Thursday, June 8, 2006

Food from the Bar and Other Dilemmas

The law firm where I work (which I’ll call M&L) just finished a big fundraising drive for the San Francisco Food Bank. The San Francisco Bar Association was having its annual “Food from the Bar” drive, which they’ve been doing for a few years. It had as its goal to raise $250,000 and 18,000 pounds of food, which apparently will feed 13,000 children a day.

Of course, the partners at M&L want to look good, so they put pretty heavy pressure on the staff to participate in various ways – give money, give time, give food, sponsor contests, have bake sales. To make it more “fun” they decided to have a floor-to-floor challenge; the floor that got the most points (1 point = $1 or 5 pounds of food; 2 volunteer hours = 25 points) per person on that floor would be served a lovely lunch by the people on the losing floor.

There was a lot about that approach to rub me the wrong way. First of all, it always creeps me out when anti-hunger programs have banquets to raise money, and I had the same reaction to the lunch – it would seem more appropriate somehow if it was a canned food luncheon or one made up of food rejected by the food bank, but I suppose that wouldn’t motivate people to want to win. Second, I’m on what’s called the “service floor” which we like because it has no lawyers on it and you even use a different elevator bank from the lawyers and high administrators, but is it actually fair to make us compete against partners? It might have been if they had just said the floor that got the most points, because we’re the biggest, but they wanted to be “fair” so they put that per capita condition, which tells you something about what they think “fairness” means.

A lot of my coworkers were upset about the whole drive for even more basic reasons.

“I consider my giving to be a private thing,” one said. “I give a lot of money, and I give to organizations I have worked with for a long time, and I don’t want to be pressured to give to the organization they choose.”

Another person, who with others from her floor spent a Saturday morning volunteering at the Food Bank, made the same comment – “I already do a lot of volunteer work, and the Food Bank doesn’t really need us, they had so many people there, we sat around for an hour before they even found anything for us to do.” Moreover, she found the volunteer operation disorganized – some people were scrubbing and cutting cabbages in a freezer for 3 hours, and others were putting things in bags, where they could sit down all the time. Why not rotate the easy jobs and the hard, dirty ones, she wondered? Plus they were not hospitable – there were no snacks while you were hanging around waiting, no coffee even, just a vending machine.

I had mixed feelings. On one hand, I’m community spirited, so I would rather see people setting up goofy golf tournaments to raise money for the food bank than doing what we get paid to do most of the time. Food banks are the best our country has to offer right now, to people who are working full time and can’t make ends meet, or people who can’t work, or can’t get work, and the SF Food Bank is, I understand, pretty effective at stretching the dollars (according to a partner here who is president of the Bar Association, they buy $9 worth of nonperishable groceries with each $1 they receive) and getting the food to people who need it.

Some of my coworkers, who are like me, single people in their 40s or 50s, say they cannot afford to give. I say they can. Anyone who makes the money we make can afford to give $15 or $50 or even more to the Food Bank. It’s like five lattes or something.

On the other hand, this is a firm whose partners worldwide took home an average profit of more than $911,000 in 2005. The partners in this office could easily just write a check for $250,000 themselves, which would cost each of the 55 partners $4500, and still have more than $906,000 to play with. And remember that $250,000 was not the goal for our firm, but for all the law firms in the City, which when you look at it this way, seems like a pretty paltry goal.

It made me a little ill to see people in the mailroom, who don’t even work for M&L but for an outsourcer with worse benefits and lower wages, spending their own money to have a bake sale so that the partners here can look good to their fellow millionaires. I guess it seemed not quite right to the partners too, because when it came time to award the floor prize, and the winner was 28, where some of the biggest muckety-mucks have their offices, they quick-awarded an extra prize to our floor for the “most creative fundraiser” – the aforementioned goofy golf tournament.

One of the partners in our firm is the president of the SF Bar Association, the first woman of color to hold that position. I don’t know her at all, but she seems like a pretty conscience-driven person, for a corporate lawyer. She certainly is passionate and articulate when she talks about social issues. In a radio interview about the “Food from the Bar” drive she said, “The thought of having one hungry child a day in San Francisco to me seems unacceptable.” I couldn’t agree more.

She also said, “All we want to do is to level the playing field so that people have a shot at becoming successful adults, and that means they have to be well nourished kids.”

Whoa. Raising money and food for the Food Bank is not leveling the playing field. It’s helping the unlevel playing field to survive, while making the people on the top of the slope feel a little less guilty about it. You do not get to talk about a level playing field when you are making something like 25 times the salary of the people who do your copying and deliver your mail. Especially not when the work you are doing is directly sustaining the system that preserves those inequalities. M&L represents “Healthcare” companies, which should not be confused with health care providers, who get rich off denying people the care they’ve paid for, and asbestos producers who try to prove that it wasn’t the insulation the guy worked with all those years that killed him, it was the second-hand smoke, and they negotiate contracts for executives who will come in and layoff thousands of workers in order to boost the value of their stock options before they take their golden parachutes. It’s not this firm in particular, it’s just that the role of corporate law firms is to grease the wheels of corporate domination.

