A Son With a Conscience

Amy Domini, written with Alisa Tang

As a child, I saw how hard it was on my father, who came to this country in the 50’s when Italians were a scorned minority group, to be an unwanted immigrant. My American grandfather, on the other hand, was a Wall Street insider who taught me how to read an annual report with I was about 16 years old. He complained bitterly about the inflated salaries and fees that executives and directors made in the 70’s. I think he’d be sick at heart today.

Perhaps the combination, my father, the outcast, and my grandfather, the insider who railed at fat cats, formed me more completely than I guessed.

Today, I run a mutual fund that has as its philosophical underpinning the concept that corporations are emerging as the dominant social force on the planet. We select companies that are good citizens and talk directly with them about issues ranging from diversity on the board of directors to manufacturing in sweatshops.

The big picture might sound glamorous, but the nuts and bolts of my job can get pretty tedious. Sometimes I forget why I do what I do.

Then my children remind me. A couple of years ago my son, who was about 13, woke up at 8:30 on a Saturday morning. He had just hit the point of not waking up unless he was dragged out of bed, so I was pretty startled to see him ready to go, splendidly dressed in black. He even had on his dress shoes.

When I asked him why, he said, “Mama, don’t you know that the president of China is going to be at Harvard today?” We live about a five-minute walk from Harvard Yard, and I had noticed fliers up on lampposts, though I hadn’t taken any special interest. He hurried out with his friends.

He returned some hours later, with a sort of a glow of pride, and carrying over his shoulder a large hand-made sign reading, “Free Tibet.” Suddenly I felt my activist and parent worlds collide. We don’t talk much about the greater goals of socially responsible investing or the mutual fund industry. Nonetheless, this kid felt that what he did on a Saturday morning half a world away might matter to someone. My son was addressing world globalization in his own way, just as I, through my work, try to leave the planet a little better for him.

Last year, Domini Social Investments took a table at a trade show. We had our literature there, printed on bamboo paper, using soy inks. When we planned for the event, we wanted some sort of gift for conference participants and decided to purchase baseball caps made from organically grown cotton. We discovered some terrific sources, but on closer examination found that they were all made in China, where the human rights of the work force could not be certified. It took dozens of calls before we found a source that did the sewing in America. It may not matter a hill of beans in the greater scheme of things, but if a 13-year-old boy can get out of bed on a Saturday out of concern over human rights in China, I can think about where we buy our corporate goods.

(c) 1999 published by The New York Times Co. Reprinted by permission.