Tag Archives: financial security

Zeph’s story

I’m a mid-forties white genderqueer person born and raised in Montreal and raised again as an adult queerdo in the Mission District in San Francisco. I came from an owning-class Canadian WASP family. I can thank them for good teeth and education and vacation opportunities and also for legacies of silence, repression and anger. In 1987 I landed in San Francisco desperate for connection and found it among all the small-town escapees, queers from every quarter who had managed to walk-crawl-run to a city where they could find others like themselves.

I came for a visit and stayed. I dropped out of college. I got my real education. Friends hooked me up with under-the-table work doing housepainting, bookstore work, manufacturing, commercial kitchen work, you name it. The community in San Francisco was the first place I had felt relatively safe and sane. I learned about street economies and I absorbed a lot of politics and went to a lot of protests.

When I turned 25 I found out that I had inherited stocks from my paternal grandfather that at this point were worth somewhere around a quarter million dollars. They were controlled by my Dad, who worked at a firm that invested wealthy peoples’ money for them. (And yes, they all played golf together on weekends.) I ignored this information for years because I had a terrible relationship with my Dad and didn’t want to ask him for anything EVER, particularly money. But I also felt guilty and conflicted, knowing I could have access to this resource and seeing so much struggle around me while I had this huge insurance policy.

When my Dad finally retired, a family friend in the good ol’ boys’ club took over management of those stocks and I was finally able to put aside my family baggage enough to step up to the task of redistribution. I did a ton of research, found Resource Generation, went to a couple of Making Money Make Change (MMMC) conferences, “came out” (with mixed results) to friends in my life, and in the end distributed about 75% of my inheritance, mostly to community-based foundations and some directly to organizations doing work I admired. I chose foundations with strong leadership by women, queers and folks of color, hoping they would be better gatekeepers than I could be on my own. Resource Generation and MMMC were super useful as a starting point, but I didn’t stay involved because it felt limited for rich folks to talk in closed spaces only with other rich folks about social justice. It inherently excludes the wisdom of those who know economic injustice from the inside out.

I didn’t redistribute 100% of my inheritance because I figured I was on my own from there on—my family was both threatened and hurt when I gave away this money and I assumed I wouldn’t inherit again. I didn’t want to find myself in a bad situation because of medical bills or some other crisis and have my friends and family say, “well, you had money but you gave it all away–why should we help you now?”

It was a surprise to me that my Dad gave me more assets when he became sick with cancer. As a raised-poor, formerly homeless friend said to me, “Wow, when you’re born with money the world just keeps giving it you, huh?” Before Dad died, he called me on the phone and asked me to agree I wouldn’t spend it on anything that wasn’t an investment in my future security. I thought for a minute silently about how my individual security is closely wrapped up with the security of communities I depend on, and I agreed.

I want to both honor my Dad’s concern (that I’m going to die broke and alone) and also take a lesson from an ex-lover who I was dating while I was divesting my previous inheritance. At the time, she was struggling to get into nursing school, cause she was coming up on 40 and she was tired of being poor. At the time she expressed a lot of frustration that I wasn’t putting those resources to work in a way that more directly supported the community we were both part of. It’s true, why was I funneling cash to the nonprofit industrial complex when folks we both knew were struggling with basics like health care, housing and work? Her own upbringing taught her that if you have a dime, you share it with your family and friends. I told her I felt overwhelmed by the potential minefield of being a gatekeeper in my own community, and I also wanted to support movements and organizations that were working on root causes and with communities outside of the mostly-white queerpunk circles I knew personally.

I don’t have answers. I am trying to act strategically, and I am also trying to learn what some of my working class friends have told me they take for granted: the habit of sharing as a daily act, without heroics or fancy labels like “philanthropy.” It gets complicated, but I am continuing to act on that principle–that I as an individual am only going to be healthy and safe if those around me are healthy and safe.

Letter To My Dad About Giving Away Money

 by Tyrone Boucher   
 
I wrote this letter to my dad as part of an ongoing dialogue we were having shortly before I turned 25 and began to get some access to the trust fund he set up for me. I wanted to explain why I planned to give away the money, why I thought it was important and useful, and why I wanted him to be involved.
      

Hey dad, 
 
Thank you so much for your thoughtful response to my email! I read it several times, and I’m sure I’ll return to it frequently as I continue to think about this stuff. Everything you wrote about economics was really interesting, and gave me a lot to think about in terms of how I view wealth accumulation. I have a lot of thoughts prompted in part by some really awesome books I’m reading right now about the racial wealth divide and political economy respectively, and I would really love to talk more this stuff as I finish those books and pull my thoughts together.
 
