Greenfield Recorder, October 11, 2022
By CLAUDIA LEFKO
We’re living in a time of reckoning, thanks to Black Lives Matter, to water protectors, climate strikers and to thousands of other activists agitating for truth and justice.
Thanks to Indigenous Americans, descendants of enslaved people and others speaking up to reclaim property as well as dignity, recognition and in some cases compensation for the unacknowledged contributions and accomplishments of their ancestors. Thanks to them, individuals and institutions are looking again and with more honesty at how we got to where we are today with a commitment to take steps to right some painful wrongs.
A big part of this reckoning is, I would say, following the money. An enormous wealth gap divides us into economic and political “haves” and “havenots”; wealthy individuals, families, corporations and institutions have disproportionate power and influence over those of us on the other side of the divide.
Because we don’t have substantive government funding for the arts, education or health care (to name a few), we’ve come to depend on the generosity and goodwill of the rich and powerful to fund things like museums and university buildings, hospitals and research centers as well as relief organizations and charities that provide “help” to those in need. Perhaps you see the problem.
Increasingly we’re asking, who are these generous individuals and families, and how did they accumulate such wealth. Whose name is celebrated on that building, on that school and why. And, what exactly is produced at great profit; what’s the business. Who labors, at what price for the profitable corporation that donates so generously to our community.
Where the money comes from, how profits are made and at whose expense. These things matter. Who’s offering to “help” and under what conditions, matters — especially to those “in need ” who find themselves on the receiving end of the bargain. I say this from my personal experiences trying to be “of help” to Iraqis for some 20 years. I met with the director of a CARE program in Amman, Jordan years ago, to ask if youth — displaced Iraqis in a summer art program — would be willing to be part of my US/Iraqi Children’s Art Exchange. The art, I explained, would “help” by bringing attention to their suffering. She looked at me soberly and said something like: “How can I ask them to do anything for you when you and your country have brought such ruin to the lives of these children and their families. I won’t do it.”
Another time, I met with an Iraqi youth soccer team in Amman, with the same request. One of the boys spoke up: “What have you done to help us that gives you the right to ask anything from us,” he said. “Americans have only brought us misery.”
Like so many privileged would-be helpers, I was naive when I started out, and shaken by these encounters. Ironically it was patient Iraqis who taught me how to better navigate the dynamic between helper, and those who need help, Iraqis willing to speak honestly about their feelings when finding themselves constantly “in need.” It takes a toll on one’s pride, to say the least. So, like others in this period of reckoning, I’ve become hyper-vigilant about “help and helping.”
That’s why I was troubled to learn that L3Harris, the sixth largest military contractor in the world, located right here on Prince Street in Northampton, is the No. 1 contributor to United Way of the Franklin & Hampshire Region, a big helper in our community. United Way was partnering with the Daily Hampshire Gazette to create the Frances Crowe award. Frances Crowe dedicated her adult life to working against war and militarism, for peace and justice; she stopped paying federal taxes so not one penny of hers would go to supporting or promoting war. How could the community “honor” someone in her name with money from the arms industry? This year, in response to this concern, the award was cancelled.
But, United Way still accepts contributions from L3Harris and distributes it in the community. The money from this military contracting business is mingled with contributions from thousands of people and organizations in two counties, tainting all of it. Some people can afford to decline this money, but others don’t have the luxury to say no; they need every dollar. These people and organizations have to overlook whatever moral concerns they might have with accepting money from a bloated military contracting company.
How can we reconcile this situation? What’s the right thing to do here? Clearly we don’t want to continue a situation where we depend on and are willing or must accept money for “good causes and individuals in need ” that comes from tainted sources, money donated by companies involved in the business of war.
Something has to change. We have to find a way to provide help for people and communities in Franklin and Hampshire counties that doesn’t involve causing harm to others, often in far-off countries. I’m asking individuals and institutions that contribute to United Way, including Smith College, the No. 2 contributor, and those who receive money as well, to join me in asking United Way to decline all donations from L3Harris. Once they have agreed, let those of us who ask for this be the first to make a contribution to help meet or exceed their funding goals without L3Harris.
Claudia Lefko lives in Northampton.
We have to find a way to provide help for people and communities in Franklin and Hampshire counties that doesn’t involve causing harm to others, often in faroff countries.