Issue 13.2 | Spring 2016 / Guest edited by Soniya Munshi and Craig Willse

Pursuing a Radical Anti-Violence Agenda Inside/Outside a Non-Profit Structure

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Tactics for Survival: Solidarities and Disguised Identities

Though we were funded in 2000 by the City of Seattle, each new year saw the executive directors of the other mainstream anti-rape organizations appeal to conservative city council members to revoke CARA’s funding. This process continued over the course of three years—every year, CARA applied for funding, and every year, the organization had to answer to the city council for some political action or stance it had taken. Mainstream, white-led anti-violence organizations questioned whether it was appropriate for CARA to receive public funding because of our analysis of rape as a political problem. One city council member, Richard Conlin, wanted to reduce CARA’s funding by 75 percent because he didn’t like that we used the term “rape culture” in our materials. In his words, “This is a culture that has had the courage to confront these problems directly, unlike many other cultures.”[6] (A post-9/11 world in which liberals support wars in Afghanistan and Iraq because of racist assessments of the “backwardness” of Arab cultures contributes to this kind of thinking. Conlin, generally a liberal member on the city council, was not unique in his knee-jerk defense of US culture, a culture in which a third of its women experience physical and sexual abuse from a husband or boyfriend at some point in their lives.)[7]

In 2002, faced with a shrinking revenue base, Seattle’s new mayor, Greg Nickels, decided to reduce funding for many anti-violence programs, particularly those that emphasized community organizing. He justified the funding cuts by asserting that he wanted to prioritize “core” or “vital” human services. Although Mayor Nickels never clearly defined which services he identified as core or vital, his 2002 budget significantly cut anti-violence programs that were using community organizing as a strategy and that were working with marginalized populations. Apparently, according to the Nickels administration, shelters and crisis lines were vital anti-violence services, but community organizing in communities of color and queer communities was not.

Mayor Nickels’s proposal included a significant 25 percent reduction for CARA’s funding, which, by this time, had already been reduced to $200,000. When the mayor’s proposal went to the city council, Councilmember Conlin suggested that the city actually reduce CARA’s funding by 75 percent and re-allocate this funding to restore the cuts the mayor had made to the other smaller anti-violence programs. Because CARA had not significantly diversified our revenue, this dramatic funding reduction could have shut down all our programs. Most likely Conlin anticipated that the other programs would support this proposal because they presumably only cared about their own program’s financial resources and not about the survival of CARA. We call this tactic “divide and conquer.”

However, most of the other organizations that would have benefited from this fiscal decision were long-time advocates of CARA. Like CARA, they were small and scrappy, worked with communities that are marginalized from mainstream approaches to domestic and sexual violence, were politicized to various degrees, and identified community organizing as a primary tool to address sexual and domestic violence. They recognized that CARA was like a canary in the mine—because we were the most explicit about our politics and the need for community organizing, we would be targeted first as a result of any hostile policies. CARA promptly contacted the other anti-violence programs that would have “profited” from this proposal to explain Conlin’s strategy to them. Though some of these organizations chose to not express concern about Conlin’s tactics because of worries about their own funding problems, most of the programs were upset about the divide and conquer approach and wrote letters expressing their solidarity with CARA. They refused to allow their programs to be pawns in a political struggle that would have resulted in the closure of an organization that had quickly come to be a crucial resource in the community. This organizational solidarity was key in demonstrating to council members that this kind of manipulative funding shift would actually win them more enemies than friends. Further, because CARA was a community organizing program, we had, by this time, successfully built a significant base of supporters who deluged the mayor and city council with hundreds of letters, phone calls, and e-mails, pressuring the council members to come up with a different plan that did not include reducing our funding so drastically. Ultimately, CARA was saved. We call this tactic “having each others’ backs.”

