Sunday, February 16, 2014

Charity Shopping Spree 2014

First of all, on an unrelated mini-rant kind of note, I cannot believe how impossible is was for me to find a 'shopping spree' image that wasn't a woman or a woman with a man-drudge holding her bags. What gives?! Gay men have lots of disposable income (and we don't spend a disproportionate amount of it on shoes). Besides that, I feel so bad for those straight guys roped into being mules for female shop-a-holics. If I were straight, one weekend like that would drive me to the merry old land of Oz!


In the US during recent years, there has been a lot of activity by the government and conservative religious groups to undermine personal freedom. Also, around the world, there are places where basic human rights mean nothing. And let's not forget that, again in the US, there has been a resurgence of the superstitious assault on science and the arts. Some of the conservative groups that drive the hatred behind these efforts (murdering doctors, opposing gay rights, persecuting people who stand up for justice) are supported financially through the habit many religious adherents have of tithing a percentage of their income to a 'churches' or 'religious charities' that are little more than fronts for a political pressure groups.

This year, having been extra-inspired by the fantastic accomplishments achieved by charities I've supported, as well as the continued threat to principles and projects I hold dear, I decided to follow the example of the religious zealots. I figured out what percentage of my annual income I could likely part with and (after the financial dust of Christmas settled), did a flurry of donating. It was a charity shopping spree! And I thought I would try to make this an annual event which is part of my Christmas giving.

Aside from the obvious positive outcome of setting aside some time to make sure those donations go out, there are real practical benefits to an annual charity shopping spree. It will allow me to ignore most of the useless junk mail I get from charities I've already donated to. I don't need to be concerned about 'renewals'. Also, it's a good way to organize myself for tax purposes (my husband is an auditor, so I am held to strict account there!). So, besides the guilt-fee fun a charity shopping spree provides, there's plenty of positive reinforcement for this behavior on the rational side of my brain.

During what I hope will be my first annual charity shopping spree, I quickly got in over my head. There are so many fantastic organizations working impactfully for important causes that it took a lot of time to figure out who to support. Within an hour, what I had initially thought was a lot of money to donate felt meagre and paltry. However, every bit of support counts! On the positive side, you can't match the shopper's high I got while clicking those donate buttons! It was a great feeling to know that I had put my money where my mouth was and supported things that are important to me.

For this post, I'm listing out the charities I pitched into for Charity Shopping Spree 2014. If you are thinking about donating time or money - or wish to engage in a shopping spree of your own - I've included links to home pages and 'what we do' information for each group. They are all amazing and deserve our support!

The American Civil Liberties Union has the most thankless task imaginable: they fight to safeguard the basic rights we're guaranteed in the US Constitution. You'd think everyone would be totally in love with an organization like this (and, yes, many people are), but unfortunately for some Americans defending constitutional rights extends only to people they agree with. This is anti-American thinking and unpatriotic. If you don't support Constitutional rights for everyone, then you don't support what this country stands for (no matter how many flags you wave, wars you served in, or loud noises you make about your patriotism). Find out what the ACLU is doing by clicking here. You may not agree with everything they go to bat for, but the principle behind why they step up to the plate is above reproach.

Amnesty International is another organization that gets flack because they stand up for a principle, rather than adhering mindlessly to a political ideology. A global organization, Amnesty International fights to uphold human rights around the planet. In many countries (including our own) people are jailed without trial, tortured, brutalized, killed, or 'disappeared' for who they are or what they believe. Further, in all countries, politics can trump justice. Believing that light is the greatest disinfectant, Amnesty International is there to  publicize these situations. They also organize public scrutiny and pressure so that those who violate human rights do so with the world is watching them. That's an effective deterrence to evil.  Best of all, the letter writing campaigns the organization orchestrates are a great way to get personally involved in helping further the cause of human rights. Read about some of Amnesty International's recent victories by clicking here.

