By Caelan Navarro, (alias) radical queer grant writer

CW: Mentions of trauma, including domestic violence and sexual assault.


As much as I value my rights, I am not willing to jeopardize the service you provide to thousands of people.

I’ve always been a writer. I’ve even been published a few times, written and directed a play, and had some success writing punk lyrics and insurrectionary poems. I’ve also really enjoyed teaching writing as a way to empower marginalized communities. Writing has saved me from feeling voiceless in this capitalist hellscape.

I currently write grants for a nonprofit that provides emergency interim housing to people experiencing homelessness. 

I haven’t always been a grant writer. I’ve done everything from digging trenches for asparagus farming to changing diapers as a nanny in the wealthy neighborhoods of San Francisco. But at some point, as I experienced different health problems and resistance as a multiply marginalized person, I got interested in and involved in the disability justice movement and learned I could use my writing skills for change.

Grant writing allows me to write for a living while ostensibly doing less harm under capitalism than I would be at a for-profit company and helping a few people. Fundraising is essentially about building relationships with people who have inherited wealth and helping them redistribute it in a useful way. But, for me, this work is still just harm reduction within an inherently destructive economic system. 

Nonprofits, by design, are highly problematic. They can operate as hiding places for wealth, be poverty pimps, and quell revolutionary potential. This last is sinister, accomplished by derailing people’s movements with reforms that benefit governments and wealthy classes more than the people they claim to serve.

(Truth be told, I’d rather be rioting, which is the most useful tool for change I’ve encountered. Unfortunately, I don’t have the ability anymore.) 

So here I am. 

My current sector is emergency interim housing. I feel like I work in a bandaid factory – claiming to be a cutting-edge surgery center – while people are bleeding out. 

The lying hurts. 

I’ve been unhoused three times and chose camping and squatting over shelters because, in my experience, these institutions made me pray to a God that wasn’t mine just to eat, and I felt shame. 

I started shoplifting and eating out of the trash instead. 

Shelters have come a long way – there are funders who won’t give money to places that make you practice their religion to get service – but they still have a lot of issues. 

Where I work, some of our shelters have mold, sometimes people get their gear stolen, and sometimes staff members sleep with the clients. 

Despite all this, I empathize with the program staff, who often come from the same communities as the clients. We are all trauma survivors. I’ve done front-line programmatic work, and the burnout factor is real.

I’ve worked hard to have a job where I get to be in an office and don’t suffer constant vicarious trauma heaped on my own from domestic violence and multiple sexual assaults. However,  I wasn’t prepared for the thick office politics, petty power struggles, and straight-up abuse in the administrative setting. 

I went in wide-eyed, excited to write professionally and give back to my community. I wanted to use the skills that helped me survive to redistribute wealth so people didn’t have to go through what I went through. 

I entered into an abusive relationship with my manager. 

It kind of crept up on me, but then it was all too familiar: the isolation, erosion of self-esteem, changing rules (that only my manager could tell me how to navigate), the negation of my ideas, and cutting off avenues for advancement. My manager encourages an atmosphere of gossip and mistrust while hoarding institutional knowledge. 

I feel bad for him. He needs healing, but I’m not the one to offer that to him. He has power over my livelihood, and I don’t have the luxury of extending myself to help him grow. 

Here’s what I wish I could say to him: 

As much as I value my rights, I am not willing to jeopardize the service you provide to thousands of people.

We’re all being squeezed by a scarcity of resources on one side and our desire to help our communities on the other. This wage of conscience is part of what makes nonprofits insidious from a worker’s rights perspective. Part of our payment is that we get to feel good about the work we do, and we are sometimes practically held hostage by not wanting to rock the boat and make our client’s lives harder.

No matter what you think, you said some really inappropriate, discriminatory, and illegal things. However, my hands are tied by my moral compass and lack of selfishness.

You say you value relationship building. But if you truly value relationship building, you will be willing to step outside this context, where you have power over my livelihood, and really examine this situation. 

Let’s find legit mediation to discuss what’s happening between you and me because it is very problematic. I’m not just talking about protected identities and workplace psychological safety, but patriarchy, power dynamics, and prioritizing intrigue over principles. 

Let’s discuss gay male misogyny and the policing of queer femininities.  Let’s examine the myth that the oppressed cannot oppress. Let’s ask the question: can gay men perform misogyny in ways that fly under the radar because of their sexually marginalized status?

Our current direct-report/managerial relationship is abusive. I feel isolated and at the whim of someone who has power over me. It is very difficult to thrive in these circumstances. I feel that I have to make a smokescreen of engagement with you to satisfy your ego, as another part of my job, while fact-checking your advice and management with other sources so I don’t get harmed by it. I know you think of yourself as a good manager who has taken me under their wing to mentor me. It is exhausting to help you maintain this illusion with silence. 

We, as an organization, encourage trauma-informed care for clients. I believe part of why I was hired was my lived experience status. But when I try to bring my full self to my job, I find it unsafe. When you tried to tone-police me along gender lines, and I pushed back, you threatened me with retaliation. How is this behavior moving our organizational mission forward?

I’m not going to say any of that to him. 

I’m on my way out while trying to protect myself from harm, walking that line between avoiding further retaliation and spiraling into depression while my self-care routine erodes. I don’t want to jump to another job out of desperation, so I will stick it out as long as I can. 

I have a PTSD diagnosis, and that affects my tolerance for abusive behavior. What I’m finding is that having PTSD makes it difficult to practice professional soft skills. When I don’t feel emotionally safe with someone, I clam up. I am not skilled at verbal fencing. 

As an abusive survivor, I’m vulnerable to domination and self-hate. It’s like a script in my brain that’s always ready to run. I have to work really hard to counter it, and when I have an active bully in my life, it takes all my focus to perform the activities of daily living. 

One of the symptoms of PTSD is dissociation. This makes it hard to stay in a conversation with someone who doesn’t see you as an equal or have your best interest at heart. I feel harm, and I just kind of leave my body and go somewhere else until it’s over. I’m healing from this. 

On the bright side, I love grant writing. I love getting paid to write every day. I love being a part of wealth redistribution. I am hopeful that there is a way to be part of systemic change through this broken nonprofit apparatus. 

I know the revolution will not be funded, but we must survive. I, for one, am not ready to be a martyr.

Caelan Navarro

Caelan Navarro

Caelan Navarro (they/them) enjoys writing and caring for houseplants and other creatures. They encourage everyone to read The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex. By: INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence.