The Baltimore Urban Debate League (BUDL), under the leadership of Pam Block-Brier, is bound up in the non-profit industrial complex. We no longer will support BUDL in any way, shape or form. We are building the Walter Carter Leadership Institute to offer quality debate, advocacy and leadership training to young people in Baltimore. Those who are interested in helping to support grassroots debate training should support our work. We needed to make this declaration public so that the separation is clear. We don’t want people seeing our work and attributing it to BUDL. We want to make sure it is clear that BUDL is not a supporter of LBS and that LBS is not in partnership with BUDL. We are two completely different entities with two completely different goals. We are attempting to build up our own power from the grassroots and BUDL is a top-down, white-controlled, corporate social service entity.
We are not calling for support of our work based on charity. LBS has developed one of the only programs in existence that can take youth from the so called “urban” context and produce nationally competitive scholars and advocates. The students and debaters who we have mentored throughout the years have become dominant in one of the most academically rigorous activities in the world. Many studies have been conducted on college policy debate and it has been determined that a year’s worth of research in policy debate is equivalent to the work one does on a master’s thesis. Our students have been so successful that our summer debate camp, the Eddie Conway Liberation Institute (ECLI), has doubled in size from just one year ago. This summer, students from all over the country have come to Morgan State in order to receive our debate training. We are proud to be training world class scholars and activists who will be agents for social transformation.
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
-Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”, 1963
The national narrative typically put forward by the media is that the Democratic party is liberal and sympathetic to addressing issues of racism. This story represents the Republican Party and conservatives as being racists who needs to be challenged for their endemic racism. Unfortunately, this narrative allows liberals and Democrats to pose as crusaders for racial justice. It is important to say this in a state and city that is heavily democratic. White supremacy still structures the political, economic, and social dynamics of Baltimore despite our government being beholden to the Democratic Party. It is not the just the conservatives who are enemies to the livelihood of Black people – liberals (or moderates as MLK refers to them in the above quote) often use their narratives of fighting for social justice as a way to build institutions that they control and then operate for their own financial and existential gain. We have written before about the non-profit industrial complex. This phenomenon occurs when white people build an industry that markets our suffering in order to carry out thought experiments on Black people and to advance their professional careers as well as to fortify their economic and political wherewithal.
Some people wonder why we spend so much time talking about this dynamic. This is a very polarizing concept and has evoked extreme emotional responses from people who feel implicated by our criticism. This criticism has extremely important practical implications that are central to developing a pathway to producing leadership that can erect independent Black institutions. When I have made arguments along the lines mentioned above, people (usually white people) attribute my arguments to an emotional feeling of anger or bitterness. I know this because I was at a conference about a year ago at which I was asked to speak. Afterward, one of my mentors who had received an honor at the conference had dinner with some of the participants. He told me that many of these people told him they were disappointed that I seemed so bitter. I find this fascinating because anyone who knows me understands that I am on an extremely even keel. Bitterness is not an attitude that many people would attribute to my thinking or personality. The reason I want to make this point here is because what follows in this article will be difficult for some people to hear. My argument will be misconstrued as being mean spirited or angry. I want to caution the reader that I am not going to succumb to the white guilt complex that interprets my position and words as an attack on a person’s character. To do so would present an impediment to truth telling that would ultimately perpetuate the gross level of white dominance that people have come to accept as normal. If we cannot criticize the political implications of decisions that organizations and individuals make then we cannot possibly hope to solve the problems we claim to care about.
That being said, in what follows I hope to illuminate the way that white people who like to see themselves as allies to Black people are actually acting in ways that are exploitative. My purpose here is to lay out very concretely the implications of the non-profit industrial complex on the emergence of authentic Black grassroots leadership. We will do this in the context of a criticism of the Baltimore Urban Debate League and more particularly its CEO, Pam Block Brier.
