United Way Donors Divided Over Sarandon Event

March 28, 2003
Category: Archive

For decades, I have given to the United Way of my community. Made speeches in support of what the agency does. Urged my colleagues to think about giving.

No more … at least to the United Way of Tampa Bay.

I forgave the skullduggery of one of its former national presidents. And the high administration costs of some of its local units. And I made sure that none of my contributions would go to the Boy Scouts because of the discrimination against gays.

But the ice was getting thinner and thinner.




Now the ice has broken. And now I will give directly to the organizations I want to help.

This week, the folks at United Way of Tampa Bay, in their infinite lack of wisdom, canceled an event because the actor Susan Sarandon was to be the speaker. This decision was made the day after she flashed the peace sign during the Academy Awards telecast.

How dare she have an opinion, much less express it.

So the $75 a plate dinner was sacrificed. (In the interest of full disclosure, Sarandon’s fee was being paid by the St. Petersburg Times, which is owned by The Poynter Institute, my employer. And my boss, our dean, Karen Dunlap, was scheduled to interview her as part of the program.)

It had nothing to do with Sarandon’s views, a United Way spokesperson said. It’s just that her presence would have been divisive.

But isn’t this kind of heavy-handed response to dissent happening all over this country? Just listen to the violence of the language aimed at those who may raise questions. Are we back in the ’50s and ’60s of the last century?

The United Way’s action saddens me. What will be the next litmus test?

One of the things I liked about United Way was being able to give and share collectively to serve the greater good. And to do it without individual recognition. It is written in the Hebrew Book of Ethics that the highest of the seven levels of giving is to give anonymously. We all hear about those who need help each and every day. Abused children and abused women. Those in need of prenatal care. Drug babies whose futures are filled with horror. The homeless who walk our streets in search of a place to sleep. The hungry who stand in lines at food banks. Men and women with diseases that have yet to be conquered. Those who are functionally illiterate.

Isn’t this kind of heavy-handed response to dissent happening all over this country?There are too many in our community, in our nation, who are standing bare and dejected, who are struggling with pain and loneliness, who are searching for hope.

We simply do not have enough money, enough energy, enough resources to take advantage of all the opportunities to help others. And to reject help because of what appears to be a political decision seems awfully wrong-headed.

I don’t know Susan Sarandon. But I admire her talent, as well as her desire and drive to be involved in the issues we face.

And, yes, good people can disagree with her views. We don’t live by a set of formulas. If we did, all we would have to do is look up the answers in the back of the book. Rather, we live by a sense of personal responsibility — a personal responsibility to each other and, for many of us, to a higher presence.

Part of that responsibility is to realize that while dealing with the pain of others, we cannot compromise with smallness.

And that’s what I believe the Tampa Bay United Way leaders have done.