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Wal-Mart raises funds, questions in black Hub

Talia Whyte

Retail giant Wal-Mart is the world’s largest private employer, with estimated net revenues of $378.8 billion for 2008. It is also one of the world’s most generous companies. Last year, its philanthropic arm, the Wal-Mart Foundation, donated $296 million to charities around the world — including many organizations geared towards African Americans.

Over the past few months, the foundation has turned its charitable gaze toward the Boston area. In February, the Museum of African American History received $250,000 from the Wal-Mart Foundation to help restore the African Meeting House. While the donation was made during Black History Month, a press release accompanying its announcement noted that “Wal-Mart has a long tradition of supporting diverse communities throughout the year.”

A few weeks later, the foundation made another donation, this one to the Grove Hall Youth Outreach Connection (GHYOC), a program of the faith-based Boston Ten Point Coalition that helps local at-risk youth through one-on-one mentoring, exploratory trips, peer leadership counsels, court advocacy and social activities held at the Roxbury YMCA. According to the coalition, the donation will be used specifically to purchase bicycles for GHYOC youth workers, allowing them to be more accessible and visible to those in community who need their help.

“I think this is a wonderful donation,” said GHYOC Director Emmanuel Tikili, who is also director of programs for the Boston Urban Youth Foundation. “We are trying to figure out how to better serve the youth in our community, and the donation put us in a better position to deal with youth violence.”

But for all the good Wal-Mart’s money appears to be doing in Boston, and all the good will it seems to engender, there are those in the black community who feel that the corporation is being deceitful, arguing that the company’s claims of charity ring hollow as it treats its own employees poorly.

Wal-Mart has for years faced criticism about its business practices. Some argue that the scores of massive retail outlet stores it has built around the country put “Mom and Pop” stores out of business.

Others decry company practices that they claim provide irresponsibly low wages and poor benefits to Wal-Mart’s U.S. employees, many of whom are low-income people and people of color, at the same time as it exploits sweatshop workers for their cheap labor in the developing world. It has been previously reported that some American Wal-Mart employees receive such low pay that they qualify for government assistance programs like food stamps.

When contacted by the Banner for this article, Wal-Mart spokesperson Christi Gallagher said that she was “not aware of any criticisms.” She said that Wal-Mart has listened to the opinions of its employees, and has made changes to its health care plan options to better serve their needs.

“Associates now have more than 50 ways of customizing their health care coverage options, which will allow them to select among various deductibles, health care credits, and premiums, depending on their needs,” Gallagher said in a recent e-mail. “The plans also give them access to more than 2,000 generic prescriptions for $4, and have no lifetime maximums. Our goal is to be their employer of choice, offering competitive wages and benefit packages for all associates.”

Nonetheless, black community leaders have organized against the corporate giant in recent years, specifically in opposition to Wal-Mart’s attempts to build stores in Chicago and Los Angeles and what they claim is a continuing adversarial stance toward workers’ rights.

Black leadership and Wal-Mart briefly became strange bedfellows in 2006, when Civil rights leader and former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young was roundly criticized for agreeing to become chairman of Working Families for Wal-Mart, a group The New York Times said was “created and financed by the company to trumpet its accomplishments” and “improve [the corporation’s] public image.”

Young abruptly resigned that position, after just six months on the job, following the publication of an interview in the weekly Los Angeles Sentinel newspaper in which he offered a controversial response to a question about whether it was good that Wal-Mart may drive small businesses out of the market.

“Well, I think they should,” Young told the Sentinel. “Those are the people who have been overcharging us, selling us stale bread and bad meat and wilted vegetables. And they sold out and moved to Florida. I think they’ve ripped our communities off enough. First it was the Jews, then it was the Koreans and now it’s the Arabs. Very few black people own these stores.”

In Boston, community leaders are also speaking out about Wal-Mart’s practices.

“Wal-Mart provides slave wage jobs,” said City Councilor Chuck Turner. “They exploit people. Wal-Mart comes into communities and takes away livelihoods, and turns around and gives back the money in donations.”

Tufts University professor and urban policy analyst James Jennings wonders if the Wal-Mart donations are a result of vacuum that is not being filled through other vehicles.

“This development in large donations by corporations like Wal-Mart could be a result of the government pulling back funds to the black community,” Jennings said. “The smaller the nonprofit is, the more attractive Wal-Mart’s money looks. If Wal-Mart is doing this as a purely altruistic effort, that’s fine. But if there is something else going on, that’s another issue. If Wal-Mart really cared about the community, it would provide better health care and wages to its employees.”

The discussion over Wal-Mart’s place in the black community does not appear to be one that will end any time soon. While Tikili, of the Grove Hall Youth Outreach Connection, said he is very aware of the controversy, he also said he hopes that the Wal-Mart Foundation’s donation to the GHYOC will provide an opportunity for community stakeholders to have a discussion with Wal-Mart over many of these issues.

“We need to look at the quality of life in our community,” he said. “We need to figure out what is in the best interest of the black community.”