The Baltimore Urban Debate League is one of many Urban Debate Leagues (UDLs) around the country that were founded in order to advance education reform and to empower marginalized people with the ability to speak and think on our own behalf. George Soros invested millions of dollars into UDLs and Baltimore was one of the cities that received much of those resources. BUDL was founded in 1999 and over its 15 year history has grown and become a very successful and well recognized organization. One of the biggest benefits that BUDL provided was to create a learning community that had access to brilliant minds all over the country. These networks with their wealth of intellectual resources cultivated an environment that produced people like my colleagues and I who have gone on to fulfill that dream of empowerment. We found our voices and spoke together to make debate education more rigorous, critical and fair. Over the past seven years, policy debate around the country at both the high school and college levels, has come to value Baltimore as one of the leading centers for innovation and critical pedagogy. The long history of competitive debate was dominated by wealthy white students. Now, Black youth all over the country have achieved unprecedented levels of competitive success. Baltimore has produced many nationally successful debaters, including four championship round appearances, two championships, multiple National Debate Tournament (NDT) and Cross Examination Debate Association (CEDA) elimination round participants and a number of Top 5 speaker awards at both CEDA and the NDT. All of this has been accomplished since 2008. Not only have we changed debate, but we have also used these skills outside of debate in order to advocate for justice. LBS was one of many organizations that fought to stop the construction of a Youth Jail in east Baltimore. We helped to pass a law through the Maryland General Assembly that addresses police brutality (“Christopher’s Law”). We also founded a national debate institute at Morgan State University called the Eddie Conway Liberation Institute, which is the only national debate institute at a historically Black college/university in the United States. In just a few short years, we have taken debate and shaped it into a force for social transformation.
While we will never forget the opportunities to grow and learn that BUDL provided us, we must all be honest in facing the current situation. While founded on a mission of empowerment, BUDL, like many of the non-profit organizations and foundations in Baltimore, has not supported a vision of Black self-determination that will lead to genuine community empowerment. The purpose of BUDL was to train critical thinkers who could use their skills to improve the world around them. It would be a betrayal of that purpose if we failed to speak out about serious problems with BUDL itself. There are three major parts to our criticism of the organization under the leadership of Pam Block-Brier.
BUDL IS FIXATED ON CONTROL
BUDL has been successful in creating class after class of skilled and connected alumni. Rather than utilizing this tremendous social and human capital, a conscious decision has been made to keep alumni at arm’s length unless Pam Block Brier can control them. LBS has made several efforts to work with the existing organization. In trying to develop a partnership with BUDL, the biggest struggle we faced centered on power and control. In our society today, white people tend to occupy executive positions in organizations that primarily serve Black people. In 2009 the Chronicle of Philanthropy cited a study that found that white men are more likely to occupy executive positions in the country’s biggest non-profit organizations. In fact only 3.5% of the country’s biggest non-profit organizations are led by Black people. What this shows us is that there is an entire industry built around white people leading the way on fighting the issues that Black people face. This is an obvious problem, but many people fail to realize its gravity. I have had honest conversations with Pam in which she acknowledges that being a white woman from New York who leads an organization which serves Black people in Baltimore is problematic. She even espoused the desire that a BUDL alum would one day take her place. Other communities would not allow other people to lead institutions that primarily serve them. Women would not let men lead organizations that are focused on addressing women’s issues. Jewish people would not let Black people lead organizations that primarily serve Jewish people. While it seems obvious that organizations should be led by people from the communities being served, we to have seriously examine cases where this principle is not followed. This examination points to the very heart of power and privilege.
Control is important beyond just the ego-driven purposes usually associated with it. When you have control over an institution you have license to act unapologetically in the interest of your people. Black people often have to subject ourselves to the task of lobbying for the approval of white people with money and resources in order to do things in our own community. We are often put in positions where we need to get a person who is not of the community being served to agree with our vision of community empowerment in order for our vision to be materialized. How can someone claim to be interested in Black people being empowered if we are not able to act without white people’s approval? Our problem with Pam is her unwillingness to engage in a true partnership that gives up control to determine the direction of debate in Baltimore. Even though Pam has expressed that she wants to hand the organization over to a BUDL alum that she feels is ready to assume that leadership role, she has not taken concrete action to do so in 15 years. Instead of ceding leadership of the vision and direction of the organization to those of us who are using debate to empower our communities she has decided to govern BUDL’s future on her terms.
One thing that has stood out to me in our interactions is Pam’s notion of partnership. After LBS brought her a detailed proposal for cooperation that coordinated what each organization was best at in order to build a stronger debate community in Baltimore, she responded that it was not a partnership. She said that she felt the proposal was an attempt to get rid of BUDL. This makes no sense at all. We were attempting to save the organization, offering to use our skills to bring the withering high school debate program back to life. We wanted to administer a program that we are more than qualified to run and do it in partnership with BUDL. Again the question of control is crucial. Her idea seems to suggest that a partnership is a relationship where we would administer the program without having true control over our work. She often said that she would “allow” most of what we wanted to do. The problem is that we don’t want to be in a position where we need permission to do what we know works with our students. This would not be a true and respectful partnership. LBS needs to be an autonomous organization so we can build our grassroots support without the hindrance of having to coddle to an overseer’s sensibilities. This doesn’t mean that wouldn’t address Pam’s concerns and discuss things that she had issues with. We just didn’t want to be in a situation where we had to get approval from her to do our work how we knew it would function best in our own community. How crazy would it look for us to talk about Black institutional power and control, but have to report to a white woman from New York about the work that we are doing in Baltimore?
