More Than Money
Issue #11

Embracing Our Power

Table of Contents

“Using Privilege to Fight Privilege”

So the decks are slanted, the playing field is not level. What can we do about it? Below are a few examples of people with wealth taking steps to fight unjust privilege.

As a descendent of someone who started a multinational company, Marion Hunt-Badiner was sobered to learn about the increasing power and influence of large corporations. "I felt some connection and responsibility. I began to talk to other descendants whose families started multinationals, and we are beginning to explore how to leverage our wealth and influence to encourage these corporations to act with greater social responsibility."

In the past year a core group has formed and is developing strategies with a distinguished advisory board. "We aren't sure how we will exert our influence, but we are excited to take the power of our legacy and use it for the common good.

"I feel conflicted when a candidate for public office calls for a contribution" says Charles Knight. "They are often people I'd like to see get elected, but the system is flawed that makes our leaders dependent on wealthy donors in order to win. This year I'm capping my direct contributions to candidates and putting more resources behind efforts to end the undue influence of money on elections."

Charles is now active with Maine Voters for Clean Elections, a broad-based coalition organizing to sharply reduce the distorting power of private campaign contributions on the political process. Among other campaigns, MVCE is bringing to the ballot a referendum of national import.

If passed, it would provide a set amount of public financing for candidates willing to refuse all private contributions (their own money as well), to limit their spending, and to shorten their campaign season. While a prior Supreme Court decision prevents requiring limits to candidates fundraising for office, this voluntary public funding is still a notable step towards helping level the playing field.

"People talk about the widening gap between the rich and poor as if it is some natural phenomenon, like sunspots." says Chuck Collins, the great grandson of Oscar Mayer. "I was horrified to learn how deliberate and systematic the policies are that multiply the wealthy people's assets while the incomes of working people stagnate and decline."

Ignited by the unfairness of it all, in 1994 Chuck joined a diverse group to start "United for A Fair Economy." UFE educates the public about the past two decades of public policies and corporate practices designed to benefit the most affluent ten million people in the U.S. at the expense of the bottom two hundred million. These rule changes include: tax cuts on the wealthy, and tax and fee hikes on everyone else; trade policies that undercut U.S. workers and the natural environment; and winner-take-all corporate salaries. UFE's action arm, "Share the Wealth," builds campaigns to change these policies and practices.

A growing number of people with wealth are seeking an organized way to speak out against public policies which exclusively benefit the very wealthy. In response to requests, Chuck and others have begun a project called "Responsible Wealth." Over 30 people signed an initial statement and are beginning to discuss action ideas. Says Chuck, "Participating in the Responsible Wealth group is a way for high-asset people to say, 'Inequality is not in my interest! This growing polarization is creating a seriously insecure world for my children, and I won't stand passively by and allow it to continue in my name.' "

Fighting for Family Land

As a woman brought up in true Southern tradition, I was taught to be acquiescing and polite. I put everyone else's needs first, and felt anguished any time I needed to speak up.

Our family wealth included a 3,000 acre coastal tract of land with an unspoiled barrier island. Since my childhood, the sparkling water and fresh breezes of that place envelope me in a peace I feel no where else.

When my uncle died in '86, we found out this miraculous property was "worth" $30 million dollars. Of course, some family members were more interested in money than in the land. When some of the property was sold without any conservation protection, I knew I had to speak up or be haunted for the rest of my life. But how? I knew nothing about standing up for myself. Could I stand up for the land I loved?

I started by supporting my mother. Her life-long wish was to preserve the land, so she set up a charitable foundation that would preserve her portion and avoid 5.5 million dollars in estate taxes. Within six months of establishing the foundation, Mother was dead. What I feared most came to pass: some family members sued to overturn her will and her foundation.

Our once extremely close-knit family was torn apart. Unfortunately, lawyers only worsened the situation by pitting us against each other. I gave up millions of dollars of personal revenue to protect the land, yet on the witness stand I was accused of being motivated by greed.

Only through therapy and personal growth did I gain the strength to separate myself from my family's view of me. Previously, I thought power was only a negative trait. Breaking the rules of propriety and standing up for what I believed was like a rite of passage about what it takes to live in the world. I emerged from it a more mature woman who deeply values personal power, and who can assert herself while still acting on a vision of understanding and empathy for all. Taking charge of my life is the most important thing I have ever done.

Mother's and my share of the land (1,200 acres of coastal property) will be preserved forever. This may seem like a drop in the bucket, but I believe that every piece of land preserved matters. I am glad I could do my part to counteract our long history of the lack of concern that has consumed the earth. Every season that the loggerhead turtles nest on the island, I am filled with a peace that money could never buy.

Now that my family is working with mediators (instead of through litigation) to divide the remaining property, my brother and I are speaking civilly to each other for the first time in ten years. I even feel hopeful about the healing of the family. .

- anonymous author

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