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

Social Service or Social Change?

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Getting Ahead or Getting Together?

Getting ahead is the mantra of capitalism. Getting ahead is what we try to do in our lives. Getting ahead is what we urge our children to do. Getting ahead is how many of us, including activists for social change, define success. Many people in the US believe that it is the responsibility of our society not to guarantee material security for all, but merely to ensure that everyone has an “equal opportunity” to get ahead. Those who are deserving, the myth continues, will get ahead; the rest will fail because of their own laziness, ignorance, or lack of discipline. Ironically, some of the recent political struggles organized by women, queer communities, people with disabilities, people of color, and recent immigrants have become defined as struggles for equal opportunity, for everyone to be able to compete to get ahead.

But in a pyramid-shaped economic system, only a few can get ahead. Many are doomed to stay exactly where they are at the bottom of the pyramid, or even to fall behind. With so much wealth concentrated in the top of the pyramid there are not enough jobs, not enough housing, not enough health care, and not enough resources devoted to education for most people to get ahead. In this economic system, equal opportunity for some groups inevitably means more exploitation of others. If we are only fighting for equal opportunity—to eliminate discrimination and level the playing field—we will still end up with a huge concentration of wealth and power in the ruling class and not enough resources for the rest of us to meet our needs. We need to engage in battles against specific kinds of exploitation, exclusion, marginalization, discrimination, and violence while simultaneously engaging in a longer-term struggle for a redistribution of wealth and power.

How does the system change? How do people gain access to money, jobs, education, housing, and other resources? Historically, change happens when people get together. In fact, we have a long history of people getting together for social change, like the civil rights and women’s movements I mentioned earlier in the article. Each of these efforts involved people identifying common goals, figuring out how to work together and support one another, and coming up with strategies for forcing organizational and institutional change. When people get together, they build community by establishing projects, organizations, friendships, connections, coalitions, alliances, and an understanding of differences. Identifying common goals, supporting each other, working for organizational and institutional change, building community—these are the elements of creating a better world and fighting against the agenda of the ruling class. These activities put us into a contentious relationship to ruling class power.[10]

Those of us who are working for progressive social change must do that work subversively. We must make strategic decisions about what the fundamental contradictions are in the system and how we can work together with others to expose and organize around those contradictions. We can use our resources, knowledge, and status as social service providers to educate, agitate, and to support organizing for social change. We can refuse to be used as buffer-zone agents against our communities. Instead, we can come together in unions, coalitions, organizing projects, alliances, networks, support and advocacy groups and a multitude of other forms of action against the status quo.

Many of us are doing work which is defined as providing social services. People in our communities need the services and those of us who are providers need the work. Others do non–service providing work. All of our work is situated within the economic pyramid, and in whatever part of the economy we find ourselves, we have a choice. Either we can go along with a ruling class agenda dictated through grant proposals, donors, foundations, government agencies, “best practices,” quantified evaluations, standards, and traditional policies, or we can take on the more risky work of engaging in consciousness raising, organizing, organizational and institutional critique, and mobilization for change. We are doing subversive work that is not within buffer-zone job descriptions when, although we are paid to provide social services to help people get ahead, our work supports people’s efforts to get together with others for greater collective power.

The problem is not with providing social services. Many radical groups, such as the Black Panthers and the Zapatistas, have provided social services as a tool for organizing. The problem comes when all our time and energy is diverted toward social services to the detriment of long-term social change. Clearly there is a tremendous difference between helping people get ahead individually and mobilizing buffer-zone resources to help people get together, a difference activists working within the NPIC should be mindful of in thinking about whether we are empowering people to work for social change at the same time we are providing them with social services.