As one of the founders of BUDL, Pam may genuinely feel entitled to a leadership role in directing its future. Ultimately, though, the question is whether she is more interested in her own personal feelings of ownership or in truly engaging in anti-racism which would instruct her to cede that responsibility to us. She is entitled by position to direct BUDL’s future, but she is not entitled to represent herself as anything different than the industry around Black misery that uses our suffering to acquire financial and social benefits.
BUDL in its inception was powerful because it helped to facilitate the development of a strong learning community, but Pam is in no position to authoritatively prescribe where and what debate in Baltimore should be. I, my colleagues at LBS and other alum, embody what debate should be. We have continued to use it in ways that very few people in UDL’s around the country have used it. We have taken it and created a community that sees the power of debate in our work. We are the community that BUDL says that it wants to empower. The problem is that at this point we don’t need BUDL to empower us. BUDL can serve only one of two functions. It can be a hindrance to the development of Black autonomous political and social education, or it can help by giving deference to those of us using debate to empower our people.
One question that some may arrogantly ask themselves at this point is “what makes LBS qualified to shape policy debate in Baltimore?” Let’s address that. All of us on the executive board of LBS have several years of experience in successfully teaching debate to hundreds of students. All of us have between 6-10 years of experience teaching debate to young people who have gone on to graduate from college, enroll in graduate school, pursue professional careers and have gained tremendous competitive success. We all have professional experience in other fields, from classroom teaching to city government to policy analysis to major non-profit organizations to entertainment/performance art and community development. All of us are college educated, with degrees from multiple universities. We also have experience in running a political campaign and our aforementioned success with our debate institute and political initiatives. All of this in addition to tremendous competitive policy debate success including three qualifiers for national high school debate championship tournaments, several appearances in NDT and CEDA elimination rounds and a CEDA National Champion and Top Speaker. If you take this snap shot of our credentials and put it alongside the credentials of Pam when she initially founded BUDL it is clear that we are at least as qualified to run a debate organization as she is.
What some people may find startling is that Pam Block Brier has no experience in competitive policy debate and does not have the expertise to effectively teach policy debate. In fact, most of her experience prior to BUDL was in social work. This is important because it highlights the difference in our approaches to our work. We see debate as an opportunity to create world class scholars and advocates, whereas the traditional social work model would see debate as a tool to help poor kids learn how to read. This is often the frame that BUDL has used in the past to get support from donors. I know this because I was one of those students who was asked to speak to large crowds of white people and amaze them with my ability to say intelligent things. Playing off of white people’s fascination with Black kids who are not stupid makes white people a lot of money and is what has sustained BUDL. The reason we need to be in control is because we have a vision that is not reliant on the framework of being poor, downtrodden, helpless youth who can be “saved” by debate. Instead, our narrative is one of Black excellence that transcends the pathology that is often associated with being Black.
Our argument is not that all white people who lead non-profit organizations are bad and that all non-profit organizations that are led by Black people are good. This would be too simplistic. White people who have immersed themselves in the history and culture of Black people, and who make themselves accountable to the community that they are serving can significantly contribute to helping us access the resources needed for us to empower ourselves. Ideally, white people who are willing to make themselves accountable to Black people and who develop a deep understanding of Black history and culture would understand the importance of moving themselves out of a position of leadership of these organizations and supporting Black grassroots leadership. Not all Black people are not fit to be leaders of Black organizations. There are Black people who use our issues to opportunistically advance their own individual careers at the expense of our collective empowerment. There are Black people who walk around with the same notions of Black inferiority that are projected on to us by our white counterparts. This is why it is important that we don’t just advocate that Black people be in control of our institutions, but that Black people who make themselves accountable to the people who they serve and/or who are products of the communities being served are targeted as ideal leaders of our institutions.
A person who is genuinely interested in empowering the community would not feel comfortable making decisions about an activity that the community has claimed as its own. A genuine white ally who is interested in subverting their white privilege would give up any substantive control they have to those of us who have risen up from the community to lead our own people to Black empowerment.
