The Millennials Who Want to Get Rid of Their Class Privilege

Their families built fortunes. These young people joined a group that coaches them on how to give the money away.
(Illustrations by Bryce Wymer for The Washington Post)
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It began with the sale of the family farm. That’s what David Roswell remembers as the moment when he first began to see himself in opposition to his family’s capitalist legacy. Though his parents objected to the decision to relinquish the property to developers, the extended family went ahead, selling off most of the 220 acres piecemeal starting in 1998. Roswell, then only 7 years old, showed his displeasure by shoving rocks into the tailpipes of the bulldozers that came to dig up the pastoral expanse outside Baltimore to make way for new construction. He remembers watching “as this gorgeous farm that was my everything was torn up and turned into a subdivision.” He saw it, he told me, as “a decision of people in my family to value money over the environment, over people, over family.”

Years later, as a student at Oberlin College, Roswell organized classmates to pressure the school to invest its endowment in environmentally sustainable ways. At the same time, he kept his own wealth under wraps, as did many of his well-to-do peers who, he says, “didn’t know how to feel integrity and be wealthy, so they just pretended they weren’t.” Roswell felt an added burden because of his wealth’s origins and scale: His great-great-grandfather was Louis Blaustein, founder of the American Oil Co., or Amoco. Though the family is largely out of the oil business today, its net worth — some $2.2 billion — makes it one of the richest in the United States. The extended family manages at least six foundations with nearly $290 million in assets.

Roswell finally outed himself as rich when he volunteered to front the travel costs for a group of Oberlin students who wanted to attend a climate-change conference. That’s when two housemates told him about an organization called Resource Generation (RG). A nonprofit group based in New York, Resource Generation focuses on organizing wealthy young people to recognize their unearned privilege, make peace with it — and then relinquish much of it by giving away a large percentage of their money. Roswell read an RG book titled “Classified: How to Stop Hiding Your Privilege and Use It for Social Change” and began attending meetings of the group in Durham, N.C., where he’d moved with his girlfriend, Maggie Heraty, after graduation. Up to that point, he had given away “maybe $100 or $500” a year, he recalls. “In 2014, as I started to get aware, I gave $10,000. In 2015, it was $30,000 or $50,000. By 2016, as Maggie and I were really starting to do this, we gave away $200,000.” So far, Roswell, now 29, has given away about $1.6 million of the $7.5 million he knows he will inherit.

Before he learned about Resource Generation, Roswell recalls, “I didn’t understand how to be activated as an organizer and as a wealthy person. I didn’t know what my place was.” The same can be said for most of RG’s 700 members, wealthy millennials and Gen-Zers between 18 and 35 who have an uneasy relationship with their money and the privilege that underpins it. “Got class privilege and want social justice?” reads the slogan on the organization’s website. Resource Generation wants to help.

Resource Generation member David Roswell and girlfriend Maggie Heraty at his kiln in Durham, N.C. (Charles L. Harris) (Charles L Harris/TWP)

In 1998, Tracy Hewat and Lynne Gerber, two well-to-do young Boston-area women who felt alienated from the established world of philanthropy because of their youth, formed a group they called Comfort Zone. They conceived it as a place to talk about being a wealthy, privileged young person who nevertheless wanted a more equitable society.

Comfort Zone changed its name to Resource Generation in 2000. It was a practical change — “the youngest members of the board said that [the old name] sounded too much like a shoe brand,” Hewat once said — but it also represented a change in purpose. Until then, the organization had served mainly as a place for wealthy people to talk about bringing their identity in line with their values, but now it would push them to give.

Today, Resource Generation has 16 chapters nationwide and 14 full-time employees. Members pay annual dues that start at $250 and vary depending on their level of wealth. (Dues are limited to 10 percent of a member’s giving to make sure they are donating primarily to other organizations.) The group asks its members to give generously to grass-roots organizations that they believe will do the long-term, nitty-gritty work to meaningfully change the circumstances that lead to wealth inequality — from establishing affordable housing and improving educational opportunities to serving at-risk youth, addressing climate injustice and supporting workers’ rights. In the process, Resource Generation aims to change the conversation about how the rich got their privilege and what they can do to spread the wealth.

Resource Generation asks members to give generously to grass-roots organizations that they believe will do the long-term, nitty-gritty work to meaningfully change the circumstances that lead to wealth inequality.

The idea, says Resource Generation’s executive director, Iimay Ho, is to “do voluntary redistribution in service of involuntary redistribution.” The hope, she says, is that voluntary redistribution will give more economic and political power to those who typically don’t have it: low-wage workers, the formerly incarcerated, the homeless, the poor. That might then lead to policies — a livable minimum wage, equitable education — that could help decrease wealth inequality.

