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Socially responsible investing gets a Native interface

Part one

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. - The conventional approach to socially responsible investing, SRI as it;s known, is to avoid buying the so-called ''sin stocks'' of companies producing alcohol, cigarettes, munitions, air or water pollution, offshore worker abuse, ''blood diamonds'' or profit for apartheid states.

But over the past decade, as unethical management practices and perceived workplace hostility toward women and ethnic employees have gutted the profit figures of major U.S. companies, socially responsible investors have become more aggressive, seeking to support companies with long-term strategies for correcting what have come to be called ''ESG'' problems - the environmental, social and governance issues that threaten not only profitability, but the very viability of companies, states and planet Earth itself.

Global warming is the marquee ESG issue, and energy companies themselves, fearing investor divestiture, have scrambled to get their collective house together on environmentally friendly or ''green'' production practices. But under the social aegis of ESG, for instance, it was lost on no one in SRI circles that the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, against the world's wealthiest state originated in its poorest one per capita, Afghanistan, highlighting the importance of forward-thinking developmental investment against the fundamentally social dislocations of poverty. And issues of corporate governance have continued to spur shareholder activism - stockholder revolts, in essence, against boardroom decisions on everything from executive compensation to gender equity and corporate support for the ''Washington Redskins'' football franchise.

Rebecca Adamson, founder and president of First Peoples Worldwide in Fredericksburg and a proponent of indigenous SRI for decades now, responded with a brisk ''they're beginning to get it'' when an analysis of all this appeared on the front page of a Wall Street Journal section in November, only a day after she had finished delivering two keynote speeches at an SRI in the Rockies conference in Albuquerque, N.M. Among other things, the speeches emphasized that for once, Native cultural values and spiritual considerations, through their connections to community, can guide others in their hopes for global health.

''I actually think the tribal input will change the face of social investing,'' she said in a post-conference interview, explaining that right now the scope of mainstream SRI is still limited to publicly held companies. ''And the only sort of proactive, outside-that-framework investment is taking place in the Community Development Financial Institutions. They are, investors, putting money in CDFIs. But other than that, it's all publicly held companies.''

Tribes, by contrast, are defining social investing in a more holistic sense. ''Tribes invest in other tribes, tribes invest in their community, all gaming tribes are required by law to invest in their communities, and so we're calling that social investing. We're going to change the definition of it. ... It's not always what's done to Indians. We never get the credit for having impact in the greater sense. And I predict that that's what's going to come out of this. Tribal financial leadership will help redefine social investing. It will go well beyond investing in publicly held companies that we think are doing a good job, to include connecting capital to community in all kinds of creative ways for the betterment of society.''

As one example, she mentioned the Morongo rescue of buffalo stranded on Catalina Island, after an original herd of approximately 40 had been transported there for film purposes during the silent screen era. ''They left them there and they multiplied, like 600 and some buffalo now, and they were going to have to kill them. And so what Morongo did is pay for the buffalo ... to be culled and brought to Rosebud [S.D.]. And again, the holistic sense.''

Though she received an ovation and rave reviews for her own speeches on Native social investing at SRI in the Rockies, Adamson said the real leadership on the issue has come from the Oneida Indian Tribe of Wisconsin and its investment screening team, led by Susan White. The Oneida are already at work scheduling a tribal Great Lakes regional conference for tribes that want to learn about social investing, she said. ''And they're going to create a fund, scholarship fund, for young Indian people to get their travel paid to come and be at the conference, and learn about social investing and shareholder activism. They've already got a donor lined up who said they'll provide the funding. So that's going to be established, for at least four to five young people to come every year and learn about this.''

In addition, Social Investment Forum, the network of investors that put on the SRI in the Rockies conference in Albuquerque, established a permanent Indigenous Rights Task Force on that occasion. Adamson gave a speech to 40 or so at the inaugural task force meeting, and another keynoter to an audience of about 700 at the main SRI in the Rockies conference.

(Continued in part two)