More Than Money
Issue #11

Embracing Our Power

Table of Contents

“How Might We Use Our Power?”

Throughout this issue, we have been exploring how people who want to improve the world can embrace their power without taking power over others. This inquiry is motivated in part by our frustration with two existing models of social engagement for people with wealth:

"Kindly" Power Over Others. Here we find the classic model of "noblesse oblige," which underlies many rich people's well intentioned attempts to make a difference. The strength of this model is that over centuries it has motivated and engaged many people with wealth in acts that have been genuinely helpful. (We far prefer it to "blame the poor" which also has its adherents!)

However, this model promotes a paternalistic view that people with wealth accurately know what others need. In addition, it proposes only "helping the poor" rather than working to change the system that creates so much wealth for so few.

Giving Up Power. Some wealthy people feel strongly that they (and other rich people) should return control of their wealth to working people. Believing in democracy and repulsed by the way power is abused in the hands of relatively few, they are committed to a shift of power that goes far beyond benevolence.

While this model inspires and invigorates some individuals (for example, many in our book We Gave Away a Fortune ), all too often the idea seems to induce guilt, and to immobilize people rather than energize them into action. Many wealthy people do not feel powerful to begin with. When they hear an implicit demand to give up power, they sometimes react defensively and stay away from social justice groups altogether.

A Third Choice: Respectful Partnership. We seek to promote another model, one that embodies the political clarity and commitment of "giving up power," while still welcoming the leadership and engagement of people with wealth. In naming this model, we hope to make explicit what hundreds of people with wealth are already doing.

If you are drawn to the "respectful partnership" model but unsure how to put it into practice, we invite you to consider taking some of the actions below. We have distilled these elements from the experience of many people. If the steps sound daunting or uncomfortable from where you are now, remember that this is not a quick fix, but rather an ongoing process that evolves over a lifetime. Often taking one small step towards living your deepest values makes the appropriate next step easier to imagine.

Invest in your self-awareness. Do personal healing--therapy, spiritual practice, personal growth work, or whatever it takes--so you are neither seeking power nor refusing your power out of reaction to family, peer and societal messages.

What if this soul searching leads you to decide that your life's work is not about being a powerful steward of wealth? Then figure out the amount of money you need for personal security and give the rest to others you respect who will take action with it.

If you don't want the job of harnessing wealth's power to begin with, taking this action is not "giving up" your power. Rather, passing on the wealth is a potent way to act on your convictions and self-acceptance. Unlike sitting on wealth that is not doing much good for anyone, this path is a form of respectful partnership.

On the other hand, if you become clear that using your money and power for societal good is a part of your life's mission, make a commitment to it. Notice what enables you to act on this vision.

For most people, the overwhelming nature of daily life--everything from dealing with the mail to the pressures of parenting--creates enormous inertia that acts against even the best of intentions. (Wealth, which tends to multiply even when left alone, is rarely the most "squeaky wheel" in life. Although the social costs of ignoring your money are great, the personal costs are usually minor.)

Build substantial, long-term support systems. Most people need vigorous and consistent support to counteract inertia. This support can come from a spouse who shares the same commitment,a group of friends in a similar situation, a network of people with a common purpose, an advisory group, an evolving combination of the above, or some other structure. In whatever form, you need peers, mentors, and role models whose lives reflect your values, and relationships with people who will give you honest feedback, holding you to your ideals as you pursue your goals.

Expand your ability to treat others as equals. Learn about classism, and the ways oppression becomes internalized. Take part in organizations where you build cross-class relationships, and work to change the unconscious patterns of arrogance, control, and isolation that are deeply ingrained in all of us from socially dominant groups (e.g., men, white people, upper classes...).

Dig into your niche. Accept that even with wealth, you cannot right every wrong. Let some areas go, even though they express values you hold deeply. Out of a clear and accepting sense of self, find (or further invest in) a focused area of work that resonates with your core passions and identity. Stay with it for several years, decades, or a lifetime.

Play a part in changing the bigger system. Don't let your responsibility end at "doing good" with your wealth. Put your voice behind institutions that take a stand against inordinate power and privilege and that work towards increasing the power of all people. Even if you are using your money for something "nonpolitical"--to be a better parent, a poet, an entrepreneur--there are innumerable opportunities to support those with little power to develop more, and to be an advocate for your ideals on a systemic level.

Remember, your wealth is not your power. Money is like gas in the car: a useful fuel, but worthless by itself. You also depend on the spark plug: your commitment to a mission that ignites your soul, and an engine: your work with a team of kindred spirits. None of us creates significant change in the world alone. .

--from the editors

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