The limits of giving

I suppose that as president of Lehman Council, it’s my job to tell you that the Great Day of Service, this Saturday, is going to be the biggest, most important service event in the history of Williams College, with over 120 students volunteering on 11 service projects throughout the Northern Berkshires. I should also mention that spots are still open and that it’s not too late to sign up.

But to be perfectly honest with you, even I sometimes find it easy to be cynical about things like Saturday. It’s not because of the old saw that Williams students are apathetic – they’re not, and the outpouring of interest Lehman has received for Great Day of Service is more than enough to convince anyone who thinks otherwise. What makes it easy to be cynical is the fear that the event might feed into a particular culture of “giving” in our society that can actually mask inequalities and foreclose possibilities for social change.

Don’t get me wrong: There’s a lot of important philanthropy that goes on in the nonprofit sector. But too often, “giving back” is something that leaves much to be desired. Too often, we participate in service work in ways that can cut off our engagement with the people we purportedly intend to help. We write a check for a fashionable cause. We drop off a bag of clothes we’ve outgrown or gotten tired of. We put in several hours of volunteer work one Saturday and then never talk again to the people we have met on the service project.
It’s not that these actions aren’t already admirable. In fact, one could very reasonably argue that they are above and beyond what is morally necessary or required from an individual. If these actions are analogized on a broader, societal scale though, they reveal how the assumptions behind our culture of “giving” can sometimes perpetuate deep social inequalities.

Consider, for example, the multi-billion dollar apparel industry of Los Angeles, which annually donates millions to worthy causes like the City of Hope hospital, founded in 1913 after a garment worker died from tuberculosis because he could not afford health care. The generosity of these retailers and manufacturers is unquestionable, but it does nothing to address the irony that these same companies profit handsomely from an apparel industry structured so that factories (in L.A. and abroad) offer garment workers such rock bottom wages that many to this day still forgo adequate healthcare for lack of ability to pay. Instead of exercising their control over the apparel industry so that workers get health insurance (even if it would mean a cut into their profits), retailers and manufacturers turn to charity to address the problems they have a hand in causing.

The United States may have one of the highest philanthropy rates in the world, but nearly all the cash that fuels the nonprofit industry comes from corporate donors that prefer to give away sums of money – which are actually quite negligible when compared to the quarterly returns they post – rather than confront the fact that they profit off the maintenance of social inequality. Instead of paying workers fairer wages, thereby responding to poverty at its source, corporate America has tended to accumulate profits at the top, creating one of the widest gaps between rich and poor in American history.

To illustrate, 30 years ago, the average salary, minus stock options and bonuses, of the top 500 CEOs was 40 times the salary of the average worker. Today it is 866 times. And perhaps the most insidious consequence of this American culture of “giving” is that it justifies the rollback and defunding of important social programs under the belief that the government has little responsibility for the poor (or minorities or the disabled) and that private charities can better provide for them.

Given how easy it is to be cynical about the Great Day of Service, given the possibility that it could buy into the logic behind this culture of “giving,” let me explain to you why I have decided against cynicism. Williams students are too intelligent to let the Great Day of Service become that kind of event. Williams students will use these service projects as an opportunity not only to give to people but to engage with them. Williams students will initiate a process of inquiry into why there is so much inequality in our society, and we will bring this inquiry to bear with systemic solutions for the problems we see. We will follow in the footsteps of Mike Curtin ’86, who started his own restaurant and then became CEO of one of the largest soup kitchens in D.C. (and who will speak on campus tomorrow) or like the Williams students 20 years ago who founded the Berkshire Food Project, which still operates today. The purple bubble is a myth if I’ve ever heard one, and if you don’t believe me, come find out for yourself on Saturday.

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