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Can we have dignity in a world that crosses ecological limits?

October 21, 2022

On Wednesday, I drove down to the University of Kentucky (UK) for a fireside chat with the new President and CEO of the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America (TIAA), Thasunda Brown Duckett. Why?  

We wrote her a letter, along with 112 other organizations, in the fall of 2021 demanding that TIAA stop grabbing land from communities in Brazil and the United States.  

But she never responded.  

In April this year, we also hand-delivered a petition with over 20,000 signatures to her staff.  

Still no response.   

Finally, we joined a group of TIAA participants to file an 83-page formal complaint highlighting how TIAA’s investments violate human rights and their Principles for Responsible Investment. So, I went to UK to give it to her personally and hear what she had to say. Unfortunately, there wasn’t an actual fire (which is kind of unfortunate cause it’s now cold here in Kentucky), BUT her chat was still lit, nonetheless, for several reasons.  

First, a little background: TIAA is one of the largest managers of pension and retirement funds in the U.S., managing savings for roughly 5 million people, including myself and everyone else at ActionAid USA. Several years ago, after learning that TIAA’s portfolio invests heavily in expanding destructive chemical agriculture and contributes to and engages in deforestation and land grabbing – aka the money they tell us they are “responsibly investing” on our behalf – we decided to join the Stop Land Grabs campaign to hold TIAA to account. You can learn more here.  

Ok, back to the reasons:  

In the Q&A, we asked if she is going to use her advocacy as the new CEO to drive TIAA in the direction of investing/re-investing responsibly, to which she said:  

“The big change that we can make at TIAA is to make sure that people can retire with dignity. That’s thing one for us in terms of who we are…how do we continue to innovate and have products that can provide a choice, that you can have the level of transparency, not greenwashing, and the level of disclosure so that you can then say that within your allocation ‘here’s what I want, here’s what those returns could look like,’ and you can feel like you can stand behind what’s important to you and how you want your retirement money to be invested.  

There is a lot more work that we have done and that we are doing, but I will tell you that the number one priority for us… as a company that’s focusing on retirement income is to make sure we are investing properly with our fiduciary requirements, are we hearing from our participants in terms of what they would like to see in terms of choice, are we working to design those products with transparency around it and disclosures around it…” 

I was pleased to hear her mention dignity in her response, but I couldn’t help but think about what “dignity” means in this case. I imagine that for the people who work for TIAA, it means that they have made their clients enough money to live well in old age. And Thasunda Brown Ducket argued strongly that women, especially women of color, disproportionately lack access to retirement accounts, indicating that at least she believes dignity requires some kind of racial justice and equity.  

Of course, both of these are important, but at what cost? I’m reminded of our dear comrade Altamiran Ribeiro, a land rights defender from Piaui state in the Cerrado in Brazil, who has experienced firsthand the impact of an irresponsible investment from TIAA. He shared with us:  

It’s sad and concerning to see how much a person’s greed to ensure futures is destroying other futures. The trend will only increase if nothing is done.” 

Additionally, what kind of dignity is even possible in a future where the climate has warmed beyond 1.5 degrees C to 2 degrees or more? In that doomsday scenario, our food and agricultural systems would fail in extreme heat, mega-storms would make many parts of the world uninhabitable, and sea level rise would destroy most coastal cities. Hundreds of millions – and maybe even billions – could die by the time I am supposed to reach my own “retirement age.”  

TIAA – as a financial company that invests in the economy and sends strong economic signals to the private sector – needs to act immediately. Not only can they divest from companies whose business is not compatible with a decarbonized future – like the fossil fuel industry – but since TIAA owns stock in most of the biggest companies in the world, TIAA technically “owns” them and can demand that these companies decarbonize as quickly as possible.  

I am energized by Thasunda Brown Duckett’s approach to inclusive leadership and commitment to pushing TIAA to be better, but not at the expense of other people’s futures. So, I remain in a I’ll believe it when I see it stage and will continue to push for TIAA to act like this is an existential crisis. It’s 2022, and the planet is burning; it’s about time we move past general statements and implement real change.