Thursday, October 4, 2012

Talking about Money and Privilege

by Miki Kashtan

Some time ago I was sitting with a group of Nonviolent Communication enthusiasts on a cold winter night, watching the fireplace crackle, eating, laughing, and talking. The group invited me to support their development as a leadership group of their community. A few years before they had gotten together to make NVC known and visible in their town. When I was visiting, they were celebrating their success, as more and more people in their town came to know about NVC through their efforts and have come to trainings they organize. Now they wanted to take their work to a new level, to break free of the social homogeneity of their group and its members, to reach into communities and populations they had not yet connected with. That was what they wanted my support for.

I regularly sit with groups like this in different places in the world. I also sometimes get emails and questions from people around the world. The enthusiasm, the vision, and the willingness to put energy and resources into work towards such dreams touch me deeply. This particular conversation was so extraordinary for me, that I feel moved to bring its content to others, changing circumstances and location so as to keep the anonymity of people and allowing them to do what I experienced as sacred work in peace.

I want this anonymity because we engaged with one of the biggest taboos in the country: money. It started out entirely innocuously, when I described to them my pet project (which I am inching my way to making more publicly known beyond just doing it myself) of a maximum wage campaign. The idea of it is simple: each person that wants to join the campaign decides - for themselves, without any hint of suggestions about it - what is the amount truly needed for them to have in order to sustain themselves and their families at a level that allows them to focus where they want to focus, and declare that to be their maximum wage. Any time they end up generating more income than their maximum, they pledge to give that amount away, to whatever cause they choose.

Everyone commended me on this idea when I first mentioned it. Then we shifted to talking about other topics, including what they could do to make introductions to Nonviolent Communication more inviting and interesting, what they could do to shift their work from the training model to an application model (more on that another day, too), how they could function more effectively in decision-making within their group, and a host of other topics. We were in a creative flow of brainstorming, and were already moving to closing, when the idea of one of them going to a training of mine some months hence came up and was dropped when that person said they couldn’t come up with the money.

I knew this was a group of people who had access to resources. The chair of the group, let’s call him Mark, commented on their affluence when bringing up the issue of how to cross socioeconomic barriers. Several members of the group were driving a Lexus, and our dinner came from a pricey restaurant. Knowing all this, I suggested to them that they could pool resources to send the person together as a group, an idea which had never occurred to them. They could do this regularly, send one of their members to a training, since there wasn’t much NVC happening in their local region. That would provide them strategic access to specific skills they needed for their work together. Beyond that, I ventured to suggest that they could all look at their resources and consider how much they could each bring to their collective work.

That was the moment when the conversation took an unexpected turn. One member of the group, let’s call her Jane, understood, somehow, the conversation to be about creating some structure of required contribution, common to many non-profit boards. This person was profoundly troubled by the idea that money was all that counted, and wanted all contributions to be valued, not only financial. As Jane and I took some pain to disentangle the surprising intensity that arose for her around this, a whole new window into the conversation about money, or its absence, dawned on me. Just as much as it’s only white people who can talk about why race doesn’t matter, it seemed to me that only people with access to money and privilege can talk about money not mattering.

What was singular for me was that Jane did not back off, did not shy away from the intensity and the challenge. As a result, we could stay with the conversation, and I got to have this window into the experience of people with privilege. Jane was far from the only one who stayed, who persisted in talking about what so rarely gets discussed: how are we going to handle the fact of such gaps between the haves and the have nots? Jane expressed one more time her longing to see a world that didn’t have money so central to it, and that was when I suggested that if they wanted to see a world with less intensity around money, they could all begin the process of divesting themselves of extra resources. As they looked at me, incredulous, I asked them, each, to examine how much of what they had they could part with, give away. What was truly needed?

That was when Mark and one other person in the group turned pale with terror. Mark, in particular, expressed clearly how scared he was to even look at the question. For some minutes we all stayed with the anguish of it. Ironically, seeing Mark’s contorted face served as confirmation for me that he took in, all the way, my words and my invitation. He understood, without fending off the fear, the radical and irreversible nature of what it would mean to take me up on my suggestion. I had a similar experience of being taken seriously by the other person, who for today I will name Rosa. “I will never be the same,” she exclaimed. “None of us present here will ever be the same.” I looked around the room, and I felt profound satisfaction. When do such conversations ever take place? I told Mark and Rosa that being able to have the conversation was an experience of profound intimacy. It wasn’t the first time nor the last that I would be staying in the homes of people with means. It was, however, the first time I can remember being able to articulate my own discomfort as well as the ramifications of my full vision, without holding back. More to the point, I was able to do that, and they were able to hear me and engage with me, in a way that left all of us connected and in full trust of our mutual humanity and care.

