Dear Portland liberals (yes, you),
We’ve been having a rough time. October welcomed a state of emergent crisis and/or closure for more grassroots social justice organizations than we care to count; we lost Laughing Horse Books and Slabtown, to name the first two that come to mind. Unfortunately, this month, In Other Words Feminist Community Center made the list. Again. I guess the impetus for writing this blog post is WE’RE LOSING OUR COMMUNITY ORGANIZING SPACES AND I’M REALLY SAD ABOUT IT. It may be too late for Laughing Horse and Slabtown. Let’s not allow In Other Words to meet the same fate.
In the last year, In Other Words has struggled with a severe shortage of volunteers, and managed a tenuous financial situation, on a monthly basis. Although the organization is nearly free from current debt, and has survives thanks to the dedication of a handful of devoted volunteers, In Other Words recently lost some key volunteer leadership and has struggled in recent months to recruit more volunteers. As an entirely volunteer-run organization, even deontologists agree that the time has come to ask the question: In the face of dwindling support, does Portland really need a feminist community center?
On the morning of October 5th, In Other Words called an urgent General Assembly community meeting to discuss this very question. Through a serious yet impassioned discussion, the conclusion was YES. And we gave ourselves just four weeks to prove it.
But for a nonprofit that has no paid staff other than a part-time bookkeeper, simply wanting to stick around isn’t good enough. In Other Words needs to be able to retain volunteers and financial donors, which it doesn’t seem to be doing. In fact, there are plenty of people out there embracing the utilitarian view that if In Other Words cannot support itself, then Portland should let In Other Words fail.
So if our feminist communities say we need a feminist community center, what can we do in order to ensure In Other Words can support itself in order to keep its doors open?
Let’s back up and examine the space itself: a nonprofit feminist bookstore-turned-community-center, that operates on volunteer efforts. The space is funded through many small financial gifts from individuals who embrace the deontological view that donating to a community center—that tends to serve low-income underemployed young people, gender minorities, queer people, women-identified people, and folks seeking community and friendship—is a worthy cause. True to the fight against patriarchy, In Other Words strives towards a nonhierarchical, participatory structure wherein the board of directors perform just as much of the day-to-day work as the volunteers, and the volunteers chair just as many (if not more) decision-making committees as do the board members. Community events and programming are hosted on a sliding fee scale, with a policy that nobody is turned away at the door for lack of funds. (And as an organization that serves a typically left-leaning anti-capitalist feminist constituency—in a city notorious for unemployed young people to boot—the lack-of-funds explanation is heard more often than it’s not.) In Other Words is a consensus-based egalitarian feminist collective, funded by cause-driven donors of moderate means, where the words “feminism is for everybody” are literally painted on the wall. In shimmering gold paint.
Indeed, In Other Words represents the epitome of what feminist critics of the nonprofit industrial complex say feminist organizations should strive to do with its volunteers. In other words, In Other Words is the embodiment of a deontological organization. Neat.
However, all the deontologist feminist volunteers in the world cannot deny that In Other Words must compete for resources with other feminist and/or social justice-based organizations in Portland—of which there are many —for a limited pool of donor funds and volunteer time. And, when it comes down to it, competing for resources is hard to do when you’ve got a whole bunch of deontologists who embrace anti-capitalism as a guiding tenet.
Unless, that is, you consider the volunteers themselves to be a resource. During my first week as a volunteer back in 2009, I recall a conversation where another of my fellow QWOC volunteers told me that they didn’t need to get paid to work at In Other Words because their relationships with fellow volunteers and board members had value in and of themselves. Immanuel Kant would have been proud to know that In Other Words volunteers sign up to volunteer at In Other Words not because they wanted to use volunteerism as a stepping stone to something else, but because they truly, deeply, love volunteering at a feminist community center. In fact, the one resource In Other Words has always been able to rely on is a dearth of mission-driven volunteerism. Until recently.
So what’s up with the recent volunteer capacity issues? As of late, it boils down to discussions about transphobia. We are all well aware of the tensions between second wave and third wave feminisms, the crux of which seem to be surrounding racial politics and gender identity politics. This is not an uncommon tension for feminist communities, especially in Portland, and In Other Words is not immune to this tension as third wave feminisms become the majority view in feminist circles.
Case in point: I just spent several paragraphs talking about how Kant and the theories of dead straight cisgender white dudes describe a feminist organization, when third wave feminism points out we should be reframing the entire discussion by focusing on the theoretical frameworks laid out by transgender people and women of color. As one of the dead white dudes (John Stewart Mill) suggests, true vision and value shifts aren’t going to happen until the conditions for progress are solidly in place.
Which, finally, brings me to my point: In Other Words must compete for volunteer resources by closely examining its conditions for progress. We need our volunteer leadership and our board leadership to embrace utilitarian manager-type community organizing styles, but at the same time they need to “get” and identify with third wave feminist politics; it is critical that our volunteer and board leadership can pinpoint and lead a stalwart effort in training volunteers and board members on gender identity issues in order to remain accountable to our trans* community members. Only then, it seems to me, will we begin to address volunteer churn.
Feminism is evolving, and if In Other Words doesn’t evolve with it, we will lose our primary resource—-the volunteers themselves—-and the naysayers will win. I am truly heartened to know that In Other Words is in the ongoing self examination process in order to make responsible choices in terms of capacity as a volunteer-run organization and making sure In Other Words doesn’t bite off more than it can chew. It is a step in the right direction to focus energies on (re)building volunteer leadership capacity, volunteer board leadership capacity, and internal processes.
In my opinion, it seems that what In Other Words needs is an infusion of new volunteer leaders who embody a fine blend of utilitarian leadership and deontologist love and passion for the vision and values of In Other Words Feminist Community Center. Such leaders exist. They’re out there. It’s just a matter of hopping on our bicycles and finding them before Decision Day on November 8th.
So let’s recruit those passionate, compassionate, committed, resilient, social-justice-minded, amazing feminist leaders, and bring them on to the board of directors and the volunteer teams. And while we’re at it, let’s do some serious fundraising. In Other Words is more than a Portlandia parody, and it deserves our commitment.
Today is not the day the patriarchy wins. We can do this, Portland. Ready, set, go.