October 18th, 2012
October 18th, 2012
The first question people usually ask when they find out I gave away a three million dollar trust fund at the age of 25 is: do you regret it? Since this was one of the most joyous decisions of my life—I’ve never felt any regret—it’s an easy question to answer. There’s more to say about all that, of course, but I also think the decision to give big is only part of the story. What matters most to me is how we give, not just how much.
As an inheritor, I’m incredibly grateful to my family for all they have given me. I have deep respect for the hard work and sacrifice that went into creating this wealth. But so many people work equally hard every day, and yet they’re struggling to make ends meet. In the meantime, I was given three million dollars just for being born. The experience of inheriting made it clear to me how unjust the distribution of wealth is. I knew in my bones that I had to take some sort of action, that I couldn’t go along with it in silence.
Giving by wealthy people like me is almost always cast in a positive light, but I think it can also have a dark side. There are lots of ways to control people through money, and philanthropy can be one of them. Just because you give away the money doesn’t mean you give away the decision-making power behind it—and it’s in those decisions over where and how resources are used that the real power lies. That’s why redistributing not only money but power has been so important to me. I think philanthropic decision-making needs to rest with those who are on the front lines fighting for change because their lives depend on it—people who know best what their own communities need and are accountable to their fellow activists, friends and neighbors.
Of course that’s all just theory. In practice, at least in my experience, it’s messy. Slow. Hard. My family agreed to release my trust to me only on the condition that I started my own foundation. If I could have just given the money to one of the many activist-led social justice funds that already existed, I would have done it! On the other hand, this led to the creation of something relatively rare in philanthropy: an activist-led, endowed, private foundation.
Luckily for me, I was in Boston when I was 25 and decided to give away my trust, which put me at the center of so much innovative work in social justice philanthropy. I had tons of help, especially from the Haymarket People’s Fund. Through Haymarket, I met Deahdra Butler Henderson, who co-founded the Chahara Foundation with me and eventually became the executive director, as well as Margalis Troncoso, who created the board interview process with us. Forty people responded to our initial letter asking women activists with low-income life experience to apply as board members. After a series of dinners in small groups where we talked about visions of what the foundation could become, we brought together our first team. At that point I stepped down and transitioned into the role of ally.
Over the course of the next nine years, ending in 2008 when the board spent down the endowment, the Chahara Foundation gave grants to grassroots groups in Boston led by and for, "women and girls who have known poverty and may still be intimate with its ravages...in their endeavors to reshape community to allow for a higher economic, creative and spiritual quality of life." The amazing people who did this work include Aparna Sindhoor, Lori Majette, Emely Ortiz, Judith Roderick, Kathy Johnson, Betsy Santiago-Layne, Karen McManus, Nuvia Ball-Burrell,Trinh Nguyen, and Carol Silva. These women funded the movements that mattered most to their lives, finding grassroots groups I never could have known about and supporting them as peers instead of program officers. They created celebrations and collaborations that succeeded because they were doing it from within their own communities. I know it wasn’t easy—this was uncharted territory. And I hope that some of them will write about their experiences of the Chahara Foundation, since that is their story to tell, not mine.
Though I don't have a big trust anymore, my family is still wealthy and still does their best to take care of me with gifts and distributions from investments. People love a story about "giving it all away"—and why not? It’s so dramatic! So neat and clean! But that's not really the way class privilege works, especially when you’re an inheritor, and this is an important part of my story, too. Even if my family never gave me another cent, my opportunities and my future are defined by that privilege, from the ivy league degree I got debt-free to my connections and access to elite networks. I can never really give it all away. I can make a lifelong commitment to challenging the unjust distribution of wealth and redistributing the bulk of my inheritance. But it’s a tough, messy, lifelong process instead of a one-time dramatic moment.
And it’s truly a process that never ends! Recently, I went to a meeting for funders supporting transgender organizing, and I was floored by how few philanthropic dollars go to this work—especially to groups that are local and community-led. I wasn’t surprised though, because I see how hard organizations like the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, where my partner works, have to struggle to raise money. So before I knew it, I was collaborating with my friend and amazing organizer Gabriel Foster to create the Trans Justice Funding Project. I’m hoping to raise at least $50,000 this winter for a panel of activists to redistribute. I hope we will also connect grantees and donors so that they can build longer-term relationships. This time I’ll have to raise the money—the easy thing about dissolving my trust was that I didn’t have to do any fundraising! But I believe just as strongly as ever in community-led decision-making and in the urgency of transferring not only money but power. So I’m ready as ever to do the work.
More on Karen Pittelman:
The Trans Justice Funding Project, founded by Karen has their first Executive Director, Gabriel Foster.