At conferences, in webinars and in local working groups, and through RG books and peer-to-peer mentorship, members learn how to shed entitled assumptions. One bedrock Resource Generation practice is educating members to work closely with community organizations in what it calls “right relationship” — not dictating how donated funds should be used, but supporting local leaders, who are often poor or working class and are closest to the problems they seek to address. “The goal is not to be in circles of young people with wealth deciding how money and resources are distributed,” former executive director Elspeth Gilmore told me. “That’s the status quo. That’s how power is maintained.”

Striving to change the status quo through charitable giving has a fraught history. Philanthropy has been a controversial pursuit since at least the Gilded Age, when workers began to organize in response to widening wealth inequality as industrial capitalism took hold. Critics at the time argued that robber barons such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller were elevating their own position in society by depressing workers’ incomes and using philanthropy to dictate where profits went and to which causes. Traditional philanthropy, says Ho, reinforces the idea that the wealthy know best how to solve social ills, when the reality is that “the wealthy elite cause a lot of the problems in the first place.”

As Peter Buffett (son of Warren) wrote in a 2013 New York Times opinion piece, philanthropy has become big business. High-profile foundations and nonprofit organizations, constrained by donor desires and restrictive grant conditions, often oppose the initiatives most likely to actually mitigate inequality, such as raising taxes or lobbying for a higher minimum wage. As of 2009, only about 3 to 5 percent of charitable foundation giving was estimated to go to organizations serving the neediest, and even less to efforts to change circumstances rather than relieve them — job training vs. food banks, for instance. The rest goes to institutions that aren’t directly devoted to relieving poverty or wealth inequality: universities, hospitals and arts organizations. Furthermore, charitable giving comes with tax deductions that are usually only accessible to the wealthy. And philanthropy famously yields social returns, as donors are rewarded with their names on buildings or board rosters and the chance to rub shoulders at social events.

“Philanthropy is all about class privilege,” says Hilary Pennington, executive vice president for programs at the 84-year-old Ford Foundation. “Anyone with power doesn’t give power up easily. It’s a question of how do you use your privilege? That’s what’s very admirable about RG. They’re really open to hearing answers that might be really uncomfortable and hard.”

To its critics, traditional philanthropy lets the wealthy feel as though they’re contributing to a more just and equal society without giving up any of their comforts. Anand Giridharadas, author of “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World,” describes the prevailing rules of philanthropy as follows: “Inspire the rich to do more good, but never, ever tell them to do less harm; inspire them to give back, but never, ever tell them to take less.” He suggests that more-ethical philanthropists would fund causes that directly undermine the class-based stratification that put them in their privileged positions to begin with — for example, rooting out tax havens or taking legal action to divorce public-school funding from property taxes, a system that gives wealthy areas better schools. Doing right on these issues, he says, would hurt the wealthy.

Resource Generation believes — or hopes — that young people are more willing to betray their own class privilege than previous generations. Giridharadas told me that he routinely receives letters from “younger people who find themselves plutocrats, whether by inheritance or [because] they made money, who are in many cases very tortured and confused by the position in which they stand.” What has changed is that “a lot of people are interested in making a different choice but don’t quite know how.”

Millennials straddle the American wealth divide in complicated ways. On the one hand, they have inherited increased economic uncertainty: depressed wages, soaring student loan debt, the insecurity of the gig economy. Many find themselves in a more economically precarious position than their parents. On the other hand, there are more than 11 million millennial households with incomes of $100,000 or more, and millennials stand to inherit some $30 trillion in family wealth over the coming decades, according to AARP statistics.

Resource Generation positions itself as the natural gathering place for the wealthiest end of this emergent socioeconomic class. Although it is majority white by a large margin, mirroring the racial wealth gap, 13 percent of its members are people of color — closely tracking the 12 percent of wealthy young Americans who are black or brown — and nearly 60 percent identify as LGBTQ. Nearly 2 in 3 members are women.

Andrea Pien is a 33-year-old college counselor at a private high school in San Francisco who is active in her local chapter of Resource Generation. Pien’s wealth comes from her father, a Taiwanese immigrant who made a fortune in biotech and pharmaceuticals. Although she stands to inherit as much as $12 million, she doesn’t have access to that money now, nor, like many members of Resource Generation, does she know her family’s exact worth. The money she does have is managed by a financial adviser her father selected.

Millennials straddle the American wealth divide in complicated ways. They have inherited increased economic uncertainty, but there are more than 11 million millennial households with incomes of $100,000 or more.

