Erica Kohn-Arenas' recent book, The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty, continues to challenge the fixed mindset of many foundations.
"Erica Kohl-Arenas opens her important and sharply-observed new book with a field note from her visit to organized philanthropy’s grand palaver, the Annual Meeting of the Council on Foundations. An ethnographer amidst the multitudes of foundation professionals in attendance at the plenary luncheons and break-out panels, she is moved by the stories of personal uplift and transformation narrated by the formerly addicted/incarcerated/impoverished or otherwise abandoned beneficiaries of foundation-funded projects who are featured speakers on the program. And by her account they are inspiring stories, of people overcoming incredible odds to get on what looks to be a path to middle-class stability and respectability. But she finds herself wondering why there is no room on the meeting agenda—or, evidently, in the work of the professional poverty alleviators in the audience—to recognize the everyday hardships of the low-paid food service workers who are putting their meals on the table, or the state of permanent economic insecurity to which they and countless others have been reduced.
"This is the kind of question foundations find uncomfortable, and as often as not dismiss out of hand. After all, foundations have no real way of influencing the workplace practices of corporate employers or the wage standards of the market. But that is precisely Kohl-Arenas’ point. Foundations, she argues, are not exactly passive or innocent bystanders in the oft-recognized contradiction that defines their existence—the contradiction, that is, of institutions devoted to skimming the surplus of concentrated capitalist accumulation to ameliorate the inequities that concentrated capitalist accumulation produces. If anything, foundations perpetuate the conditions they claim to correct. Showing how is the aim of the book, titled The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty (University of California Press, 2016)."--Alice O'Connor, HistPhil