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Dan Lawlor: Rhode Island Needs a Culture Change

Monday, December 17, 2012


"It should be noted that the early 1860s saw reforms brought about by the Czar-Liberator Alexander II - changes the liberals of the 1840s had only dreamed of. It is by no means clear that the underground man, if he paid attention to such things, would find this reformed society any more to his liking than the "future reasonableness" of the radicals." -Richard Pevear

What does it mean to give to charity?

Dostoevsky, well over one hundred years ago, mocked those who belittled charity. He mocked those so caught up in their vision of the "greater good" - tradition, radicalism, whatever- that they could not see the hurting people in front of them, that day, that moment.

In little Rhody, most citizens give 3.1% of income to charity, high for New England, low for the United States. I'm not saying it won't hurt - but as we spend in the coming weeks, being sure to put even $20.00 toward a good cause can only help us connect with each other.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy argues,"Regions of the country that are deeply religious are more generous than those that are not. Two of the top nine states -Utah and Idaho - have high numbers of Mormon residents, who have a tradition of tithing at least 10 percent of their income to the church. The remaining states in the top nine are all in the Bible Belt."

However, the Chronicle continues, "When religious giving isn't counted, the geography of giving is very different. Some states in the Northeast jump into the top 10 when secular gifts alone are counted. New York would vault from No. 18 to No. 2, and Pennsylvania would climb from No. 40 to No. 4."

What does this mean? Broadly, without engaged community and religious groups as motivating factors, giving - charity- declines.

In different areas of the country, interesting public-private partnerships have developed to promote or raise funds for social changes.

In Salt Lake City, UT there is the rather unusual strategy of "donation" parking meters. The plan calls for the funds in 13 parking meters throughout the downtown to be directed to charitable groups to help the homeless. The idea is to encourage people to donate spare change to services instead of individuals on the street.

While clearly, clearly, not the solution to the ravages of homelessness, "donation meters" are an interesting brainstorm to produce more money. Maybe donations meters near "main streets" could be a tool to ensure a small funding stream for Street Sights Newspaper?

Giving is funny thing. I remember chatting with one of the city's street corner saxophonists - he mentioned that he always made the most money after a Providence Bruin's game. "Working class guys get that it's hard," he said.

Clearly, charity alone isn't going to solve our problems. Charity, however, can help make the problems more livable before that perfect future arrives.

Like most of the state, I'm not great at giving yet either. The exciting thing is people don't need to found a new organization to help improve the state- you can coordinate with existing ones, volunteer time, donate money, try out some crazy idea for an art show, host an event. We don't all need to be founders of the latest non-profit (or the next legislator), but we can all work to be organized advocates and neighbors wherever we are.

We as people in this state can give a bit more cash to build up community - even if it is $35.00 a year to buy a subscription from Street Sights Newspaper, $20.00 to New Urban Arts for supplies, or $15.00 to Sofia Academy for good luck in their new building.

If we want to change the state, we need to change the culture. Want to change the culture? Do something different than you did yesterday.


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