Pien owns a home in San Francisco. She shares a car with her husband, though she mainly uses public transportation. She rarely eats out and travels modestly, but she divulged (somewhat apologetically) that she sometimes takes a yoga class or a Lyft ride. Some of those things “people would criticize as luxuries,” she says, but “part of that is self-care that everyone deserves. And that’s what helps me have the energy to do a lot of the work I do for Resource Generation.” Listening to Pien and others sort out how to reconcile their desire for equality with their lifestyles, I sometimes heard a reflexive defensiveness. Temptations were everywhere: whether to buy property (especially in gentrifying areas), whether it was okay to hoard money for a rainy day, whether to maintain small lifestyle luxuries even while “spending down” inherited wealth.

Pien is especially conflicted about betraying her father’s pride in being a successful immigrant, feelings that she has been working through with Resource Generation. She feels sure that she owes society some of what she’s inherited, but, she wonders, “Can I be a good steward of the wealth the first generation created?” She speaks of an “internalized model-minority narrative” in which people of color “need to be at the top to make way for other minorities or POC.” She worries that giving away her money would mean there would be one fewer Asian American represented among the top 10 percent — but is that a net negative? She’s not sure. “There are lots of mixed messages from meritocracy capitalism,” Pien says.

Exactly how minority dynamics should feature in RG’s mission and practice is a topic of conversation. “For many folks of color it can be a point of pride that your family worked really hard, and that you’re the first generation to have these particular benefits or educational achievements,” says Nicole Lewis, a former Resource Generation national organizer, who is black. While the group routinely focuses discussion on members’ feelings of guilt about their unearned wealth, “a lot of those feelings are not mirrored in communities of color.” Members of color often rank sharing money with family or their communities as more important than donating to organizations — and these are valid feelings, Lewis says. From that perspective, the default position that “wealth that you didn’t generate from your own work has to be given away” felt to Lewis like “a very simplistic analysis.” Over time, RG has acknowledged the need for greater nuance and has devoted resources to being more inclusive. (At the group’s behest, Lewis, who now works as a journalist, wrote a book on the subject, titled “Between a Silver Spoon and the Struggle: Reflections on the Intersection of Racism and Class Privilege.”)

Lewis’s assessment echoes other criticisms of the organization as a place for wealthy young (mostly white) liberals to launder their feelings of guilt and shame — a kind of woke philanthropic self-help group. A 2017 HuffPost article, for example, name-checked Resource Generation as one of a slew of predominantly white-led groups that are precisely the kinds of organizations racial justice organizing doesn’t need.

Katie Wang, a Los Angeles-based RG organizer, remembers attending the group’s marquee conference, Making Money Make Change, in 2017. A signature activity at the conference is calculating attendees’ total wealth and then contrasting how much members are already giving with their giving potential. It’s meant to be a galvanizing moment: This is what we can do if we do it together.

Wang was buoyed by the activity, but later, a black woman invited to lead a session as someone doing the kind of work the group hopes to support brought Wang back to earth. Being one of the only non-wealthy people of color in the room was deeply uncomfortable for her, the woman confessed. For Wang, the feel-good moment had been edifying, but “it doesn’t make those power dynamics, and these truths, go away.”

In the fall of 2018, Resource Generation announced a “giving pledge,” encouraging its members to establish an annual donation goal with an eye toward redistributing “all or almost all inherited wealth and/or excess income.” It was a deliberate attempt to evolve beyond the organization’s sometimes squishy reputation as a place for members to work through their feelings without imposing measurable benchmarks.

The group’s new guidelines encourage all members to increase the amount they give. The first step is to calculate how much a member is giving relative to assets and income. To start with, members might give away 1 to 7 percent of their assets annually. Seven percent represents an important threshold: It’s the average annual return on stock market investments, so if members give less than that, they’re still making money off their wealth — a big no-no.

One feature of Resource Generation’s target demographic is that many members don’t yet have children. Giving away an inheritance means there will be significantly less for any progeny.

After that, RG asks members to begin to spend down their wealth, giving 10 percent or more of their assets and income a year. From there, RG continues to encourage members to double their giving every one to three years. “Choose an amount that will make you feel proud, like you’ve really showed up,” the group advises. “Give enough that it feels risky — if you feel comfortable, you’re probably not stretching enough. If you feel destabilized, it might be too much.”

