These 70 rich kids have gathered to talk about wealth, but the conversations aren't about BMWs or shopping sprees. Instead, the young people gathered at the Making Money Make Change conference discuss how to take responsibility for the money that has been entrusted to them.
For people committed to social change, wealth can be both a powerful resource and a difficult challenge. In progressive circles, “rich” is often a dirty word, and many youth hide their wealth. Some never consider the power of their resources until they discover this new network of young donors. But once they link up, many come to terms with their wealth and become effective social change philanthropists.
During this fall weekend conference, participants hear presentations on environmental justice, socially responsible investing, racial diversity in philanthropy, money and relationships, and the difficult question, “How much is enough?”
Some people advocate giving it all away. Karen Pittelman, at age 23, turned her $3 million trust fund into a new foundation run by and for low-income women, keeping just $15,000 for herself. Others are interested in using their money to spearhead projects or leverage other fundraising. Some simply want to explore how to live and invest responsibly.
Many participants find themselves taking a different approach to philanthropy than their parents. One traditional form of philanthropy improves the lives of the wealthy through support for the opera or their alma mater. Another form helps those in need but does not change the underlying economic system that creates the need, such as support for homeless shelters or the Red Cross. A third form—and that which interests many of the participants at this conference—strives to eliminate unjust economic hierarchies, including those surrounding race, gender, sexuality, religion, and nationality.
Why do these young people want to change a system that—at least on the surface—benefits them? Each person who attended the conference has a unique story about family wealth and personal activism. Three young donors agreed to be interviewed for this article.
“Outside my comfort zone”
Ian Simmons, age 26, is the grandson of an insurance executive and son of international development workers. His travels with his family allowed him to meet people from many different circumstances, such as truck factory workers in Moscow and women running a cooperative in Oaxaca.
Simmons remembers the social activists his parents brought home for dinner. “I saw them as some of the happiest people,” he said. “I was brought up to believe that our lives are interconnected. When other people are getting mistreated, I take it personally.”
Simmons says he was embarrassed as a child to bring friends home because of the size of his house. Now he is more open about his wealth.
His education included working in an elevator parts factory and as a construction worker. When he got electrical shocks from the machinery, he discovered the consequences of not having OSHA regulations. “I kept placing myself in situations outside of my comfort zone, challenging myself,” he said.
He worked on the Harvard Living Wage campaign not only for the benefit of the workers, but also because “the folks who get educated at Harvard are some of the folks who will make decisions about the world economy.” Simmons raised $30,000 from Harvard alumni to place a critically timed political ad in the Boston Globe. He co-sponsored grants for students to do activism during the summer. The campaign was one of the greatest successes in Harvard labor history, raising the benefits to low-income workers by $4 million a year.
Gita Drury, age 28, inherited money from her grandfather's entrepreneurship in one of the world's largest waste companies. Drury's mother was an active community member and philanthropist, and Drury herself became politicized when she interviewed women in prison. “It led me to understand that people, especially women, are put in prison for economic crimes rather than violent crimes,” she said.
“The current distribution of wealth is not sustainable,” she said. “It's not in anyone's interest.”
Drury began her financial education at a young age but had no peers with whom she could discuss the many challenges. For Drury, these challenges include “reconciling the many contradictions,” including those involving the source of her money, which comes from a corporation with one of the worst environmental records.
She co-founded the Active Element Foundation, which connects donors, artists, and other activists, and is involved in four other donor-organizing groups.
“Justice is more important ”
Jamie Schweser, age 29, received money from his parents when they sold their business three years ago. Schweser attributes his inspiration to his “fabulous, loving, supportive parents” who taught him what it means to be a good human being.
“It's more important to do what's right than what supposedly benefits me,” he said. “As a Jew, I have to think of the Holocaust, how that situation would have looked different if people had done what was right. ... Justice is more important than me.”
In high school he entered politics by protesting the Gulf War, and after reading No More Prisons, he got involved in prison activism. Then he unexpectedly received an inheritance.
“Initially I was gung-ho and ready to do things [with the money], but I didn't realize how much I needed to learn,” he said. The inheritance “opened up so many new options, I had trouble knowing where I wanted to go.”
Asked why he wanted to use his money for social change, Schweser said, “It's important to challenge the idea that inequality benefits me. There are ways in which my soul is wounded every day that I look around and see so much pain and need. And then I look closer at myself and see so much excess.”
Staying connected with other young donors is important for Schweser, not only to be an effective agent for peace and change, but also for emotional support. “I had many questions and fears about being an activist and suddenly having a lot of money,” he said.
“I am blessed to know brilliant and understanding people. But most of my peers can't relate to activist work around money. It is isolating.”
Then he adds, “There are a million reasons to have interpersonal challenges. Money is just one of them.”
Schweser used his money to start a group called Cheddar for Change in which youth from different class backgrounds give grants to local grassroots projects. His Peace through Justice donor circle at the Making Money Make Change conference raised $90,000 last year for an array of grassroots organizations.
Drury, Simmons, and Schweser are only three people among 70 each year at the Making Money Make Change conference. The number of young people entering the movement is growing, although they are a small fraction of the country's young and wealthy.
Social change philanthropy constitutes less than 3 percent of all philanthropy nationwide.
Regardless of the scale or quantity of money, Schweser points out the personal value in giving: “No amount of money can outweigh the benefits of doing what's right and acting in alignment with your beliefs.”