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All I got for Christmas from my employer was a card that said bless you: West Michigan Nice and the Non-Profit Industrial Complex

December 21, 2018

West Michigan Nice is a phrase that people use all the time to refer to the way in which religion, white supremacy and politics functions in this community.

People say it all the time when they experience some oppressive shit, especially when it comes from white, religious people who think they are morally superior. We really need to develop a more robust definition of West Michigan Nice, especially since it is practiced by virtually every institution in the area and permeates the dominant culture.

In West Michigan, we are conditioned to be grateful for all the “good” that families like DeVos and Meijer do for this community. We are conditioned to accept the notion that Grand Rapids just doesn’t do it that way, which essentially means that if you want to change things you need to move slow, be polite and always work within the system, the very same system that benefits those in power. Here you are told to cooperate with the cops, to collaborate with developers, to not agitate, to be patient and to always ask permission. Well, for a growing number of people, this is not only unacceptable, it is simply bullshit.

Last Friday, when I went to get my mail, I found a Christmas card from the CEO of Hope Network. Since 2014, I have worked at Hope Network as a Direct Care Associate, which means I provide care to people with disabilities.

The Christmas card was signed by the CEO of Hope Network, Phil Weaver, who wrote, “Bless you.” Really. You pay me poverty level wages and all you can say to me is, “Bless You.” 

Then on Sunday, I got to work and saw that all the employees had an e-mail message from the CEO. This message was longer than the brief comment on the card. The letter was 3 pages long and had lots of holiday messaging, plus lots of religious lingo, since Hope Network identifies itself as a Christian organization. There was one sentence in particular that stood out to me:

Hope Network is blessed by each of you who everyday serve as Jesus served all of us.  You make sure that others have the opportunity to live their dreams and meet their potential.

There are no doubt many that will say this is a very nice sentiment in this statement, but it isn’t genuine. The reason I say that it isn’t genuine is because when you pay people poverty level wages, their “service” is essentially a form of exploitation.

According to GuideStar (2016 documents), the CEO of Hope Network, Phil Weaver, made $436,000 in total compensation. This amount is in sharp contrast to people, like me, a Direct Care worker, who makes $11 to $12 an hour working with and caring for people with serious physical injuries. My job, in many ways, is to provide direct care to people who need assistance with bathing, dressing, using the bathroom and sometimes those who need assistance with eating. Most take medication for a variety of reasons and they are also dealing with the long term effects of serious injury. It is not easy work, it can be physically demanding at times, often thankless work and work that requires one to have sharp empathy skills.

So, no, I don’t feel blessed, not with the wage I make. According to the most recent data from the Economic Policy Institute, the CEOs in the US make 312 times more than the average worker. The gap between CEO and direct care staff at Hope Network isn’t that high, but it is unjust.

I know literally hundreds of people in this community who work for non-profits, who can totally relate to the low wage dynamic and the glaring discrepancy between what Executive Directors make and what those who do the work make. The unjust nature of wages within non-profits is just part of what we call the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, but it is also part of West Michigan Nice.

I share this bit about my own work experience, not to draw attention to myself, but to a systemic problem that exits in this community. I also don’t want to fixate on wages, since there is so much more that is structurally wrong about non-profits operating within the West Michigan Nice framework. I only use my own experience to get more of us to think about how we work collectively to challenge and change these dynamics.

None of us are going to feel blessed or valued until we are compensating fairly. None of us are going to feel included until we are given agency to have a say in how things function. Of course, if we want to change this, it comes down to organizing, action and taking risks. If we want to end West Michigan Nice, then we need a movement for collective liberation. Who is with me?


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