For right now, though, I want to respond to some of the more personal stuff you wrote – as well as bring up stuff that is really timely right now in regards to my giving and my own relationship to wealth.
 
I’ll start with this: as I mentioned, I recently joined a donor circle called Gulf South Allied Funders. This move (even though I already have a million things on my plate) was really important to me, because GSAF is a group I’ve been inspired by since it began a little over a year ago. Beyond just the fact that I think a lot about the impact of Katrina and its obvious connection to racism – and want to help support social justice in the Gulf South however I can – GSAF uses a model of giving that I find really exciting and thoughtful. I’ve already explained some of this, but the basic history/model is this: nine young (white) people with varying degrees of access to financial wealth (who knew each other through their work with Resource Generation) came together in the wake of Katrina with the goal of leveraging their resources and class privilege to support the equitable rebuilding of the Gulf South. They acknowledged that they weren’t a part of the communities most violently affected by the hurricane and the racist devastation that came with it, and had the goal of working with a regranting institution that was connected to those communities and more able to identify and strategically fund the important work that was being done. That’s how they ended up partnering with the 21st Century Foundation – a Black community foundation with longstanding relationships to community organizations in the south.
 
Most of the money that GSAF helps channel to 21CF doesn’t come from the personal giving of the nine original members of the group – it comes from fundraising within the communities that those folks have access to. This includes their families, friends, churches, etc. as well as the Resource Generation community – and also a few established donor networks (Women Donor’s Network, Threshold Foundation) that have been asked to match or double the funds that GSAF raises.
 
I think about this when talking with you or mom about the idea that the money in my trust fund isn’t substantial enough to actually make an impact in social justice movements. I agree with you that just giving the $400,000 or so that I have to a grassroots organization or activist-led regranting institution won’t catalyze a revolution. But there are a couple reasons why I still feel compelled to give, and give a significant portion of what I have.
 
The first is sort of what I described above – the way that my wealth and class privilege give me access to communities that have more resources than I do, and a certain amount of leverage in communicating with those communities. Maybe not always as an individual, but in teaming up with GSAF I become a part of a powerful donor network with connections, influence, and lots and lots of money.
 
It feels really weird. A lot of the folks I meet in these communities have very different politics than me, and I don’t always agree with the ways some other donors and donor networks choose to use their resources and power. But, as I’m discovering more and more, just being a self identified “person with wealth” gives me a certain “in” in this world. Rich people, even progressive rich people, have a tendency to take each other seriously in way that they don’t with other groups (particularly groups that most directly and urgently need funding). And though the reasons and dynamics behind that feel fucked-up and oppressive, one thing that I have come to believe in the course of my activist work is the importance of organizing in the communities I come from. Working with Resource Generation and GSAF and Making Money Make Change feel like ways that I can learn to acknowledge and take responsibility for my own privilege while simultaneously using it to “leverage” power in a way that 1) is accountable to grassroots movements, 2) challenges other wealthy people to be less oppressive, and 3) supports the vision of the more just world that I would like to see.
 
The second reason I feel compelled to give is a more personal, spiritual urge. I’m incredibly inspired by the folks I’ve met who gave away their inherited wealth to support social justice. I find it particularly inspiring when this giving includes an analysis of the inherent power dynamics of philanthropy and an effort to redistribute power in a way that transfers decision-making ability about the money to the hands of people and communities who are on the front lines of social justice work. I have seen the way that this intentional letting go of power has been transformative for many of my friends. It isn’t about whether or not the money is ultimately used most “effectively” (whatever that means), or about releasing the giver from the guilt of having lots of privilege. What has inspired me most is the idea that simply the act of giving and the just transfer of power that accompanies it is a radical act, and one that – in itself – is in alignment with a vision of social justice.
 
I know that in our conversations, I can (and often have) come across as filled with righteous indignation as well as guilt about my privilege. I do feel anger, as well as some guilt. However, I am finding those emotions to be less and less useful as a place from which to do activist work. Increasingly, am am supported and sustained by social justice work in a deep way – by the vision for a better world, as well as the art and community and support and political inspiration and personal growth and challenge that come out of radical movements. When I give money, I intend to be really conscious about not doing it from a place of guilt, but doing it from a place of love and joy and the desire to align my actions with my spiritual and political beliefs.
 
I’m also conscious that my own ability to consider giving away a big chunk of my financial “cushion” is directly related to the fact that I grew up so financially supported. I am extremely grateful for the feeling of safety and of being taken care of that was connected to being financially secure growing up, as well as for the many opportunites (various types of lessons, Farm and Wilderness, my bike trip and trip to Thailand, and many more) I was able to have. I know that these resources alone put me in a position to be able to have even more resources and security for the rest of my life. I’m grateful for the flexibility that having access to money and other resources has given me, and I’m even more grateful for your willingness to let me find my own path and for encouraging me to follow the things I’m passionate about.
 
