Cool Rich Kids
"Do you have a friend who...
a) Comes from a rich family
b) holds a lucrative job
c) is not an asshole
d) wants to do good
DO NOT blow their cover by handing them this flyer in front of people and laughing ha ha ha.
DO send them to our charming little website www.adventurephilanthropy.net"
So reads the flyer for one of the hippest and stealthiest movements around: the Cool Rich Kids. From the wording of the message, it is hard to tell exactly what they are. Secret society? Social justice organization? Self-help group? All of the above? For the uninitiated, the flyer raises more questions than it answers. Like, who is cool and a rich kid? Do they really exist?
They do exist, and possibly in larger numbers than you'd expect. Take Gita Drury. She grew up in the affluent California city of Palo Alto. As a teenager she was aware of the difference between life in her town and in East Palo Alto, its much poorer neighbor. What Gita did not understand was how the system of inequity functioned, or what her role was in changing it. When she was older, she started doing work for Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. Even then, she kept her personal life, and her considerable personal finances, separate from her advocacy. One day her mentor and fellow Legal Services empoyee, Dorsey Nunn, showed her another side to her potential as an activist. On a long drive to a prison, Dorsey spoke to Gita about her connections to other people with money, connections that could be mined for the sake of social justice. He said, "I'm never going to be invited to those pool parties. The people at those pool parties need to know what's going on. You are invited to those places."
That day Gita began to understand how she, as a person with resources and contacts, could use them to further her dream of making the world a better place. Her assets, which are a source of shame to so many socially-conscious young people, were not just baggage or a personal issue -- they were another avenue of involvement, and potentially, a critical one.
27-year-old Gita is one of many young people who have chosen to use their wealth to further their activism. Gita isn't always thrilled about her position within the activist community -- she says that sometimes people try to pigeonhole her as the fundraising person, as if that is all she has to contribute. Yet Gita realizes how important that sort of contribution is to the expansion of the progressive movement. She and other Cool Rich Kids represent the next generation of donors and networkers in philanthropy that is making change, not charity, its first priority.
According to organizer Jamie Schweser, 28, Cool Rich Kids existed before they were labeled as such. Young people have a history of using their wealth to make change, and the Cool Rich Kids are the poster children of this generation. Despite their rising fame, don't waste your time looking for their website or phone number. The Cool Rich Kids aren't an organization, but a network. The phrase itself was coined by Billy Wimsatt in his 1999 book "No More Prisons," the title of which has since been tattooed on sidewalks all over the country. The book is about fight against the Prison Industrial Complex, among other things. It includes an entire chapter on "the Cool Rich Kids Movement, and Why Philanthropy Is the Greatest Art Form of the 21st Century."
Billy actively promotes the movement, both through his book and through college recruitment visits. His the most famous name attached to Cool Rich Kids, but he is not its only leader. Jamie and Gita, among others, have taken on important roles in the Making Money Make Change conference. The conference enables wealthy young people, usually "trust fund kids," to get together to talk about using their money to promote social transformation. This September marks its fifth anniversary.
Both Jamie and Gita have experience on both sides of the progressive program -- as activists and donors. Gita co-founded the Active Element Foundation, a New York City organization that helps develop youth organizing through grant-making and networking, and Critical Resistance, a national conference and grassroots campaign against the growth of the Prison Industrial Complex. Jamie facilitates Direct Action Donor Circle, which allows young people to pool philanthropic resources, and Cheddar for Change, a cross-class activist funding board in New Orleans. He also participates in anti-prison activism and runs an independent publishing company.
"Many of today's young donors are committed to healing society, not just alleviating its most grisly symptoms. For them, this healing begins with reconciliation--between philanthropy and activism, giving and doing, rich and poor. The idea is to create a movement in which these categories no longer oppose one another, or align in such a predictable way."
People like Jamie and Gita have begun to bridge the gap between activism and philanthropy, which are too often seen as separate and fundamentally dissimilar. Gita alludes to the stereotypes surrounding philanthropy -- that donors are middle-aged or elderly people who write fat checks without giving much else. On the other hand, stereotypical activists are poor (or deliberately impoverished) young people who heckle and whine but can't scrounge up a dime for the cause. Yet Jamie and Gita are living proof that giving can be a part of one's activism, and vice versa.
