Economics of social justice


Courtesy of Michelle Peltier

In early April, Derreck Kayongo, a CNN Top 10 Hero of 2011 for his work with the Global Soap Project, which repurposes hotel soap to send to those who need it worldwide, came to SLU as part of the Fifteenth Sam and Marilyn Fox Atlas Week. He spoke at two different events: his keynote presentation on April 16 and at a coffee and conversation session on April 17. At both, he introduced a new perspective to social justice, of which SLU might be in need: business. I argue that adding a practical or even business-like approach to social justice issues could aid in its effectiveness, as well as increase the community connected to a social justice fight.

Kayongo’s keynote address began with his life story, where he explained how he became the man he is today. At a young age, the Ugandan-born Kayongo was forced to flee to Kenya as a refugee after watching several of the men in his village be killed. After coming to America, following an extended period of time in a refugee camp, Kayongo was amazed at how hotels handled soap, which was in low supply at the refugee camp. His first night in the states, Kayongo, like most hotel visitors, took a few unused soap bars from his hotel to keep for himself. After trying to return them, thinking he would have to pay for them, after seeing that the soap was replaced the next night, he was informed that the hotel would have thrown the soap away anyways. From this realization came the idea to begin an organization called the Global Soap Project, which would bring soap and hygiene education to developing countries, a project which has significantly aided overall health for these communities.

In the beginning of building the project, Kayongo found himself $1.3 million short of the money needed to purchase a repurposing factory, which was required to get soap out to those who needed it. He approached several large hotel companies, giving them what he called his “sob story” of how bad life in refugee camps is, and how helpful getting soap would be.

It does not take a cynic to know that alone would not elicit a $1.3 million donation. Kayongo then introduced his first rule of applying business to social justice: Do your homework. A bit of investigation led him to discovering that the same company who turned down the donation request spent, you guessed it, $1.3 million a year disposing of their soap through waste management. Global Soap even allowed the company a tax write-off in exchange for the money. He was able to use the interests of business to further his own social justice goals, garnering a relationship with businesses along the way. This is valuable coalition building. In short, it was a win-win.

His most striking comment, though, came the afternoon before his address.

“When we saw that the hotel was throwing away all this soap, doing this terrible thing, it would have been so easy just to start a protest or boycott them. But what good would that have done?”

Kayongo then went on to explain that the hotel was a business, and assuming that it would act in ways that would not only not make it money, but would in fact lose it quite a lot (i.e. the donation for which Kayongo asked), is a very unrealistic way to approach an issue.

His point he seemed to be trying to make all week, though, seemed like an unintentional direct challenge to SLU, which has seen more than its fair share of social justice related issues pass through its campus in the past few years. Simply condemning something that is wrong is no longer enough. Gone are the days of simply tearing down the bad.

Effective social justice, the kind that is bringing millions of bars of soap to people in need each year, reaches both sides. It recognizes that solutions are most easily made in the intersection of mutual benefit, and it seeks not to tear down and destroy what is bad, but help to change it into an agent of good.

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