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Leon Kaye headshot

Levi’s Pledges $1 Million for Marginalized Communities

By Leon Kaye

In today’s political climate, how does a company stay true to its values, prove it has a spine and demonstrate support for the most vulnerable communities? For Levi Strauss & Co. and its foundation, the answer is $1 million in grants that will bolster their support of communities in the U.S. and abroad, including immigrants, refugees, religious minorities and transgender citizens.

Referring to current events as “one of the great disruptive moments of our day,” Daniel Lee, executive director of the Levi Strauss Foundation, described today’s announcement as a call to action.

As Lee explained about this disbursement of grants, “It calls upon institutions to look at its plans and its playbook, and ask, ‘do we just do more of what we’re doing, or do we shift course?’”

That certainly is the question asked by many corporate foundations as they decide which communities are in need of a hand up. Earlier this month, for example, Bloomberg Philanthropies framed its side of the debated with a $3 million pledge to help people who have been hurt by the transition away from coal.

Those people, of course, also happened to flock in droves to Donald Trump in last November’s presidential election. Hence the question: In a country divided, does an organization try to win the hearts and minds of those who feel they have been shut out; or should it try to assist those who its staff perceive as most at risk – or perhaps even both?

Levi’s held a company town hall two days after the election to collect its employees’ thoughts, Lee told TriplePundit by phone on Tuesday. A few days later, the board of the Levi Strauss Foundation met to discuss the organization’s direction in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s surprise win over Hillary Clinton.

CEO Chip Bergh, along with other leaders at Levi’s, decided to take measures seen as necessary to strengthen the company’s values -- defined as empathy, originality, integrity and courage. “We have a long legacy of standing for inclusion and diversity,” Lee told us. “After all, Levi Strauss was an immigrant himself, and started his business in a city built by immigrants.”

In order to decide what kind of community work would earn priority, a team of employees took an approach that can best be described as data-driven. The team looked at the Trump administration’s priorities during its first 100 days, and tried to discern mere conjecture from what could become bona-fide policy.

Using this data, the Levi's tea prioritized nonprofits that largely focused on education, advocacy, and legal rights for immigrants, refugees and transgender citizens. As of Wednesday, the foundation called out 13 organizations that will soon receive funds to scale and accelerate their work. These groups' missions vary from providing legal clinics in the San Francisco Bay Area to supporting women’s health clinics in apparel-sourcing communities abroad.

Lee cited a "bunker mentality" among certain communities. “So we asked them, ‘What are you seeing?’” Those answers determined how these funds will be distributed.

These organizations include United We Dream, which says its network is comprised of over 100,000 immigrant youth spread across 55 organizations in 26 states. The group links young people to attorneys who can help them on a wide array of problems, from deportation proceedings to helping undocumented students win the right to pay in-state tuition at universities. In the Bay Area, Pangea Legal Services offers attorneys’ advice on a sliding-scale fee structure for immigrants in need, especially for those who are at risk for deportation. Other organizations provide legal defense and education for Muslims, South Asians and other communities who Lee said have been been in constant state of worry about their future since last November.

“To me, it goes back to what our company and our brand has stood for over the years,” Lee added as he wrapped up his talk with 3p. “A pair of Levi’s is like the embodiment of the events of our time.”

Of course, the discussion over who is hurt or helped by the Trump administration’s policies -- and who was hurt and helped during the former Barack Obama administration -- is the subject of arguments, and even shouting matches, at dinner tables and coffee houses across the U.S. When asked whether Levi’s message could really resonate with everyone, Lee was unequivocal: “As a company and a brand, we cannot be all things to all people,” he said firmly and confidently. “This is a moment for us to make a statement about an America that’s good.”

From Lee’s point of view, the company has long symbolized cultural change, and been a “uniform of many social movements” over the years. From the civil rights era of the 1960s, to the gay rights movement of the 1970s and the AIDS awareness campaigns of the 1980s, Levi’s stood up for what its leadership believes is right. “A pair of Levi’s is an American icon,” Lee concluded. “So what we say about what America stands for matters.”

Image credit: Levi Strauss & Co.

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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