Peter Buffett Stirred the Pot Over the Role of Philanthropy

Peter Buffett is the son of multibillionaire Warren Buffett, but there’s far more to know about him that. He’s also an Emmy-winning musician and composer, an activist, and the author of a New York Times bestseller, Life Is What You Make It: Find Your Own Path to Fulfillment. In 2013, Peter Buffett, well known for his philanthropy, penned a New York Times op-ed indicting the charity sector as a self-perpetuating industry that mostly helps the rich launder their consciences, often at the expense of the vulnerable they pretend to serve. The piece, unsurprisingly, left its audience divided. While some pegged him for a class traitor, others marveled at the spot-on critique of what Buffett dubbed the "Charitable-Industrial Complex.”

That same year, Buffett’s commitment to public health, organic food and agricultural communities led NoVo, the nonprofit he heads with his wife Jennifer, to invest in a 1,255-acre project in upstate New York’s Hudson Valley. The “Farm Hub” was established to help bolster sustainable farming and offer local farmers training, services and other resources. The site is located just a few villages over from the town of Woodstock, about an hour’s drive from the site of the 1969 Woodstock music festival. That association influenced Buffett's latest album, Songs in the Current. The release’s lead single and video offer a completely new aural and visual take on the festival’s anthem, written by Joni Mitchell and famously covered by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

AlterNet executive editor Don Hazen and senior writer/associate editor Kali Holloway chatted with Buffett about his music, his farm, philanthropy, and the state of the world.

AlterNet: You're a composer, a philanthropist, and now you're also a farmer. Can you tell us a little bit how all this happened? And what your vision is for the farm in Kingston, [New York] and how it relates to all the problems in the world?

Peter Buffett: Calling me a farmer is definitely a stretch. My wife, Jennifer, and I moved [to upstate New York] about six years ago full-time. We live on a piece of land that has a small farm as part of it, about six acres. We do not farm, but we have learned what farming entails. Part of that is the bigger story—the fact that almost none of us know what farming entails, and 200 years ago, we were all farming. Therein lies part of the problem of our culture, I think. Now we think food comes from the grocery store.

With the Farm Hub, we hope over time to reconnect what it provides to the community it's closest to, which would be Kingston and the surrounding area. How we do that exactly is yet to be known, but will show itself. I have a lot of interest in the idea of the commons, and what we’ve lost over time in that regard. So I'm hoping that we can [reconnect] through mechanisms that start with the community, as opposed to those that start with us. How can we again knit together the food and the land that’s most connected to the community nearby? That's kind of the broad vision.

Right now, we have a pro-farmer program. There's young farmers who have experience that want to grow that experience—pardon the pun—and learn various practices they may not have an opportunity to learn on a smaller scale. And we're doing various grain trials and other testing that local farmers couldn't afford because farming is a complex and lean business in terms of the ability to make mistakes and try new things. We are able to offer that because we're not in the commercial farming business. So it's got practical applications for here and now and a broader scope and vision for the future.

AlterNet: You're paying a lot of attention to the farm workers as well, right?

PB: Absolutely. Another huge piece of it is the social justice, equity and inclusion piece. To have everything now bilingual and translated creates a completely different atmosphere on the farm itself. That ethos runs through our foundation at the core, so to transfer that value to the farm is also a huge part of it.

AlterNet: Can you talk a bit about how your larger philanthropic vision and goals are connected to what you're doing in Kingston and how they come together?

PB: It always starts with the people that are in the positions of feeling the effects of the dominator culture, essentially. All of us at NoVo want to listen to the people in places that have been marginalized, have been excluded, have been oppressed by a system and structure. So we feel, again, like we are not the experts in what should be done in any community, either geographically or demographically. But we should be listening to the people that have been most effective.

So, whether it's across the world or in Kingston, our approach is always to listen and start to understand what the community really needs to thrive and feel safe and connected and have agency over where they want to go—and to avoid the opposite. For example, with urban renewal in the '60s, somebody came in and said, "We know what you need." We don't do that. It can sometimes be a little messier, and take a little longer.

AlterNet: You need a lot of patience for this.

PB: It's critical to have patience, to know you're not the one that's going to have the solution. Also to encourage imagination, creativity, things that people don't usually have time for because they're too busy trying to keep it together and stay alive. To create the conditions for that is very important. Whether we do it in a village around the world, in some other community in this country, or in Kingston specifically, that's our approach.

AlterNet: “Woodstock” is the lead single on the album. Can you talk about the decision to cover the song and what about the current political climate inspired you?

PB: I bought a record player, pulled out my old records, and started listening. Of course, one of the records was the Crosby, Stills & Nash album [Déjà Vu] that “Woodstock” is on. After a couple of listens, it kind of hit me over the head like, Oh my god. This is me. This is us. This is now. I thought, I’ll be audacious enough to take a crack at this just for me, because it resonates so deeply in this time. I do feel like we're in some sort of echo of the '60s. Hopefully an amplified one that can actually create some the changes the '60s were attempting.

I set about doing the remake and really did think it was kind of crazy to even try, but I was happy with the result. After I did it and was listening, I thought about potentially doing a video and making a little bit more out of it. It was my wife Jennifer who said, "If you're going to do it, do it—and think about some of the other songs that you've written over the past few years." So I uncovered a bunch of other songs [I’ve written] and went, Okay, there's a theme here. Which I knew was there, but I hadn't really thought of re-compiling things, rerecording things, even changing the lyrics on some things, and putting out a collection.

AlterNet (DH): I'm actually old enough to have gone to Woodstock, so it was really fun to listen to the song. I watched the video, which was fascinating. Can you say more about what you were communicating in the video?

