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Am I a poverty pimp? (Reflection)

By Max Cadji

Am I a “Poverty Pimp?”

I heard Davey D, a local media activist and political hip hop host, use the term, and I was really taken aback by it.

The phrase really says it all, someone who is getting rich by riding the moving story of the nation's poor, or as one urban dictionary defines it, “Any social worker, do-gooder, social service agency or faith-based organization who comes into a hood not their own and plays at being the savior to folks that don't need savin’.”

I am an urban horticulturalist and organize around food sovereignty and food justice locally in Oakland as well as in Madagascar. Being that most of my work falls under the nonprofit umbrella, I realized that if I wanted to get projects “for the community” funded, then I needed to learn how to tell a story and beg for the crumbs fallen off of the corporate plates of foundations created by the Rockefellers, Gates and others. This begging also
is known as grant writing.

So after finding a mentor and reading a book, I was capable of telling the story of the “urban poor,” who disproportionately suffer from diet-related diseases such as type II diabetes, heart disease and hypertension, in contrast to our more affluent brothers and sisters. I recently read a book about environmental justice and added to my repertoire asthma, cancers and the whole gamut of afflictions that the urban poor face. I got my rhetoric down for the communities that I was trying to advocate for:

“53 liquor stores, 14 fast food restaurants and no grocery store;”

“One out of three children in California suffers obesity and the percentage is higher for children of color;”

“There is approximately one liquor store for every 450 people in West Oakland (The Flatlands) and one for every 7,000 in Piedmont (The Hills);” and so on.

So now all I needed was a camera and some shots of overweight kids eating Hot Fries, a few poor folks pushing shopping carts and rummaging through garbage bins, and footage of freeways and neighborhood liquor stores. Then, finally, my portfolio would be finished.

After scouring the web for foundations, I narrowed down my list, wrote my outline and summed up the harsh conditions of the poor people of Oakland and digitally put out my cardboard sign and started begging for money for a story that wasn't my own. All the people I interact with on a daily basis in North and West Oakland became a statistic, and to the foundations they were all the same “poor people of color.”  

That is when I knew that I was what Davey D was talking about: a poverty pimp. 

The wealth, passion, history and diversity of the communities I thought I was advocating for was summarized in a five-page document with charts, metrics and statistics with no humanity nor humility. In fact, I was asking the same corporate foundations whose founders became rich off of the exploitation of the poor for crumbs to help mitigate .05 percent of the social mess they caused (urban pollution, intense extraction of natural resources, exploitation of the working class, etc). One thing lead to another and I found myself writing grants to General Mills, reading requests for proposals for community food security projects from ConAgra, and asking for obesity prevention money to put in clinic-based garden programs from Dryer’s Grand Ice Cream.

So what does this mean for me? I have recognized that I may be a poverty pimp, which is the first step toward turning my life and career around. 

My second step was to buy some Flip cams and have the people I work with and for tell their own stories via digital media. Finally, my last step was to educate myself about the history of foundations and how they operate by reading American Foundations: An Investigative History by Mark Dowie.

After reading this thorough critique of American philanthropy, the game and hustle that I’m engaged in makes a lot more sense when you realize the power and control, secrecy and sheer lack of democracy that American foundations operate under. In fact, did you know that foundations only operate on the interest they earn on their original endowment? Their portfolios, decision-making process and investment strategies are hidden from the American people and shrouded in secrecy and hypocrisy.

Take for example the investment portfolio that the Gates Foundation has in oil-rich Nigeria. The $35 billion Gates endowment invests heavily in an Italian Oil firm ENI. This firm’s oil flares in the Niger Delta have caused, as one local doctor puts it, “an epidemic of bronchitis in adults and asthma and blurred vision in children.”

So as the Gates Foundation tries to immunize Nigeria’s poor, they also fund these efforts through investments in external corporate entities that blanket their target communities in environmental injustices, polluting the air and the ground water and creating fertile grounds for disease to spread. This is just one example of foundations’ sleight of hand.

