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Ford Foundation Fabrications About the “New Student Power” Movement

The Ford Foundation recently published their own think piece inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, intriguingly titled “The New Student Power.” The author, Holly Fetter, a Stanford University Tom Ford Fellow in Philanthropy, proudly states that, “At Ford, our support for the Student Power model and its movements is an investment in the future of social change.”

As an example of this “investment,” Fetter cites the Ohio Student Association’s (OSA) actions in response to the police murder of John Crawford III, a 22-year old black man shot to death in a Walmart on August 5th, 2014 while holding a toy BB gun. After chronicling the OSA’s efforts to release the tape of the killing and their occupation of the Beavercreek Police Station, Fetter celebrates the “victories” that followed: the formation of a “special state task force on community-police relations” and an invitation to one lucky OSA student to meet with President Barack Obama.

It’s worth asking what the Ford Foundation means by “victories.” Both of their examples not only rely on the state, but fail to even demonstrate tangible state-driven “social change.” The reader is comfortably sedated into Orwellian bliss: in order to stop state violence, one needs to do no more than turn to the state for the remedy. Even a state policy change is too much to ask for; a nominal “task force” or meeting with President Obama in between his important work of authorizing the next drone strike in Pakistan will do.

There is a deep irony in Ford’s singling out of Ohio as the model for “New Student Power.” Mentioning “Ohio” and “student power” to a progressive baby boomer in the same breath can’t help but evoke memories of the May 4th, 1970 massacre at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, in which the National Guard murdered four students and wounded nine others during a protest against the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. The Ford Foundation has learned well from the subliminal messaging of its colleagues in advertising: if you respond to state murder logically by confronting the state instead of appealing to it, it goes without saying what it might have in store for you. The “sophisticated strategy” of the new student organizers in Ohio comes from an understanding of state history and has adapted accordingly, thanks to help from Ford’s ever-beneficent guidance.

There are undoubtedly radical students within an organization like the OSA, students who don’t see task forces or cocktails with the President as victories in themselves and who strive to tirelessly push their struggles forward. And it is clear that the Ford Foundation’s mission is to make sure these students’ voices are never heard or are nipped in the bud before they can even articulate themselves. A great way to do this is to invite student activists to present stories like the OSA’s in front of “a rapt audience of funders, organizers, and leaders at ‘The New Student Power’ a convening held at the Ford Foundation’s headquarters in New York City.” There’s nothing like attending a conference hosted by the company whose ‘innovations’ have come to stand for the exploitation and alienation of 20th century capitalism in one word—“Fordism”—to silence any rumbles of revolution.

What exactly makes Ford so excited about students? According to Ford Foundation program officer Jee Kim, it’s their “unblinking ambition to resolve our society’s deepest contradictions.” As Fetter elaborates, “Youth organizers in this network bring a truly intersectional lens to their work. They see little reason to parse out which elements of their activism are focused on [sic], for example, racial justice versus LGBT justice—both are deeply embedded in their movements’ leadership, strategies, tactics, and analyses.”

The Ford Foundation’s vision is one where we can all be happy and comfortable in our identities, relishing the insights of our “intersectional lens,” even as our very subjective experience is commodified by capitalism. If there was ever a case of capital’s almost uncontainable excitement at the prospects of identity politics, this is it. There’s nothing quite like a foundation “established to help keep the company in the family without paying estate taxes,” and whose ‘philanthropic’ funding has been historically pivotal in co-opting political dissent, to inspire the next generation of “progressive movements.”

It’s not a coincidence that Ford’s enthusiasm for identity politics is matched by its commitment to the electoral system. Fetter writes that the “Student Power model . . . connects social movements to the electoral process, and helps student organizing efforts extend beyond campus politics and contribute to local and statewide policy wins . . .” It would be more accurate to say that it subordinates social movements to the electoral process. As Gopal Guru argues, “Since politics based on identity uses community resources for personal advancement, it essentially eschews the need for mass movement . . .” just as it “requires both nationalism and liberalism” for “its own recognition [and] articulation.” But what’s the point of creating a politics beyond the dead end of elections and identity politics if the Ford Foundation can help us funnel (and fund) our “boundless energy” into ever-elusive “policy wins”?

And what is all of this to-do about “student” and “youth power”? Kim is right when he says that young people have an “incredible appetite for risk.” But risk-taking isn’t inherently politically progressive: one can just as easily channel this “appetite” into financial speculation or white nationalist politics as one can “youth power” or something more radical. Indeed, 21 year-old Dylann Roof’s actions could be called a product of young people’s “incredible appetite for risk” just as much as 17 year-old Jonathan Jackson’s could. The fact is that “generational thinking” is “fatally flawed as a mode of understanding the world.” Most fundamentally, it is a way of thinking wielded by Ford and its capitalist ilk to assert that differences, interests, and struggles fall along the lines of age rather than along those of class.

What must we do to combat this carefully concocted claptrap of Ford, which is but one example of the reign of terror that private foundations and their pivotal role in the non-profit industrial complex have unleashed on our struggles? First, as students, we must understand that, just as white people must reject the notion that we can combat racism “as white people,” we must abandon the idea that we can be effective political actionists “as students.” Only intergenerational struggle against the interests represented by intergenerational capitalists like the Ford fmaily stands any chance of being effective.

Second, it would be wise to heed the words of rapper Jean Grae to “take it back,” to reject the co-option, direction, and control of our lives and movements by the very forces killing black people in the streets, exploiting workers, funding imperialist wars, and murdering the planet. While developing the mass support in our communities necessary to sustain radical organizations and movements that refuse to take foundation funding is more difficult than schmoozing with the Ford Foundation in New York City, it is absolutely necessary if we wish to create a truly powerful and combative movement for a democratic and sustainable future.

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Vincent Kelley is a thinker, organizer, musician, and member of the Saturday Free School for Philosophy & Black Liberation in Philadelphia, PA. He can be reached at kelleyvincent@gmail.com

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