I guess the reason I’m saying all of this to you is that I feel like I’m in a process of evaluating how much I need and how much I want to give away. I respect the decisions you make around supporting yourself and your loved ones, and I see (and really respect) that you haven’t been motivated by greed or the desire to accumulate wealth. I hope you can see where I’m coming from, and know that I’m explaining this all to you because I do respect and feel supported by you. I feel that you support me in my process about this stuff and you listen without judgement when I talk about class privilege and related issues that could be really loaded. I want to engage with you in this process, and get your feedback about the thoughts I’m having.
 
I also want to hear about the feelings that get brought up for you around safety and security when I talk about giving away money – because I have feelings about that stuff too. I remember a good conversation we had once when we were walking around the lake that touched on this stuff, and I want to explore what it would mean for my life not to have this big trust fund, and get your insight about obstacles and problems that I may not have thought about.
 
While I ponder all of this, it’s important to me to actively start the process of giving, which is why I’ve committed to GSAF and have been giving smaller amounts to other organizations more frequently. If you recall, we each gave GSAF $500 last year. You pretty much just gave because I asked you too, I think. I’d like to talk about the idea of both of us giving more this year - and if you are open to giving more, to be more engaged with me about what giving means, and why we’re doing it, and how we can come from different places but be on the same page about the act of giving. I don’t know if that sounds vague…what I’m trying to communicate is something about how giving money isn’t just something that I do because I should, or because I feel obligated to, but something that feels like an inspiring and empowering act. I’d like to share that with you in some way. Though I’m not attached to you increasing your donation, I would at least like to talk about it and continue to share what giving means to me.
 
Anyway, this is long, again. Obviously this stuff is on my mind a lot, and just writing it out is really useful. Thank you again for having this ongoing dialogue with me – I’m really excited about it. And I can’t wait to hear your thoughts.
 
xoxo Tyrone

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Critical Desire

I went to D.C. for a job interview last week. Riding in the airport van in the rain from Dulles surrounded by the familiar climate and landscape brought back the feeling of Albemarle County, Virginia, where I grew up. Out the window through the rain I saw an SUV and was instantly transported back in time to 8th grade when my best friend Phoebe’s dad got a new jeep with Eddie Bauer leather interior and picked us up from school in it. I was flooded with the feeling of safety I had whenever I was doing something mundane like grocery shopping with Phoebe’s family. They were my escape from my chaotic, dirty, small, sad stressful house where that whole year my mom lay dying of cancer. Our fragile little family held together sloppily by a single mom on welfare and burdened by shame and struggle was its final decline. Being the youngest I was the one sitting at home all the time trying to fill my mom’s shoes as the caretaker, trying to get her to eat, trying not to run away when she coughed and vomited and struggled to stand up and walk naked, skin hanging from bones, to the bathroom. At Phoebe’s house there were two parents, meals at a table, rules, no cursing, no drunkenness, clean sheets, the feeling of being taken care of, restrained and guided.

It is not surprising, in some ways, that an SUV can evoke all that. It is marketed, like so many things, to promise safety while reminding us of our insecurity and fear. These forces underscore capitalism—structured insecurity—the requirement that there always be a pool of unemployed laborers keeps us all in line, fearing poverty even when we’re the least vulnerable to it and craving ever more security—personal, national, economic—even when that quest for security (in the form of accumulation) ever-broadens the domestic and global wealth gap that makes everyone less safe and secure.

How do we manage desire in this emotional/political context? I think most people have some critique of their desire, some limits at which they become concerned about its impact. Whether it is concern about the environmental impact of big cars, or the labor practices supported by buying sweatshop made clothing, or the local business- and culture-killing effects of frequenting starbucks, I hear a lot of people across class making decisions about what to consume that recognize the impact of their desire and consumption on others and the principle of interconnectedness that such a recognition requires.

I am interested in how that impulse could expand, building on the analysis people have when they “vote with their dollars” by boycotting something or supporting something else, to encompass a broader understanding of the connection of our personal economic choices to the well being of others and the world we want to live in. In other words, how can we build a broader politics of redistribution that expands the critical perspectives many of us already have about consuming some goods?

