Questioning Money from the Inside Out

My name is Sarah and I am a 22-year-old owning-class white queer womyn. When I turned 21 I inherited around $600,000 from my parents. It came to me in two different accounts, and had no legal strings attached (and not many emotional ones either). This money comes from both sides of my family. On my dad’s side, the money was made in the late 1800s and early 1900s through a factory outside of Pittsburgh that made parts connected to the steel industry. On my mom’s side, the money comes from generations of wealth in a New England family. I do not know enough about where that money came from, and I am working to learn about it.
Over the last few years, as anti-capitalism has become a part of my politics, I have started to think about what to do with this money and how to approach it. My first reaction to learning how much money I would be inheriting was to feel really ashamed and not talk about it with anyone. Then a friend told me that she was in a similar situation, and we started talking about inheriting money, giving away money, and how to do that. She has been really important to me in this whole process, as someone to process, think, and strategize with. I hope to be organizing with her someday! Last summer, I also got into reading the blog Enough. It was so exciting to see a whole world of possibilities, ways people interacted with money, and different ways of living anti-capitalist politics. My partner at the time and I talked a lot about class and money that summer. More than anything, this was the emotional work of trying to understand my family’s history and growing in my own politics and relationship to myself, my family, and money. It’s hard now to separate what happened when, but through the summer and fall I came to a clearer understanding of what I believed. I knew that I did not believe in capitalism, and more and more it became clear that that meant I didn’t want to keep the money.
There has been a lot of distance between not wanting to keep it and letting it go, which is a process I have only just started. Part of that has been strengthening my political awareness through reading and talking with other young people with wealth who I had met in workshops or was organizing with. But a lot of it was internal emotional work. I think that a lot of what allowed me to believe I needed to keep the money was a deep doubt in my self-worth and ability to take care of myself. Believing that I might not be able to provide for myself was a big part of being raised as a white woman in an owning-class family. This was true even though I have received an elite education at all levels and many opportunities that have made it easy for me to get jobs. The feeling of not being capable can be hard to excavate because it is wrapped up in a lot of pain about sexism and heterosexism. The strong and wonderful womyn in my life raised me to believe that I could take care of myself and did not need a man to make that happen. But I saw these same womyn always connected to men, and often in financially abuse relationships with men. Coming to identify as queer meant a sense of power in regards to being able to choose partners who I could equally share power with. But it did not get rid of my sense of being incompetent.
Last winter, I started to realize this connection. It was probably the most intentional emotional process that I have been through to decide to see myself as competent. Having a personal sense of being competent had not been enough motivation to change my understanding of myself. But if it was going to keep me from giving away money, I had to get rid of it, gosh darn it! So I am working on it. I feel proud of how far I have come in feeling competent. I know that all of this, of course, is connected to messages I got from family, friends, and teachers about my class and whiteness and the power this gave me. I am working to come to a sense of brilliance, beauty, and power that is not based in race or class but in my inherent goodness. I don’t mean that I will get rid of these messages and how they affected me, because I’m still getting them and they’re very much a part of my identity, but I want to try and base my sense of self-worth in something else, and something that tells me that I don’t need to keep money that other people need in order to be sustained.
There was also a lot of what I see as spiritual work involved in shifting my politics and my practices. To feel like I didn’t need the money (which I absolutely don’t, as I am sure is clear to anyone who is not me and reading this, but this has been my journey to understand that), I had to have a deep sense of community as my main source of stability and security. I am working to feel as loved and as in community as I am. I love giving my energy to building community with my dear ones where I am and the ones I am far away from. I am learning to be open to receiving from this community, and opening myself to knowing I will be taken care of by them. Hoarding money is tied to me to a sense of individualism and fear—like, I never know what will happen, I better keep this because if I don’t, no one will look after me! Yes, I don’t know what will happen at all. And yes, money does provide a serious cushion and protection for a lot of things. (And, no matter what I do with inherited wealth, I still come from a wealthy family that can provide help in all kinds of hard circumstances.) But I have to remind myself—there is a lot that money just can’t protect me from, I’m gonna get hurt, and if I think the money is protecting me from interpersonal hurt, I gotta just accept the hurt and find other ways to help me get through it. Money doesn’t protect me or people I love from abusive relationships, from death or terminal illness (though it sure does help keep us in healthy shape), from loss of friendships or relationships, from bad feelings about myself, from depression and other kinds of mental and emotional hurt. This is all complicated because it surely does help with those things, and it can make them a lot easier. But the idea I am trying to lose is that I will be safe if hoard money.
