The Making of a Socially Responsible Investor
Richard Dunn '02 scans the waterfront, looking for signs of change since he last visited this spot. It's been a few years, but the work he did in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood still resonates as among his most memorable.
Dunn is standing at the edge of Yosemite Slough, a small tidal inlet of the San Francisco Bay. Decades of abuse turned the area from an ecologically healthy salt marsh into a contaminated backwater hemmed in by blighted brownfields, concrete and chain link fences. What remains of the original wetland skirts a heavily industrialized section of the city near a 500-acre Superfund site at the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. The surrounding neighborhood, in southeastern San Francisco, is home to the city's poorest residents, who also suffer disproportionately high rates of cancer and asthma for the region.
As a community organizer for Clean Water Action, Dunn was involved in a coalition of environmental groups that rallied round the neighborhood in its need for environmental justice.
With local volunteers, he walked the streets of Southeast San Francisco, talking to residents about the prospect of transforming Yosemite Slough into a public space. “We went into the community and did an oral history of the slough. We gathered people’s memories about what it was like growing up there, the experiences they had there. We asked what community members wanted in a park. We invited them to look into the past and also to look forward.”
Dunn’s efforts helped lay a foundation for encouraging community involvement to address longstanding environmental problems. Now slated for cleanup and restoration, the 34-acre Yosemite Slough project promises to improve the quality of life in the surrounding urban district by creating a beautiful local park that integrates the information local residents revealed to Dunn and his fellow interviewers. When completed, the new park will reconnect residents to the shoreline by providing them with access to the bay and recreational and educational opportunities. It will also protect local water resources, increase plant biodiversity, and supply habitat for fish and wildlife, including two new birdnesting islands. Dunn got a lot of practice making connections during his days at Evergreen. As a Phone-A-Thon employee, he conscientiously worked the phones to raise money from alumni and friends of the college for the Annual Fund, which makes possible a plethora of programs across the campus, from scholarships and library resources to student projects and faculty development.
Post-graduation, he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and rapidly secured work with Clean Water Action, a national grassroots environmental group, where he remained for five years. “I got hired as a phone canvasser to call up members, ask them for donations, renew their memberships, give them campaign updates and ask them to write to their representatives.” Eventually, the job morphed into a position that included community organizing, managing and acting as a political liaison for different campaigns, such as stopping mountaintop mining and offshore oil drilling. “I became the bridge between the fundraising end of the organization and the policy end of the organization.”
After a brief stint as a campaign manager for a candidate running for a seat on the board of directors of BART, the Bay Area’s rapid-transit commuter rail system, Dunn had the opportunity to interview with a brokerage firm, which was interested in hiring someone who had experience in environmental affairs, the nonprofit world and politics. He fit the bill perfectly, so he was hired.
Like his jobs at Evergreen and Clean Water Action, the latest one, as a financial advisor, often involves calling prospects. “For whatever reason, I have this weird talent for raising money over the phone,” says Dunn.
But the latest post has also given him the rare chance to nudge an old school investment house into the arena of socially-responsible investing (SRI), an area customarily avoided by businesses driven primarily by bottom-line profits. In essence, he has carved out an entrepreneurial niche for himself by helping investors channel their capital toward enterprises that reach beyond purely financial goals to address ethical concerns and contribute to a sustainable environment and a just world. “I was never into the Wall Street mentality, so once I came here,” says Dunn, “my approach was to focus on green investments and SRI.
“I was encouraged to work with nonprofits and green stocks. I kind of broadened that into socially-responsible investing,” he says. “There’s a growing consensus around this aspect of investing. When you see a research publication talking about tobacco and defense stocks now, there’s almost always a caveat that this might not be a responsible thing to do, even though they add that they think it’s a good money thing.”
“I’m all for looking at the ethical end of investments. Our biggest votes are with our dollars. What we are invested in is definitely a powerful way to have an impact.”
In an attempt to foster growth in a green economy, Dunn has organized seminars and other events that bring together companies in the sector with investors and politicians. Although there has been a great deal of momentum in the last year towards building a more eco-friendly society, Dunn says, “The economic crisis has taken some of the wind away. Solar stocks had a terrible year last year, so one of the major areas I focus on was in one of the worst areas for investing.”
Dunn, who was born in New York City’s Greenwich Village and grew up first in New Jersey, then in Connecticut, landed at Evergreen at the urging of a high school friend who had matriculated at the college the year before. “I knew I wanted to explore the West Coast. I had a real calling to go out there and had a couple of friends a grade above me who went to Evergreen during my senior year in high school.”
He came out to visit a few schools and his friend, who picked him up at the airport, told him, “I guarantee you’ll go to Evergreen.” Dunn, whose nickname since middle school has been Cup’o, went ahead and visited the other schools, but his friend turned out to be right. “I could really see myself fitting into the community my friends had already established there,” Dunn says.
In his first year, he took Science of the Mind, a freshman core program linking neurobiology, biochemistry, psychology and philosophy. His political awakening occurred the following year, during the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, which prompted him to want to learn more about politics. He enrolled in Trees, Timber and Trade—a two-quarter program that focused on the interrelationships between forests, their ecology and the political and economic forces affecting their exploitation—and in Alternatives to Capitalistic Globalization, which explored a range of different visions and ideas for organizing society and meeting human needs.
Dunn, who graduated with a combined BA/BS in environmental science, says his experience at Evergreen was formative and brought out his passions for environmental and social justice. “They were always things I cared about but never realized until I went there,” he says.
A member of the Alumni Association Board, Dunn enjoys organizing social events for Greeners living in the Bay Area. At a recent gathering, held at the popular San Francisco restaurant Citizen Cake, 85 percent of invited alumni showed up.
While Dunn enjoys the work he is doing, he concedes that it is a tumultuous time to be working in the financial field. And he’s already formulating an even more entrepreneurial “Plan B” for his career—one in which he will launch a business to help nonprofit organizations raise money.
Dunn, who recently took up surfing in the Pacific Ocean, resides in the city’s Outer Richmond district, “literally four blocks from the beach and two blocks from Golden Gate Park,” he says. “I live in one of the most amazing corners of the world at the tip of the San Francisco Peninsula. I’m very inspired by the area I live in.”
Photos: Atom Colton ‘04