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Grassroots Responses to Big Philanthropy: Grand Rapids Activism in the Shadow of Amway, ArtPrize and DeVos

November 22, 2017

Last week, I was asked to be part of a panel discussion for a conference being held in downtown Grand Rapids and organized by the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA).

The organization itself doesn’t seem to be focused on systems of oppression and collective liberation, but the panel I was asked to participate in was headed in the right direction.

The title of the panel session was, Grassroots Responses to Big Philanthropy: Grand Rapids Activism in the Shadow of Amway, ArtPrize and DeVos. The title was reflective of something that I have spent a great deal of energy on, both monitoring the DeVos family, providing analysis of their type of philanthropy and how we need to counteract the insidious nature of the millions this family distributes in order to serve their own interests.

As I write this, it is Giving Tuesday, which seems appropriate, considering the fact that so many non-profit organizations are hoping to cash in on funding from philanthropic organizations that often contribute to the harm they are responding to.

The Problem of Philanthropy for Social Movements

Based on the research of the group INCITE!, which produced the book, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, it is important to provide a framework for thinking about the nature of philanthropy and foundations.

According to INCITE, “The non-profit industrial complex is a system of relationships between:

  • the State (local and federal governments)
  • the owning classes
  • foundations
  • and non-profit/NGO social service & social justice organizations

With these kinds of relationships, it often results in the surveillance, control, derailment, and everyday management of political movements. The state uses non-profits to:

  • Monitor and control social justice movements;
  • Divert public monies into private hands through foundations;
  • Manage and control dissent in order to make the world safe for capitalism;
  • Redirect activist energies into career-based modes of organizing instead of mass-based organizing capable of actually transforming society;
  • Allow corporations to mask their exploitative and colonial work practices through “philanthropic” work;
  • Encourage social movements to model themselves after capitalist structures rather than to challenge them

Now that we have a framework around thinking about the function of philanthropy and foundations, I can talk about what was discussed on the panel. I will keep the comments and observations to what I shared, since I do not have consent from the other panelists.

There were a few questions posed to those of us on the panel. The first question was, What does activism and community organizing mean to you and your organization? While doing introductions I said that I was only representing GRIID and the Grand Rapids People’s History Project. However, I did say that I was currently involved in doing some food justice organizing, working with the GR Rapid Response to ICE project and Movimiento Cosecha GR.

My response to the first question was that it was deeply critical for us to think about the work we do in terms of building dynamic social justice movements and that our organizing needed to be strategic and reclaim radical imagination. I stated that these movements must be led by those most impacted – communities of color, immigrants, queer communities, those with disabilities, etc. I also stated that those of us in these movements, who bring a great deal of privilege, need to make sure that our involvement needs to make sure that the voices of those most marginalized need to be elevated and that whatever actions we take should center around the voices/input of those most impacted from systems of oppression.

I also said that we need to create, when possible, independent, autonomous groups that seeks to get to the root of whatever issue(s) we are organizing around, through the use of Direct Action and horizontal organizing models.

The second question posed to those of us on the panel was, From your perspective, how does activism and community organizing function within Grand Rapids?

My response began with a comment from a friend of mine who in not originally from West Michigan. She stated that “Grand Rapids does charity real well, but it doesn’t do justice for shit.” I followed up that comment by saying that this fits into what people often called West Michigan nice. West Michigan nice is in many ways a dominate ethos in this community, which essentially means don’t rock the boat, don’t challenge structural injustice and don’t bite the hand that feeds the non-profit industrial complex.

An example I gave had to do with the issue of hunger in this community. Two of the largest organizations responding to hunger are Feeding American West Michigan and Kids Food Basket. In both cases, these organizations do a great job of providing food charity, but they are in no way interested in doing food justice. All one has to do is look at their funding sources and who sits on their boards. I interviewed the director of Feeding America a few years ago and he bragged about the fact that they were increasing the amount of food that their organization was distributing on a yearly basis. When I said that this just means that more people are food insecure and that the goal should ultimately be to end hunger, this non-profit director said that this was not the focus of their organization.

The third question deal more directly with the function of systems of power. The question was, How do you and/or your organization navigate government power structures and big philanthropy?

This question got to the heart of the title of the panel as it was presented to those attending the conference. Using the DeVos Family as the lens at which to respond to this question, I began by saying that I think it is important to recognize that the DeVos Family not only is the most powerful family in West Michigan, but that their religious values and ideological framework is what informs and determines their wealth and power.

I then stated that the DeVos Family contributes more to influence government policy in Michigan more than any other family in the state, based on documentation from the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. The kinds of policies they have been promoting, both through their family campaign finances and groups like the West Michigan Policy Forum have resulted in making Michigan a Right to Work state, attacking teacher and other public sector pensions, denying same sex parents from adopting from the largest adoption agencies in the state, changing the tax system to benefit the wealthiest and changing state law to allow larger campaign contributions. 

All of these policies have caused a tremendous amount of harm and negatively impacts the most marginalized communities in the area. The DeVos Family then provides substantial grant funding through their numerous family foundations, funding that is often used by non-profits to respond to the harm the DeVos Family has caused. The difference is that the funds used within the non-profit sector are based on conditions, which allows the DeVos Family to engage in a form of social engineering and population management.

In addition, the non-profits that are receiving funds from the DeVos Family Foundations are then put in a position so as to never criticize the family’s political funding. This means that in addition to engaging in population management, non-profit/social service organizations are also managed for fear of losing their funding. Therefore, the DeVos Family philanthropy plays a significant role in the two pronged strategy of ideological warfare they engage in through their wealth. (See Part I and Part II of an article that further explores this dynamic.)

One recent example is the DeVos creation of the group AmplifyGR. In this case, through their partnership with Rockford Construction, they have purchased a great deal of land in the Boston Square and Cottage Grove areas in southeast Grand Rapids. The DeVos Family then created their own non-profit, AmplifyGR, which then seeks to impose a development/gentrification plan on these neighborhoods. The DeVos Family makes it more probable that they will be able to achieve their goals, since there are many non-profits in the target area that have been major recipients of DeVos foundation money.

What the DeVos Family did not expect is for the community to push back against their plans to re-develop the area. AmplifyGR has recently canceled the previously schedule “community engagement” meetings to re-assess their plans. However, the public should not take this as a victory, but rather a temporary setback. No doubt the family will use its vast influence and resources to rethink how best to achieve their goals. One thing is clear though, the resistance to AmplifyGR’s plans has come because of grassroots and autonomous organizing outside of the shadow of big philanthropy.


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