When I saw the tumblr site “We are the 1%. We stand with the 99%,” I thought about $140,050 sitting in a bank account in my name at the Permaculture Credit Union, money I’d received in distribution payments from my 5% share in an apartment complex. I questioned myself: How would I really be standing with the 99% if I held on to unearned wealth? As the Occupy Movement grew, I chose not to share my story of class privilege because I hadn’t yet made up my mind about how to take action. Despite years of analysis, self-reflection and conversations with trusted friends and peers, I still felt incredibly confused and uncertain about how to use my wealth and class privilege to positively affect social change.
While I wasn’t ready to post on the Tumblr site, reading others’ posts and looking at Resource Generation’s website was the impetus I needed to stop waffling about what to do with my unearned wealth and take action. Since I’d become politicized in college and aware that my family had way more than money than we needed, I’d struggled with how to negotiate my passion for social justice with my family’s affluence. At first I was quiet about it, acknowledging that I grew up in an upper-middle class community, but quickly adding that I went to a public (though very affluent and suburban) high school. I’d angrily challenge my parents about their consumption and spending—I’d voice disgust at the McMansions around the lake where we lived—but it took me years to learn that besides disrupting my parents’ attempt to enjoy the blue herons during their morning walk, my complaints did nothing to make Ventura County more equitable. Later I began donating anonymously to social justice organizations, including ones I participated in and benefited from. I started talking about wealth and resources with friends and colleagues, and I knew that someday I’d figure out how to best leverage money to really create serious change. I just didn’t know how yet.
By the fall of 2011, dynamics in both my personal life and worldwide social movements convinced me it was better to take action—even if I made a mistake—than to wait indefinitely for the perfect way to redistribute money. I had recently left my job as a community organizer in the farmworker town of Santa Paula because I felt like a fraud trying to move leaders from another community to take risks and organize when I hadn’t fully utilized my own class privilege and resources. I decided that at age 27, it was time to grow up, be true to my values, and love myself enough to act with integrity. Letting go of the idea that “I should know the answer for how to best use this money” has been fundamental to my search for personal growth.
During this time, the Occupy Movement grew worldwide in opposition to banks and the concentration of wealth in the top 1%. I, too, felt urgency to redistribute my resources to challenge inequity across race and class lines.
Over these months, my friend and brother Darien and I seemed to have a daily conversation about “what to do with my [unearned] money.” One day, he suggested, as he had before, that I start a foundation. I’d never been interested in starting a foundation; I saw philanthropy as creating a whole profession of site-visits, grant proposals, and evaluative reports, which to me distanced the money further from the actual social change work. Plus, I didn’t think I had enough money to really warrant the process of setting one up. But after reading the postings on the Tumblr site and learning about the giving circles started by other members of Resource Generation, I realized that I didn’t want to make decisions about what to do with the money alone; I needed others’ creativity, strategic thinking and perspectives. The language of philanthropy didn’t resonate with me, but I liked the idea of a giving collective, where a diverse team could redistribute wealth in a way that challenged existing power dynamics about who decides where the money goes.
The beginnings of a vision
Excitedly, Darien and I brainstormed other people who could be part of a giving collective that would decide how to redistribute my unearned wealth. We came up with four people that we respect and trust and who have a diversity of skills and experiences.
Is this group reflective of the demographic here in Ventura County, where I live? Yes and no. Members’ identities include white, Chinese American, militant Chicano, Latina, Mexican, African American, Lebanese, bilingual and queer. All of us have some degree of connection to the vanishing middle class and its opportunities. Politically, we are progressive, radical, anarchist and cynical. All but one of us have a college degree.
This core team of activists, researchers, organizers and artists will make decisions about how to redistribute $140,050. My initial vision for the giving collective was that together, we would:
• develop an (evolving) process for making decisions and working together
• engage in conversations about privilege, race, class, gender, sexuality and social change—from a starting point of abundance
• dialogue about the role of social change philanthropy/wealth redistribution as a tool in challenging systemic oppression and inequality
• identify organizations, groups, or individuals who can use these resources to grow social movements
• make grants to these organizations, groups or individuals
• identify other ways that we can collectively, or as individuals in the collective, support these social movements
• blog or otherwise share what we learn through this giving collective
At our first meeting, we decided that our initial group is the right size to begin moving forward. We also agreed that that we’d like to be able to support individuals and groups that don’t necessarily have 501c3 status. We’ve agreed that we’d like to aim for consensus in our decision-making, but since we are all busy people, we want to find a way for an individual to opt out or the group to otherwise move forward if complete consensus is too time-consuming. Personally, I hope that this flexibility in our approach will make consensus an easier process.
We’re still trying to decide whether to house the collective in another foundation as a donor advised fund, and whether we need a specific focus—beyond challenging oppression—to decide where the money should go. We’re also researching whether we might develop a micro-loan program for small businesses or worker-owned cooperatives. In this way, we might cycle money not immediately redistributed to help spur an alternative or informal economy. At our next meeting, we may spend time brainstorming groups and movements within our individual networks.
When I told my mother—who is one of the most generous and hard-working people in my life—about this plan to redistribute the $140,050, she expressed concern. She asked me to think carefully about taking care of myself and consider using the resource to pay for grad school or to buy a house. However, I feel that starting this collective and strengthening my relationships with those who share my vision for a more just world actually makes me more secure.
As we face crises of environmental degradation and income inequality, rising sea levels and war over scarce resources, even a gated community and a hefty bank account, or the ability to call a plumber or an engineer or a lawyer when things don’t go one’s way doesn’t lead to psychological security. I think that some wealthy people hold on to resources out of fear of scarcity. But material resources can never replace the security that comes from being part of an interdependent community that knows how to sustain itself from the land, or from the faith in a higher power or greater purpose. Ironically, centuries of land grabbing and wealth accumulation has both displaced the oppressed from their right to live from the land, and stripped the oppressors of the integrity to sustain it. And no one is really secure.
My mother begged me, “I wish you’d let go of this obsession with having money, and privilege, and just live your life and do good work.” How can I convey to her that this choice is about letting go (of shame) and committing to do the social change work I believe in? By growing this giving collective, I am choosing to invest in my communities, and the people and projects that will get us closer to the abundance I want us all to live in. This is my path to standing with the 99%, because my own self-interest is the same as our collective need for a more just and equitable world.