I see an example of a community ethic of critical desire emerging in some aspect of the “green business” conversation. That dialogue has invited people to shift norms of desire by understanding the impact of their desire and consumption on others and understanding the desires they have inherited from culture as products of damaging political conditions (like SUV’s in an oil war). So, when people in the local foods movement write and talk about the value of building desire for fresh local fruits and vegetables in season, they are also encouraging us to question our desire for peaches in January and acknowledge the conditions that produced massive agricultural reforms that changed how food gets to our tables and the impact on local farms and on the environment of food traveling thousands of miles to our plates.

I am interested in how we could build a shared conversation that engages desire critically about money and consumption more broadly. I want to be involved in conversations with people who are joining me in acknowledging the maldistribution of wealth that permeates our world and thinking creatively about how we can be agents of redistribution in our personal lives. In other words, I want to start talking to people I know about how we can all give more money away. What is hard about this conversation is that there is an enormous taboo about talking about money in our culture, and there is an enormous feeling of scarcity and financial insecurity that everyone seems to experience in capitalism. These problems are compounded by guilt—people often feel judged about what they consume and are afraid of opening the topic about what is in their bank accounts and what kinds of electronics they are buying, even with their intimate friends, for fear of being judged. This fear is not unreasonable because often the way we all deal with our insecurity about how we’re living our lives is to judge others, so judgment is definitely a danger. To me that whole picture of fear, judgment, secrecy, and insecurity is extremely convenient for maintaining the status quo of maldistribution and preventing meaningful conversations about developing an ethical relationship to desire and consumerism in community with others.

Maybe I am naïve, but I see signs of hope for this conversation everywhere. I think many people are already engaging in some kind of critical thinking about some of their consumer desires, whether it is based on environmental concern, labor practices, or small business support. I want us to take that conversation to the next level. I want to see people talking to each other about the politics of where their money goes—what it means to “save,” what it means to buy real estate, what it means to own ipods and cell phones, what it means to give money to homeless people, what it means to give money to non-profits, what it means to share money with friends. I want us to talk about the politics of inheritance and retirement and have some thoughts about these things instead of just working on auto-pilot (aka reproducing capitalism, the ever-growing wealth gap, poverty for most of the world). I want us to think about how we could shift our desires for security in interesting ways—maybe SUV’s look safe but what is really safe is reducing our oil dependency. Maybe retirement accounts feel safe but what is really safe is saving Social Security from being privatized by Republicans. Maybe owning property feels safe but what is really safe is working toward a world in which homelessness is inconceivable.

I just heard this radio program about how during the recent wildfires in San Diego, people with extremely expensive insurance had the benefit of private firefighters coming and defending their houses, while neighbors without it had their houses burn. The fires caused a lot more damage than they might have if we didn’t live in a country that is defunding emergency services and sending our National Guard to Iraq. The message that came through to many who lost their houses is, “the government can’t protect you, you have to buy more expensive private insurance that comes with private firefighters.” As we continue in that direction, we see the costs of safety go up and the penalties of poverty increase. I am hoping for a different conversation where we might take our fierce desires for safety and security and invest them in collective well-being that is a much more sustainable kind of protection.

Part of what I like so much about some of the environmentalism conversations is that they are not (sometimes) competitive or judgmental. People share their ideas and practices without demanding that one another do the exact same thing. Maybe you compost and your friend drives a veggie diesel car, and you tell each other about your practices and get inspired by each other, but there is not the sense of harsh judgment that might keep you from talking at all. I want the same thing in conversations about wealth redistribution. People’s lives are different, our needs and experiences are different, and we each need to navigate these difficult questions in our own ways. We might find that communities or groups of friends share absolute limits about some things—a rejection of a certain consumer good that all agree is appallingly wasteful or luxurious, or we might find that there are no shared absolutes. Ideally, what would be shared is a practice of inquiry about desire that helps us move toward more mutually beneficial ways of addressing our shared insecurities and fear. Maybe groups of friends make an agreement about caring for each other during illness or emergency rather than hoarding resources privately in fear of facing those circumstances alone. Maybe people agree on a major common fear and figure out how they can pool resources to support community organizing work aimed at alleviating that particular vulnerability. I think the answer to capitalist alienation, insecurity and fear is not private consumption, which only adds fuel to the fire, but connection and commitment to recognizing how our fates are tied.

Enough: Questions

What is the difference between financial security and hoarding wealth?

What is the difference between financial security and hoarding wealth?

 

What is the difference between financial security and hoarding wealth? What is the difference between financial security and hoarding wealth? What is the difference between financial security and hoarding wealth? What is the difference between financial security and hoarding wealth?

 

If I say it enough times—three, twenty-three, one hundred and ten, every morning before I open my eyes and at night before bed; if I say it over and over like an incantation; if I obsess about it, months-into-years on end, alone; if I ask everyone I know to weigh in—will the answer come?

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