Questions to Ask Yourself
Is the primary goal of the work you do to help people get ahead or to help them get together?
How do you connect people to others in their situation?
 How do you nurture and develop leadership skills in the people you serve?
How do you ensure that they represent themselves in the agency and other levels of decision making that affect their lives?
Do you provide them with information not only related to their own needs, but about how the larger social/political/economic system works to their disadvantage?
Do you create situations in which they can experience their personal power, their connection to others, and their ability to work together for change?
Do you help people understand and feel connected to the ongoing history of people’s struggles to challenge violence, exploitation, and injustice?

Domestic Violence

Let’s look at domestic violence work as an example. If we accept the dominant paradigm that frames domestic violence as an interpersonal issue and the result of a breakdown in the normative heterosexual nuclear family, and views battered women as victims, that framework will lead us to try to protect the “victims” from further violence, provide them with services, and try to help them get ahead (and, even better, eventually into a healthy heterosexual nuclear family). We will treat them individually, as clients, and hold the people (primarily men) who beat them individually accountable for their violence through stronger criminal justice sanctions and batterers’ groups. We will try to help survivors escape battering relationships and to move forward in their lives. We will be advocates for more services, better services, culturally competent services, multilingual services, and we will advocate for strong and effective sanctions against men who are batterers. We will measure our success by how many battered women we served, and our success stories will be about how individual women were able to escape the violence of abusive families and get on with their lives. Our advocacy success stories will be about how various communities of women were provided better services and how batterers were either locked-up or transformed.

Rather than accept this social service (and racist, sexist, and heterosexist) framework, however, we could understand family violence (in both heterosexual and queer families) as a direct result of economic inequality, colonization, and other forms of state violence, and patriarchal and heterosexual norms—and that, in particular, women who are battered are caught in cycles that are the result of systematic exploitation, disempowerment, and isolation. This analysis would further acknowledge the structural forces that keep women in battering relationships: community tolerance for male violence, lack of well-paying jobs, lack of decent childcare and affordable housing, and, most of all, their isolation from one another and from the information and resources they need to come together to effect change. As organizers and resource providers, we would provide organizational and structural support for battered women to organize on their own behalf. We would not be working for battered women; we would be working with them. “They” would be “us”—battered women would be in leadership in the movement to end violence against women, holding the jobs that currently many non-battered women do. We would measure success by the strength of our programs for leadership development and the community response to domestic violence. We would work for changes in the economic, educational, penal/law enforcement (including immigration law), military, and social service institutions which condone, encourage, or perpetuate violence against women and keep women trapped in abusive relationships. Our success stories would be about how battered women became leaders, educators, and organizers, and how communities of people came together to develop strategies and wield power.

Whether we are domestic violence workers or other types of workers in the non-profit industrial complex, even with the best of intentions, it is easy to be co-opted by a ruling class agenda. The buffer-zone strategy of the ruling class works very smoothly, so smoothly that many of us don’t notice that we are encouraged to feel good about helping a small number of individuals get ahead, while large numbers of people remain exploited, abused, and disenfranchised. It works so smoothly that we often don’t notice that we have shifted from helping people get together to helping ourselves and our families get ahead. Some of us have stopped imagining that we can end domestic violence and have, instead, built ourselves niches in the edifice of social services for battered women or for batterers. The only way to avoid settling into patterns that guard ruling class dominance is through accountability to grassroots community struggles led by people at the bottom of the pyramid.

Questions To Ask Yourself If You Work In A Domestic Violence Agency (If not, adapt the questions to reflect the work you do)
Can you imagine an end to domestic violence? 
What do you think it will take?
Does the work that you do contribute to ending domestic violence? How?
How are battered women seen in your agency?
Are you providing social service and/or are you working for social change?
Are you helping battered women see that they are not alone, their problems not unique, their struggles interrelated?
Are you helping them come together for increased consciousness, resource sharing, and empowerment?


