“We believe in the value, power, and potential of training to produce more effective, more capable, and better police officers,” the Ferguson Commission wrote. I believe in this, too. And I believe that investing in a better police force may yield a future where “liking the police” is no longer a privilege, but the norm.
LAST JUNE, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY sold all of its shares in the Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private prison corporation in the country, and in G4S, the world’s largest private security firm. In doing so, Columbia became the first U.S. university to completely divest from the $74 billion prison industry.
Though the total amount Columbia divested, roughly $10 million, was not a major financial loss for either company, it was an important win for the students who had been pressuring the university to divest since 2013. “We work in the context of a bigger movement that seeks to break down the notion that prisons and police can solve our problems,” said Asha Rosa, a student organizer with Columbia Prison Divest, part of Students Against Mass Incarceration at the university. “We aim to create a world where people understand that investing in something like a prison is a socially toxic investment.”
Other universities and nonprofits followed suit: In December 2015, the California Endowment—a private, statewide foundation that focuses on health and justice for all Californians—announced it will no longer make direct investments in companies profiting from for-profit prisons, jails, and detention centers. A few weeks later, the University of California divested $25 million. And similar student-led divestment campaigns are underway at universities around the country, including UC Berkeley, Brown, Cornell, and the City University of New York.
For many organizations, the decision to divest from the prison industry is rooted in the organization’s own mission. Divesting is about not wanting to invest “in anything that hurts the people we are trying to support,” explained Maria Jobin-Leeds, a board member of the Schott Foundation and the Access Strategies Fund, two foundations committed to improving the lives of underserved communities, including communities of color. And given the disproportionate impact that mass incarceration has on people of color—in a 2015 speech, President Obama cited a “growing body of research” that shows people of color are more likely than whites to be arrested and more likely to be sentenced for similar crimes—both foundations decided to divest. “Companies that profit from prisons make money off the poorest and are supported by a deeply racist system,” said Jobin-Leeds. “We do not want to make money off this system.”
Profiteers and private prisons
But despite this conviction that divesting was the right move, Jobin-Leeds and her fellow board members realized it wasn’t easy to determine which investments were connected to the prison industry. One reason this was difficult was because of the overall lack of transparency within the prison industry. So while an investor could reasonably deduce that the Corrections Corporation of America manages prisons, she wouldn’t necessarily know that the CCA—like many private prison management companies—has a financial incentive to keep more people in prisons. Which it does: According to a 2013 report, 65 percent of private prison contracts with state prisons regularly stipulate occupancy quotas requiring the state to make payments for empty cells—a de-facto “low-crime tax.”
Divestment by a few institutions based on the same ethical objection can have a significant impact on a company's strategic direction.
The Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United case infamously affirmed money spent in political campaigns as a form of free speech, thus declaring various legal limitations unconstitutional. The ruling gives a political megaphone to those with the most money and has been decried by many as contributing further to the nation’s political dysfunction and rigid polarization. I strongly agree.
But this ruling came to mind again when I heard the news that the World Council of Churches, at its Central Committee meeting in early July, had made a decision not to invest in fossil fuel industries. In fact, money does talk. Where institutions place their invested funds is not a neutral, pragmatic matter. It speaks volumes.
Jesus was quite clear that our allegiance was to be with the POOR, not the barons of Wall Street.
God's laws are immutable Gravity. Aging. Those sorts of things. We cannot change them. But we DO know that mere humans MADE UP the laws of the market economy and we don't have to follow its rules. We can choose to, but it’s a choice.
The rules that run our capitalistic system were invented by us. And we really do not have to play by those rules.
The past few months have flown by in true whirlwind fashion (my co-worker Katie aptly describes the professional whirlwind here). And as the hours tick down to the end of 2013, I find myself facing a bit of a personal whirlwind, surrounded by boxes, bins and far more hangers of clothes than I’m happy to admit. I am thick in the middle of a move, in what I’m calling my boomerang return to D.C. and Sojourners, after a three-year hiatus in the great Northeast.
As I pack up all my belongings, it’s becoming clear that books dominate an absurd amount of bins and boxes — turns out I have a penchant for the printed word (if moving isn’t a compelling argument for a Kindle, I surely don’t know what is). Therefore, it feels appropriate and timely to reflect on which of these titles affected me most this past year. As the director of Major Gifts (and newest member of the team), I’ve been particularly consumed with thinking through resource distribution, stewardship, and the power of the purse, so it is with this lens that I share my top reads of 2013.
A man buys two dogs to live with him in his apartment. They drive him and his neighbors crazy. They bark at all hours, get sick all over the place and cause rifts between him and his neighbors. And yet he insists that, despite the tremendous amount of work and inconvenience they present, he loves them.
So the question is: does he do all the work and put up with the nonsense because he loves them, or does he love them because he’s invested so much of himself in them?
Researchers looked at this question, particularly with regard to the wild popularity of the DIY furniture store, Ikea. Basically, you pay them to give you some furniture in a box that you have to take home and build. Sometimes you screw it up. Sometimes it takes a lot longer than you expected. Sometimes you scrape the skin off your knuckles and call the furniture names that would make your mother blush. In the end, if most of us assessed the value of our time against the money we’re saving by buying the furniture unassembled, it’s a net loss for us.
So why do we do it?