Food banks are not a solution to hunger, just as shelters are not a solution to homelessness. What we really need is for people working full time, or even less than full time, to be able to feed themselves and their families, and have something left over to go on vacation. No amount of giving to food banks brings us any closer to that. At the same time, we know we’re not going to get that real solution any time soon, so the food bank enables people to live, who would otherwise die. Yet, it was the lack of any services, the sight of so many recently middle class people standing in soup lines, that brought about the New Deal in the ’30s. So in that sense, supporting the food bank is supporting the system that creates the need for the food bank, and the more progressive thing to do, the more humane thing in the long run, would be not to support it.

I can’t pass by hungry people on the street, and I can’t advocate letting people starve. But where does it stop? When do the temporary solutions supplement the real solutions, and when do they impede them?

I was talking the other night to Sitara, from the prison abolition organization Critical Resistance, about a bill in the legislature to open a big new private “Community Correctional Center” for women in California. CR opposes it, because they oppose all prison expansions, they oppose private prisons, well, they just oppose prisons. They are abolitionist, which “is a political vision that seeks to eliminate the need for prisons, policing, and surveillance by creating sustainable alternatives to punishment and imprisonment.”

Sitara and I were talking about the fact that they might be criticized by prison reform organizations, who are often seduced by the idea that since right now, women are locked up in terrible prisons, we have to support the creation of more humane, less crowded facilities where they can be closer to their kids, have more of an opportunity to get integrated into the community. Some years ago, there was a group called Dykes Against Racism Everywhere, which Barbara Smith was involved in starting, and I’m pretty sure (I looked for info about this online and couldn’t find it, so if I’m wrong, I apologize in advance) that one of the projects they were doing was trying to set up a jail in New York where mothers could be with their kids. The Criminal Justice Program of AFSC, where I worked in the 1980s, was also trying to do something like that, which might make sense if what you want to do is make things easier for people in prison, but there is a way that is saying it is okay for people to be in prison.

Sitara pointed out that these prison expansions in the guise of humanizing prisons never work out the way the reformers hope they will. Every time, it ends up being true that they arrest more people and give out longer sentences and soon all the new beds are full and the old prisons are just as crowded as they were.

The other day there was an article in the Christian Science Monitor about MachsomWatch, the Israeli women’s group that my friends Susy and Dafna work with, which goes out to the checkpoints to monitor the abuse of human rights. The article, to the seasoned eye, anyway, actually captured some of the tension in that group. Adi Dagan, one of the women who has been with the group from early on, expresses frustration that “After five years, we haven't been very successful.…Not a single checkpoint has been removed, and we haven’t been able to change policies on restriction of movement for Palestinians.” Another volunteer, Susan Lourenco, is quoted as saying, “We show a peace-loving face to Palestinians who see no other Israelis but soldiers and settlers.”

The women who founded MachsomWatch saw it as a way of opposing the checkpoints, the whole system of control of Palestinians’ movement. They are against the occupation of the 1967 territories in general, and some of them are active in even more radical groups like Zochrot, which advocates for the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes inside what is now called Israel. After a couple years, they got very big and attracted some very mainstream liberal women, one of whom is from what Susy calls an “Israeli Mayflower” family, a number of whom have fathers who were high-ranking generals.

Some of the new women were just as left-wing as they were, but many of them are really not left-wing at all, they are not necessarily opposed to the checkpoints, they just don’t want people to be unnecessarily humiliated and abused. Or they are opposed to the checkpoints that are deep in the West Bank but not ones that are in “border” areas which ignores the fact that those “borders” themselves were unilaterally imposed by Israel. Some of the MW women argue with the soldiers the whole time they are there, while others are willing to stand in for them and tell the Palestinians to stand in line or tell internationals to leave (one group tried to do that with me once; I asked her to tell the soldiers if they wanted to tell me something, they had to do it themselves). One friend told me about being at a MachsomWatch meeting where a woman announced that she had begun volunteering with the army as a civilian volunteer at the checkpoint, checking people’s IDs and deciding if they have the right to go where they wanted to go.

More comprehensive solutions are often dismissed as impractical, or tantamount to doing nothing, or just complaining instead of helping people. But recently, that ultraleft rag Forbes magazine featured Critical Resistance in its (somewhat bizarre) list of “Ten Alternatives to Prison” Here’s what they said,

“It may sound like a radical idea. But locking people up in cages doesn't make society safer, says Rose Braz, director of Critical Resistance, a national grassroots group that works to abolish prisons. So why not try something different? ‘Our goal is to create safer communities. The way to do that is for the government to invest in housing, education and job training. We know that communities where these needs are met have lower crime rates,’ says Rose.”

If even Forbes is ready to look at the radical approaches, maybe real change is not as distant a dream as it seems. Here’s hoping.