In fall 2017, Allison Shackelford found a book about philanthropy in the apartment she shared with two roommates. She mentioned it to one, “Taylor” (they were uncomfortable being identified), who said that, well, they got it through an organization called Resource Generation (RG). Taylor came from a rich family, and RG convinced them to start “coming out” to people about their wealth, in a first step toward giving it away.
That Taylor even had money was news to Shackelford, who describes them as a “low-key liver.”
But Taylor was determined — albeit nervous — to let people in. Their practice “coming out” talk with Shackelford brought both to tears. Taylor opened up about their nagging guilt: Why should they have all this money when so many have none?
RG, a national nonprofit that organizes young people with class privilege, encourages members to donate a “meaningful,” “risky” portion of wealth to movements that combat systemic inequities at the root. But for some members, doling out cash to friends and acquaintances can grease the wheels of giving.
Taylor had heard Shackelford complain about her student loan debt at 24 percent interest. Her $115-a-month payments would add up to multiple times her initial loan over the next 23 years.
Taylor offered Shackelford an interest-free loan, and paid off the debt with a single check.
This frankness is rare in a society where talking about money in personal terms remains taboo. RG communications director Maria Myotte has worked with a number of progressive organizations, and “class is never brought up explicitly [on an individual level]. Even, like, socialist organizations!”
The rich in the United States are rarely honest about their wealth — even with themselves. A 2015 CNBC survey showed 84 percent of U.S. millionaire investors identify as middle or upper-middle class rather than wealthy. Wealthy Americans tend to compare themselves to the better off, says Iimay Ho, RG’s executive director, and prevailing social narratives reassure the wealthy that they deserve what they have.
This is no accident, says Ho. It “serves the interests of [white supremacy], economic inequality and capitalism.” As Myotte puts it, “If you’re trying [not to] perpetuate the same bullshit, then we have to be aware of [the backgrounds] we’re coming from.”
Like many of RG’s 600-plus dues-paying members, Kestrel Feiner-Homer saw herself as middle class growing up. Her family drove used cars and shopped at thrift stores. “And looking back, I’m like, yeah, and we put radiant floor heating in our house and bought a cabin.” That, and she had a trust fund of roughly $200,000 in waiting.
In college, Feiner-Homer became politicized, attended workshops on colonialism, racism and privilege, “but nobody was really talking about their experiences of class,” she says. “We were talking about bigger-picture systems, but not in a way that linked to our personal experience.”
When friends complained about loans and difficult jobs, Feiner-Homer couldn’t relate; the dynamic made her uncomfortable. She kept quiet, not wanting to rub her situation in her friends’ faces, or to be “inauthentic.”
Then someone at a potluck made what Feiner-Homer described as an offhand disparaging comment of the, “oh yeah, this rich kid with his trust fund” variety, and someone else cut in that, well, she had a trust fund and here were the positive things she was trying to do with it. “It was kind of an awakening for me,” Feiner-Homer says, “just realizing how often I … played along with putting down wealthy people in order to not be associated with wealth and all the horrible things that come with it.” She soon joined RG’s Twin Cities chapter.
Chapters sometimes take new members through “praxis” groups, where they seek out and discuss their money stories. Much of Feiner-Homer’s family money came from sheet metal fabrication, so she has donated to Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en La Lucha, which organizes low-wage earners.
How much to give? Feiner-Homer vacillated between bursts of passion — she received an unexpected $25,000 check when a family business sold, and frantically donated it all within the year — to a more subdued approach that reflects her own uncertain economic realities as a low-paid school social worker on contract with no 401(k) and a potential desire for children.
Amid these concerns, Feiner-Homer says, her chapter remains a source of personal accountability and a “political home” in which to “deepen and broaden my analysis of class.”
Like many in RG’s growing ranks — 28 percent of dues-paying members joined in the past year — Feiner-Homer has come to know the saying, “It’s not my fault; it is my responsibility.”
If you had wealth and didn’t feel some shame about it , “then something would be wrong with you,” says Monica George, former co-chair of the Chicago chapter. She referenced the Wall Street Journal podcast Secrets of Wealthy Women. In one episode, Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, daughter of Charles, says she tries not to feel guilty when she declines requests for money.
“And I’m like, ‘Bitch, feel guilty,’ ” says George. “You can think of it as the price that you pay. Feel that shame daily. Put that shame to work.”