PB: First of all, what isn't really telegraphed in the video was that [the main figure] is a substitute teacher that clearly no one's paying attention to. So he gives up and says, "Okay, I'm going to put something on that might connect with these kids if they so desire." They’re looking at their phones and liking and disliking things. But then the kids [are] suddenly looking at these moments in time where direct action made a difference... and seeing themselves in it and going, Wait a minute. This is us. This is now. And we can't be sitting in our classroom looking at our phones or even listening to a teacher. We have to get out there and do something that's direct and in three dimensions.

Afterwards, it dawned on me that I'm encouraging kids to leave their classroom and get out and protest. But I figured what the heck, now's the time.

AlterNet: You have to count on the young people to carry the day. That's always the way it's been in history.

PB: That's the bottom line is to really, hopefully reignite. Of course, my video's not going to do it. But it is going, say, Don't forget that this is how it happens. And we've seen that it is going to be kids, but "kids" is a slightly broader term now. I think it's hopefully from the teens to the thirties that people are starting to mobilize a little bit more.

AlterNet: You created controversy because the op-ed in the New York Times talked about the charitable-industrial complex. That was a bit of a leap for you. And it caused a lot of fuss.

PB: It sure did. I had no idea. It was so big, and I joked about it afterwards. I said, here I am spending my whole life trying to write a hit song, and it ended up that my hit song was an op-ed in the New York Times. I guess I'll take it any way it happens to come. It was a surprise that I seemed to strike the bell in just the right way at the right time. But then looking back, I also realize that it's not only the message, it's also the messenger.

It was the fact that—and I say this with my tongue in my cheek—the emperor's son was saying the emperor has no clothes. And at the same time, my dad couldn't have been more proud because he comes from an iconoclastic place. He's not the average investor, obviously. So I also grew up in an environment in the '60s; I was 11 when Woodstock happened. My parents took me to the movie in Omaha, which is pretty cool, actually. They were very much connected to social justice and civil rights issues in the '60s, so I grew up inside a family that most people wouldn't necessarily expect in terms of those kinds of values and that kind of thinking.

The op-ed felt very natural to me—to have had these experiences and want to call them out and call a spade a shovel, I like to say. But it was a surprise how effective and broadly read it was, for sure.

AlterNet: Are you more optimistic these days about the role of philanthropy given the situation we're in?

PB: Frankly, no. The situation we're in is as good as any, and I think it didn't just happen on Election Day, as we all know. This is what I consider a rolling blackout in terms of our species, and its relationship to itself and the planet, that's been happening over thousands of years and speeding up over the last few hundred. Again, it's speeding up our disconnection. I think our current president is a perfect distillation of all the things about the country that actually built it, which is this rugged individualism and Manifest Destiny and control and domination and exploitation. All the things on the bad side of the ledger have come home to roost, I think, in so many ways.

Frankly, philanthropy shouldn't exist. In a just and true society of people acting as nurturers of life, whether it's the biosphere or your neighbor, philanthropy just shouldn't be around except in small situations where something fails. So I don't have a lot of hope for what I would call “institutional philanthropy.” But I have a lot of hope for people. If anything, this election and the current times have galvanized what otherwise would be siloed: very hardworking, very passionate people around particular issues they care about: Social justice, the climate, health, education. There seems to be cohesion among people who felt they were alone in their fight before. I think that is encouraging.

AlterNet: We were watching your 2013 appearance on the Laura Flanders Show. It seemed like you were suggesting, in the best of all worlds, philanthropy would pay out and the money would be all given away. But now it seems like you were saying it's too self-perpetuating, it's institutionalized, there are all these people working in it. Is that your sense of it? How would you like to see change?

PB: I think fundamentally, people need and want job security, especially if you're working in a job that gives you a feeling of purpose and passion, which philanthropy does. There's plenty of good people. It's not as if everyone's a bad actor. It's just that the structure doesn't encourage organizations going out of business and people losing their job. Again, who would want to on some level? The architecture of it does not promote what's needed the most, which is to get the money out there on the ground to the people and put yourself out of business.

AlterNet: We know you've talked to a lot of people, so we're wondering whether you're hearing good ideas or anything that gives you some confidence about fighting the Trump agenda. For example, we’re working on a handbook for how to stay sane in the insane Trump era. We’re looking at creeping fascism, and noticing there’s a lot of anxiety, panic attacks, depression. We're trying to help people figure out how to cope with that. That's part of our solution. What are you hearing from other people that might work?

PB: It's tricky because the concern is any way of normalizing it. There’s this real challenge of stepping toward normalization; even the daily press conferences normalize it on a certain level.

I still just can't believe that this has actually happened, but that doesn't work because it has. So I think the things I feel most hopeful about are the start-where-you-are type of approaches. People in their communities, connecting with others and suddenly seeing each other.

I think we're still, in some ways, in the later early stages of reaction. I felt like when the election happened, it was like the first bump on the Titanic, and people are going, "Did you feel something? I think I felt something." It took a long time for that ship to sink. And I think that there's an element of our current culture that's got to sink. It's got to go.

There's movement around this idea of a community bill of rights, sanctuary cities, things where people want to see their values—which have become more important than ever because they're being challenged more than ever—see them reflected in the community they live in. So there's more people going to meetings, more people showing up at city hall. That's encouraging to me.

What it ends up looking like 18 months from now when it starts to coalesce into a voting bloc or whatever it might be, I'm not sure. Somebody said just the other day, "The next big thing is a lot of small little things." Thich Nhat Hanh said, "The next Buddha is a sangha," meaning community. So there’s this idea that it's going to emerge out of small actions networked together. I think that's where the internet is our friend, where it can network these small actions together and people can go, "Me, too! Me, too!" That's hopeful. I think for sure that's the future. I think we're going to start to shift the most meaningful thing to us, and I think it's going to be community.


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