After this experience, CARA tried to avoid being targeted by learning to negotiate the process of lobbying with local government, and subverted its language to fit a program that was more palatable to local politicians. We created a kind of dual identity—a disguised one for the city funders, and an authentic one for our constituents. For example, in all materials designed for city officials, we replaced the phrase “community organizing,” which seemed overtly political, with the phrase “community engagement.” Though politically and throughout our organizational culture, we shifted from a “multicultural inclusion” approach to a more radical “re-centering” approach, we used the former framework with the city to describe what we were doing. When we organized people with disabilities to mobilize against disability institutions or sponsored a teach-in for people of color on slave rebellions, we represented these activities to the city as working with “underserved communities” to engage in “community building” and “community conversations” about sexual violence. This description was not untrue. Though CARA is a multi-movement organization, we center anti-rape work and thinking in all that we do. But the fact that another purpose of these activities was to undermine institutional oppressions that directly contribute to sexual violence was simply not included in our city report. In short, we developed ways to frame our work that seemed “reasonable” enough for the local government to support.

While the city attempted to control and direct our work, CARA continued to create ways to use city resources to do the work that our constituents led us to do. As CARA organizer, Theryn Kigvamasud’Vashti puts it, “We realized that, even though this is where we are right now, being stuck in a non-profit structure does not necessarily dictate who we are going to collaborate with in order to fully support those communities that we identify or who have identified us as resources to build community safety and support.”[8] We also began to fund our explicitly political work with resources we received from progressive foundations and grassroots support. Through trial and error, we figured out a strategy to maintain our public funding and continue to maintain our identity as a radical feminist organization.

While we remained consistent in our political work and ideas and our final accountability to our constituents, creating and maintaining a dual identity comes at a cost. This kind of “double-speak” and “dual identity” is a common practice among people of color and poor people who spend time in spaces dominated by white people and middle-class and wealthy people. We do not necessarily endorse this method as a sustainable practice, but we recognize that oppressed people develop creative strategies for survival as we move across the boundaries of our own communities and communities we do not identify as ours. The goal is not about ensuring that our presentation to the city and to our constituents is the same, but to ensure that this process of strategic disguise does not undermine our actual projects and our accountability to the survivors and communities with whom we work. It isn’t easy and we’re not sure it’s worth it. The dissonance of maintaining a real identity and a disguised one creates significant amounts of stress and consumes considerable amounts of precious time and resources that should be spent organizing.

By 2004, the City of Seattle’s Human Services Department (HSD) experienced a transition in staff. The women in HSD who initially supported CARA left their jobs in local government in part because of the increasingly corporate style the Nickels administration sought to distribute funding to non-profits. The new HSD staff issued requests for funding to anti-rape organizations which included rhetoric defining the relation between organizational staff and survivors as one that is fundamentally capitalist and demanded practices that deeply objectified survivors of sexual violence. For example, the request for proposals (RFP) referred to survivors as “customers” and providers as offering “products” rather than services.[9] City officials wanted CARA to promise absurd things in its contract, such as ensuring that survivors would not experience another sexual assault after working with CARA staff. CARA’s strategy of maintaining a dual identity became increasingly more untenable. As of this writing, CARA members anticipate that they will not pursue another RFP from the City of Seattle, effectively eliminating city funding altogether. Again, we do not choose to do so as a way of maintaining a “purely” consistent organizational identity, but because we have come to recognize that we can no longer bend to the degree that the local government demands us to without our work and our values becoming compromised to such an extent that we lose focus on our bottom line accountability to our constituents.

Rethinking “Communities”

I spent a lot of time in the battered women’s movement from 1976 onward. … In the beginnings of that movement, there was so much community-based work. All of us thinking about our constituency being battered women, that we are battered women, battered women are us… .[10]

Early in the anti-violence movement, women made intimate connections between their own experience of violence and violence that survivors who sought support in their organizations and groups experienced. Organizers often understood themselves as belonging to a mutual community of women who had suffered from patriarchal violence. Seattle Rape Relief, for example, began from a speak-out, a mutual sharing of stories about the experience of abuse. As the movement developed and became increasingly professionalized, workers were expected to be not “battered women” but experts with a master’s degree in social work. Andrea Smith explains:

