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Governing Poverty Amidst Plenty: Philanthropic Investments and the California Dream



Governing Poverty Amidst Plenty:

Philanthropic Investments and the California Dream


Erica L. Kohl

Doctor of Philosophy in Education

University of California, Berkeley

Professor Harley Shaiken, Chair

Described as the `New Appalachia,' California's Central Valley ranks number one on the Brookings Institution's American poverty list. In the past two years newspapers ranging from the Los Angeles Times to the Washington Post ran headline stories featuring the Central Valley's dependence on large-scale agriculture and its resulting income stagnation, `brain drain', and deepening poverty and insecurity in isolated migrant farmworker settlements across the region. This dissertation is a historical study of philanthropic interventions into migrant farmworker poverty across California's Central Valley from the 1960's Farm Worker Movement to the present. It explores the ways in which foundation driven programs to address migrant poverty amidst great agricultural wealth manage or `govern' the work of farmworker organizers and institutions across the region.

Over the past ten years an unprecedented number of private foundation grants have been made to farmworker organizations across California's Central Valley. While philanthropic investments in migrant institutions have not significantly altered the terrain of farmworker organizing, they have promoted institutional arrangements and theoretical frameworks that contain the work of farmworker organizations and advocates. In this dissertation I specifically interrogate how processes of professionalization and `participatory' ideas promoted through foundations such as self-help, community development, immigrant integration, civic participation, and asset-based community development are negotiated by institutional 'grantees,' and ultimately structure the ways in which historic farm worker movement organizations build institutions and organizing strategies. Through an analysis of archival data and interviews with historic movement leaders and current foundation and nonprofit staff, this dissertation shows how, while philanthropic investments in farmworker communities are greater than ever, regional program managers are more reluctant to address the problems faced by farmworkers such as pesticides poisoning, low wages, and substandard health and housing conditions. The specific `win-win' asset based approach popular with the most recent foundation initiatives facilitates processes that identify the places where growers and workers can work together, avoiding problem-based causes where growers' economic interests may be challenged. Operating under the 'win-win' model, at a time when growers and workers alike are suffering from the financial crisis and drought, advocates find themselves further away from addressing the structural issues of a farm labor system that relies on constant streams of migrant workers from poor pueblos in Mexico.

This dissertation contributes to the emerging body of scholarship on philanthropy and social change by complicating arguments that either promote foundations as positive agents of social progress or critique them as monolithic imperialist institutions with clear agendas of co-optation and control. In complicating theories of social control and cooptation, my intention is not to defend private grant making foundations as effective agents of social movements or even to disagree with the ultimate dilution of organizing agendas that foundation grants often initiate. My aim is to encourage scholars and activists to confront the current paradigm where foundations are viewed as unified institutions of power with clearly articulated political agendas of which we have little understanding and therefore no ability to change. Throughout the dissertation, I do this by showing how decisions made between funders and movement leaders are, while not without consequences, often multi-layered and contingent, as opposed to being driven by a single political agenda of cooptation and repression as is now commonly argued. This is the first scholarly work on California foundations, and their relationship to farmworker institutions.

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