So I try to cultivate in myself appreciation of community and a sense of abundance. I am surrounded by my community—with close ties with my immediate and extended families, with friends of all ages, with different faith communities. Abundance is a reality in my life and also a way of seeing the world that makes it easier to receive and give freely. I read a wonderful speech yesterday by U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison in which he talks about abundance and the story of the loaves and fishes. He says of the disciples who said there was not enough to go around, “Or maybe what happened is that the disciples’ perception of scarcity was misinformed and actually there was more than they understood there to be. Maybe there was abundance. Maybe there was radical abundance, though they saw scarcity.” And then he goes on to say, “There is enough, everybody! There’s enough for you. There’s enough for me. We don’t have to throw anybody under the bus. We don’t have to chase anybody out the door. We don’t have to say who doesn’t belong and who’s not included. There is enough!” I love that! It makes my soul calm down if I say there is enough, there is enough, and think in terms of abundance instead of scarcity, and pay enough attention to feel the abundance present in my life.
The other spiritual work I have been doing is about my belief that nobody should have this much money, and also opening my heart to feeling connected to the injustice of wealth distribution in the country and world. I was raised to distance myself and my access to resources from the realities of injustice and poverty. But of course they’re as connected as two sides of a coin. The times when I’ve beat myself up and felt that this injustice is my fault have been parts of my journey, but they haven’t been times of me being active—guilt is pretty paralyzing. But if I can leave my heart open to how having resources is connected to not having resources, my sense of urgency (in the positive way, not like panic) is a lot stronger and more useful.
So I haven’t said what I’ve actually done with this thinking and learning. I started last summer (of 2010) planning to give away all the money by the end of the summer. It turned out that wasn’t a really reasonable goal emotionally or practically. There were too many conversations I had to have. I was waking up with panic attacks feeling inadequate because I thought I couldn’t do it. So I adjusted my goal. I talked to both my parents and a few friends and a few really really wonderful wise “young elders” (young people with wealth who were thinking about the same things). After I talked with Karen Pittleman, I came up with a plan to give $100,000 to a community and activist-led foundation. After talking with her this felt a lot more doable than giving smaller amounts to individual organizations. I was never going to give much of it away if I did that, I felt like. Also, it felt good to just let go of the money and let people who were really thoughtful and experienced and involved decide where it should be going. If part of what I was trying to do was let go of owning-class control of resources, that felt like one way to do it. (And I certainly don’t think that that—or any of this of course!—is the only way to do it. It just felt right for me.) It felt great—like breathing out, letting go, letting money find its way back to the communities it was stolen from. I chose a foundation that gives to organizing in the Appalachian region, where the steel industry had a big impact.
And after that I haven’t done much since. The week after I gave the money, I moved to Mexico for the year to teach. I don’t want to put everything on hold for the entire nine months, but I am giving it a bit of a rest for now in terms of acting on giving money away. The emotional impact of it on people in my family has to settle—and who am I kidding, probably for me too—so that they can feel I am taking good care of myself and not acting rashly. I still plan to give all or most of the money away, and I am trying to figure out what I think about saving some part of it for graduate school for teaching or medical emergencies or possibly buying a house some day. Also I don’t know what I think about saving in general—will I want to save for retirement? Or will I want to give money to where it can be useful now, and trust that others will take care of me when I can’t take care of myself? (There was a great interview about this on Enough with Jason Lydon.) I’m not sure. So I’m trying to open myself to learning and to receiving.
For me, giving away money isn’t organizing. Organizing is organizing. Giving away money is just something that I do so that, literally, my money is where my mouth is. It feels important to me to be reaching out to, getting support from, and supporting other people with wealth in working for moving money, and I want to be organizing with other people with wealth as well, people of all ages. And of course, cross-class coalition building is so important. Groups of people with wealth need to be accountable to working-class and poor people. So those are all things I’m working on as I build my life, and as I let go and let my life take me places. That’s what’s going on with me.