time it auto-completed to "scam." That sorta tipped me off.
Feeling Like You've Accomplished Something (When You Haven't)
We've mentioned before how slacktivism -- clicking "Like" on a picture of sick kid on Facebook and then going to bed feeling like you've accomplished something great -- sucks energy away from honest-to-god real-life attempts to change the world, because those people who believe that actually makes a difference will dislocate their shoulder patting themselves on the back and thus be too incapacitated to donate to an actual, real-life, meaningful cause. And we've talked about how Upworthy makes the Internet a worse place by taking click-bait to a nuclear extreme. But Upworthy isn't just annoying and exploitative -- it's actually full-on, Lex Luthor style evil.
This kind of evil.
Why? Because Upworthy isn't just exploiting these weird quirks in human behavior that keep us from being productive, they're perpetuating them: Their tagline is "Things that matter. Pass 'em on." I spent two hours on their website and rarely did I find anything meaningful -- for the most part it was all videos of high school kids reading poetry, or kids saying cute things, or utterly meaningless maxims. The dyslexically titled How You Can Debunk the Enablers of Assault With a 3-Word Sentence That Only Has 2 Words is just an opening paragraph, a couple pictures, and then the sentence "Rape is rape."
Kind of an awkward time for you to mention that, Upworthy.
I gotta ask -- how the fuck do I use that to "debunk assault enablers"? If these people are actually assaulting people, shouldn't I straight up taze them? And if they're doing the more subdued-but-also-insidious thing where they just try to split hairs on what rape actually is ... well, in what context will the phrase "rape is rape" change their mind? Or even contribute to the discussion in any way? For comparison, a meaningful infographic on that topic looks more like this. It makes you feel uncomfortable, asks tough questions, and challenges you. You might see the world differently after you read it. Which is why you'll never see anything like it on Upworthy.
Secretly, Upworthy isn't out to change minds or advance a conversation or "matter" at all; it's just meant to make you feel enlightened and superior for already being right. Their whole shtick is aping things that matter in order to get eyes on things that don't. And this is a lethally intoxicating combination: They're wrapping narcissism (which feels, like, so great, you guys) in a candy-coating of self-righteousness (I get a head rush just writing the words). That's the kind of pill you could pop all day without ever feeling the need to get out of bed or put on your pants or shower ... aaaaaand I should stop this train of thought before anyone realizes that I basically just described my own weekend in literal terms.
Besides, there's something else that's happening on a far bigger scale ...
Putting "Coolness" Ahead of Reality
I think one of the most frustrating organizations in the world is Teach for America. When described, it sounds like a great idea: Take a bunch of energetic, idealistic college kids and throw them into America's most fucked-up schools, replacing those shitty old curmudgeon teachers with new blood, jump-starting their careers as tomorrow's hardcore super-educators.
Like this, except with a cape.
The problem is that, by any sane metric, it's not working. The TFA volunteers get next to no training, and since teaching is, like, super fucking hard, they also don't get great results: Four out of five Teach for America volunteers quit the industry in the first three years, and the ones that remain don't end up any better than teachers who were taught to be educators the old-fashioned way (TFA claims better statistics on their website and in promotional materials, but they've also admitted that those statistics are based on the volunteers' self-assessment, and TFA's former research director went as far as saying that those numbers wouldn't hold up to rigorous scrutiny). The only difference is that they learned how to be teachers by fucking up in actual, real-life classrooms with no real teachers there to make up the difference. Basically, Teach for America is forcing low-income kids in struggling school districts to subsidize the American Education system by sacrificing their own education. That's like cleaning your car by pouring sugar in the gas tank and driving it off a cliff while blasting Limp Bizkit.
But you don't have to take my word for it: I put on my journalism hat (it also has a beer dispenser in it) and talked to an actual teacher, and she explained how, in many cases, TFA volunteers take jobs from more qualified teachers so the district can save money: TFA joined her district "in a year when we lost a lot of teachers. Good teachers ... it's not like there were teaching positions that desperately needed filling. We had good teachers who wanted to stay." She ended getting inundated with emails from a TFA volunteer desperate for guidance. "He was a good person," she said, "but a desperate and untrained teacher in charge of educational lives. I felt like my emails were aiding and abetting a crime."
Despite all that, TFA will be around for a long time, because it sounds good. It promises the kind of life-changing, resume-padding adventure that we make movies about -- an opportunity to write some rad Facebook statuses, nab some sweet photos, and condescendingly drop "I learned as much from them as they learned from me" at parties for the rest of your life. Basically, TFA volunteers get "hip, young activist" cred while people who actually go to graduate school to become actual teachers who actually know what they're doing ... don't.
"Bro, do you even have a cape?"
I want to be clear that all the TFA volunteers I've ever met are driven, smart, good-hearted people -- but they're also TFA volunteers who went on to become real teachers, and I guarantee that they were total badasses before they did their two years. If I were to speculate, I'd say the people who run TFA have lost sight of their goals in their attempt to navigate the bureaucratic waters that come with running a multimillion-dollar organization. At the end of the day, the fact that TFA is very cool doesn't change the fact that it's not working.
Trying to Outdo Each Other
If you go find an article about any kind of topic deemed "Social Justice-y," like racism, gender issues, poverty, bullying, and, for some reason, bronies, you're pretty much guaranteed to find commenters accusing the writer of being an "SJW" or a "Social Justice Warrior." I generally think that kind of criticism is really fucking stupid, because people who use that term just throw it at any attempt to talk about social issues at all -- but if you go to certain parts of the Internet, you can actually see where the sentiment comes from. I'm looking at you, Tumblr.
It's like an elephant graveyard for rational arguments.
Because Internet activism -- particularly with the weird culture that seems to pervade Tumblr -- isn't about making a difference, or even raising awareness; it's just about proving how superior the writer is to his or her audience. Tumbloggers (or whatever you call them) with blogs like Shutthefuckupsexists.tumblr.com or IWillLiterallyMurderYouIfYouMakeARapeJoke.tumblr.com aren't actually trying to spread awareness or insights. They're just trying to outdo each other, to win this weird competition that has nothing to do with anything but their own egos. They all want to find the new, more nuanced, more complicated social problem ("adult privilege" refers to the injustice that teenage voices aren't valued, and "tall privilege" refers to fuck knows what) that no one else has heard of. They're treating social issues the way hipsters treat bands: using the advantage of knowledge to make it painfully, irrefutably obvious that they are better than you.
"I bet they're not even wearing capes."
Like I said, I don't have all the answers. But I know that activism isn't about showing off how great you are, and it's not about working off your guilt. In fact, it's not about you at all, and if you forget that, you're just going to alienate people. Wanting to do good, and feeling like you do good aren't enough to make you a "do-gooder" -- some good actually has to have gotten done. But once you've made that good happen, then -- and only then -- are you allowed to start being a condescending ass about it on Facebook.