The next morning, as I came down for breakfast at Mark’s exquisitely furnished kitchen, I saw that his emotions were still close to the surface. He explained to me that it was a very literal experience of structures falling apart, layers peeling off, and that the terror was quite stark. “Who will I be?” he said to me as we ended the conversation at the airport some hours later. Mark’s entire sense of his being was completely wrapped up in all that was familiar to him. Not only or even primarily his material possessions, he explained to me. Everything, every aspect of his relationships with people and life, was suffused with the familiarity of certain ways of being, codes of behavior, meanings of action, that were inseparable from the world of privilege in which he lived. I was reminded of a conversation I had many years ago with a friend, about his experience of coming to see, through reading radical feminist literature, that his entire identity as a man was intertwined with and resting on the oppression of women. At the time he found that experience, that realization, so unbearable, that he backed off from his reading of feminist literature for some years.
For any of us who wish to have a radical restructuring of the world, a way of living that makes it possible for all to have their needs matter, I see a basic lesson in these conversations with Mark and with my friend years ago. Unless we can support those of us with privilege in being able to have this internal transformation, the external transformation is less likely to happen without casualties, either figurative or literal. I have enormous compassion for Mark’s plight, especially because I so completely trust his care and his genuine interest in and care for all. From that I extrapolate to all. For as long as people’s sense of self is wrapped up in privilege without even being aware that it’s so, I can completely understand why they might put up immense resistance to the kind of changes we might want to create in the world. When conversations happen like the one I had that night with Mark, Rosa, and others in the group, I have more hope that we can find our way, however painfully, into working in partnership with others to gently and fiercely shift the structures that have created such immense barriers between us. I can only conclude with a quote I know has been around for a while, from an aboriginal woman in Australia: “If you are coming here to help me, then you are wasting your time. If you are here because you know that your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” I have every reason to believe that Mark now knows that his liberation is bound up with that of the people in other socioeconomic groups that he mentioned at the very start of our conversation. I trust he knows that his own inner process of coming to terms with his privilege, learning how to steward responsibly instead of seeing it as his own, is an integral process of finding connection with the people he wants to reach. 



  1. I found this post challenging and thought-provoking, a subject rarely addressed. I am currently in the process of selling my home and most of what's in it to enable me to resign from a job I dislike to find my vocation. It is a time of intense examination of what's important, what I'm attached to and the privilege and resources I enjoy to be able to do this. Although I'm not as fabulously affluent as others, I still find myself held captive by "stuff" I have traded my life energy for and wonder about the needs that I imagined would be met by it. I am volunteering to live and work as a cook in a community for six to twelve months and am curious about what I will learn and discover about this over that time. What will I still miss that I've given up when it's all done? Like your friends I talk about things I can't afford when really it's a question of what strategies I am choosing to meet my needs. And yes, it's also about living with integrity and liberation from the trap of affluence most of all. Many thanks for this post.

  2. Thank you for this piece, Miki! It made me think of how many historical religious traditions included non-attachment, generosity, etc., in their criteria for true conversion or authentic spirituality.

    1. A message that I make efforts to incorporate into my day to day routine and conscious attitude when evaluating choices (the more the merrier) is the following:
      “Suffering comes through ignorance or attachment to illusions. Most people play with illusions like children play with toys. If you get caught up in the ephemeral things of this world and cling to illusory values [perhaps valuing one’s wants more than real needs], suffering is inevitable. It is not easy for little children to give up their toys, for they become the victims of a habit which they cannot undo. In the same way, through millions of lives, you have got into the habit of playing with illusions. It is difficult for you to get disentangled from them.” --Meher Baba

  3. With so much focus in the popular media on abundance and "you can be a millionaire in three easy steps" you are taking an unpopular stance. What? Limit yourself? What???? It seems that "having it all" is the ultimate goal in this culture.

    What I want is freedom. For me, both freedom and abundance are not about having more things or money but letting them flow through my life with ease, using them responsibly and sharing as much as I can and being so unattached that I can trust life to give me what I need, when I need it without having to orchestrate, plan, and save. I found myself closest to this ideal while living in Latin America, where there is much more companionship and support of this way of life than there is here.

    Somehow, trying to influence those with privilege to give it up sounds like a losing battle. For one thing, money is not the only form of privilege. I see myself as privileged simply by being a healthy, intelligent, white American with an education. I cannot divest myself of those things so no matter how much money I have I will always live with privilege.

    What I believe would be more effective is to help them see how much more satisfying their life could be if they were free of the weight of having and owning and were to use what they have access to, including excess money, to contribute to a more livable world for everyone. There is a certain level of faith required for this. Without faith in life to support you, you are required to do everything possible to hedge yourself against bad things happening. In this culture, money is what most people believe will protect them. Finding a new source of faith and satisfaction in life is no small task. That's where I see the work is.

    I would love to have the problem of too much money because I am already there...wanting to have a minimal amount for myself and to give as much as I can-- not out of altruism but for the freedom and satisfaction it creates. This is the joy of interdependence in action. I think it would be fabulously fun to give money away to all the things and people I care about and want to support.

  4. dear miki, may i ask where your pet project about the maximum wage is standing now?
    also, i'd like to hear your experience with people who might have joined the project:f.i., what did in fact change for them, how could they contribute?
    at times, in different countries (especially these days with the financial and social crises becoming deeper), the idea of a minimum income for everybody, regardless of the fact if he/she is working or not, is discussed. with the idea that it should allow everybody to life a live with basic needs such as housing, food, clothing and similar met.
    your idea, if my understanding is correct, goes somehow in the same direction, though from an other starting block. or did i get it totally wrong?
    if not, where would you see a meeting point of maximum wage -> • <- minimum income ?
    i'm very much curious to hear your reflexions about this! thank you!