[A]s the anti-violence movement has gained greater public prominence, domestic violence and rape crisis centers have become increasingly professionalized to receive accreditation and funding from state and federal agencies. Rather than develop peer-based services in which large groups of women can participate, they employ individuals with the proper academic degrees or credentials. This practice excludes most women from full participation, particularly women of color and poor women.[11]

Additionally, professionalization of anti-violence work encouraged a climate in which survivors became increasingly objectified (as clients or as customers) and pathologized. A distance between advocates and survivors was enforced throughout most organizations and considered much more professional and healthy. In fact, whereas in the beginning of the anti-violence movement, survivors were prioritized as workers in organizations, it is currently the case that if an advocate identifies herself as a survivor of rape and abuse, she could provoke a warning flag for employers, for if she was one of them—the damaged ones—how could she possibly effectively advocate on their behalf?

Ultimately, this attitude rooted in professionalization, oppression, and internalized oppression undermined opportunities for rich community building in the antiviolence movement. By the 1990s, Seattle Rape Relief volunteers, most of whom fielded calls on the crisis line, barely knew each other, meeting only at a mandatory monthly training. Though most volunteers were survivors of sexual violence, we were trained to protect ourselves from callers on the crisis line. “Don’t get too involved,” we were told, “Don’t be afraid to end the call.” CARA member, Xandra Ibarra, says that in a different antirape organization she worked at before coming to CARA, she was “pathologized as having secondary trauma” because she was “investing too much time in trying to organize communities or help them organize themselves.”[12]

CARA intentionally rejected the idea that there is a fundamental difference between ourselves and the survivors we work with.[13] We understand ourselves as community members, many of whom are survivors of sexual and domestic violence and whose experiences as survivors helps to inform our work and accountability to our constituents. Staff/community boundaries are disrupted in a number of ways. We prioritize leadership development among the people we organized, which resulted in many of those individuals eventually being hired as interns or staff, or becoming board members. We organize regular community gatherings, parties, and meals to facilitate community building among CARA workers, our families, our constituents, and even the people who live in the neighborhood where our office is located. CARA’s office location is not confidential and is instead open to organizational members; they can come in, use computers and other resources, or hang out in the meeting space to work on projects, peruse our library, watch videos, have conversations and debates, or just take a nap. We attend weddings, funerals, baby showers, and graduations of our members. We have arguments and conflicts among staff, among members, and between staff and members, and we figure out ways to move through it. To illustrate, Kigvamasud’Vashti discusses how and why her own family is integrated in the CARA space,

Our own families are what we’re talking about when we’re organizing these communities and if I was working for a non-profit that was really following those kinds of corporate non-profit policies and structures, I would not actually be able to have my son at work with me. I would have to figure out a way to spend more money on daycare and things like that. This way, I get to actually access the community of women that are already doing organizing within CARA because everybody takes care of this little guy right here.[14]

We wouldn’t say that there should be no boundaries between staff and our constituents or that paid staff and CARA members have equal access to institutional power within the organization.[15] We believe in a balance in power and responsibility—people with certain organizational responsibilities need the institutional power to attend to those responsibilities effectively. However, we’ve developed a structure in which CARA members also individually have institutional influence and collectively have institutional power such that the decisions of CARA’s staff and board remain accountable to our constituents.

While some boundaries are healthy, the particular kind of distancing so prevalent within antiviolence organizations is counterproductive to any goal of creating connection and communities of struggle. Eliminating this difference increases the potential for mass movement building because the approach becomes flexible enough to allow survivors to create the kind of relationship they want between themselves and the organization, including political work or healing work that they want to pursue. CARA’s practice of community building is deeply connected to our political goals. At INCITE!’s second Color of Violence conference in 2002, Angela Davis captures how we understand the concept of “community” when she asserts,

I do think it is extremely important not to assume that there are “communities of color” out there fully formed, conscious of themselves, just waiting for vanguard organizers to mobilize them into action. You know some people might say that there are communities in themselves waiting for someone to transform them into communities for themselves, but I think that’s a mistake. I think it’s a mistake because we have to think about organizing as producing the communities, as generating community, as building communities of struggle.[16]