In this integration, the Cool Rich Kids are renovating the landscape of giving itself. Whereas more traditional philanthropy often entails charity or band-aid solutions, many of today's young donors are committed to healing society, not just alleviating its most grisly symptoms. For them, this healing begins with reconciliation -- between philanthropy and activism, giving and doing, rich and poor. The idea is to create a movement in which these categories no longer oppose one another, or align in such a predictable way. Equity is the name of the game, and equity begins with a cross-class progressive movement that fights for universal as well as race, culture or class-specific goals. What Cool Rich Kids like Gita understand is that "injustice impacts everyone."
Yet the phrase "Cool Rich Kids" may sound like an oxymoron to many socially and politically astute young people. After all, isn't it the rich who created the system of inequity and keep it working in their favor? Marx's ideas about a monolithic class war still shape some progressive discussion and social action. When people shout slogans like "Power to the People" they mean poor people, or at least, the working class. So then why are so many activists like Gita: white, suburban and fairly affluent?
As Gita notes, people with wealth are often more comfortable with environmentalism because it is an issue that affects everyone. To put it more bluntly, rich people can care more about the environment because they have to worry less about feeding their children. They have the leeway to worry about more distant issues, whereas the grassroots often build their organizations around issues that affect people directly.
In "Students Against Sweatshops," Liza Featherstone notes how anti-sweatshop activism comes from "a sense of one's own advantage and comfort." One of her sources describes such activists as "cliquish" and as having a "close-knit, white hippie activist culture that is 'not welcoming to people of color.'"
It is clear that however difficult it is to nail down the class issues (not to mention race issues) that pervade youth activism, they do exist and play out within the progressive movement. In fact, these divisions run thick enough that even the term "progressive movement" may sometimes appear to be a misnomer. Many different causes and organizations exist, but are they unified enough to warrant the label of a cohesive movement?
This question is crucial to people like the Cool Rich Kids, whose work challenges basic class stereotypes. One might argue that a conference targetting only the wealthy, such as Making Money Make Change, is one that perpetuates stratification along class lines. Jamie is not one of them. He says, "It's important for all kinds of groups to have a safe space to talk about the issues that their dealing with, so that they can learn to deal with those issues in a productive way . . . I think it's important for people of color to have safe spaces to talk. and for white people to have spaces to talk, and for men, and women . . . People who come from a background of family wealth might want to have a place to talk about the difficulties they have with their families around their social activism that would be an alienating space for people who don't come from wealth."
Many potential Cool Rich Kids are so embarrassed by their wealth that they keep it secret, even from their closest friends and fellow activists. Some have inclinations towards activism without ever having really been politicized. Others have their money tied up in trust funds or with family financial planners. The Making Money Making Change conference, in conjunction with sponsors like the Resource Generation, offer these people a chance to come out about their wealth, and to put it to use in ways they may not have ever dreamed.
In truth, many potential Cool Rich Kids are so embarrassed by their wealth that they keep it secret, even from their closest friends and fellow activists. Some have inclinations towards activism without ever having really been politicized. Others have their money tied up in trust funds or with family financial planners. The MMMC conference, in conjunction with sponsors like the Resource Generation, offer these people a chance to come out about their wealth, and to put it to use in ways they may not have ever dreamed.
Yet even after MMMC, not all Cool Rich Kids are comfortable going totally public about their wealth. It was difficult for me to get many interviews for this article. Their network is steeped in secrecy -- Cool Rich Kids take every precaution to avoid outing their fellows, even in seemingly benign circumstances. Why are they so careful? As it turns out, "rich" is a dirty word in activist-speak. While there has always been shame associated with poverty, some may not realize that in socially-conscious circles, wealth isn't always a blessing. Because the wealthy are so privileged, it may seem harmless to berate and even flatly condemn them. Kids with money are sometimes deemed "bougie" (as in bourgeois) or "posers." Gita knows of another Cool Rich Kid who came out about her wealth in a cross-class group, telling the members about the complexities of making decisions about where to donate her money. A woman within the group said the answer is easy -- "Give it to me." Although Gita's friend tried to laugh it off, the woman came up to her at the end of the meeting and told her she was serious, she really needed the money. Gita wonders, in that situation, what it means to deny her: "Something about it is so ridiculous -- as if that's really the answer . . .There is a kind of crazy, really awful power dynamic inherent in having to say no to that person."
