My Money Story

For a while now I’ve been wanting to share my story with the Resource Generation (RG) community. So much of my experience in RG has been about telling our stories and using it as the foundation for our organizing. So here goes. This is my first attempt to share my story with you all. I would love this to inspire other young people with wealth to tell their stories. What’s your families’ money story? How did you get involved in RG? What do you think about bringing all you are to social change organizing and movements?
Like many Americans, I grew up thinking I was middle class.
My mom’s family (a mix of English, Irish and Italian, Catholics and Protestants) had money but lost it. My great great grandpa was the head of the Italian chamber of commerce in North Beach and my grandpa was the son of wealthy grocery store owners in New England and worked as a stock broker San Francisco. My mom is fourth generation San Franciscan and grew up in a wealthy neighborhood called Pacific Heights. She has the cultural capital that comes from growing up in a wealthy community and the confidence that comes from having lost money and survived. Mom also passed on stories about the disintegration of her family because of alcoholism, abuse, suicide and assimilation, and it left me with a deep impression of how messed up having lots of wealth can be.
My dad’s family lived the American Jewish dream of joining the owning class. My great grandfather and great grandmother were immigrants from Lithuania.  He became a symphony orchestra concert master and conductor, and, after he died, she ran a dry goods store into her 70’s. They lived in Manhattan where they raised my grandmother (Nanna).  It always seemed to me that my Nanna worked hard to escape the limited possibilities of being a women and being Jewish in the 1940’s, in part by becoming wealthy.  She married and was widowed by two Jewish men. One ran a family knit-ware business in Manhattan and the other was lead counsel for Hess Oil Company. They both were successful businessmen and left my grandma wealthy when they died. From my dad’s family came messages that money would help keep us sheltered and safe. With our history of being targeted for destruction, these are common messages in Jewish communities.
I grew up in the wealthy private school world of SF, aware of inequalities but without anyone naming them as such. It was the land of polite white liberalism—the land of let’s all just get along.
In college I really began to notice and think about my privilege and the wealth in my family. I had friends on loans, and I was embarrassed that I had a trust fund. I thought of myself as hard working and didn’t want to be seen as a spoiled, trust fund baby. But it wasn’t until 2002, when I was 22 years old and had just graduated from Vassar College, that I first found out about RG.
How did I get involved in RG?
My college education was paid for by a trust fund set up by my dad’s parents and I had about $50,000 left in the fund when I graduated. At the same time, my grandma had recently given me $5,000 following my graduation, and I was trying to figure out what to do with the money.
I had heard of the “cool rich kids movement,” a term used by Billy Wimsatt in his book Bomb the Suburbs, and, after following a few links, I found myself on a website for the Making Money Make Change Retreat.  It was going to happen in a few months in Marin, near where I lived (and grew up) in San Francisco, and it was for “young people with wealth who wanted to leverage resources and privilege for social change.”
I didn’t know what to think. Even though I had been thinking more and more about my privilege, I had never really considered myself rich. I always compared myself to wealthier classmates with vacation homes or elevators in their houses.  (I have come to learn that comparing ourselves to those that are wealthier to minimize our money is a pretty common phenomenon among the rich.)
At the same time, it was clear to me that I had a lot more than many of the people around me. Growing up in SF, I walked by homeless people every day. I was very aware of the social segregation in the city, between private and public school kids and by class and race. Going to college, my families’ wealth became clearer. My grandma drove up to see my in her Mercedes with a trunk full of food and gifts. I was able to travel the world, spending time in Ireland and South Africa.
While in college, I was also learning about injustice and social movements. Through a program at Greenhaven Prison in NY I got to know men who were locked up for 25 years to life for non-violent drug offenses. I would go home to the Bay Area during my summer and winter breaks and witness the growing youth movement protesting for better education and an end to the criminalization of young people of color. I studied in South Africa and learned about the anti-apartheid movement and the vital role of young people in organizing for their liberation.  I ended up writing my thesis on the history and politics of race, class and education in San Francisco by looking at the history of the private high school I attended. All this reading, studying and exploring was my attempt to understand the world I grew up in and my place in it. I wanted to be a part of the social movements I saw around me, and I was confused about my role as a young person from a wealthy family.
