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Dan Lawlor: Why Can’t Rhode Islanders Give a Little More?

Monday, December 03, 2012


If you're in the mob, it's called bribery. If you're a lobbyist, it's called an investment.

We are just wrapping up an depressingly expensive campaign cycle. Millions of dollars were raised and spent in the Congressional and Presidential races. Locally, hundreds of thousands, coordinated by special interest groups, were spent on both primary and general election races for General Assembly.
Yet, I'm not going to talk about party politics. I'm going to talk about community work.

Rhode Island ranks 46 out of 50 in charitable giving, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Positively, despite our rough economy, Rhode Islanders give more to charity than all other New England states except Connecticut (45th). On the other hand, dozens of state have us beat.
I know many will say, "Rhode Islanders don't give much because the economy is a mess." The economy is a factor, but it's not everything.
Mississippi, not known for being an economic dynamo, ranked second nationally in its charitable giving. According to the Chronicle, in 2008, "The average Mississippi household donated 7.2 percent of its discretionary income to charity. " 7.2%!
Utah, due to the Mormon Church, tops the list of charitable donations. The Chronicle writes, "The Mormon tradition of tithing is a primary reason residents of this state well outpace those in every other place in America. The typical household claimed charitable contributions totaling 10.6 percent of discretionary income." Faiths of all sorts can inspire giving.
The Washington Ethical Culture Society, a church-like group for humanists and agnostics, recently engaged in a charitable experiment. Joe Chuman, a New York Ethical Culture leader writes, "The questions Ethical Culture asks are, “How am I to look upon my fellow human beings? What should my approach to them be? How should I value them?”
Just before Thanksgiving, the Ethical Culture leader in DC, Mary Herman, asked her congregants to check their church programs. If they had a blue card in their program, Herman asked them to stand up. As the Washington Post writes, "there was a collective gasp of surprise" when the ten were each given an envelope containing a $100 bill. The minister's catch? The recipients needed to give the money away to “make a difference in a person’s life.”
What results would a similar opportunity from local religious and charitable groups produce?
Even a small change in our giving habits can make a big difference. Numerous quality projects are operating on close budgets.
Street Sights Newspaper is a wonderful resource - a print publication written by and for the homeless community in Rhode Island. From investigative reporting to poetry, it gives public voice to people who often don't have a platform. Street Sights is a completely volunteer run project, and its publication is fully supported by donations. It costs $35.00 to order a year subscription. 1/8 of an issue can be sponsored by $75.00 dollars. Individuals, individual congregations, businesses, ministers and rabbis, and the Episcopal Diocese have all chipped in at different points. If 20 people reading this purchase a subscription, the organization will receive an additional $700 to continue printing and reporting!
Just up North an hour on the interstate, there is a great group based in Cambridge, Barakat. Barakat is an international organization that coordinates and sponsors schools for girls in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. The group "has grown from one school in Pakistan into an organization spread across three countries, serving more than 3,000 women and children each year." The network of schools began as a charitable brainchild of an international carpet buying business, growing from a partnership between Cambridge-based Chris Walter and Afghani-refugee Habibullah Karimi. A small donation in US dollars can have a big impact overseas.
Locally, private schools for working class youth like Sofia Academy, Community Prep, and San Miguel School always need volunteers and annual fund assistance, alongside alternate arts programs like New Urban Arts, RiversEdge, and City Arts.
Investing in Street Sights, Barakat, and Sofia Academy would certainly appear to be a more worthwhile use of funds than a $100.00 check to David Cicilline, Barry Hinckley, or an establishment candidate's house race. We are givers in this state - as a whole, more generous than most New Englanders, and, among a certain group, willing to invest a bit of cash in politics. The giving can be even more widespread, as can the recipients. By creating a wider culture of charitable investment, even in the tiniest amounts, we're promoting an environment for justice work and opportunity.
In a state with so many hard luck stories, a few more second chances, funded in private and public, couldn't hurt.

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