Recess has announced plans for an unprecedented $2 million contribution
In a historic move, the New York City-based arts organization Recess has announced plans for an unprecedented $2 million contribution the organization received in May of 2019. After an intensive visioning process led by Recess artists, youth, staff, board and outside practitioners, they have developed a sustainable long-term strategy to distribute the $2 million, and future funds, within their community of artists and system impacted youth. Using the guiding principle, “if I have a dollar, you have a dollar,” Recess plans to distribute $1 million in unrestricted cash to community members by the end of the year. Community members will be invited to opt in to an even cut, to opt out entirely, or to request a specific dollar amount of their choosing based on immediate need, relative proximity to power, whiteness, wealth-building tools and networks.
Recess also announced that the second $1 million will be placed in a financial trust stewarded by community members, who will receive compensation for this work. These funds are intended to be similarly distributed within Recess’ community in the future. The organization shared that they are working to build pathways and advocate for wealthy individuals interested in just wealth redistribution to replenish these funds whenever they are distributed to and by community members.
Recess received this $2 million contribution form MacKenzie Scott and Dan Jewett and was one of 286 organizations that collectively received $2.74 billion from the couple as part of their recent spate of philanthropic giving. In 2019, following her divorce from Amazon founder and executive chairman Jeff Bezos, Scott pledged to give away her fortune until the “safe is empty.” Forbes recently estimated that the percent of Amazon shares she received as part of their divorce is now worth $60 billion, nearly doubling since their settlement. The size and pacing of Scott’s giving is substantial. She gave away a total of $6 billion in 2020, an incredibly perilous year for nonprofits: More than one-third of nonprofits in the United States are in jeopardy of closing within two years because of financial shortfalls caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Small arts and culture nonprofits, like Recess, are particularly vulnerable because they typically don’t hold much cash and cannot reduce expenses. An unrestricted gift of $2 million is an organization-saving windfall that could be stored away in investments, generating passive income for future use. However, rather than hoarding this sudden flush of cash for future programming or operating costs, Recess decided to re-envision what philanthropy might look like, using the money to provide immediate financial support for their community.
In their public statement, Recess lambasted the traditional understanding of philanthropy, proposing that philanthropic gifts often place the donor center stage and frame the donor or institution as the hero. Recess refuses to make generosity, rather than justice and repair, the central feature of this story and asserts that this contribution is part of a debt owed to these communities. This debt comes from centuries of systemic inequities and oppressive systems that reinforce racism and cycles of disenfranchisement and poverty; Recess argues, this debt is long overdue and ever-growing. Through this process of wealth redistribution, the organization honors individuals who have thrived despite systemic oppression as heroes and seeks to begin remedying this debt owed.
While MacKenzie Scott acknowledges that she earned her fortune from extractive systems in need of change, these philanthropic gifts do not absolve her. They are rightful payments on the debts owed to the people impacted by the systemic oppression that makes her exorbitant wealth possible. As Recess developed their plans for the funds, they asked, “What happens if system-impacted individuals and artists control the power and resources rather than receive funds in exchange for programmatic output? What if we forefront the basic needs of our visionaries and organizers who, despite centuries of extraction, hold all the tools required to thrive?” By drawing on the networks of trust they’ve built for more than a decade, Recess can quickly channel this money into their communities, foregrounding the humanity of people directly impacted by systems of oppression with empathy, an accomplishment they rightfully assert most institutions lack the tools to achieve. People working to build power from within communities are the agents of change, a sentiment echoed by Scott in her blog post, their service supports and empowers people who go on to support and empower others.
Recess declares: “If resource mobilization is rooted in an economy of trust, care and accountability then money can be moved to those owed rather than absolving donors from the systems of white supremacy we perpetuate. This process, therefore, centers the wellbeing and empowerment of the recipient, not the pride and comfort of the benefactor.”
Through this strategy for resource mobilization, Recess models what philanthropy could be—a process of wealth redistribution that empowers communities and individuals impacted by systemic, pays long-overdue debts, and refuses to ignore the exploitation required to make donor’s wealth possible.
Recess partners with artists to build a more just and equitable creative community. By welcoming radical thinkers to imagine and shape networks of resilience and safety, Recess defines and advances the possibilities of contemporary art.
Our programs offer space and resources to generate art, ideas and actions that challenge dominant narratives and activate new forms. Recess is always free and open to the public to serve as a meeting place for meaningful exchange across a multiplicity of communities.