Edorah Frazer inherited half a million dollars – and gave it away to groups working for social change. Since then, she has done fundraising for activist groups, volunteered at IN CONTEXT, and taught high school. She’s seen the effect of her decision on social change efforts and has no regrets about her decision.
But this story is not just about those with large fortunes by American standards. Most of us in the industrialized world have "inherited" a level of consumption beyond the dreams of the vast majority living in the rest of the world. We are the global wealthy, and until we can discover our own willingness to share the wealth, the prospects for a humane and sustainable world are dim.
During a course I took in graduate school on controversial issues, the instructor asked us to get into small groups and discuss the most powerfulpolitical acts of our lives. Some people talked about demonstrations and rallies, others talked about how they raised their children and the careers they had chosen.
It took me a few minutes to realize that the most powerful moment of my life was on December 23rd, 1986, three months after I’d turned 25. That was the day I gave away my half-million dollar inheritance.
I grew up in Winnetka, Illinois, a community known for its affluence, the quality of its schools, and its seamless conservative culture. My parents ran a charitable household. They frequently took in stray animals and teenagers who were on the outs with their parents. My mother gave modestly to charity and volunteered in various civic organizations; my father gave extravagant gifts to family and friends. Still, I was raised with a fundamental rule of the wealthy: never touch the principal of your inheritance. Preserve the wealth and make it grow for future generations – of your own family.
When I was 16 my father died. As my grief abated, I found that I suddenly had a great deal of control over my life, including my financial life. My five older siblings had all established their own lives, and my mother was putting together the pieces of her own. I was blessed with friends and teachers who provided support and advice, but most importantly, they offered views of the world and of justice that were vastly different than those I grew up with.
My high school American Studies teachers taught me about the origin of the American Dream. They showed a film called "What If the Dream Comes True?" critiquing the consumptive lifestyle of "successful" Americans. I began to feel uncomfortable with the opulence of my affluent surroundings coupled with what appeared to be intolerance for people who looked or acted differently than we did. I wanted to break out of the shelter of wealth and homogeneity that had separated me from the rest of the world.
At that time Rita Wonders, an ex-nun who had just arrived in Winnetka from rural Georgia, became the youth minister in the Catholic church down the block. I wasn’t Catholic, but I was welcomed into her youth group. Rita took me to work in a soup kitchen in Chicago and to Appalachia to build homes for the poor. There I learned that poor people are often sharply politically astute, that deep friendships can be formed across class lines, and that happiness has little connection with material wealth. The family I stayed with in Appalachia opened their hearts to me in a way that sustains our friendship to this day.
When I graduated from college, I went to Israel to learn about Judaism and community living on a kibbutz. During the six months I lived there, I had a very deep experience of being valued for my work and neighborliness. I worked six hours a day picking avocados (kibbutzniks work slightly more, but workaholism is discouraged as it upsets the egalitarian balance of labor), and for that I was given everything I needed to live happily, including free education and health care. Money isn’t used on the kibbutz, so for that period I felt a very direct relationship between my work and my sustenance.
When I got back from Israel, I was ready to handle my money in a new way. I became a war tax resister, withholding the portion of my taxes that would be allocated to the military and donating that money to peace and social justice groups.
I then set to work on learning about my inheritance. I went to the public library in Dover, New Hampshire, where my mother was then living, and I asked the reference librarian to help me find information about giving away money. She had never been asked that question before, and she got excited about it. The two of us spent several hours bumping into each other and finding bits of information. During our search we came up with the name of the Haymarket People’s Fund, a social change fund in Boston that also conducts conferences for progressive people with inherited wealth to talk about money issues.
Soon I was sitting in Haymarket’s office, laughing and crying as I read through a book called Robin Hood Was Right. I had found my niche! Here I was among wealthy people who felt it was right to redistribute part of their resources.
I attended my first Haymarket conference, and I was eager to get on with the task of giving away my money. When I introduced myself at my first workshop, I shared my goal. Immediately the introductions stopped, and people started sharing their opinions that giving away principal was irresponsible and dangerous. I was shocked. I had thought we were there to discuss how to give away money, not whether to do it. But one of the workshop leaders approached me afterwards and let me know that her thinking was similar to my own.
At my next Haymarket conference, during an introductory game designed to help us identify commonalities within the group, I stood up and asked whether there were other people there who had considered giving their inheritances away. To my surprise and relief, 10 people stood up with me. We arranged to meet during our free time, and a few hours later four of us climbed to the top of a grassy hill and stretched out to plan our money revolution. We asked each other what we wanted out of life and discussed our respective political strategies for changing the world.
We delighted so much in each other’s company that we arranged to meet as an ongoing support group every month; our primary purpose was to discuss the whys and wherefores of giving away our fortunes. We talked about how we had each come to the conclusion that many of the world’s problems were connected to the vast inequities in the distribution of the world’s resources. Then we affectionately named ourselves the Class Suicide Support Group.
Every month for two years, the four of us met to talk about our money. Our wisdom and sense of security grew with each meeting. Somewhere along the way the questions came up: "Haven’t other people given away their fortunes? What happened to them? What would they recommend to us?" We decided to ask them ourselves.
