ABHMS personnel attend ICCR panel discussion

In keeping with American Baptist Home Mission Societies’ (ABHMS) commitment to socially responsible investing and its role as a founding member of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), ABHMS personnel attended ICCR’s “When No One is Watching: Corporate Citizenship in an Age of Deregulation” panel discussion recently at The Riverside Church, New York City.

The panel was moderated by Ali Velshi, award-winning journalist and host and co-host, respectively, of “MSNBC Live with Ali Velshi” and MSNBC’s “Velshi & Ruhle.”

At the panel discussion were Mary Beth Gallagher, executive director of the Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investment and ABHMS socially responsible investing consultant; the Rev. Dr. Clifford Johnson, president of ABHMS’ board of directors; Dave Moore Jr., ABHMS director of investments; Nathan Newport, portfolio manager for Veritable LP and ABHMS Investment Advisory Council member; and the Rev. Rothangliani Chhangte, ABHMS senior associate for grants, partnerships and strategy alignment.

Panelists were Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, a Catholic organization that lobbies for social justice, and organizer of its “Nuns on the Bus” tour; Nell Minow, vice chair of ValueEdge Advisors; Damon Silvers, policy director and special counsel for the AFL-CIO; and Darrin Williams, CEO of Southern Bancorp Inc.

An invocation was provided by the Rev. Winnie Varghese, director of Justice and Reconciliation at Trinity Episcopal Church, New York City. She recalled Mahatma Gandhi’s urging that, before proceeding with an act, an individual should contemplate whether it will be of any use to the poorest, weakest person she or he knows.

“Bring your full spiritual imagination to what we need in this time,” Varghese told those assembled, before calling for a moment of silence. “I invite you to bring to mind those whose lives your work saves.”

Velshi began the discussion by sharing that his own consideration years ago of Gandhi’s very same words resulted in his volunteering with the homeless outreach program of the Center for Urban Community Services (CUCS), New York City, which partners with The Riverside Church.

“I thought, ‘What do I do for the least among us?’ I don’t. I talk about it,” he said. “It caused me to join CUCS. A heavy concentration of homeless people come inside this church. I spent many cold, predawn mornings here to find housing for the homeless. This church holds a special place for me, as do those words.”

Calling himself “pro-business,” Velshi not only noted the ability of free markets to lift people out of poverty and to help them realize dreams but also acknowledged that corporations will pollute water and air—both when people aren’t watching and when they are. Millions are spent, he said, convincing legislators to allow corporate polluting.

“We need to have a more fulsome discussion,” he said, “about why we have regulations, when they are good, which are overly burdensome for people trying to get a leg up and start a business, and which aren’t burdensome.”

Minow, who has worked in corporate governance and shareholder advocacy for more than 30 years, discussed corporations’ ability to find workarounds that suit their bottom line. Starbucks saved $2 billion in taxes, she said, by spending $60,000 to have grinding coffee beans written into tax code as “manufacturing.”

Campbell spotlighted U.S. corporations’ reducing costs by outsourcing jobs to low-paid contractors. She stressed that companies must be watched because it’s human nature to be sneaky to get ahead. She is frightened, she said, by the fact that so much wealth is held at the top, so little is trickling down and the middle class is dwindling.

“The political polarization we’re seeing globally and in America is tied to this weakening of the middle class,” Velshi said. “They’re so worried about their future that everything becomes a zero-sum game. So they vote that way, too.”

Minow circled back to this concept later in the discussion, commenting: “Henry Ford understood that if he didn’t pay workers enough wages to buy a car, he wouldn’t have any customers.”

When asked the reason that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos increased workers’ wages to $15 an hour, Williams said it’s difficult to assign a single motive to the move.

“While I applaud what they’re doing,” he said, “it may be to cover up things they aren’t doing.”

Williams further encouraged ICCR members to continue talking to corporations and legislators, citing the impact of two sexual assault survivors who approached U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) on an elevator in support of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony in the hearing of Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh.

The subject of technology was introduced to the discussion by Silver, who says he encourages society to embrace it, rather than fear it. The threat, he said, stems not from technology itself but from the social divide that keeps technology restricted to particular populations and away from others.

“In the ’60s, the panic was about ‘the robots are coming’ and taking everyone’s job. The fear was that we’d be well paid but have nothing to do, so we’d engage in antisocial behavior,” he said. “Now we’re afraid we’ll be impoverished because a handful of people will grab it all.”

Read more about ABHMS’ socially responsible investing efforts.