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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 208

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This is the grave of Susan Komen.

There isn’t that much to say about Komen herself. She was born in 1943 and died of breast cancer in 1980 at the age of 36, three years after her diagnosis. That is far too young and tremendously sad. Cancer is a horrible thing and breast cancer, because it strikes down so many younger women, is especially awful. There wasn’t much exceptional to Komen’s life, making her like the vast majority of us.

The reason of course to profile Komen in this series is the Komen Foundation that began after her death. Her sister Nancy Brinker began the foundation in 1982. Rather quickly it grew into one of the nation’s largest charities. It quickly created an effective way to raise money–holding its Race for the Cure events. Running for charity doesn’t sound pleasant to me, as running is a chore at best, but many people like running and like charity. The first race was pretty successful for a local event, with 800 people coming out in Dallas. That grew rapidly. By the early 2010s, 1.7 million people were running in 138 races around the world. That growth also brought with it a lot of problems. Komen always had a pretty elite outlook that was not politically challenging in any way. The high salaries it paid and the apolitical charity that it wanted to be opened the floodgates for conservatives to dominate it and then turn it to the right. Central to that was cozying up to corporations. What do the pink ribbon campaigns even accomplish? What does “awareness” do? Aren’t we already pretty aware of cancer? How much money is spent on these campaigns that don’t actually accomplish anything, unlike, say, lobbying for massive government investment to research and develop cancer cures? Or perhaps universal health care so that people with breast cancer can actually get the best treatment possible?

Instead, Komen made deals with KFC and Coke so that that company donated a percentage of each bucket of chicken or FUZE tea to breast cancer research. That’s fine and all except that a lot of corporations, not only fast food but in all sorts of fields, do terrible things that increase the chances we will contract a form of cancer. You don’t have to be an alternative health fanatic to wonder how a deal with KFC advances the cause of curing breast cancer. The company routinely ignored women living with metastatic breast cancer in their ads until very recently, marginalizing actual cancer sufferers. The entire emphasis on “survivors” disempowers those who know they are going to die.

The 2012 decision to eliminate $680,000 in grants to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screenings was the organization’s nadir, a sign of how right-wingers had hijacked it for their own interests. That funding helped provide breast cancer screenings for 700,000 women, mostly low-income, which they were going to be denied because the right-wingers on the board hate abortion more than they hate breast cancer. Of course Karen Handel, who was Komen’s senior VP for public policy at the time and who pushed for that decision, now represents Georgia in Congress as an anti-abortion right-wing Republican. Brinker, who was Komen’s chief executive still at the time of the Planned Parenthood debacle not only approved of the decision, but gave a terrible interview with Andrea Mitchell defending it that was widely mocked. The decision was overturned and Brinker finally stepped aside later in 2012.

Moreover, Komen became notorious for paying exorbitant salaries to its executives instead of sending the donations to scientists for research. Brinker may be Komen’s sister, but she personally has capitalized big time. By 2010, Brinker was pulling in $410,000 a year. The next year, she was up to a mere $684,000 a year. Moreover, 50 other executives were making at least $100,000 a year, many a lot more than that. Brinker also routinely got to travel first class, with permission from the board always granted. Why? Because she was living the dream, a dream based upon the death of her sister. How out of the norm was that?

Ken Berger, president and CEO of Charity Navigator, which evaluates and rates charities, called Brinker’s salary “extremely high.”

“This pay package is way outside the norm,” he said. “It’s about a quarter of a million dollars more than what we see for charities of this size. … This is more than the head of the Red Cross is making for an organization that is one-tenth the size of the Red Cross.”

The American Red Cross had revenue of about $3.4 billion, while Komen’s was about $340 million last year. Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern makes $500,000, according to the most recent financial documents available for the charity.

Yeah, that’s really bad.

We probably all know someone who has had breast cancer. And most people aren’t as political as I am or as LGM readers are. For many of them, Komen and the pink ribbons are very meaningful. That has to be acknowledged. I don’t think Komen’s alliance with the NFL to get teams to wear hideous pink uniforms and the like is actually doing anything at all to cure breast cancer and lord knows all the donations they get could be deployed much more effectively. But it also does mean a lot to a lot of people, including survivors and their families. They might be getting played to provide Nancy Brinker first class flights, but I don’t know how much many of them would care.

Susan Komen is buried in Parkview Cemetery, Peoria, Illinois. And I have to say that the grave itself makes me a bit queasy. It’s an advertisement for the foundation. There are road signs in Peoria providing directions to the “Komen Shrine.” Let the woman rest in a peace a bit. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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