BUDL IS A CORPORATE ENTITY
BUDL at this point is a corporate entity that provides sells services to the school system in Baltimore. This does not make BUDL unique. In fact, BUDL is very typical in this regard. BUDL is like many organizations is not accountable to the community it serves, but is accountable to a board of directors that is not accountable to the people that the organization serves. BUDL’s board does not have any BUDL alumni on it. This is the basic problem with many non-profit organizations that profess to be interested in empowering people. They often think they can prescribe what Black people need without substantively engaging us. I’m sure that Pam is well aware of this limitation and that it has been something she has attempted to address in the past. What makes BUDL unique is that it has an opportunity to demonstrate what it would look like for a white controlled and operated institution to transition to an organization that supports and takes its marching order from the grassroots.
Many other organizations like BUDL do not have such a strong and developed grassroots base that is ready to take up leadership on a big stage. This is what makes the current situation so disappointing. A partnership that was willing to be led by the grassroots could have been so instructive to the non-profit community around the country. But Pam chose not to embrace this path. Instead she places herself squarely in the legacy of white people who feel they must have control. When you support or affirm BUDL you are not supporting transformative education for Black youth, you are supporting white institutional control over the education of Black children.
BUDL EXPLOITS BLACK LABOR
One fact that Pam and other non-profit executives would site in their defense is that they have hired Black people to work in their organizations. While this may seem like a meaningful gesture it is important to closely examine the positions that Black people occupy in these organizations. Those of us who are products of BUDL have always occupied its least paid and least powerful positions. I don’t make this point to suggest that first year college grads should be given control over important organizational decisions. The dynamic does illustrate, though, that hiring BUDL alum does not translate to facilitating authentic community power.
One interesting thing to note is that LBS appears on BUDL’s list of partners. LBS has never expressed to BUDL that we are a community partner. There are only two things that BUDL has done that might suggest that we were partners. First, BUDL did pay for several of its students to come to our debate institute at Morgan State last year. Second, BUDL students participated in the Baltimore Mixtape Project (which was an effort spearheaded by Deverick Murray and Chris Baron, both BUDL staff members who were fired last year). Contracting for services does not create a partnership. There has never been active attempt to involve LBS in the trajectory of BUDL. In fact, the substance of the partnership was the free/cheap labor we provided through the debate training that many of the students sought out from the various members of LBS.
After Pam had quietly rejected our first proposal of an equitable partnership, she seemed to be was under the impression that there was a concerted effort on the part of LBS to “boycott” BUDL. This notion is foolish for many reasons, including the fact that many debaters affiliated with LBS still participated in BUDL. Our presence at tournaments was always a major force at BUDL events. In many ways, we were essential in generating interest in high school debate in Baltimore. This was not reflected in any significant form of compensation. We never asked to be adequately compensated because we are so invested in the work that we freely gave of our resources to help students. What is important to note is the work we did that made BUDL’s program viable. Pam was making more than $100,000 a year directing a program that was buttressed by Black labor volunteered by LBS and others. Why should we engage in any partnership that offers us crumbs, while others make six figure salaries and get credit for the success of the students who we train?
After Pam rejected my proposal for a partnership between LBS and BUDL, fired Deverick (a member of our executive board) and Chris Baron (a dedicated ally to LBS and co-founder of BUDL) we decided that we needed to build the infrastructure for a debate program of our own. What is insulting about the idea that we were boycotting BUDL is that it assumes that we are initiating an act of aggression toward BUDL. In actuality we were building our own program in response to BUDL rejecting an equitable partnership. We are not interested in being upset with BUDL, we just want to build a grassroots entity that can help to produce world class scholars and advocates. We want the power and control that all people are entitled to as it relates to the institutions in their communities.