Even if it is not possible to change the system from within, an individual’s actions within the system do matter. We can accept or reject, promote or hinder the state’s agenda.
—Taiaiake Alfred[11]

So the question is, how do we maintain a critical transformative edge to our politics when we are building that politics in an organizational environment that is shaped by institutions outside of our community that don’t necessarily want to see us survive on the terms that we are defining for ourselves?
—Tamara Jones[12]

As Alfred and Jones note, relationships between those working in the buffer zone and those in the community are complex and often difficult because of the ruling class’s use of the buffer zone to co-opt both social change movements and leaders drawn from those struggles. Only a “critical transformative edge” from those in the community will prevent co-optation.

How do we know if we are being co-opted into contributing to a ruling class agenda and just providing social service, or if we are truly helping people get together? We cannot know by ourselves. We cannot know just from some people telling us that we are doing a good job or even telling us that we are making a difference. We cannot know by whether we feel good about what we do. Popularity, status, good feelings, positive feedback—our institutions and communities provide these to many people engaged in immoral, unethical, dangerous, exploitative, abusive, and illegal activities.

As a member of the buffer zone, whether by job function or economic position, the key question we must confront is this: “To whom are we accountable?” Since our work occurs in an extremely stratified and unequal economic hierarchy, and in an increasingly segregated and racially polarized society, we can begin to answer this question by analyzing the effects of our work on communities at the bottom of the pyramid. Are we perpetuating inequality or promoting social justice? Are we raising awareness of the roots of our social, political, and economic problems? With whom? How many are we reaching? Are they more powerful and able to develop more creative strategies as a result? Are we providing information, resources, and skills for people to get together? Are they able to be more politically effective as a result? What impact do we see from the work we are doing? If we keep doing what we are doing what impact will there be in 5 years? 10 years? 25 years? These are some of the questions we can be asking about our work.

Wherever we are within the economic pyramid, whatever work we are doing, it is possible to work for social justice. It is possible to more effectively serve the interests of the poor and working class, people of color and women, lesbians, gay men, and bisexual people, and people with disabilities. But doing so is challenging. It is easy to forget that we are only able to work inside non-profits, schools, and other social service organizations because so many people organized from the outside as part of the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the queer liberation movement, and disability rights movement. As we become dependent on this work for our livelihood, professionalized, and caught up in the demands of doing the work, there is a strong tendency for us to become ever more disconnected from the everyday political struggles in our communities for economic, racial, and gender-based justice, for an end of various forms of violence and for collective power—those social justice issues which our work originally grew out of.

None of us can stay connected to social justice organizing and true to social justice values while working in isolation, inside of a non-profit organization. Our work is part of a much wider network of individuals and organizations working for justice from outside of the non-profit industrial complex. To make effective decisions about our own work we need to be accountable to those groups and take direction from their actions and issues. This accountability then becomes a source of connection that breaks down isolation and increases our effectiveness as social justice activists.

In closing, here are several suggestions for thinking about accountability to grassroots communities and struggles for social justice. I offer six questions we should ask ourselves in the current political context.

Who supervises your work? I don’t mean who employs you or hires or funds you, although these are important considerations in a conservative political climate when jobs are scarce. Who are the grassroots activists who advise you and review your work? If you are a male anti-violence activist, it is particularly important that you be accountable to women who are doing different kinds of anti-sexist organizing. If you are white, it is critical for you to be accountable to people of color with a progressive anti-racist agenda so that your work doesn’t inadvertently fuel the backlash to the gains of the civil rights movement or otherwise collude with attacks on people of color. If you are a person with economic privilege, you need to be listening to the voices of poor and working-class people struggling for economic justice. Of course, these are not isolated identities. We can and should be accountable to groups and organizations which have a multi-issue social justice perspective.

Regardless of your ethnicity, race, gender, or economic position, as an activist (particularly one who has gained access to the buffer zone) you need to be accountable to people who are on the front lines of movements for social justice. You have to be engaged in a critical dialogue, while recognizing that because of your race, gender, class, sexual orientation, educational level, or other form of privilege you most likely have been socialized by our culture to expect to have all the answers and not to listen to those who have less social and political power than you do (that is, internalized supremacy). Therefore, I think it is important that privileged activists participate directly in some form of grassroots struggle, making sure to consult thoroughly and extensively with other activists similarly engaged.