Charity begins locally (if not at home), and I love the Arts. So it's important for me to support local organizations that are dedicated to the Arts, especially in an era when the Arts are under political attack. The Art Institute of Chicago is a fantastic museum that brings art from all corners of the world and all periods of time under one roof. It's impossible to see it all in a single visit and, although I've been going here since I was a kid, there are still parts of the Museum I haven't visited. I can count on the Museum to twist my sensibilities a bit when I check out new exhibitions or even just parts of the permanent collection that don't usually draw me (see Zen Throw Down post for an example).

I love animals! You might say: "Well, who doesn't?" Unfortunately, lots of people don't. The ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) has been around since 1866 fighting the good fight on behalf of animals that are mistreated or exploited. While I'm not clear on the exact relationship between the national organization and local SPCA's, they are all out to accomplish the same goal: protecting animals. If you know of an animal that is being abused, here's information about what you can do to stop it.

This is the first year that I've given to Doctors Without Borders. This organization was formed in 1971 to provide independent and impartial services to people in 60 countries where human survival is threatened by armed conflicts, epidemics, hunger, and natural disasters. I thought of this organization because, while it's important to pitch in during disasters that hit the headlines, there is always a disaster happening somewhere in the world. What better way to always help than to support an organization like this. If you want to read stories about some of the work being done by Doctors Without Borders, click here.

Greenpeace, if I'm honest, is a charity with which I often have a lot of problems. I've donated to them for years, even though I most definitely do not agree with everything they do. Further, I sometimes find their methods annoying. However, as I stated earlier, I support charities based on the underlying principle they stand for and not because they do only things I personally sanction. Greenpeace is 'the largest independent direct-action environmental organization in the world' and, in the area of environmental protection, it seems that strong measures are often required. After all, when natural resources or species are gone, they are gone forever. Pretty big stakes.

The Human Rights Campaign is obviously a charity that is very near and dear to me. I've supported them through donations or volunteering for much of my adult life. I remember being impressed by them when a spokesperson came to speak at a gay professional organization to which I belonged back in the mid-90s. When he made the 'mistake' of suggesting the gay community solicit support for Illinois initiatives from Republicans, he received a sneering response from many members of the audience. Of course this was during the tail end of the AIDS epidemic and many of these gay men had seen the worst of it happen while the Republican party did nothing and propagated the notion of the 'Gay cancer'. So I get their reaction. However, the spokesperson chastised them a bit. He mentioned how some Republican Illinois legislators he had contacted were perfectly happy to vote 'yes' on pro-gay issues. When he'd asked why they didn't do it, they replied: "No one ever talked to me about it." Moral of that story? Prejudice cuts in both directions. Lesson learned. Anyway, while the HRC is currently getting a lot of press around the gay marriage issue, they do a lot of other great work for the community. Check it out.

I've been a supporter of space exploration and space science for a really long time. It fires my imagination, furthers science here on Earth, and is an important expression of the human spirit. The Planetary Society is an activist organization founded by Carl Sagan and dedicated to making sure we maintain our science program, in particular the scientific vitality of that program. However, they do a great many other interesting things as well (like educational outreach). One of the best benefits of donating to this group is that you automatically get a subscription to their fantastic quarterly magazine The Planetary Report. It has awesome graphics and well-written articles, often written by the scientists at the front lines of space missions or research. It's probably getting close to twenty years that I've been supporting The Planetary Society, and I love how it helps me keep in touch with what's going on in the world of space exploration when I no longer read up on the subject as avidly as I once did. My only regret is their sad penchant for trying to get Pluto reinstated as a planet (move on!) and their apparent inability to get a decent logo (um, guys, schooners are for NOAA, not NASA).

Not too long ago, I posted a mini-rant on reproductive rights, emphasizing that this is an issue of importance to everyone. Not just women. While Planned Parenthood does work to support reproductive rights, they are a lot more than that. They provide information and services around a whole range of critical issues: birth control, body image, and STDs. They are also not just about women, as they provide information and services for men's sexual health too. At a time when a variety of anti-sex and anti-health efforts are being pushed by narrow-minded ideologues, it's a no-brainer to support an organization like this.

