Some givers make other givers invisible

[Editor’s note: This is the second of two columns.]

By Craig White

Philanthropy was a big part of my life, growing up. Not that we ever called it that. It was just the way things were between the families that lived on our dirt road.

We got eggs from Geneva, an elderly woman who lived alone with her chickens. When the car wouldn’t start, we called Old Man Wentzell. My brother and sister and I wore hand-me-down clothes from families with older kids.

In return, the neighbors enjoyed corn and beans and raspberries from our garden. When our car finally died, we gave it to the Wentzells for spare parts. My mom looked after other families’ children. And she would make custard to give to Geneva on the way home from church, staying to chat while we kids chased the chickens.

It wasn’t a straightforward economic exchange, but reciprocity was still the underlying principle: We helped out others when we could, knowing they’d help us out when they could.

Not that we were living in some dirt road utopia. In fact, a lot of families didn’t even like each other. But for people without much money, this system of giving and giving back was essential in getting ahead, and sometimes just in getting by.

I recently attended a foundation luncheon where the speakers talked about helping the “less fortunate.”

Besides being annoyed at the implication that wealth and poverty are simply a matter of good or bad luck — with no recognition of the systems of privilege and oppression that have shaped our history – I realized that euphemism also obscures the kind of reciprocal giving I grew up with.

That kind of charity requires a belief that the recipient is “less fortunate” than the giver.

And to maintain that belief, the giver must make invisible the creativity, generosity and resourcefulness of the people they intend to “help.”

I fear that perhaps our foundation and nonprofit sectors, which were founded more on charity than reciprocity, are making invisible an entire system of poor people’s philanthropy.

This troubles me, since for my family, that reciprocal giving had far more impact on alleviating the conditions of poverty than any foundation or nonprofit.

So here’s my invitation, to those of you who were not fortunate enough to grow up on a long dusty road: The next time you meet some poor folks, don’t help them, just talk to them. They might be the greatest philanthropists you ever met.

Craig White works as a staff member for the Center for Participatory Change in Asheville, NC, and is a 2006-08 William C. Friday Fellow of the Wildacres Leadership Initiative in Durham, N.C.

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