Monthly Archives: December 2013

The fall semester has come to an end and we want to thank our fellows for their amazing work! As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “we pray through our feet.” This year’s fellows have been marching for change through the important action, reflection, and connection they’ve engaged in through the Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship. We look forward to next semester as these JTS changemakers continue to pursue justice.

Check out photos from our semester here:

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Creating Shared Value

When most people think of “social justice,” they think of grassroots non-profit organizations with big dreams and small budgets. These people want to change the world from the ground up and are fighting against “the man” to do it. Social justice is reserved for the altruistic who believe that their lives should be devoted to helping those less fortunate than themselves, expecting little or nothing in return.

My social sustice experience is extraordinarily different from anything described above, and is rarely associated with social justice or social entrepreneurship at all. And, although it is recently making headlines most people don’t even know that it exists, and even fewer know that it serves as the engine behind many organizations in today’s social sector.

I’m talking about “corporate social responsibility,” or “CSR,” for short. CSR involves large for-profit companies “giving back” by giving money in the form of grants, in-kind donation, or giving time through employee volunteer programs. Many of this country’s largest companies give away millions of dollars a year and thousands of hours of volunteer time to help non-profit organizations all over the globe solve pressing social issues. And notably, many of these large companies approach the social sector with a keen business eye, which helps organizations run more efficiently and successfully.

Through the Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship, I work as an intern at Alcoa Foundation. You might not have heard of Alcoa, but it’s actually one of 125 largest companies the United States, and you’ve certainly come in contact with it. Alcoa mines most of the aluminum that we use every day. If you’ve ever been in a building made with aluminum, driven a car that has aluminum, flown in an airplane, or even had a drink from a can of soda, you’ve certainly come in contact Alcoa’s product. Alcoa Foundation is also one of the biggest corporate foundations in the world, with an endowment of over $530 million. In 2012, Alcoa Foundation donated over $25 million to NGOs around the globe. Alcoa’s 61,000 worldwide employees donated 800,000 hours of their own time volunteering in their communities.

The numbers are certainly impressive, and every day during my internship I come in contact with people and organizations that have been affected by the work of Alcoa Foundation. I have come to take great pride in the work that Alcoa does to promote volunteerism and community service, and see the company as a truly responsible citizen in the for profit space.

Of course, we have to ask why. Why do companies that exist for the purpose of making money and delivering to shareholders, just give it away? Over the course of my internship, this has been the question that plagues me every day. On the one hand – and this is where things get tricky – corporations participate in philanthropic and social efforts in order to maintain what we call a “social license to operate.” Customers will associate positively with brands that are publicly giving back to their communities. And these companies aren’t shy about their own giving back. At Alcoa, for example, the Foundation features prominently on the front page of the website, even though their CSR work is such a tiny portion of what the company does. Still, Alcoa wants anyone who comes to the website to instantly see that they “give back.” Consumer-facing companies (that is, companies who sell to the general public, unlike Alcoa which only sells to other companies), create television commercials and print ads that display their philanthropic efforts.

Every year, corporate foundations get their name into the social sphere by attending benefit dinners (and paying handsomely for them), complete with their logo in the ad book. Corporations understand that they have a poor reputation – especially after the recent recession – and they use philanthropy to bolster this reputation. This depiction of CSR is cynical, and grim. Sometimes, it makes me question what I do.

But there’s an upside, and this has been my greatest takeaway from my work at Alcoa Foundation. Even if there is a PR side to CSR (and there certainly is), at the end of the day, corporations give billions and billions of dollars to charity every single year. There are a number organizations I can think of (but cannot disclose) that would simply be unable to do the work they do without the help of Alcoa Foundation. Non-profit work on any level simply cannot exist without the support of donors, corporate or personal.

This is why I am extremely proud of the work that I do at Alcoa Foundation. My social justice work involves wearing a suit and tie and working on Park Avenue. My social justice works for “the man,” not against him. And although people question the altruism of the work I do, I undoubtably engage in tikkun olam, repairing the world, one organization, one project, one employee, one dollar at a time.

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Bring Passion Back

Over the last 12 weeks, I have been exploring the relationship between politics and social justice at the Advance Group, a political consulting firm in the city. I came into this internship hoping to gain some insight into how individuals and organizations committed to social good use the political process to create systematic change. However, now that I have survived the craziness of election season, I’m left with more questions than answers.

Throughout this entire experience, there were three components of the electoral process that were brought up over and over: donations, endorsements, and votes. These three make up the holy trinity of a successful political election. As a political consulting firm, it’s our job to make sure all of our clients get as many donations, endorsements, and votes as possible. Seems pretty simple, right? Actually, working on these campaigns was pretty simple. Campaigning consists of a lot of phone calls, emails, letters, flyers, posters, and canvassing.

Okay, I admit this is a grossly oversimplified explanation of what my firm does. Trust me, a lot of thought, planning, and effort is put into each campaign that we work on. And as intern with no particular expertise in New York City politics, I’m 100% positive that even more was done that I’m not aware of. So why am I saying that political campaigns are simple?

I think it’s because looking back on these twelve weeks, I’ve been dissatisfied with the disconnect that exists between elections and social change in mainstream culture. I came to this realization when passing out political literature and making phone calls on the two election days (primary election and general election). Many of the canvassers that I worked with didn’t even know anything about the candidate they were advocating for. Additionally, most of them said they didn’t vote because it didn’t matter; politics wasn’t going to make a difference in their lives. Although I felt like many voters had a strong opinion about the mayoral candidates they were voting for, most didn’t know anything about the city council candidates. When it came to these smaller, more local candidates, they were just voting for the name they recognized the most and/or the candidate affiliated with their political party.

This gets to the heart of the issue I’m struggling with. Donations, endorsements, and votes are key to winning a political race. But there’s so much more to politics. The political process is meant to be a means to ensuring liberty and justice for all. Although getting the votes in order to make change is obviously extremely important, it becomes somewhat meaningless when the votes become based on name recognition instead of values and pursuing social justice.

This is not to say that I think politics is void of social justice. That is not the case at all. Many of these candidates’ campaigns were deeply rooted in social justice values and once elected, politicians help create progress and social change.  In fact, many of these candidates started working towards change even during the election! I learned that many of my firm’s campaigns hired canvassers from the community in order to provide income to those struggling financially.

However, this does not change the fact that there seems to be a loss of political passion among “the people” when it comes to elections. With events like the government shutdown and the Zimmerman trial, many people are becoming disillusioned with politics. And with tragedies like the typhoon in the Philippines and the shootings across the U.S., many people are also becoming overwhelmed by the amount of social justice work that needs to be done. So how do we bring the passion back to these two important systems? How do we empower individuals to feel like they have access to these systems? In other words, how do we return to feeling like a government of the people by the people for the people? Like I said, I have more questions than answers. But what I do know is that political candidates and advocates for social change should work together to make political elections and social justice feel more accessible and engaging.