One feature of Resource Generation’s target demographic is that many members don’t yet have children. Giving away an inheritance means there will be significantly less for any progeny — a financial decision that many RG skeptics see as irresponsible, unrealistic or a potential source of regret. One criticism of the group’s focus on adults younger than 35 is that the model indoctrinates wealthy progressives before they feel the urge to pass their assets to their offspring. The idea of redistributing your wealth rather than giving it to your heirs can be much more difficult to stomach if children are in the picture. “There’s a way in which the rubber hits the road in stopping intergenerational wealth transfer if you have kids,” says Ho.

Still, many members and alumni maintain that, having established a giving practice with Resource Generation, they won’t change their plans if they add children to the mix. RG staff and members see this as part of their commitment to redistribution. “I have a partner and plan to have a child,” says former director Gilmore, “and though I know complicated choices lie ahead, I also know that ... a child who is connected to other people, the planet and justice will have a better shot at being happy and giving back than one that has more resources than anyone around them.”

I spoke with Chuck Collins, a progressive activist and author and an heir to the Oscar Mayer fortune, who gave away his half-million-dollar inheritance (the equivalent of more than $1.1 million today) when he was 26. Collins, now 60, works as director of the inequality program at the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington-based think tank. He describes himself as an “honorary elder” of Resource Generation, whose members often seek his perspective. I asked if he had regrets about giving away his inheritance. On the contrary, he responded. He’d achieved what he set out to do: to knit himself into a broader community. His children graduated from college with debt. It’s a burden he wishes nobody would have to bear, but making these problems your own “is essentially putting your stake with the commonweal,” he said.

Resource Generation’s giving pledge netted a commitment of $25 million in the first six months, Ho says. Several members I spoke with give 10 percent of their wealth a year. Pien is among them: She distributes about $15,000 each year to organizations such as the Black Organizing Project, which, among other goals, works to diminish police presence in Oakland schools, and Critical Resistance, a prison abolition group. Since she doesn’t have access to her full inheritance, that level of giving feels sustainable to her.

Laura Wernick, a professor in Fordham University’s Graduate School of Social Service who studies Resource Generation’s philanthropic model, told me that most of the members she has surveyed over the past 10 years ended up giving more than they had planned, including those with their own forms of instability (a child with a disability, for instance). She also said that Resource Generation measurably influences more than just charitable giving. Members enrolled in law school shift to public interest work, for example, and those working in nonprofit organizations or traditional philanthropy begin to gravitate toward movement-oriented work.

For his part, David Roswell — who in addition to his political organizing spends his days working as a ceramist — plans to redistribute all his inherited wealth or excess income. He concedes that’s a moving target: Trust funds mature, companies are liquidated and relatives die — and all these events will funnel more money his way. “I don’t think I will ever be in a place of really hitting that ‘enough’ boundary,” he told me.

Roswell remains committed to the principles he learned through Resource Generation. Over the past several years, he’s been involved in efforts to create permanent affordable housing in the Durham area and to elect working-class people and people of color to local leadership. Resource Generation has also made him a skilled fundraiser: With the connections he has made, he says, he can raise $15,000 in a matter of days.

This past summer, he and Heraty were busy setting up an independent community fund for North and South Carolina called the Cypress Fund. Following RG principles, they will recruit donors, but they won’t stipulate where the donors’ money will go; community members from across the class spectrum will make those decisions. Because so much wealth is concentrated in the Northeast and on the West Coast, Roswell says, the South historically has fewer philanthropic dollars and even less devoted to grass-roots organizing. “For a long time we’ve heard people saying, ‘If only there was a social justice fund that did democratic giving in the South, we’d be all over it,’ ” Roswell says. “Finally it made sense to make it happen.”

Roswell has also persuaded his family to carve out a dedicated climate justice fund from their philanthropic giving, which he and several cousins of his generation will control. He hasn’t been able to persuade his family to spend down their foundation’s endowment, but he says they’re actively “thinking about what reparations means for an oil family trying to repair harm that we’ve caused in the Gulf South and across the world.”

Not that these conversations have been without tension. According to Roswell, his mother, for one, worries that he is moving too quickly, making reckless decisions about enormous sums. Other relatives are more pointed: “There are messages from my grandparents and other people that my great-grandfather made this wealth so my children and my children’s children could go to the same private schools I went to,” Roswell says. To that end, Roswell’s grandparents have already set up trust funds of about $3 million for his nonexistent children and grandchildren. (He says he doesn’t know whether he’ll have kids.)

Still, he’s optimistic: “I think the mirror I’ve been holding up has been helpful, and that my family is changing how they’re approaching their own giving.” Ultimately, however, philanthropy’s real goal, he says, should be “to make itself not exist anymore.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Louis Blaustein as David Roswell’s great-grandfather. This version has been updated.

Anna Altman is a writer in Washington.

Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks. Design by Michael Johnson.

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