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January 14, 2014

Cash rules everything around me

Summer Links alum: UCSC restructuring has shifted focus of Summer Links program away from actual social justice

Since controversial changes were enacted at the University Community Service Center (UCSC) fall quarter, the continuation of previous programs such as Summer Links (SL) has been rhetorically important for administrators to justify the absence of student input in the Center’s restructuring. The restructuring is ostensibly designed to expand the appeal of UCSC programs to a broader cross-section of the student body through its four new subfields.  SL will now be part of “Social Innovation and Philanthropy.”  From my perspective as a former SL intern and later staff member, this conceptual shift threatens to eliminate SL’s unique focus on social justice.

The UCSC director claims that social justice underpins all the work at the UCSC.  But primarily preparing students to understand the world of philanthropy as the underwriters of nonprofits does not amount to the kind of critical engagement and social justice framework that SL has traditionally represented, which is a great loss for this campus.

SL is an 11-week summer program that places 30 students in different community organizing and social service organizations around the city.  Each week, the students come together for discussion in addition to trainings on social issues such as housing and health care. Programming brings SL participants to a wide variety of speakers and organizations around the city. Through dialogue, participants are tasked with coming to grips with the views of their peers, as well as the often contentious disagreements between labor unions, health-care providers, and other community organizations engaged with issues such as trauma, poverty, and social justice.

Because the phrase “social justice” is necessarily aspirational, it is difficult to define precisely, but it is distinct from philanthropy and social innovation.  Social justice is a critical category that evaluates macro processes and the reproduction of social inequality.  It is about achieving fairness. A social justice framework does not blame the victim, and it does not attribute social ills to the supposed cultural, racial, or class defects of the poor and dispossessed. Instead, social justice attempts to confront inequality as it is inscribed in our social structure and perpetuated by powerful interests.

Philanthropy, as the driving force of the burgeoning “social service sector,” does not itself assume a critical social justice framework. Neither does “social innovation,” which from what I understand is the establishment of businesses meant to solve social problems.  However, it is the philanthropic and nonprofit management aspects of “Social Innovation and Philanthropy” that appear to be newly emphasized in SL—particularly since the program will now encompass “corporate responsibility” internships at for-profit businesses.

Administrators have said that an increased focus on philanthropy is important to a program like SL and to community service more generally because so many nonprofits rely on philanthropic largesse in order to do their work. True, but students in SL have always been asked to engage with this perspective while maintaining a critical eye toward the relationship between money, power, and social inequality and asking questions such as: “To what extent is the nonprofit and foundation ‘sector’ just a place for the rich to warehouse tax-exempt capital?” Currently the UCSC is looking to hire an M.B.A. to oversee SL, an indication that the pursuit of reckless NGO growth and financial remuneration will supersede the difficult intellectual project of helping students navigate privilege, build solidarity between different communities, and maintain a critical perspective toward social inequality, none of which is emphasized in business school.

The conflation of business with social service and social change work is dangerous and suggests ideological captivity to the interests of the philanthropists themselves, as is the norm in the “social service sector.”  Inequality, as it is produced through social relations of power and domination, is a largely discredited category for poverty researchers and nonprofit managers who depend on philanthropic giants to receive their grants. Rather, ostensibly self-reproducing social pathologies such as teenage pregnancy, lack of business acumen, and backward values, among others, are proffered as the behaviors that NGOs must fix in order for poor people to then bootstrap themselves into the middle class.

I do not wish to say that all giving is bad; after all, SL has been sustained in part by the philanthropy of an alumnus.  However, focusing SL on philanthropy and the nonprofit sector as a panacea to social problems will at best require students to assume a vague sense of noblesse oblige. After such a shift, to maintain that the program continues to be rooted in social justice is simply wrong.

As part of the restructuring, the UCSC has been tasked to align its programs with its “campus partners,” which include “Career Advancement, Institute of Politics, Booth School of Business, [and] departments in economics, sociology, and public policy.” The goal of this alignment is to create more harmony between disparate branches of the University. With regards to SL, it appears this has been achieved at the expense of its unique focus on social justice, as indeed social justice (or even community service) is a category of perhaps dubious significance to these “partners.”

Barring a merely logistical harmony, the notion of alignment strikes me as inimical to a university that so regards argumentation and intellectual dissonance. At UChicago I have have been exposed to the din and discord of real thinking and have been allowed to parse out for myself within the tonal disarray the notes that resonate with my own conscience. Let’s not eliminate that freedom by “aligning” a unique and successful program with what already exists in plenitude. Among its many summer internship opportunities, the University should have a program that is vitally and wholeheartedly committed to social justice.  Like in the song “Cream,” it appears increasingly that cash rules everything around me.

Michael McCown is a fourth-year in the College and the president of Student Government.

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