How the Socially Responsible Investment World Reacted to 9-11

My mind's eye chooses odd images from the World Trade Center devastation Sept. 11 -- somehow avoiding the obvious, lingering instead on the peripheral. What I keep seeing in my inner eye are all the documents and faxes drifting down from the sky, littering the wreckage like confetti tossed by some macabre hand.

Moments before, each document had its own unique place -- the upper left corner of a particular desk, the lower drawer of a certain file cabinet -- and each document had in its own way been numinous with meaning. There were stock certificates, options trading documents, desk calendars, overnight packages too urgent to wait another day, faxes too urgent to wait another hour. Yet each of these documents was reduced, in an instant, to litter.

In that instant, it became clear to an entire nation that what matters is not documents but lives. What matters is not investments or appointments or the little urgencies of all our days, but life itself. Each other. Our bodies, breathing.

I think of this now, as I look at the messages and documents littering my own desk, and I am grateful in some odd way for the reminder that ultimately they may matter little. As I've been making phone calls in recent days, I've found myself focusing more on the real human beings on the other end of the line, less on the business I want to transact with them. It's the kind of shift I think many of us are making in the wake of September 11, canceling travel plans to be with loved ones, working late a little less often. It seems to me one of those small gifts that tragedy sometimes brings: refocusing us on what really matters.

In a larger sense, a refocusing of priorities is what the responsible business community, at its best, is all about. It's especially what the socially responsible investing community is about. I was fortunate enough to be in the midst of that community at the annual gathering of social investing professionals -- SRI in the Rockies in Tucson, Arizona -- when news broke of the attack on the World Trade Center. It was an extraordinary group to be with at such a time, a group that for me is like an extended family of the heart. As the crisis brought the conference to a halt that Tuesday, the generous soul of the group emerged. We came together the morning of the attack with little mention of markets or portfolios but instead prayers led by the religious leaders among us, small groups where each of us could express our fears, and ad hoc committees focused on matters of group care -- like chartering a bus so 50 folks could make the three-day drive to the East Coast.

Through it all, we were guided by the rules of the road articulated by Alisa Gravitz of Co-op America and the Social Investment Forum, who called on us to "work from a place of connection and love," to "change what we're doing when we need to change," and to "nurture the wells of goodwill."

This tone of compassion and flexibility would be echoed spontaneously in the week ahead by other social investing professionals -- like those at Walden Asset Management in Boston, who wrote to clients on Sept. 18 suggesting that we as a nation "address the underlying causes of terrorism," "dispense with our false sense of security," and "curb our extreme sense of entitlement in our standard of living and redirect our wealth from private interest to the care of others."

How striking these reactions were, coming from investment professionals -- and how different from those which surfaced in the mainstream financial press. In a Sept. 17 issue of Barron's financial weekly headlined "War on Wall Street," columnist Thomas Donlan urged that we "demonstrate that humans do not make war on mosquitoes. We eradicate them." He urged also that the twin towers be rebuilt "as symbols of capitalism as before." Jonathan Laing similarly observed that a resumption of economic activity would provide "a certain measure of revenge."

Absent from such sentiments was the self-reflectiveness I had seen among SRI folks -- the willingness to recognize that the poverty from which resentment springs is not somehow isolated from our own prosperity. As Afghan writer Tamin Ansary said in a widely circulated article, "Suffering and poverty are the soil in which terrorism grows."

Beyond the financial community, like-minded sentiments bubbled up among others, like Brooklyn novelist Trace Farrell. "We've been playing like privileged children ... while people outside the circle of comfort have been paying for our privileges with endless varieties and gradations of suffering," she wrote in an eloquent e-mail. "If we cannot figure out what this attack has to do with us, then we should be prepared for many more strikes 'out of nowhere.'" Because "nowhere," she continued, "is the enormous shadow we cast and never turn to look at but drag everywhere behind us."

It is sobering, to think the attacks have something to do with us, something to do with our economic system. If the social investing community is finding ways to articulate this, it is an awareness all of us in business might learn to cultivate. We might remember that as the little urgencies of our days go on, suffering too goes on. And suffering may be asking something of us.

Marjorie Kelly is editor and publisher of the bimonthly Business Ethics: Corporate Social Responsibility Report

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