Helping Others, Helping Ourselves: Power, Giving, and Community Identity in Cleveland, Ohio, 1880-1930

Helping Others, Helping Ourselves: Power, Giving, and Community Identity in Cleveland, Ohio, 1880-1930

Helping Others, Helping Ourselves: Power, Giving, and Community Identity in Cleveland, Ohio, 1880-1930

Helping Others, Helping Ourselves: Power, Giving, and Community Identity in Cleveland, Ohio, 1880-1930

Synopsis

Individuals and communities have historically reinforced values and shaped society in ways that best fit their own objectives. This study re-evaluates the interaction between religious, ethnic-, racial-, gender-, and class-based values and ideals and giving, based on Ohio between 1990 and 1930.

Excerpt

Recently a great deal of public discussion has occurred over who should care for America’s poor, who should regulate and encourage the arts, and who should be responsible for helping meet needs within various communities. Politicians, business leaders, and scholars are engaged in a debate about the role of the state and of the nonprofit sector in addressing these needs. From the concept of “a thousand points of light” to the attention that works such as Marvin Olasky’s highly popular and controversial Tragedy of American Compassion and Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone have received from notable politicians, in the current political climate this debate has often been focused on issues of volunteerism, charity, and philanthropy. Particularly contested is the issue of returning more responsibility for the nation’s well-being to private philanthropists and the nonprofit sector.

In writing Helping Others, Helping Ourselves, I add one historian’s voice to this debate. Readers should not, however, mistake what is written here as support for those who lament “the good old days” and urge a return to older and better times when local communities cared for themselves. Rather, I would ask readers to recognize that the past is indeed a foreign country and thus, solutions to the problems of turn-of-the-century Americans can hardly be expected to work in a greatly changed American society. As a historian, then, I am in no sense advocating a return to a particular style of giving and volunteering; rather, I am providing a cautionary tale for modern policy makers.

If there is a lesson in this work for contemporaries interested in philanthropy and the nonprofit sector, it is, most simply put, that giving is power. In the period considered here, various individuals and communities used their donations of time and money to actively shape their society and the lives of others around them. Individual philanthropists and community groups could be farsighted or limiting, hegemonic or altruistic. The interests and desires of philanthropists, good or bad, were represented and cultivated through their giving and volunteering. Thus, in the Progressive Era, as today, the issue of who controlled the . . .

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