So, despite my resistance to the idea that I was a young person with wealth, I called up a friend of mine from childhood, Mahea Campbell, who I found out was on the board of Resource Generation. I asked her, “Are these good folks? Should I go to the conference?” She said they were, that she would be there and would be thrilled if I went too.
With a lot of nervousness and without telling most of my friends (many didn’t know about my trust fund), I went to MMMC. It was a total mind fuck. Two reactions and thoughts were bubbling up at the same time throughout the four days. One reaction was to completely distance myself from the rest of the participants. I was the cool, down, political, anti-racist white guy and everyone else was the spoiled, messed-up rich kid that I could never relate too. At the same time, I was blown away by the opportunity to have honest conversations about wealth, family, money and class, all in the context of the values I cared about.  I was amazed by the opportunity to organize in this community that felt so familiar.
Despite my initial attempts to reject the whole thing, I was hooked. Ever since learning about current day movements for justice in college, I had been asking the question “What’s my role?” My college mentors had always advised me, and many others, to organize in our own communities and from our own experiences. But I never knew what this meant in practice as a white guy who grew up in wealthy San Francisco until I got involved with RG.
At the time, I was working as a youth organizer for an environmental justice non-profit, primarily in black and brown communities in the southeastern part of SF.  Going to MMMC and getting involved in RG flipped the script. It gave me a community, mentors, training and skills on how to talk to and organize my family, friends and peers. It also gave me concrete tools to take ownership over the money in my life and to use my access and experience in wealthy communities to move resources and power towards the organizations that inspired me.
Having a clear answer to what it meant to organize in my own community lit me on fire and I haven’t looked back since. Step by step I became more involved in RG and developed my ability to take action with my own money and connections, and inspire other young people with wealth to get involved and do the same.
So what did I do?
I came back from MMMC and asked my grandma how much she was worth. When she told me several million dollars, I was floored. I asked my dad about his dealings with money, and I realized he had grown up with a trust fund as well.
I got involved in the local Bay Area chapter of RG, and helped put together a giving plan group where a few of us worked together on our giving and financial plans. Elspeth Gilmore, my current partner in co-directorship, was part of that group way back in 2004. It’s fun to remember.
I started learning how to fundraise and be a donor organizer. I participated in and helped coordinate a donor circle in support of young movement leaders in the Bay Area, and I led a delegation of RG members to the US Social Forum. It was clear that I could make a real impact on the issues I cared about, from affordable housing to environmental justice, by organizing young people with wealth (like me!) to stand side by side with communities and organizations working for change.
I attended RG’s Donor Organizing Institute and learned more about the history and skills necessary to organize other young people with wealth. The next year I came back as a trainer in training.
I started giving the interest of the $50,000 left in my trust fund to organizations I cared about, until the remainder of the fund went to help pay for my brother’s college education.
When my grandma died a few years ago, I inherited $50,000. Since then, I have given half to individuals, organizations and foundations I believe in. More importantly, and meaningfully, I continue to organize my community to use all we have—our resources, time and talent—to support vital social change organizations and movements.
I am proud of my story and so thankful for all the people who have made it possible. The list is so long I will save it for another blog post. It is important to say that so many people and organizations have invested in me and my leadership. I could never have done all this alone.
I also want to give a special shout out to my family, particularly my grandparents and parents. They all have worked so hard to make sure my life goes well and that I have all I need to survive and thrive. It is only because of their courage and their love that I am able to make the bold choices I am making today. Thanks for all you have given me and for supporting me to tell my story.
So that’s (one small piece of) my money story.
What’s yours?