IF IT’S GOOD FOR BLACK PEOPLE, IT’S GOOD FOR EVERYBODY
One thing that many of you may be thinking is “not all the youth in Baltimore are Black. What about non-Black students?” Contrary to what you might think our debate pedagogy has been used and deployed by debaters of many different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Our summer camp has attracted students from other racial and backgrounds. We focus on Black empowerment because we are in a majority Black city that has issues that are specific to Black people, but other groups have been able to study our struggle for freedom and used it as a template for developing their own liberation strategies. The Black Panther Party for Self Defense would join forces with organizations like the Brown Berets, the Puerto Rican Lords, the Red Guard and Students for a Democratic Society in multiracial coalitions that respected the cultural autonomy of each group. The need for multi-racial coalitions does not require that we reject calls for independent Black institutions for the purpose of inclusivity. In fact it is quite the opposite; we cannot have genuine inclusivity unless we have organizations and institutions that will allow us to participate in these coalitions from a position of strength, and not dependence on the goodwill of others. This does not exclude youth who are non-Black; instead it gives them a grounding that allows them to truly understand what social justice is really about.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
When we criticized Hathaway Ferebee back in 2012 for being an example of the non-profit industrial complex she tried to muddy the conversation by saying that we had called her a racist. This is simply annoying because it never happened. Our argument was never about her character, but she began spreading this idea around town that we were calling her racist. She made the issue about her personal feelings, which took away from the substantive argument that we were making, which was that her advocacy on the Youth Jail issue positioned her as a leader on addressing mass incarceration which usurps the social capital that should be reserved for Black grassroots organizations. She positions herself to benefit socially and financially from the miseries of Black people. Doing so perpetuates white control of Black issues. This is not an indictment of her intentions or character but of the political and economic consequences of her actions. This is not a person attack but an observation about the entire industry of philanthropy here in Baltimore. Pam has put herself in the same category as Hathaway Ferebee and others. I’ve known Pam since I was 15 and she is a very nice woman. She had provided many opportunities to me that I otherwise wouldn’t have had. But this does not make her immune to criticism when her actions are hurting the people she believes she is trying to help.
IT IS IMPORTANT FOR THIS MESSAGE TO GO OUT TO THE PUBLIC
BUDL no longer has either the focus or the expertise to carry out its mission. There is only one person on the entire staff at BUDL who has meaningful policy debate experience. No one on their staff has anything close to our track record of producing nationally successful debaters. In fact, if you ask any of the students who have been successful in debate in Baltimore they will attribute that success to a member of LBS. BUDL is not an agent of transformative education for youth in Baltimore. It is merely an extension of the status quo liberal education model that does not equip students with the tools for genuine community empowerment. People need to understand this as they make decisions about who to support with their time, money and resources.
Making this argument publicly has caused us to be maligned in many circles here in Baltimore. Our commitment to our vision for Black Liberation has surely cost us grant money and favor in a philanthropic industry that would surely support us if we would just “behave” and play their game. Playing that game would be a betrayal of our experience, education and, most importantly, our students. This means that we will need help to finance the independent work we do. Become a partner in our work and support one of the following initiatives that will help us to be an authentic voice from the Baltimore grassroots.
A NEW VISION FORWARD
This is also a message to the philanthropic community: We will not be quiet about your role in perpetuating white supremacy in Baltimore.
Just as we have advocated against mass incarceration in our fight against the Youth Jail and advocated against police brutality in our fight to pass Christopher’s Law, we will advocate against the parasitic nature in which the non-profit industrial complex in Baltimore uses Black suffering to create white institutional power. The only people who are qualified to liberate us is us. We do not want your charity, we want justice. Unless you are willing to be beholden to Black power you are a part of the problem no matter how good your intensions are.
We advocate the following principles as a guide for producing a new paradigm for white philanthropic involvement in Black empowerment.
1) Resist the urge to fix it – Often times people have ideas about how they will “fix” our problems and attempt to carry out solutions without accountability to our communities. This is the soft bigotry of white supremacy. The only people that can fix our problems is us. Black people should not look to white people for solutions to our problems. White people can’t fix us. White people can help to support those who will empower us, white people can lend forums and platforms for us to mobilize, but white people and others who are not from our communities or immersed in the history and culture of the communities being served must resist the urge to think they can fix our problems for us.
2) Stop giving white people money to fix Black problems – If people are willing to be honest, white people give their white peers in Baltimore millions of dollars to engage in thought experiments on “disadvantaged kids.” White people usually occupy social networks that give them access to the opportunities that are not typically afforded to those of us in the community. Put simply, white people need to stop giving their buddies the hook-up. Instead, they need to make appropriate investments in the people who will produce their own liberation.
3) The most important investment you can make is to provide resources for capacity development for independent Black institutions – There are so many institutions and organizations that have formed to address very specific problems in the Black community. While this is a noble gesture, there is no possible way that these problems can be fixed if there are not infrastructures in place for us to maintain and fix our own problems. Black institutional capacity is a pre-requisite to any meaningful notion of social justice. If Black families in Black communities have access to strong independent social, political, and economic institutions, then there would be no need for any of the social justice campaigns that pertain to Black people.