The Leftist Ethicist

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April 2, 2013

Stills from “If I Don’t Ask,” 2013, HD video. From “Six Things: Sagmeister & Walsh,” on view through August 4, 2013, at the Jewish Museum of New York.

The Leftist Ethicist is an advice column for Zeek readers who envision a more just world and act to create it. With a commitment to justice and progressive Jewish teaching (and a loving nod to the Bintel Brief), the Leftist Ethicist provides a space to raise questions, without judgment, and receive sensible solutions. Zeek presents the first installment here.

As a wedding present, a distant family member bought my wife and I stock in a company whose treatment of workers I strongly disagree with. I don’t own any stock and am distrustful of the stock market. I thanked the family member politely, but now I don’t know what to do. Should I keep the stock? It is a successful company — realistically, I will probably need the money in the future — or should I get rid of it so I can relax, knowing I’m not profiting at the expense of workers who are being mistreated?

Ah weddings! It can seem like for every guest celebrating your special day, there’s a long-lost family member who can’t remember which sibling you are but who’s happy to drink at your open bar, judge your commitment to tradition, and give presents you wish were something you might actually use. Like cash.

If you have time and want to push for change from within the beast, keep the stock and rabble rouse. Get involved with the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility or another group that helps stockholders use their rights and position to pursue socially responsible practices and policies, such as supporting non-discrimination policies, divestment from prisons, or action against climate change. In the least, pay attention to proxy voting season, when investors have a chance to weigh in on how the company runs things. There are likely to be a few progressive options you can vote for, possibly put forward by Catholic nuns (at the forefront of stockholder activism)!

If you aren’t up for that, sell the stock and search for a more ethical company to invest in. This route will keep you fed in the future and boosts up companies that have social good in their mission and are part of the growing field of socially responsible investing.

When I talked to Rabbi Ari Weiss, executive director of the Orthodox social justice group Uri L’Tzedek, to see what he thought about this scenario, he cut to the heart of the matter: “What happens when workplace justice actually affects your pocketbook?” While ethical investing may not give you the same financial gains in the same time as your evil-corporation stock will (even that’s subject to debate), it’s worth doing so that you can sleep at night. Right? Especially when the future looks bright for socially responsible investing, with more and more options available, and more eyes looking at the ethics of mutual funds in the aftermath of events with national significance like the Newtown shooting.

And of course, the answer that involves the least work and the most purity is to simply sell your stock and don’t look back. Maybe even make a donation to your favorite workers’ rights campaign when you cash out, and earn yourself a few do-gooder points. While the field of ethical investment is growing, it is still tiny. Even in the “ethical” label, few companies on the stock exchange will align with your values completely, which makes sense to Jessie Spector, program director at Resource Generation, who works with young philanthropists committed to social change. As she frames it: “The mainstream stock market itself is fundamentally about making money off of having money — a profit on work that you didn’t do. If you grew up with secure assets and are earning a stable wage, I challenge you to divest from that market.”

All of this might have you wishing you weren’t so open with those wedding invitations after all. Just remember to stay as thoughtful and ethical in your relationship as you are with your investing, and your love is sure to stay strong, even if your bank account wavers.

I sit on the board of a small community organization in a low-income, immigrant community. Recently, a fellow board member told me that the executive director sometimes fabricates information for grant reports. She said that they receive grant money for one piece of work, but those funds will sometimes go toward another. Her intentions aren’t sinister. Basically, the director is an immigrant grassroots leader who is disorganized and not skilled in the more bureaucratic aspects of running an organization. Yesterday, one of the foundation representatives called me (in my capacity as board member), checking in about the group’s finances. I was mad at the organization for putting me in this position. At the same time, I knew if I told the truth they could lose funding. What should I have done?

First, you should have bought some time by politely telling the foundation rep you needed a few days to look into the matter. Then, you should have rounded up the executive director and the board to talk to them about how even small fabrications put the integrity of the organization at risk and not just legally. By hurting the organization’s rep, community members may view it as just another corrupt institution in a low-income community. 

It’s also vital to acknowledge one potential root cause that stops many grassroots immigrants from running nonprofits, even in their own communities. These days, successful nonprofit leaders borrow heavily from corporate models, meaning oftentimes the backgrounds of successful nonprofit directors aren’t so different from the backgrounds of corporate CEOs: highly educated and from a higher-class background. If the ED doesn’t have a college education, training in budget management or stellar writing ability, she will struggle, even if she is an amazing leader with a beautiful vision for her community. Beyond that, if she hasn’t spent much time around wealthy people or foundation culture, she might not have the skills or confidence to push back on grant agreements. It sounds like your executive director needs to play catch up. It is the board’s responsibility to help fix this. I brought this question up with Rabbi Lisa Goldstein, executive director of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. She has been closely involved with organizations with similar problems and said the “one job of the board, particularly for small organizations, is to help by filling in the gaps that staff can’t fill in running the organization.” Lead the board in getting the budget and finances in order and help the director renegotiate the grant agreement to align it with priorities of the organization. Most foundations, especially those funding small grassroots organizations, will understand if an organization is transparent and honest. Then, prioritize getting the executive director the training she needs.

Sometime during this process, you’ll have to face the music, call the funder and tell them what’s going on. It will hurt, but way less than the potential fall out. Being in the weeds with a really good community organization isn’t always easy, but it is important to support good work, even when it isn’t pretty.

Thanks to Rabbi Ari Weiss, Rabbi Lisa Goldstein and Jessie Spector for great conversations.

The Leftist Ethicist is not intended as a replacement or substitute for financial, medical, legal or other professional advice. It’s just my opinion! What’s yours? Talk back in the comments! Send questions, ethical dilemmas and letters to

Mae Singerman lives in Brooklyn, NY. She is originally from Miami Beach, FL, and misses eating mangoes that have fallen straight from the tree. She is coordinator at the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable and founding collective member of the Community/Farmworker Alliance-NYC. She wrote regularly for the now-defunct Jspot and has written for Jewcy, Off Our Backs, and Left Turn Magazine.

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