Last week, I was invited to an awards ceremony at the Kennedy Center. The event was put on by an organization called Vital Voices, an NGO that “trains and empowers emerging women leaders and social entrepreneurs around the globe, enabling them to create a better world for us all.”
Sunitha Krishnan, won the human rights award. Liron Peleg-Hadomi and Noha Khatieb won the Fern Holland award. Even a cynic like me finds it difficult to watch the linked videos without being a little inspired. In Sunitha’s case, that is despite my generally negative view of people in the rescue industry. (Just count how many times Sunitha says “I” and “rescued” in this TED talk).
But it isn’t the messianic complexes of so many in the non-profit world that really made the event horrific. That I could deal with. The real problem was who put on the event and what their agenda is. You see, Vital Voices was started by Hilary Clinton and Madeleine Albright back when Clinton was first lady. The organization still receives government funding. They also receive funding from a smorgasbord of some of the most hideously destructive private corporations. If you want to get an idea of who this organization is built to serve, take a look at their board list.
So there I was, watching a splashy awards show that cost who knows how much of the organization’s multi million dollar budget. (They pulled in over 12 million dollars in 2009.) There I was watching Hilary Clinton march up on stage to introduce an event that honored women in countries like Afghanistan and Haiti – countries Clinton and her closest pals played a large part in fucking up.
I had to watch as they honored Kay Bailey Hutchinson, a woman who never met a war she didn’t like and who was rated 100% by the Christian Coalition and 0% by the HRC. Her voting record is just anti-human. And what about some of the other presenters/agents of misinformation. Wolf Blitzer? He may as well be paid by the Department of Defense. He does their work for them. Cokie Roberts? She robotically spews conservative talking points on trade and uncritically accepts conflating Iraq with terrorism.
Even worse was the sponsorship. Much of the time the event felt like an ad for Goldman Sachs. Fatema Akbari, who won the entrepreneurial achievement award, actually thanked Goldman Sachs during her speech. Yes. Thank you Goldman Sachs. Thanks for helping to blow up the world economy. Thanks for gambling on food and energy futures. Thanks for so generously letting all your employees work in the government. Everything is all better now that you supported a woman’s business in Afghanistan.
I wanted to punch somebody.
Much like my experiences working at that hotel in Miami, the Vital Voices event made abundantly clear how elites in politics, media, and corporations all merge into one amorphous blob of self-congratulatory power. And I have little doubt in my mind that most of them actually believe that their little philanthropic show makes them upstanding people, fighting the good fight. The delusion is infuriating.
So what do we do when social justice is co-opted by power? How do we compete against a money drop by Goldman Sachs when we can barely scrape together money to bring coffee to a meeting? How do we confront the people who use justice for women as a front for wars and crooks? How do we deal with the twenty-something girl who thinks Hilary Clinton is some kind of hero? How do we break the illusion?