Another inspirational, science-based organization that I support is the SETI Institute. I believe it's very likely extraterrestrial life exists. But I'm not satisfied with belief; I want proof! And so I support an organization that is tireless in seeking out that proof through a variety of means. The biggest argument made by people (and some scientists) against SETI is that the odds of making contact are low. However, I agree with the statement (not sure who said it): "The probability of success is difficult to estimate, but if we never search, the chance for success is zero." I would also argue that given what we have learned about the environments on Mars, Europa, Titan, and Enceladus that it is only  matter of time before we discover some form of microbial alien life right here in our own Solar System. That discovery would then raise the odds for finding intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy quite a bit. Since the discovery of alien life in any form would represent a shift in the human mindset on par with heliocentrism or evolution, supporting this organization is a way to help ensure we make that leap. On a side note the SETI Institute, like the Planetary Society, seems forever challenged in finding a reasonable logo. Maybe someone should donate one?

Another local organization/service I support is  - I believe -Chicago's only radio station for classical music: WFMT. WFMT is special because they seem to employ a broad definition of 'classical' music. They have a program related to folk music, and they also sometimes air rag or jazz. As far as traditional classical music goes, they play much more than opera and full orchestral music. This allows non-expert listeners like me to get a flavor for the true scope and variety of the genre. I've been introduced to some very intriguing artists and instrumental combinations through WFMT. Aside from that, in the era of The Kardashians and Duck Dynasty, there's little question we must do what we can to ensure some form of entertainment exists that requires having a brain and/or taste.

As much as supporting the ACLU, Amnesty International, or Greenpeace can raise eyebrows (especially among conservatives), it's nothing compared to what people say about Wikileaks. This is sad, because all this organization does is put a spotlight on the hideous, slimy, and reprehensible things that our government (and other governments) do behind our backs. As Wikileaks says on its site: "Publishing improves transparency, and this transparency creates a better society for all people." Wikileaks' expose on out of control spying committed by the NSA is a prime example of the abuse of power our government doesn't think twice about committing if we allow them to exist behind closed doors, under rocks, and in the shadows. Wikileaks, and organizations like them, provide much needed (because it is clearly unwanted) oversight. This is especially important when the major news organizations are either too gutless to ask hard questions of our government and corporate leaders or are too busy kowtowing to a political party to care. Instead of demonizing people like Edward Snowden, we should be focusing our anger at a government whose lack of moral fibre makes revealing classified data necessary.

Here's another scientific outfit that's doing amazing work, most of which takes place right here on Earth (although in some ways the ocean can be as much an alien frontier as space!). To me, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is like NASA or JPL for the ocean. You can get a taste of the wide range of work they do, from research to conservation to exploration, by clicking here. Once you support them, you are kept up to speed on what's going on with their fantastic quarterly publication Oceanus, which is worth the cost of supporting them all by itself! Whether you are into science for science's sake or just think whales and sharks are cool, this organization is doing something you'll get into. And they are a rarity in another way, they are a scientific organization with a reasonable logo! (I admit I picked a good one for this post, they do have plenty of eyesores).

Last, but definitely not least, is our local PBS station in Chicago: WTTW. When I was a kid, WTTW brought me Sesame Street, the Electric Company, and Zoom (sorry, but Mr. Rogers' goody-goody schtick always creeped me out). Then in my teens, there was Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, Ebert and Siskel's Sneak Previews, and (okay, I admit it) Tom Baker-era Doctor Who. These days, I'm a full-on Masterpiece addict, an illness stoked to high intensity with the glory that is Downton Abbey. Yes, the televised drives are annoying, but consider: would you rather see Kmart ads with men shaking their junk like bells to play a Christmas carol or have your intelligence insulted by the latest cutesy ad masking the soullessness of an insurance conglomerate? Just saying.

If the idea of a Charity Shopping Spree appeals to you, get to it! I guarantee you will have a special glow afterwards.

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