As committed as I am to abolishing the prison industrial complex, I’ll be the first to admit that I jump at the chance to veg out during Law and Order marathons whenever I visit mom. This time around though, there was a series of highly irritating commercials in heavy rotation that kept distracting me from the innovative and unpredictable plot lines of crime drama shows. The commercials were for the Tide Loads of Hope program.
If you’ve never heard of Loads of Hope, it’s basically a portable laundromat that Tide transports to disaster affected areas so that people can have clean clothes even when they might be in precarious living situations. I believe that the program started after Hurricane Katrina.
Simple, kind, and well-intentioned, right? I’m sure people devastated by disasters really do appreciate the service. But as a Gulf Coast resident, this feels like a marketing ploy driven and sustained by our suffering. When it comes down to it, how much more money is Tide spending on airing television spots about Loads of Hope than on funding the portable laundromat and supplies? How has this campaign improved Tide’s corporate image, and how many people buy bottles of Tide with yellow caps because they like the idea that their money is funding a program like Loads of Hope? And how much money that could have gone directly to local non-profits engaged long-term in disaster recovery has been redirected to Tide as it passes through the Gulf Coast?
The truth is that you can’t alleviate human suffering by buying color-coded products at Target or Wal-mart. I’m not really interested in vilifying Tide; as I said, I’m sure people affected by disasters really do appreciate clean laundry. But the truth is that recovery is not as simple as a few loads of laundry, and there are other, more direct ways to financially contribute to it.
Over the last several years, I’ve spoken with many volunteers who were horrified by the visual images of poverty and racism that they saw in the news after Hurricane Katrina, and who were searching for meaningful ways to contribute to Gulf Coast recovery. In the wake of Katrina, my organization and our staff were sustained by donations from individuals around the country. The prospect of a full recovery remains daunting even years later, but there are concrete ways in which people can contribute and think critically at the same time.
One concern I’ve heard voiced by many volunteers is that they don’t know who to trust with their donations. Many people donated to large disaster relief agencies like the Red Cross because they either didn’t know which locally based organizations to donate to, or were concerned about theft or mismanagement on the part of smaller organizations. It turns out that there have also been many allegations of theft and mismanagement on the part of national groups. I consistently hear frustration on the part of Gulf Coast residents who didn’t receive any benefits from groups like the Red Cross, or who feel like the Red Cross was not in touch with the local context and needs. In my experience, large national organizations frequently invisibilize and exclude the most vulnerable populations from their services (like the homeless and undocumented immigrants). For these reasons, I always encourage volunteers to donate to local groups that they make connections with while visiting. There is a much greater chance that a larger proportion of money donated will actually make it to the most deeply affected people. Further, sending a donation to the Red Cross or buying a bottle of Tide with a yellow cap doesn’t foster the relationships that we need to build in order to work towards a more just world in the same way that donating to a smaller, locally based organization does.
In a recovery that has been slow and frustrating, the concern, support, and solidarity of ordinary people across the country has been sustaining for many of us who work in the Gulf Coast region. I would imagine that the same is true for folks working in other disaster-affected areas. As anti-poverty advocates, we are constantly concerned with social inequality in everyday life. Social inequality and oppression also shape the ways in which people experience disaster. To make our anti-oppression work most effective, we must continually apply a critical lens to our work and the work of others. This is even more true during times of disasters. The next time disaster strikes, resist the urge to buy a Tide vintage tee. Instead, consider reaching out to locally affected contacts or conducting an internet search of local groups to find out what you can do to best support those most directly affected.
(Photo of Tide on sale at Costco by Barkdog)
*This is a post I wrote that was initially published online in 2009. I’ve re-posted on social media after multiple other storms, and it seems relevant in light of the recent coverage and response to Hurricane Sandy. Please leave comments if you know of groups in the Sandy-affected region that you would recommend people make donations to.