This is the sort of reaction that makes coming out about wealth so scary; it is also part of what keeps many potential Cool Rich Kids from giving. According to Billy Wimsatt, progressives waste valuable resources when they estrange wealthy activists. He wrote in "No More Prisons," "If you are truly down to change the world, don't try to score points by alienating your rich friends with snide remarks. If you take the time to truly understand and support us as people, more than likely, we will do the same for you." Billy's comment is interesting, because coming from a your run-of-the-mill activist, it can be taken at merely face value. But when a Cool Rich Kid like Billy says this, the implications change, and the power dynamic changes, even if he means just what he says. It becomes difficult not to read the money element into it. Some might hear: I am rich, and if you try to understand me and my deal, I may try to understand you and yours, and might even give you money for it.
Was what I just did to Billy's statement fair? Not really. But that's the kind of nasty predicament you often face as a rich kid for social justice. Jamie and Gita, two very public Cool Rich Kids, still seem a bit uncomfortable with their role. When answering a question about biases against wealthy people in the activist community, both prefaced their answers with explanations of why such bias was natural and even correct. At this point, there are very few within the progressive movement, white, straight, or whatever, who would tell you that prejudice against them is legitimate. Cool Rich Kids may not be so sure.
Does being a Cool Rich Kid necessarily entail self-hatred? Of course not. The very expression "Cool Rich Kids" may mark an attempt to rescue the word "rich" from the pejorative dustbin, much as some of the working class have reclaimed "poor." The word "rich" is highly charged and uniquely different from "straight, "white" or other words describing those in power because it defines someone situationally rather than inherently. The difference between what people have and what people are is important, and that distinction is what makes it so easy to discriminate against the wealthy. After all, it isn't the people themselves that we protest, merely their wealth. But in calling themselves "Cool Rich Kids" (a moniker that, Gita notes, "not . . . everyone is comfortable with") young donors assert that their wealth is an important, if not essential, part of their identity. Their resources become assets to their activism, rather than liabilities. And assets to their activism become assets to everyone's.
Cool Rich Kids are exactly that: kids. Most of these folks aren't young dot-commers out to make a few million -- they are the children and grandchildren of people with money. And just as we can't blame poor people for being born into poverty, we can't really blame these kids for being born into wealth. We can help them use that wealth to build a better, more equitable world.
The Cool Rich Kids face a problem similar to that of other socially-conscious majorities: the reconciliation of the power they have with the vision they want to make real. Liberal guilt is, at this point, a cliche, but it accurately portrays the conflict that many face when their social agenda seems to clash with their background. Because wealth is not so obvious as race or gender, it may often seem wiser or easier to conceal it. As a result, many affluent progressives may not have worked through their feelings of guilt, either privately or within the activist community.
Ultimately, this doesn't really help anyone--not the movement, nor the Cool Rich Kids themselves. As Cool Rich Kids come out about their wealth, the movement will have to learn how to better talk about money. Billy charts this sort of wake up call in "No More Prisons": "The more I learned about philanthropy, the more I realized that practically every 'grassroots' organization and community leader I have ever heard of gets a lot of their money from a very small number of cool rich people. Grassroots organizations don't usually like to talk about it . . . But take away that one behind-the-scenes cool rich person and most of these grassroots organizations are fucked."
Gita thinks that the full integration of wealthy people into grassroots activism will bring psychological benefits as well as financial ones. She says, "There's so much shame along the whole class spectrum . . . people are really excited about working with people from different class backgrounds -- people are hungry for it -- but there's also a process to get there."
The grassroots have a lot to gain by talking more openly about the role of money within the movement. Thanks to people like Billy, the conversation is expanding. Hopefully that conversation will enable people to think about the integration of activism and philanthropy in new and creative ways. After all, if donors can be activists, then can't activists become donors? As it is, 83% of all charitable donations in the United States come from households making less than $60,000 a year. One way to level the playing field, at least a little, is to insist that everyone is a potential donor no matter how much they can afford to give. I twisted Billy's statement to demonstrate that money talks, and therefore gives its bearer power that others lack. If everybody thinks of themselves as donors, then we can all tap into that power, if not to an equal degree.
The Student Action Fund organized by the Youth Leadership Institute offers young activists without personal money to spare the opportunity to become donors. The youth board members of this project allocate up to $30,000 to grassroots organizations throughout the Bay Area. In the process, they learn the real value of money to the progressive movement, and how to direct it more effectively for the cause. This is the sort of venture in which veteran Cool Rich Kids could provide priceless insight. Their experience as donor activists puts them in a unique position -- at the forefront of both fields. So who said we were only after their money?
Miriam Markowitz 20, is a Junior at Brown University.