Originally published at gwendolynvansant.com
In Fall 2018, just following the midterm elections at a members only Higher Heights meeting, I had the privilege of listening to Congresswomen Barbara Lee and Lucy McBath speak just following their victories. They were both reflecting, what will come next?
I was moved in so many ways while listening to them speak, but was especially moved when McBath reminded Black women to look back and not forget where we came from… all of that power now represented in the liberated 400 women who ran for office. She reminded Higher Heights members that we all have power and that we are all needed.
We were talking about power, but no one was talking about money.
In her work, Dr. Ruby Payne talks about the various types of poverty: Financial, Language, Emotional, Mental, Spiritual, Physical, Support Systems, Relationships/Role Models, and Knowledge of middle class “hidden rules.” In my training, I frame these as nine types of privilege counterparts as well. I find Payne’s framework helpful as a poverty analysis while weaving in my own race analysis work. I integrate this analysis into cultural competence and equity work because society often forgets most non-financial measures of access. Each of these measures also intersect with individual and social identities. I implore folks in justice work to reflect and leverage all of their resources. Financial resources are just one measure of an individual’s capital; while often viewed as essential, they cannot stand alone or even be considered essential when striving for thriving individuals and communities.
Since the midterm elections, I have seen the political scene be challenged by the fact that money is not and has never been the only resource, especially for women and specifically, women of color. When you have an abundance of courage, knowledge, and community and you have resilience at your core, you are incredibly resourced in the face of the most ominous hurdles, for example, getting to Capitol Hill. Yet still, in the case of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, after being elected to Congress the media told a story about how she wasn’t able to pay her rent in DC until after her first paycheck came through. The media’s focus was on the limited public mindset around the financial resources of some newly elected officials; the media focused far too little on Ocasio-Cortez’s other abundantly flowing resources.
Similarly, during the midterm elections, Stacey Abrams used her non-financial resources to stand strong in the eyes of justice and demand a recount in Georgia. No young (or old) Black woman looking back at 2018 will ever forget how she persisted! To me, all of these things prove that we are on our way to understanding Audre Lorde’s famous adage: “You cannot dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools.” Reparations of all kinds requires a reconstruction, not only a shifting.
I am so proud to be a part of this moment in time. I’m proud as well, in my work with Tuti Scott through Changemaker Strategies, to have served as the lead consultant for ReflectUS (a nonpartisan coalition of women’s political leadership organizations that prepare women and girls to run for office) on the equity and inclusion practices of the coalition. Now may quite possibly be the time―while we’re experiencing a large shift for women in political leadership, especially zeroing in on women of color’s steady incline―that we learn to leverage our power without thinking of money as our only resource. We can leverage money only to shift it for the good of our collective humanity rather than for individual pocketbooks, taking the money out of politics and putting people back in.
As for money and other resources in my own work and in my life, I am often asked to assume an “abundance mindset.” But, as it has been most commonly put forth, this idea has not resonated for me in and of itself. Why? The abundance I have known comes from within myself and from the work of my ancestors and “angels,” not from material resources. As for the material, I have had the mantra I will have enough… This represents the personal faith that has carried me through tough times and daring choices. I have held a belief, I will be able to provide what my family truly needs… This is the abundance I have been living with. To me, it is an abundance of spirituality, faith, courage, and community. It is far from a belief about a full bank account.
In her May 2018 piece on decolonizing nonprofits for Everyday Feminism, community organizer Neesha Powell also expands the thinking around this abundance mindset idea:
“It may sound naive to advocate for a culture of abundance at nonprofits, but we must believe in our abilities to raise enough money to adequately honor our labor. We must also believe in our right to be justly compensated, especially when we’re POC, queer, trans, and/or disabled workers.”
You may ask, Why challenge the common view about the abundance mindset? In my experience, it has been culturally limited in acknowledging the many facets of abundance. As an African American woman, abundance simply has a different meaning for me. Let’s look at the life and legacy of Aretha Franklin who passed on last year and just had a birthday last month. Since I saw the media pounce on her decision throughout her career to not invest money or organize a will while she was alive, I see her as a prime example of a Black woman’s relationship to abundance while not leading on the financial end.
From my view, it is clear to me that Aretha’s abundance mindset didn’t come from her accumulation of wealth and resources or using systems of oppression to “plan”; her abundance came from a talent, a spirituality that no one could take away, and a faith our people have always had in a larger design that no one can touch… our faith in a oneness, in our deep wells of fortitude and resilience. Aretha’s unique presentation of abundance came via her singing talent, her love, and her success. After reading more about her life, I have concluded that Aretha did not do the expected middle class, white-valued life planning once she arrived at having the resources to do so for some of the very same reasons I have struggled within these systems on my own journey to achievement.