I don’t like to unfairly focus simply on the negative, as I often get my kicks as a pure pessimist. Through further research I learned of some innovative foundation leaders and granting models such as “flow funding,” which allows people working on the ground and in the streets to recommend programs for foundations to fund rather than having communities that may have not mastered the grant writing language have to jump through the hoops. I also learned of foundations such as Aokandi that fund racial justice initiatives, as well as funds that are distributed by community-guided granting boards.  

I feel like we need to bite the (foundation) hand that feeds us and ask more questions and point more fingers, but then again we all want to get paid. When we really get down to it, the money is right in the neighborhoods we are working in. 

Pimpin’ for six-digit grants can be partially averted by communities canvassing and raising money to meet community needs. Just look at the most successful self-funded institutions in a good portion of the affected communities, often the religious centers. Take look at the facts and see who really gives a larger percentage of earned income and you may not need to look further than your next door neighbor. There is a tremendous amount of wealth and social equity to build independent community-driven institutions outside of the foundation funded, nonprofit industrial complex.

“Hello my name is Max Cadji and I am a poverty pimp.”

Though I have come to say this, I have been challenged by counterparts in the movement with another, slightly different definition from an urban dictionary of a poverty pimp: “Any self-appointed minority leader, who extols the perpetual poorness of their ethnicity, yet is quite well off stemming from their efforts.” In this context, however, I am not a poverty pimp - just a misguided, privileged do-gooder.

A former coworker told me, “I love you Max, but you're not rich. Is making any money at all off of this process poverty pimping?” These are great questions and things to chew on while in the game. I have taken my first step towards my recovery, and I challenge those working as advocates and allies in the nonprofit sector to look in the mirror and ask themselves “Am I a poverty pimp?”

Phat Beets' mission is to provide equal, affordable access to organic fresh fruits and vegetables, grains and legumes to North Oakland families through wholesale pricing. Supported by community events, Phat Beets facilitates youth in leadership roles engaging their peers in healthy eating and nutrition discussions through fruit and vegetable sampling. Phat Beets works to connect small farmers to urban communities via the creation of farm stands and farmers markets in local establishments.

Sounds to me like what's happened here is that you got guilt tripped by a concept that has a lot more to do with ideology than practicality.

What are you supposed to do? Stop trying to help the world be a better place? Not accept money granted to good causes because the money is coming from a source that isn't 100% in-line with 21st century bay area far left political views?


Let's consider the first definition of "poverty pimp": “Any social worker, do-gooder, social service agency or faith-based organization who comes into a hood not their own and plays at being the savior to folks that don't need savin’.”

First of all, nobody owns any 'hood.  Nobody gets to claim that a small piece of geography within a city does not "belong" to anybody else.  Or rather, they can say it all day, but they're full of shit.  Cities are ever changing, they always have been.

What about somebody who's living in a 'hood they were born in, and is doing reasonably well for themselves, but hasn't been able to transform the problems of the 'hood?  If that person goes around telling so-called outsiders who are making genuine efforts to help that they're really just "poverty pimps", frankly I think it's the native of the 'hood who's in the wrong in this scenario.  "Don't you try to help all these people around me who are struggling with poverty and addiction, 'cause I'm doing just fine."  

Really?  Sound's like the poverty pimp is person who does OK in a place where lots of people aren't doing OK, but then tells people not to help those around them who are clearly in need.

That doesn't mean that the systemic change you talked about isn't necessary.  The widening gap between rich and poor won't get fixed with only charity.  But to declare a neighborhood off-limits to outside help, because it somehow belongs to one group and not others?  That's reprehensible. It's also, in my opinion, so totally invalid an idea that you should probably just ignore it and keep doing good work.