Are you involved in community-based social justice struggles? If you are not actively involved in a specific movement—be it the struggle for the redistribution of wealth, for immigrant rights, against environmental dumping, against police brutality, for access to health care, against male violence, or for peace—how are you learning? What are you modeling? What practice informs your work? For example, can you be accountable to communities struggling to end male violence if you are not politically involved yourself in some aspect of that struggle? Can you be an effective anti-racism trainer if you are not involved in anti-racism action?

Is political struggle part of the work you do? Do you connect the participants in your programs/services/trainings to opportunities for ongoing political involvement? Do you work with participants on issues they define or on issues you or funders or others located in arenas of greater access and power define? Do you give participants tools and resources for getting involved in the issues they identify as most immediate for them, whether those are public policy issues such as immigration, affirmative action, welfare, or health care, or workplace, neighborhood, and community issues such as jobs, education, violence, and toxic waste? After experiencing contact with you, can they connect what they have just learned to the violence they experience in their lives? Are you responsive to their needs for survival, safety, economic well-being, and political action?

Are you in a contentious relationship to those in power? The ruling class—those at the top of the pyramid—have an aggressive and persistent agenda to disempower and exploit those at the bottom. If you are accountable to those at the bottom of the pyramid, you will necessarily be challenging that agenda. Are you willing to speak truth to power, even at the risk of your current job or denial of future employment by certain agencies? Or do you hold back your real opinion so as not to make waves when you are at the “power-sharing” table? How have you come to justify your reluctance to challenge power?

Are you sharing access to power and resources with those on the frontlines of the struggle? Do you systematically connect people in grassroots efforts to information, resources, supplies, money, research, and to each other?

Do you help people come together? It would be simple and ideal if there were a cohesive or coherent community to be accountable to. Few such communities exist in our society and even fewer of us are connected to them. I believe that being accountable means supporting the growth and stability of cohesive communities. For example, do the battered women who leave your program understand themselves in connection to other battered women and their allies? Do the students in your classroom see themselves as part of a community of learners, activists, and change agents? Social change grows out of people understanding themselves to be interdependent, sharing common needs, goals, and interests. Are you helping people see that they are not alone, that their problems are not unique, and that their struggles are interrelated? Are you helping them come together for increased consciousness, resource sharing, and mobilization?

In the non-profit industrial complex, accountability is directed toward the ruling class and its managers—towards foundations, donors, government officials, larger non-profits, research institutes, universities, and the media. These are all forms of top-down accountability. I am suggesting a bottom-up accountability guided by those on the frontlines of grassroots struggles for justice. In which direction does your accountability lie?

We live in conservative political times and in a contracting economy in which racial, gender-based, religious, and homophobic violence is widespread and accepted. You may be discouraged about the possibility of doing effective political work in this context. You may be fearful of losing your job and livelihood or lowering your standard of living if you take risks. These are real concerns. But this is also a time of increasing and extensive organizing for social justice. It is an opportunity for many of us to realign ourselves clearly with those organizing efforts and reclaim the original vision of an end to the violence and exploitation which brought us into this work. This is a vision of social justice and true equity, built from community leadership and collective power.


My thanks to Bill Aal, Allan Creighton, Luz Guerra, Micki Luckey, Nell Myhand, Suzanne Pharr, Hugh Vasquez, and Shirley Yee for their encouragement and suggestions.

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  1. I am indebted to Taiaiake Alfred for this terminology from his book Peace, Power, Righteousness. [Return to text]
  2. Alfred, Peace, Power, Righteousness, 76. [Return to text]
  3. Tamara Jones, “Building Effective Black Feminist Organizations,” Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society 2, no. 4 (Fall 2000): 55. [Return to text]