Christopher Mogil and I set up the first interviews and heard the first stories. They were, without exception, passionate. Many of the interviews were done on the phone, Christopher and I listening on separate extensions in separate rooms. After we were finished, we would whoop and meet each other in the hallway to share our wonder at the wisdom and power we had just encountered in our interviewees.
Here were people with courage, vision, and frequently humor, thinking about the effects of their actions and making powerful moves toward justice. They had various amounts of money, ranging from $150,000 to $80 million, and gave away varying amounts, from 20 to 100 percent, but all of them had decided that they had more than enough. Each one had carefully considered how their money could make the most positive impact on the world, and their methods and strategies for giving were creative and varied.
Forty interviews later, Christopher and his partner, Anne, wrote a book about the interviewees called We Gave Away A Fortune. They found that not one of the forty people interviewed regretted giving away their money. Most had come to the decision through a process that included traveling to less affluent places, and most described their action as a powerful departure from their training.
One by one, several members of the Class Suicide Support Group gave parts of their fortunes away. The group had been formed when I was 23, and I knew that at age 25 I would gain full control over the principal of my inheritance. I requested that the stocks be sent to me directly, and in mid-December of 1986 I received a large package of colorful stock certificates in the mail. I laid them out on the kitchen table and began to research the companies that I had been earning interest from. They produced a number of things that I objected to, including nuclear weapons, cigarettes, and toxic pesticides that had been banned in the US but were still being sold to developing nations. I made arrangements to give the stocks directly to the Funding Exchange, a national fund based in New York that directs money to groups working toward social change.
On December 23rd it was raining in New Hampshire as I drove to the EF Hutton office to transfer the stocks to the Funding Exchange. The staff was expecting me, and we sat in the brightly lit office and ate Christmas candy as we filled out the forms. At one point I had to get something notarized, and the notary at the bank asked me to repeat a statement swearing that I was taking this action of my own free will. I laughed and said, "I swear!"
When the paperwork was complete and I stepped out onto the street, I felt my heart beating against my chest. I started to cry and laugh in the cold rain. I’d done it! I felt lonely and exhilarated and loving all at once. I ran across the street to the Salvation Army bucket and looked at the men ringing their bells in the downpour. I emptied my wallet into their bucket and thanked them for their work, then I ran to a pay phone and called my support group buddies to let them know I’d taken the plunge.
Six years later I can see the power generated by my action. The money itself has allowed environmentalists, youth, and people of color to do a wide range of work that otherwise would have been delayed or impossible to accomplish. I gained fundraising skills as a result of my research that I have been able to contribute to additional social change efforts. From meeting with my support group I have gained the knowledge of three other thoughtful people, and together we have provided a model for other support groups and individuals contemplating similar actions.
I have learned that security comes more from the dedication of one’s community than from material prosperity.
But more powerful than all of these is the knowledge that if I act clearly and directly from my values, my life and the lives of those around me will be enriched.
As Sarah Bernhardt once wrote, "Life begets life. Energy creates energy. It is by spending oneself, that one becomes rich."
The accompanying article focuses on inheritors. But if you are "decently comfortable" in the US, you are shockingly wealthy and privileged by global standards. Anne Slepian and Christopher Mogil, who contributed these thoughts, are founders of the Impact Project and authors of We Gave Away A Fortune, stories of people who devoted themselves and their wealth to peace, justice, and the environment.
Many of us are taught to compare ourselves with those who have more. Can we unflinchingly compare ourselves to those with less?
We ask this not to invoke guilt. We distinguish guilt – a heavy judgment of ourselves – from compassion, the pain we feel knowing other people’s suffering. When we have the courage to look truthfully at our place in the terrible inequalities of the world, the power of compassion can serve as a liberating fire, motivating us to join the growing world-wide community working for justice and change.
We offer you a few questions we hope you will mull over. We encourage you to break through the taboo enshrouding money by talking with friends about these questions.
How much money is enough? How do you determine that? At what point are you comfortably well off enough that you can think about sharing your resources with others?
How do you decide how much to give away, and to whom? How does this compare with your friends’ or family’s giving? Is your giving satisfying to you? How might it become more so?
What would it be like to fully invest your resources – energy, imagination, and money – toward building a better world? Have you ever told yourself, "I can’t fulfill my dream because of money?" What is really holding you back?
– Christopher Mogil and Anne Slepian
How can those of us without large amounts of surplus wealth contribute money to social change groups? IN CONTEXT reader Paul Law wrote to us with his ideas for an "empowerment decade," a method for both increasing the amount of money we give away and adopting a simpler lifestyle.
Paul started by having his employer withhold 2 percent more from his paycheck then would be needed to pay his taxes. When his tax refund arrived, he gave half the money to a social change group and invested the other half in a socially responsible mutual fund. (An alternative would be to have the money deposited directly into a designated savings account, and then to periodically withdraw the money and interest for the same purposes.)
Paul increased the amount withheld by 2 percent per year. He says this approach is like a physical exercise program: he started out small, but by the end of 10 years, he will have donated and invested 20 percent of his annual pay and he’ll be living 20 percent leaner and greener.
For more information on the empowerment decade concept, write to Paul at the Wetlands Rainforest Action Group, 161 Hudson St., New York, NY, 10013; or call 212/226-9045. For information on socially responsible investing, contact the Social Investment Forum, 430 1st Ave. North, Suite 290, Minneapolis, MN, 55401, 612/333 8338.
– Carol Kennedy