Now, if you're looking at that second definition, maybe there's some truth to that. But until you're at risk of getting rich by working in the non-profit social services field, I think you can ignore that too.

sorry max, you're not. poverty pimps--and i've known (ahem) a few--have no guilt or conscience, just like sex pimps. the definition of a PP is someone who gets rich by exploiting the misery of others.

still, this is a wake-up call for certain non-profits (ahem) who are more concerned with meeting quarterly funding requirements than actually helping to bring about meaningful change.

i hope that the real PPs out there read this.


It sounds to me like you're just a good linguist. You have to speak the language of the powerful to get their resources for those who need them a lot more. That's what Robin Hood would have to do, too, if he were alive today. Besides, so many of your events and so much of what you do is genuinely joyful. Pimps aren't really into joy. Nah, you're OK.

I like this piece so much not only because Max is asking hard questions, but because he's being ironic about some real disconnects in the funding world, where funders want to support "the grassroots" but also want intense ROI and documentation.  Is accountability important? Yes, but requiring a prospective grantee to have an MBA in financialmreporting can be way off the mark.

I think what Max is trying to analyze is how race and economic privilege allow folks from outside of the community to move into Oakland and do non-profit work without a clear analysis of how such privileges have allowed professionals to use their resources to tape others, tell their story and then further make money off of it, rather than creating space for the people themselves to tell their own story. Yes, in fact, there IS a clear problem with being from "outside of the community" and without knowing the history of disenfranchisement of inner-city communities. This is especially true if the work you do is funded by corporations who have caused many of the same problems that trouble places like West Oakland in the first place (corporations that oustource their jobs funding community development work, for example). 

Non-profit work is often reform work that services problems but does not address fundamental structural inequality. This is due to the conservative nature of most foundations who won't fund social justice work, and therefore organizations receiving funding are happy to tell other people's stories, get a cut of that foundation grant but never use certain words like "institutional racism" or "global capitalism," since that would jeopardize future grants from the same foundation.

With that said, if I'm just a white privileged person with a degree in public health from Stanford coming into a community that has been historically marginalized and making money doing it by telling other people's stories, all the while the problem is not being addressed effectively, then that is akin to poverty pimping. If I'm continuing to make money doing work in a community that I'm not from and my work is not really addressing structural problems and is not facilitating a platform for people to speak on behalf of themselves, tell their own stories and fight for power, then that's some poor community work.

It's the ignorance of privilege, that poor people are there to be helped, to be saved, by people with degrees coming from money who know what's best- that's the problem. The question is not either "community work or no community work," "help people or don't help people," but rather how are you working in the community, do you know the history of the community, and are you trying to work in such a way that if you are doing good work then you will no longer be needed several years down the road? Or are you getting paid to work a job that doesn't allow for space for people to tell their own stories? Would you prefer to create such a situation where you help build leadership skills of folks from the community so that they can eventually do your job when it's time for you to move on, or does your work allow you to keep making $45k a year to do the work you do while unemployment around you is rampant and the community itself has not been offered opportunities to work on these issues themselves?

Josue--"It's the ignorance of privilege, that poor people are there to be helped, to be saved, by people with degrees coming from money who know what's best- that's the problem."  -Great comment.  This is why OL works with Oakland writers and trainers to train people how to create news stories and use social media--we try to be of and with, not for.  You've said it so well, thank you!

I'd rather be "rapper" rich than "social worker" rich.

actually sounds like you are a wannabe pp, but a pipsqueak one compared to some of the local homegrown ones we have here.

a successful pp here makes over 70k/year in salary plus fringes and creates organizations that are more successful at collecting grants, and growing staff and clients,  than at producing results.

one test of a pp is whether the most successful clients of the pp's organization are those who ended up working for the organization. In turn, they go around saying how if it weren't for that non-profit, they'd be ____ (fill in the blanks).

easy to see why many of the youth at the GI CC meeting equated programs with jobs.  to a true pp, the goal becomes the growth of the program.



great piece! not specific to any one community, there's a persistent problem with great grant connectors who in effect get in line before other community groups. That idea of being a story stealer vs being a real and effective community member and activist isn't just white guilt...