Continuing in my imagination, Aretha Franklin’s abundance did not come from a goal of investing in historically exclusive and oppressive systems, possibly in acknowledgement of how these systems staged a “set up” for our U.S. Black families to have seven times less wealth than those of white families. Research from the Institute on Assets and Social Policy (IASP) and Demos shows that “a typical white family owns $15.63 for every $1 owned by a typical Black family, and $13.33 for every $1 owned by a typical Latino family.” Aretha’s embodiment of abundance came from investing in herself, her family, and her community like many of our ancestors did in African cultural traditions around community and wealth.
“If we carry intergenerational trauma (and we do) then we also carry intergenerational wisdom. It is in our genes and our DNA.” ―Kazu Haga
Speaking from our shared racial and gender identity, our abundance comes from innate talent and strengths that again, the material world cannot touch. One of Aretha’s talents was singing. Some may say that my talents are thinking out of the box, creating new ways of doing things, catalyzing new thoughts, supporting change, and meeting and valuing people where they are at (while supporting them in arriving at who they might become). From the VIA Character Strengths survey, I know that four of my character strengths are creativity, judgment, kindness, and perspective. And, in both of our cases, white folks have benefitted from our work for their own advancement, whether it be financial, to feel good, to feel on the right side of allyship, or otherwise. We have both been blessed with a talent to elevate our life experience in relation to racism―in other words, to liberate us from some oppressions―even if at times this is a falsely perceived salvation from the perils and traps of whiteness, white superiority, and systemic racism.
This quote motivates me to keep working…
“The most important thing to remember is this: to be ready at any moment to give up what you are for what you might become.”― W.E.B. Du Bois
“Scarcity,” the converse of abundance, to me, is rooted in both our history and its generational trauma along systemic cultural and ethnic lines, and also the current reflection of the inherent white supremacy culture of our country. We have seen this scarcity around the fight for voting rights and integrity in the most recent midterm election cycle and concurrently, childbirth deaths on the rise even for the most resourced (education, spirituality, community, and financial) African American woman. These are but two examples of scarcity; a lack of access to the protection of one’s basic human rights: civic rights, healthy families, personal health and safety. Scarcity, in many regards, is what has been comfortably afforded to African American women throughout history, it is what we still experience today, and it can play out in even more direct, lethal ways for African American men.
On the other hand, I do not view scarcity as just an African American plight. The true “scarcity” the country is wrestling with, I believe, is not about wealth; it is a scarcity of compassion, honesty, and courage. And, within a racialized framework, it is an inability to view Black women (and men and children) as equal human beings who feel pain, stress, trauma, and loss in the same ways that White folks do… or, we might say, who feel it exponentially more due to generational aggression and trauma.
What about seeing multitudes of Black women thriving and flourishing as our White counterparts sort through pain, anxiety, and fear? That is not fathomable because that is not what white supremacy culture has implicitly and insidiously promised to those afforded white identity historically. In order to dismantle this divide, our counterparts have to dig deep and do hard work to acknowledge those promises of safety and abundance and the threat of scarcity on the other side. Even our most dedicated reparation buddies have a reflexive reign on Black people’s success… Not too far, not too liberated, not too advanced, not too honest about the pain, stress, and trauma. These are messages I have received.
But, I ask, don’t we all need Black women living and working in abundance, flourishing, and thriving? Wouldn’t we all benefit from Black women setting the pace towards equity and justice? We would be wise to listen to Dr. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s words, as I had a chance to hear them last week at my alma mater, in How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective:
“If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.”
Gwendolyn VanSant is an experienced organizational change consultant and coach who works at the intersection of diversity leadership, equity and inclusion, and strategic planning. She is the Founding Director of BRIDGE and the Equity and Inclusion Team Lead at Changemaker Strategies. Gwendolyn serves as the Vice Chair of the Town of Great Barrington W. E. B. Du Bois Legacy Committee and she’s on the board of the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts and UU Mass Action Network. A skilled community organizer, Gwendolyn is also a well-recognized thought leader on racial justice and reparations. In addition to providing award-winning cultural competence trainings, Gwendolyn is a frequent speaker and long-time activist.
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Jones, Janelle. “The racial wealth gap: How African-Americans have been shortchanged out of the materials to build wealth.” Economic Policy Institute. 13 February 2017.
Payne, Ruby. A Framework for Understanding Poverty: A Cognitive Approach. aha! Process, Inc. February 2013.
Powell, Neesha. “3 Ways To Decolonize Your Nonprofit As Told By A Black Queer Feminist Organizer.” Everyday Feminism. 14 May 2018.
Read, Bridget. “Stacey Abrams’s Campaign Says Recount or Runoff Is Possible—If All Georgia Votes Are Actually Counted—While Andrew Gillum’s Race Enters Recount Range in Florida.” Vogue. 8 November 2018.
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VanSant, Gwendolyn. “Useful Terms and Definitions.” GwendolynVanSant.com
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