We do not believe that there are “healed” survivors that are allowed to work in antiviolence organizations and “unhealed” survivors that must be clients within those organizations. We understand the process of surviving as just that—a process. Therefore, we understand ourselves as building communities of struggle with survivors that connect with CARA through our programs, events, and campaigns. When survivors access CARA for support, we see them less as clients and more as potential comrades in a struggle for social justice. CARA works to actualize a vision where we understand ourselves as equally vulnerable to being abused, as equally valuable to the survivors we work with, and, potentially, as equal participants in a movement for justice and a world free from violence and oppression.

Finally, as Kigvamasud’Vashti experience illustrates, CARA’s integrated conception of community necessarily prioritizes strategies for accessibility to include as many people with as many different circumstances as possible. Engaging a radical disability politic has taught us to put accessibility in the front of what it means to build communities of struggle, and think critically about who finds this process inviting and who doesn’t. Ensuring that we have ASL interpretation, wheelchair accessible office spaces and event venues, accessible transportation options for participants and staff members, and so on, is critical–and sometimes expensive. We’ve found that, when organizations both inside and outside the non-profit structure have fewer financial resources, what gets cut first is resources for accessibility–for people with disabilities, for children, for parents, for people whose first language is not English, for poor people, and for all of us who need support to participate in movement building. Though CARA’s funding from the city sometimes undermines our community-building work, divesting from these funds would undermine accessibility, which also threatens our community building work. We do not argue that it is necessary to receive funds from the state or to be a non-profit to ensure accessibility (of course, other non-profit organizations that receive government funding sometimes fail to prioritize accessibility–an ethical and political commitment is needed as well). However, we do assert that, as we work ourselves out of the non-profit system to fully realize our revolutionary potential, we must create alternatives to sustain the rich standard of accessibility that these resources have sometimes allowed us to achieve.


CARA’s story and strategies are not offered here as a model for how radical antiviolence organizations can survive within a non-profit structure, but more as an illustration of how, although the non-profit structure specifically works to undermine and threaten our organizations, we can work to practice an ethic of resistance and creativity nevertheless. This practice is not clean or simple and there are some difficult contradictions. However, because we are discussing a practice instead of a “model,” we offer our story in a context of ongoing discourse, learning, discoveries, and transformations. Creating a movement outside and inside the boundaries of the non-profit structure (as well as somewhere in between) is a dynamic exercise, one that we expect will be refined and improved as the work continues.


The ideas in this paper were developed in critical dialogue with the following CARA members: Joelle Brouner, Onion Carrillo, Eboni Colbert, Xandra Ibarra, Theryn Kigvamasud’Vashti, and Emily Thuma.

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  1. Erica C. Barnett, “Buzz: City Hall,” Seattle Weekly, November 20, 2002. [Return to text]
  2. Commonwealth Fund, “Health Concerns Across a Woman’s Lifespan: 1998 Survey of Women’s Health,” (May 1999). [Return to text]
  3. Theryn Kigvamasud’Vashti, “Panel Discussion” (lecture, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence conference, Santa Barbara, spring 2004). [Return to text]
  4. City of Seattle Human Services Department, “Request for Proposals” (2004). [Return to text]
  5. Suzanne Pharr, “History of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex” (see note 8). [Return to text]
  6. Andrea Smith, “The Colors of Violence,” ColorLines 3, no. 4 (Winter 2000–2001). [Return to text]
  7. Xandra Ibarra, “Panel Discussion” (see note 8). [Return to text]
  8. Researcher and former CARA member, Emily Thuma, has helped CARA re-think and articulate our analysis of the concept of “communities.” [Return to text]
  9. Kigvamasud’Vashti, “Panel Discussion” (see note 8). [Return to text]
  10. For example, CARA has a policy that prohibits romantic relationships between staff and survivors coming for specific kinds of support (direct service advocacy or support group). [Return to text]
  11. Angela Y. Davis (keynote speech, Color of Violence II conference, Chicago, IL, March 2002). [Return to text]