Liza Featherstone on Walmart’s efforts to “empower” women, Collier Meyerson on the inconvenient truth behind Waiting for “Superman” and Henri Picciotto on censorship by the Jewish Federations of North America


WALMART TO WOMEN: I’VE CHANGED! On October 14, the Walmart Foundation announced its new president, Sylvia Mathews Burwell. The announcement came on the heels of another declaration: the creation of the Walmart Foundation’s Global Women’s Economic Empowerment Initiative, which supports female entrepreneurs and training centers for garment and retail workers in Bangladesh and India. Burwell will lead the project, along with Walmart’s other charitable giving efforts. She will also report to the company’s top PR-meister, Leslie Dach, executive VP of corporate affairs. According to Aaron Dorfman of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, this kind of reporting structure is not unusual for such foundations; while corporations are always (rightly) suspected of using charity as PR, it’s rarely acknowledged how unsubtle the connection is between the two.

In this context, the Walmart Foundation’s latest cause makes sense. A few months ago, in Wal-Mart Stores Inc. v. Dukes the Supreme Court rejected class-action status for women suing Walmart for sex discrimination—a victory for the retailer, but one that also brought the original lawsuit back into the spotlight, attracting unwelcome attention to its treatment of women. At a ceremony announcing the Global Women’s Economic Empowerment Initiative, Walmart CEO Mike Duke said, “Excluding women holds back families…and countries.” Indeed. That’s why Walmart should dispense with the empty feel-good gestures, stop discriminating against its domestic employees and demand that its factories in the global South pay women decent wages.

Like a bad boyfriend who keeps bringing flowers to make up for inexcusable lapses, Walmart seems a bit compulsive with its new overtures to working women. In an effort to spotlight women’s political opinions, the company recently sponsored a series of focus groups with “Walmart Moms”—women with at least one child, and who had shopped at Walmart at least once in the past month—and found them enormously stressed out by the day-to-day challenge of economic survival. They were taking second and third jobs and even having their children collect aluminum cans. Heartbreaking, but it’s a problem the largest private employer is well positioned to solve, at least for the women working in its stores.   LIZA FEATHERSTONE

TEACHERS TAKE ON ‘SUPERMAN’: As two recent documentaries make clear, it’s not the abysmal state of the US education system that’s up for debate when only 12 percent of African-American boys in the fourth grade read at grade level, but rather the solution.

The influential documentary Waiting for “Superman,” released in September 2010 to critical acclaim, made the case for charter schools. A prescient complement to the Occupy Wall Street movement, with a demand early in the film to get “Wall Street out” of public schools, The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for “Superman, released in May by the Grassroots Education Movement (GEM), is a “no budget at all” response that argues that the charter movement’s push to privatize public schools is a move to corrupt one of America’s foundational tenets: access to equal and fair public education. Narrated by Brian Jones and Julie Cavanagh, New York City public school teachers, the film goes after Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a nonprofit umbrella organization that runs three charter schools and is featured heavily in Waiting for “Superman.” It points out that a large portion of HCZ’s money comes from corporate sponsors. In September 2010, just as Waiting for “Superman” was being released, Goldman Sachs donated $20 million to HCZ. Of its seventeen board members, eleven are affiliated with major financial institutions.

The film also disputes the claim in Waiting for “Superman” that unions are responsible for protecting bad teachers. Its most salient segment looks at Finland’s education system, celebrated in Waiting for “Superman,” and reveals that 98 percent of teachers in Finland are members of the Trade Union of Education.

The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for “Superman” offers a list of ten (often vague) reforms to the current system, including “Parent and Teacher Empowerment and Leadership” and “Democratic and Social Justice Unionism.” During the Q&A session at a screening in New York on October 14, audience member and high school social worker Kathe Karlson voiced concern that if the unfocused group of organizations affiliated with Jones and Cavanagh’s GEM “didn’t come together,” they would simply “repeat [themselves] for a generation or two.” A member of GEM responded, “Look at how they’re doing it on Occupy Wall Street. It works.” Perhaps the Superman we’ve been waiting for is Occupy Wall Street.   COLLIER MEYERSON

HEROES AND VILLAINS: On Yom Kippur the Jewish Federations of North America, a central organization of the Jewish establishment and an umbrella group for some of the largest charities in the United States, disqualified a leading candidate from its annual Jewish Community Hero competition, which solicits nominations to “celebrate the individuals who dedicate their lives to helping others,” according to its website. Cecilie Surasky, deputy director of Jewish Voice for Peace, had garnered more than 1,400 online votes, coming close to being a finalist. Rather than let that happen, the JFNA squashed her nomination, citing her leading role in JVP’s support of the nonviolent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

Surasky has tracked precisely this sort of censorship for years on JVP’s popular blog It was, in fact, one of the reasons she was nominated. Her expulsion from the contest occurred even as the likes of Manis Friedman remains on the list. Friedman, a rabbi and author, once wrote, “The only way to fight a moral war is the Jewish way: Destroy their holy sites. Kill men, women and children.”

This says a lot about what is acceptable to the JFNA, and about the largely generational struggle between the Israel-right-or-wrong leadership of the Jewish community and a growing Jewish movement that dares to support human rights for Palestinians and to demand that Israel abide by international law. To that movement, Surasky is indeed a hero.   HENRI PICCIOTTO

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