Why is Big Money Invading My Activism?

by Jared Naimark, ’14

About two weeks ago, two events I attended brought me out of my usual comfort zone and had me interacting with Silicon Valley’s über rich philanthropists.  I ended the weekend with lots of thoughts swirling around in my head, but didn’t have time to get them into any cohesive format until now.  So here goes.

On Friday, September 28th, I had the amazing opportunity to attend the San Francisco Freedom Forum along with five other members of human rights group, Stanford STAND.  I had been personally freaking out about this conference all summer, because human rights icon and Burmese opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would be speaking there as part of her first U.S. visit in over 20 years.  So that Friday I ditched the activities fair, forsook my shorts and flip-flops combo, shaved my beard, and put on a suit.  I hate dressing up – but I had to look good, right?

Anyways, we had no idea what was going to happen at this conference, other than that we were really lucky to get a seat through connections with Stanford professors.We arrived at the Bently Reserve at noon, gaped in awe at the beautiful marble columns, and then took our seats in preparation for the forum.  And it was awesome!  We heard from passionate activists from all over the world, who told their personal stories of the struggle for human rights and freedom.  Some of the highlights included Marina Nemat’s tragic but hopeful story of opposition in Iran, George Ayittey’s energetic condemnation of “Africa’s Military Scourge,” and Ahmed Benchemsi’s hilarious and compelling argument for liberalization in Morocco. The awesomeness of the day reached a climax when we heard Aung San Suu Kyi speak eloquently about the need to shift our focus from exposing where human rights abuses occur, to answering the question of human nature, “why do people violate human rights?” Afterwards, we fought through the crowd and got a photo with her. STAND has been working on Burma advocacy for several years now, and we posed for a photo with the inspiration of all human rights advocacy in Burma!  It’s a moment that I will cherish forever, and overall the day was an incredible learning and bonding experience for all the STAND members who were there.  But I was left with a weird taste in my mouth from one part of the day: lunch.

Well not the lunch itself, which was actually delicious, but the conversations I had at lunch.  You see, it turns out that this conference was actually funded by Silicon Valley tech billionaires.  We received free entrance, but I overheard that most others there had paid $1,000 a head.  So I had just found this out, and then three guys in suits sat down with us and introduced themselves.  I ventured to talk to one of them, and he began the rambling story of his two software companies that he sold, his talks about entrepreneurism and finding the “company in you”, and other things I didn’t really care about.  When I told him I was majoring in Earth Systems, he began telling me about all these environmental initiatives, but was using the phrase “free market solutions” way too much for my taste, and I squirmed a bit trying to maintain an interested expression.  But I was determined to find out why he was there, at a conference hosting human rights activists.  I asked, “So do you work at all on human rights?”  He responded vaguely something along the lines of “No, but I believe generally in Freedom.” Not very satisfying, so I had to delve deeper.  I asked, “So are you involved in Burma at all?” He pondered for a moment and then responded, “No, but I’m sure Aung San Suu Kyi is doing good work”.  I thought to myself “Of course she’s doing good work!  She’s The Lady!  How could you be at this conference and have zero interest in human rights or Burma, when there are thousands of activists around the world who would gladly take your place?”  But I guess without this guy in a suit there wouldn’t even be money to put on the Freedom Forum. So thank you guy-in-suit! I just hope that your friend next to you with ties to big oil doesn’t work in Burma either, because oil companies operating there are infamous for their human rights and environmental abuses.

Then on Sunday, September 30th, I led a tour at my favorite Stanford place, Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve.  I had been longing to get back outdoors, and this was my first official tour since graduating from the docent program last Spring. The tour was held after a fundraiser brunch for Acterra, a pretty cool bay area environmental group that does good work on energy audits, behavior change, and open space clean up.  As an avid environmentalist, I believe in all of these action items, and was excited to meet supporters of Acterra.  But once again, I was out of my comfort zone.  The brunch was held at a huge, beautiful house in the hills, and there were white faces as far as the eye could see. I’m pretty sure I was sharing orange juice and quinoa salad in compostable bowls with, once again, Silicon Valley tech billionaires.  Someone droned on about how to donate to Acterra via your estate planning (if you have to look up what that means, don’t worry, so did I), and in general I felt the rich vibe all around me.  But we soon left the house for the trails, I found my comfort zone again, and had a great time telling some Acterra members about the history, ecology, and research at Jasper Ridge.

