For many activists today, it may seem like the forces of business are in direct opposition to the efforts of social justice movements. The most recent and visible example of this phenomenon was the battle between activists in New York City and Amazon over the construction of its second headquarters in Long Island City. Activists raised concerns over gentrification and the adverse effects development would have on working-class residents, while Amazon presented their plan as a way to help the community and spur economic growth. In the end, Amazon decided to abandon its plan. Activists celebrated their victory, while members of the business community and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio lamented Amazon’s decision. This case raises questions about the relationship between business and social justice. More specifically, is it possible to be on the side of social justice and be pro-business simultaneously?
The incongruence between business and social justice is largely due to the historically poor efforts of businesses to invest in the communities where they reside. Usually, when a new corporation moves into a town or a large firm invests in developing housing units, those investments are for workers and residents they are looking to attract rather than for people already living in the community. In New York City, for example, firms are investing in super-tall residential towers for billionaires rather than for the average New Yorker. While the housing market is demanding this type of development, businesses should take the needs of a community into consideration.
On the other side of this issue, activists often feel that the work of business is inherently incompatible with the work of social justice. While this is historically true and has relevance in today’s world, businesses can actually accelerate the work of social justice by empowering communities through job creation and innovation. After all, part of the work of social justice seeks to reduce financial inequality.
As the case of Amazon suggests, the relationship between businesses and the work of social justice activists is characterized by a lack of communication and trust. If community leaders had a space to speak with business leaders about the needs of a community, then businesses could make informed decisions about their actions in a community. In an ideal situation, Amazon should have consulted community leaders in Long Island City about the needs of their community and revised its plans. Instead, Amazon remained insulated and did not create a relationship with the community, which led activists to lose even more trust.
It is possible for someone to be on the side of social justice and be pro-business. This would include engaging in conversations with business leaders about the needs of community and pushing for business plans that invest in a community’s needs rather than just using that community for profit. However, as the case of Amazon has taught us, this can only happen when there is a relationship between business and community leaders that is based on communication and trust. Such a relationship will allow for businesses to make profits and for social justice activists to continue advocating for their community.
Michael Hernandez is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.