As we all manifest being where the money resides, I think it is incredibly important to share the following story.
Since my research in financial trauma has been published, I’ve been asked to work on a number of really exciting projects. I’m always quick to want to get started on the work because anything that is in pursuit of wealth justice I want to be doing. Most recently, I was asked to join a project to train advocates for a population that often experiences multiple forms of financial trauma, abuse, and shame. I was thrilled to be asked to join the work.
Of course, before you can get started on any project, you have to go through the contracts process. We tend to think these things shouldn’t be too difficult because usually we prioritize payment terms (and yes, we deserve to be adequately compensated for our work and time; even if it’s just consultations). What we often do not do during contract negotiations is apply an understanding of financial trauma, abuse, and shame when we examine line-items and clauses in the contracts.
Thinking that this contract negotiation process would be quick and straightforward since all of the numbers were worked out, I was happy to read the suggested contract (and of course get my legal counsel’s eyes on it too). Though the payment terms were clearly define and agreeable, the ownership section was not. In my experience, ownership sections in contracts are ripe contexts for financial abuse.
When I read the ownership section, it essentially said anything I produce would be owned by the partner I would be working with. This is despite the fact that I would be using my previously published research and works that I would be leveraging to build the products the partner requested of me. Upon reading it initially, I was annoyed but I remember that language like this is “standard.” Yes, institutions choose to automatically strip you of owning your work (because…capitalism). I knew we’d simply need to request changing this language to either licensing my work or co-ownership, which I’m comfortable with in certain contexts.
The partner refused to accept. As my lawyer and I sent new language to compromise, more language continued to be added about use of my previous works and if I were to add to or change previously published works for the purpose of this project, they would own that too. In fact, they would have “first and complete” right to distribute the work and if I wanted to use what I produced I’d have to get CEO approval. Yikes!
After gathering my composure, I knew it was time to walk away from the offer and name what was happening.
According to my research (that I own!), financial abuse is when an event, policy, action, or cultural message inequitably reinforces the conditions that impairs a person’s financial capability. There are two things to clarify. First, institutional choices and procedures fall under “policy,” and therefore can be financially abusive. Second, I see a person’s financial capability as much more than their ability to attain material compensation. In fact, when I discuss financial capability, I am thinking about how an event, policy, action, or cultural message systematically denies or offers a person (or her/his/their work) safety, dignity, and belonging. When contracts strip ownership from the creator, that institution is systematically stripping that person and her/his/their work of its dignity. As such, it becomes much harder for that person to attain material safety or improved financial capability.
I knew I needed to name this abuse because that’s one way we can fight agains the pervasiveness of institutional financial abuse. I offer these excerpts to you in case you need to use them in the future:
“In the spirit of my work in financial trauma and abuse, I have studied and written about how policies and institutional choices can strip persons and communities of their inherent safety, dignity, and belonging. That’s fundamental to the definition of financial abuse. Though I do not believe this may be the intention here, contractual line-items that strip people of the ownership of their work is a form of financial abuse that is unfortunately all too common…I’m not comfortable with this and feel as though I cannot move forward given the effect I understand financial abuse to have.”
I closed with:
“Again, I feel like these common practices/line-items are not often thought about through the context of financial abuse, which is why it is likely this may not be intentional. And though I understand why you all feel this is necessary, it does not seem at this moment we are able to compromise on language that honors both what you all are committed to and what I feel like I must honor given my work and research…I am always open to revisiting this in the future if we are able to look at this issue through the aforementioned lens I have introduced.”
We must name financial abuse when it’s happening. And those who engage us or our work need to be accountable to how they are perpetrating financial abuse, which leads to financial trauma. I do not believe in prescribing what is best for anyone other than myself, so my hope is that there is a lesson you feel you can take away from this experience.
Chloe B. McKenzie is a researcher, writer, educator, and wealth justice activist. Chloe is the founder and visionary of BlackFem, a nonprofit, and Equiddie; working for the past six years at the intersection of education, finance, social justice, and the visual and performing arts. Today, she is conducting ground breaking research on financial trauma, abuse, and shame, with the intention of starting a collective healing process that undoes generations of violent, systemic financial trauma.