Pilsen's Non-profit Industrial Complex

You’re probably more familiar with the concept of the military industrial complex. Eisenhower coined the phrase in his last speech from the White House. This speech begins the movie Why We Fight. The movie examines the links between the military and lawmakers and how that system has been hacked by the weapons industry. Similarly, the non-profit industrial complex describes the links between non-profit sector, lawmakers, and industry.

Don’t say anything bad about Sims

The first time I spoke publicly about the proposed metal shredder in Pilsen was at an LSC meeting at Whittier Elementary. An assistant at Pilsen Alliance invited me to share my thoughts on the brief research I had done on the carcinogenic effects of metal shredding facilities. Part 1 of the STRANGE ANGLO series that we all know and love came from that.

The second time I spoke publicly about the metal shredder was at Jungman Elementary School to a class of 7th graders. I put together a long presentation the night before and let this assistant take a look at it shortly before we talked to the class. At the end of the slides, I mentioned the fact that there was an existing metal shredder (Sims) that was kiddie-corner from the high school and that we should investigate how much they’re polluting and if need be, clean them up or shut them down. Reviewing the end of my slides he said, “Don’t say anything bad about Sims.”

“Why not?”

“Because then their lawyer will stop giving us money.”

I went ahead and made my comment about Sims at the end of the talk. And made them again when Pilsen Alliance surprised me with a CANTV cameras at Lozano Library. Bringing it up at further Pilsen Alliance meetings I was rebuffed with arguments like “Sims is a good company with union jobs” and “We should handle one thing at a time.” “We need money to do the things we want to do.”

At the Zoning Board of Appeals meeting dozens of people made statements against the proposed shredder, but at the end of the meeting the chairman called out the director of Pilsen Alliance, Nelson Soza. The chairman asked Nelson why he never said anything bad about the existing Sims metal shredder. Nelson gave the same response that he given to me earlier, but in a scared schoolboy-in-the-principal’s-office manner. It completely undercut the testimony that people had waited 5 hours to give. Jerry Mead-Lucero, the director of PERRO, immediately stood up and said that they had been working to clean up Sims for the last few years to no avail. At the next Pilsen Alliance meeting a member called Nelson out on his ZBA statements, “That was embarrassing!”

Quid pro quo

Wikipedia has this: Quid pro quo (“something for something” in Latin) means an exchange of goods or services, where one transfer is contingent upon the other. Pilsen Alliance took money from Sims to trash Pure Metals. I believe they’re using that funding to support Byron Sigcho’s campaign off the books. I’m also guessing the money they took was routed through a third party because they made an offer to do the same for a donation to Pilsen Academy. (That’s another story.) I would guess that La Familia Unida (the group that attacked me in Pilsen Portal) took money from Pure Metals through similar third-parties. La Familia is an immigrant rights organization with a curious, fervent interest in getting a polluting industry into the neighborhood. I was told that money was offered to PERRO in a similar fashion, but they declined.

This style of corruption is of the quid pro quo variety: Industry gives non-profits money to advance an agenda through public opinion. It’s a game we see transparently in politics. While these kinds of deals are quid pro quo, they are not illegal. Metal shredding companies can donate to non-profit organizations through third-party entities legally. This is the influence of industry on non-profit work through funding mechanisms.

Implicit corruption

Explicit monetary donations aren’t the only way non-profits' actions are influenced. In September, PERRO invited speakers from Elkhart, Indiana to speak about their experiences in getting a metal shredder out of their town. PERRO extended this invitation to other non-profits in the neighborhood. They had all recently attended a talk given by the Pure Metals representatives, but they did not attend our meeting. Why?

These organizations rely upon funding from various government sources. Those purse strings are typically held by aldermen in the city of Chicago. The alderman of Pilsen, Danny Solis, has taken $50k from Pure Metals. He has a lot of leverage to keep other non-profits in the neighborhood on the sidelines concerning this issue.

Institutional corruption

You can read all day about charities where the CEOs have multi-million dollar contracts and the majority of money isn’t spent on the cause. It is disgusting, but it isn’t illegal. The mechanisms that influence congress to build useless tanks also influence non-profits to collect signatures in favor of bringing/keeping cancer-causing industries in our neighborhood. Hence, the non-profit industrial complex.

We hear about these stories and we become more skeptical of non-profit work, as we should. I saw a talk by Lawrence Lessig yesterday where he talked about expanding the notion of corruption from legal or illegal quid pro quo, to institutional corruption. The institutional corruption Lessig talked about yesterday is defined as “influence that weakens the effectiveness of an institution, especially by weakening the public trust in that institution.”

When you have one group saying that the metal shredder means jobs (La Familia Unida) and another saying that the Sims metal shredder is good and the Pure Metal shredder is bad (Pilsen Alliance), people get confused and disengage. You can see the weakening of trust in non-profit work in Pilsen going back to the 90’s. “Steal our money, that’s what she’s gonna do! … She’s gonna turn on us!”

The non-profit institution in Pilsen is corrupted as it is elsewhere. People don’t trust it because as soon as it becomes someone’s job to run an organization, that person’s job becomes about getting the organization and their salary funded. In the process of getting the organization funding, considerations and deals are made that can compromise the underlying mission of the non-profit.

Improving our neighborhoods, cities, and countries requires that we address institutional corruption in non-profits and government alike. Means for addressing the institutional government corruption are being developed by groups like Rootstrikers and WolfPac. Those solutions will remedy the implicit corruption faced by groups in the neighborhood who are forced to listen to Pure Metals are kept away from PERRO meetings out of fear. Solutions to remedy the corruption of non-profits are not as easily apparent. Neighborhood house-keeping through word of mouth seems the most obvious and that’s why I’m writing this.

There is an out-of-print book that deals with this topic explicitly, but I’ve only been able to find this sample chapter (pdf) and this speech by one of the editors. I’ve been having this conversation with friends in the non-profit world and it mostly depresses everyone, but it’s an important conversation to have because it deters good people from helping out their communities.

Talk with your non-profit friends, get their perspectives and let me know what you think.


Update: I recently found a post on the Pilsen Alliance webpage (that they promptly deleted and have since reposted after realizing it existed on the internet archive) showing them having a good ol' time at Sims, singing its praises:

SIMS, the current shredder, operates west of Ashland, at 2500 S. Wood. SIMS is an international, publicly traded corporation with a clean record by the Environmental Protection Agency. Sims is also a unionized company, offering living wages and benefits operating under high safety standards.

If these aren’t the actions of a group with a hypocritical, vested interest in a neighborhood polluter, then I don’t know what is.

From left to right, Vicky Lugo is second and Pilsen Alliance executive director Nelson Soza is third.