A childhood friend of mine is Nathan Robinson, who is pictured here in front of me when we were in the third grade. We would go to the same school through graduation, often riding the bus or carpooling since he lived in the next neighborhood over.
Since then, Nathan has graduated from Yale Law, is about to finish a Ph.D. from Harvard, and yet maybe most notably started a magazine called Current Affairs in 2015 that reached national prominence despite its highly specialized content geared toward the socialist movement.
Politically the magazine falls somewhere to the left of Sen. Bernie Sanders and metaphorically it isn’t even in the same reality of how I perceive the world.
Current Affairs had a public controversy unfold this week as staff revolted to changes in structure and an attempt to block a move toward a co-op style ownership, which has left the future of the magazine uncertain, and Nathan caught in a tough place.
This isn’t my fight. But scrolling through comments that lambasted a publication I know my friend worked tirelessly to build and other comments that aggressively demeaned him personally, I felt a strong schoolyard inclination to rise to the defense of someone who I know to be of pure heart, even if I think the ideas he promoted in his magazine would be detrimental to society.
“He’s one of us, meaning a person I associate closely with the concept of home,” my thoughts kept telling me as I read attack after attack, “so even if he screwed up by his own admission, critics don’t know what they’re talking about when they say he has done wrong.” My mind shuts off to the possibility of using this as a learning experience and instead makes it a contentious issue in which clear battlelines are drawn.
At this coming Tuesday’s Board of County Commissioners meeting, the United Way will give an update of how it has spent CARES Act funds. It will likely not go well.
The BOCC voted to give $450,000 in three $150,000 installments to the United Way in December of 2020 for the purpose of distributing funds to those impacted by Covid-19. The Chronicle advocated for the plan saying it would be cheaper than what the county was doing.
The county’s overhead at the time was a few tenths of 1% while the contract allowed the United Way up to 10% administration costs. If you consider the United Way’s established network of contacts with people who could use the funds most, who would also presumably be the people most discouraged by the bureaucratic process of applying through the county, then maybe the 10% overhead cost was justified as cheaper than the advertising and educating the county would have to do to get this demographic help. Maybe.
Even with this network and the help of a designated paid employee, the United Way will report it has distributed less than half of the allocated funds. The report will also likely state that $50,000 of the less than $225,000 it has spent was a fund transfer to the Education Foundation who was doing the same services. It will be hard to call the program a success.
There will be those tempted to defend the United Way, even if by the organization’s own admission the program was created to meet an overstated need, because those who started and supported the United Way for decades see it as ingrained in the concept of home, just as I do with my friendship with Nathan. The defense is justified for this reason.
However, the defense won’t be necessary because in reality no one is attacking them, there are no battlelines. Criticism isn’t to point blame at anyone, the United Way or the BOCC, nor is it to discount the possibility that some people who desperately needed help found it in the program.
We can learn something from this though if we can keep personal biases toward people or the organizations they represent from clouding objective takeaways from these programs.
The Chamber was also asked to present, but is not on this meeting’s agenda. Future columns will explain how these programs were rushed money giveaways, and the results will inevitably show why we should learn to be more principled in the future.