Once I came back to campus and sat down to chill on the Columbae lawn, the thoughts started swirling.  After all, Silicon Valley tech companies, real estate developers, and rich people in general are the biggest polluters, drivers of climate change, and overall threat to the environment. Yet these people were friendly, loved spending time in nature, and clearly cared about the environment.  Were they doing this out of guilt so that on Monday they could return to their daily grind of consumption and pollution?  Or were they genuinely hoping to make a difference?  Are tech company donors to environmental groups practicing “greenwashing,” superficially donating in order to brand themselves as green for their public image, and thus avoiding the big changes needed to become more sustainable?

And what about the donors at the Freedom Forum – why were they really there?  Are they just bored and needed something to do with their money?  Do they actually care about human rights in Burma but don’t know that much about it?  Or is there something more sinister going on here?

I really don’t know the answers to any of these questions.  What I do know, is that these activist events were vastly different from the kind of grassroots student activism that I’m used to.  At Stanford, the groups I’m involved with try to make as much of a difference with as little money as possible.  But the people I met two weeks ago have lots of money, and maybe big money is the way to really make change. Good things came out of both of these events:  Activists from around the world connected with one another in San Francisco, and Acterra raised funds to continue its environmental efforts.  I also had a really fun weekend, met my personal hero, Aung San Suu Kyi, and spent time hiking in the sunshine.

But at what point do we stop, and say “wait a minute, where is this money coming from?” If these billionaires are really the ones dictating the human rights and environmental agenda, and are undoubtedly benefitting financially from the status quo, then how can we ever go about actually changing the status quo? Something needs to change, and I don’t think it can be done while wearing a suit.

Jared is a junior majoring in Earth Systems. He is very involved in human rights and environmental advocacy through student groups like STAND and Students for a Sustainable Stanford (SSS).  He also loves to play jazz saxophone, IM soccer, and to spend time at Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve where he is a docent.
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

5 thoughts on “Why is Big Money Invading My Activism?

  1. Queerios says:

    Is it just me, or does every activist see to think their way of activism is the best way, and everyone else is fake, purely on principle? So the people in suits trigger a negative response while we insist we really care for the Burmese? What have we done except put down other people who appear to have more money for sitting around and talking about a problem. It’s not that different from what we’re doing, but somehow we feel morally superior?

    What I feel about our activist community is that it’s always “us vs them”. For a group that should understand and respect the agency of different people, we sure do a good job of marginalizing people we deem to “deserve it”. In my eyes, that doesn’t help the cause.

    • esqg says:

      I think the problem is not having money and wanting to spend it. The problem is engaging only through money. What one rich person has to offer as a person taking action may be small compared to the impact of their money, but it is very much worth it, because working directly with others gives you a real chance to work with them as equals, and learn from them what society (in your country or theirs) really needs. And, quite possibly, learn about where one’s own comfortable lifestyle may be coming at others’ expense. Learn how maybe big social changes can’t be done in a way that won’t affect one’s own lifestyle. Learn the problems in one’s own attitudes.

      As Jared says, maybe there are things that can’t be done while wearing a suit: so the question is, if you’re rich, do you always wear a suit?

  2. Tessa Ormenyi says:

    FAB POST JARED! Mirrors my thoughts on the Freedom Forum exactly! Love the humor too!
    I’ve been thinking a lot about how this “more genuine” activism we are involved in at Stanford is an artificial one too though. Are we working towards educational initiatives and networking because we have the privilege to do so? To further our personal beliefs and interests. Perhaps a pessimistic view… Also very disheartening to think that activists on the ground around the world get money through conferences like the Freedom Forum. Corporate personhood again controlling something else.. ugh.

    • Steve says:

      I completely agree, Tessa. Jared makes a great point, and I understand where he’s coming from as an active activist, so to speak. But where do we draw the line at what an acceptable level of involvement is?

      The guys in suits might not be working hard for justice in Burma, but I’d venture to say they’re at least sympathetic to Aung San Suu Kyi’s amazing work. Should we really deny their involvement? On the other end of the spectrum, I like Tessa’s point that an outsider could see student groups from Stanford as being privileged and slightly self-serving as well. In that sense, an extreme view of Jared’s argument is that only the Burmese people are valid activists—and they are the ones without the resources to speak out.

      Just playing devil’s advocate…well done, Jared.

      • esqg says:

        Yes, this is a really good point, and one I keep reconsidering when it comes to Activism While Privileged (TM). I don’t believe in perfect purism though; there is no escaping an unfair system; there is only learning what you personally can do to be accountable to others, to be happy with your life, to survive, and in which places you have influence. I do have one opinion though: if you aren’t in contact with and accountable to the people whose lives you are affecting, ur doin it rong.

What do YOU think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: