Sam Jacobs is an educator and a funder of anti-racist movements and movements challenging corporate power.
This year you attended the Phillip Morris International (PMI) shareholders’ meeting this year with Corporate Accountability. What was it like? Why did you want to be involved with this action?
Even though PMI is widely regarded as a corporate villain, its shareholders’ meeting is still a place where executives can go and brag about their accomplishments. And people sit there and clap, because it’s going straight to their pocket books. It’s mind-boggling.
So I had to take the opportunity to go into the belly of the beast.
When I spoke, PMI chairman Louis Camilleri looked at me and said, “I don’t even know why you’re a shareholder, your question doesn’t deserve an answer, and please sit down.” I had clearly gotten under his skin. I didn’t take it personally, but I was glad that he felt like he was under pressure.
Clearly, what we are doing works — keeping a steady pressure on these corporations. We have to make it difficult, unpleasant, and embarrassing for them to do what they do.
Tell us about the Corporate Accountability Giving Circle. What does that work entail? How did you get involved?
I met Deputy Campaigns Director John Stewart in 2015 at a Resource Generation conference. [Resource Generation organizes young people with financial wealth to leverage resources and privilege for social change.] At the conference, there was a lot of analysis around racial justice, gender justice, environmental justice, but there wasn’t as much discussion about corporate power — which is funny, right, because the families of so many people there had become wealthy thanks to the rise of corporate power. Mine certainly had.
So a number of us who had become members of Corporate Accountability came together to not only educate ourselves about the campaigns, but also to deepen our analysis of corporate power. Right now, we are looking at how to use this group to support not just Corporate Accountability but also the whole movement to challenge corporate power more broadly.
It’s been really exciting to learn about what’s happening in the world of food justice, water, tobacco, and climate. These issues don’t necessarily get a ton of air time in social justice spaces even though they’re so intimately connected to a lot of other issues that are at the front of people’s minds right now, like racial and economic justice.
How do you see the role of philanthropists in social justice work?
I think the ultimate goal of philanthropy needs to be to put ourselves out of business. I don’t want to live in a world where access to health care, access to food and water, or a healthy climate is based on the largess of a couple individuals who got wealthy through a rigged, corrupt system. I want those things to be publicly provisioned; I want them to be democratically allocated.
It’s not about the traditional values of legacy, or impact, or any of those donor-centric values. It’s about decentering the funders, redistributing power.
The movement requires all of our bodies and all of our minds. A lot of wealthy people doing activism feel like they need to hide privilege or keep it to themselves. But if we are excited about social justice, we need to go and get our people. We need lean into our role as organizers, just as much as people who are directly impacted by oppression do every day on the ground. It’s hard work. Organizing is always tough, whether you’re doing donor organizing or you’re doing grassroots work. But as a wealthy person I feel it’s my responsibility to do it.
What gives you hope right now?
The incredible resilience of our social movements. Movements are happening whether or not philanthropists are on board, whether or not funders are around. They’re born out of the material conditions of the world we live in. I look to the struggle in Palestine; I look to the struggle here for racial justice and to hold police accountable. I look to Corporate Accountability: every day working to hold corporations accountable that otherwise would have no reason to be held accountable. They’d only be accountable to their shareholders. But thanks to the strong willed, creative, exciting organizing, the world doesn’t look like that. So that’s what’s keeping me going these days.