Andy Kang and Guillermo Perez speak at a press conference calling for the Colcom Foundation to stop funding anti-immigrant groups during a news conference on Monday, 2/28/22 (Pittsburgh City Paper photo).
By Jordana Rosenfeld
PITTSBURGH — Andy Kang’s father immigrated to Pittsburgh from Korea in the late 1950s. “His first real American job was right here in Pittsburgh for the Pennsylvania Railroad Company,” he said.
On Monday, Kang stood with a coalition of community groups known as the Drop Colcom Campaign, where they announced a new effort to pressure the Pittsburgh-based Colcom Foundation to cease funding anti-immigrant organizations. More than 70 local businesses and organizations have signed onto a letter demanding Colcom redirect the entirety of its funding to civic and conservation projects.
Kang said his father’s coworkers, both Black and white, warmly welcomed him to Pittsburgh. “They showed him around the city and they were generous and inclusive and warm,” Kang said.
But Kang, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, also remembers hearing about another, very different aspect of his father’s experience as an Asian immigrant in a mostly white Pittsburgh. Kang said his father often spoke of one night at a local bar when white patrons overheard his father talking with another Korean person about the Korean War and reacted violently.
“[This] is also part of America’s story,” Kang said. “Hatred leads to violence. More specifically, hate speech and hateful ideas that are given any kind of credibility lead to violence. And then, beyond that, lead to shameful government policies when the politics of hate overtake a society. This is why we’re here today because we need to stop Colcom’s funding of hate speech.”
The Colcom Foundation is a private philanthropic foundation based in Pittsburgh and started by Mellon bank heiress Cordelia Scaife May.
Colcom markets itself as an environmental organization and gives millions to local environmental causes, but the majority of its funding goes to immigration-restriction groups, including some that have been deemed hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
A statement from Drop Colcom Campaign points out that the Colcom Foundation was originally founded by Dr. John Tanton, an environmentalist and “avowed eugenicist who advocated for a majority white population in the U.S. and a sealing off of the U.S.-Mexico border to protect against what he called a ‘Latin onslaught.’”
In 2017, the foundation gave more than $34 million to anti-immigrant groups, which was more than 80% of their total giving that year. Since 2005, Colcom has given more than $150 million to anti-immigrant groups, as well as a much smaller figure donated to Pittsburgh-area environmental nonprofits and other groups.
Although founder Cordelia Scaife May’s affinity for white nationalism is well-documented, as is the foundation’s giving to anti-immigrant groups, particularly in a 2019 article by the New York Times, Colcom vice president John Rohe has repeatedly denied the foundation’s ties to white nationalism.
“Colcom categorically rejects intolerance, racism, and anti-immigrant sentiment,” Rohe wrote to Pittsburgh City Paper in 2019. “It refuses to fund groups promulgating such activities. The Foundation supports public education on a long-term sustainable level of immigration. This conversation should never be marred by racial bias. The starting point is to respect all people.”
In a Feb. 28 response to City Paper, Rohe wrote that the Colcom Foundation has “no tolerance for discrimination” and provides funding to nonprofits “addressing the long-term sustainable level of immigration.”
“It can be difficult to comprehend the environmental impact of the world’s population growth; nearly a quarter million people every day (births minus deaths),” wrote Rohe. “That’s almost another Pittsburgh daily, another million people every four days. Some might prefer to argue for open borders. While their voices should be heard, we might consider how that policy would, for example, directly impact the 40 states already confronting water shortages.”
Guillermo Perez, president of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, is among the local activists who have for years criticized Colcom’s funding of anti-immigrant and white nationalist groups.
At Monday’s press conference, Perez, citing industrialist Andrew Carnegie’s charitable giving as an example, argued that “evil, ill gotten fortunes can be used to generate socially positive outcomes. And Pittsburgh’s philanthropic foundations fund a ton of good work here and across the country. Wouldn’t it be great if one day we could say the same thing about the philanthropy of the Colcom Foundation and the legacy of Cordelia Scaife May?”
Jordana Rosenfeld is a reporter for Pittsburgh City Paper, where this story first appeared.
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