On Thursday evening they spoke at the Julia Morgan School for Girls here in Oakland as part of a tour promoting their book The Power of Half: One Family’s Decision to Stop Taking and Start Giving Back.
The Salwens tell what is a counter-intuitive, man-bites-dog story in our very materialistic society. In a more ideal world their story would be unexceptional, but in our world it’s news.
The wealthy Atlanta family of four decided to sell their house and donate half the proceeds — $800,000 — to help poor villagers in Ghana.
Their odyssey began in 2006 when Kevin was driving 14-year-old Hannah back from a sleepover, and she noticed a homeless man on one side of the car and a man driving a Mercedes coupe on the other. Her gaze swiveled back and forth.
“If that man didn’t have such a nice car, that other man could have a meal,” Hannah said.
“Yeah,” her father responded, “if we didn’t have such a nice car, that man could have a meal.”
The discussion continued at home, with Hannah harping on how the family – already active community volunteers – could be doing more. Her mother, in a fit of frustration, said, “What do you want to do, sell our house?”
And Hannah said yes.
Hannah and Kevin were a delightful pair of speakers, at ease with the audience and playing off each other like a pair of longtime vaudevillians. They described “rattling around” in their old 6,000-square-foot house — with an elevator in Hannah’s bedroom! — and how downsizing in fact made the family both physically and emotionally closer.
(They love ping pong, but the ping-pong table used to sit neglected in a wing of its own in the old house; when they downsized, it had to go in the center of everything and so they are now constantly playing pick-up games together.)
Their decision-making process also made them closer: The parents accepted the two teenagers as equal partners in determining what to do with the house-sale proceeds, and the family held meetings every Sunday morning for a year to thrash out their values and social-change strategy.
Ultimately, they decided to partner with a group called The Hunger Project that assists African villagers in planning and improving their communities – financing things like a $6000 mill for grinding corn.
“The girls (in that village) used to walk six miles to mill corn, but now they can go to school,” said Hannah, who visited the town two summers ago. “It cost $6000, the same as my brother’s braces. I was astounded. In our country, we pay for tooth beauty, while they just want their kids to go to school.”
The Salwens’ story is profoundly unsettling in that it challenges those of us here in America to look at just how much stuff we have – and what a difference giving up some of our stuff could make for people in poverty.
In some ways, it opens a bottomless chasm. No matter how much we give away, we can always give away more. How do you know when to stop? Even if you move to a smaller house, you are still 1,000 times better off than those African villagers. Do you give up your house entirely? Move to a one-room apartment? Take your kids out of private school, give away their college fund, sell your car, forego orthodenture and prom dresses and ski trips? Are you a hypocrite or coward if you stop short of becoming a possession-less monk?
That’s partly my case. Yes, Sam and I tend to volunteer like maniacs and give to a lot of causes. But when I was in my late teens, I was faced with a choice of whether to move to a kibbutz. I never seriously considered it. There were a lot of reasons – I felt at home in America, I wanted to go to college, I couldn’t face the daunting prospect of trying to become a writer in a country where I didn’t speak the language – but partly I was terrified of having to give over all my possessions to the common pot of the kibbutz. I was 18 and I didn’t have much, but it was still scary to think of giving it all away.
The Salwens, though, deny that it should be such an all-or-nothing choice.
They never committed to give everything away – just half. Of their real estate proceeds.
And when they talk to audiences, they don’t browbeat people into sacrificing everything — just half of something or other. If you watch TV for six hours a week, they said, cut that in half and spend the extra three hours volunteering at a cancer clinic. If you buy coffee every day, buy half as much and donate the savings to a group that fights addiction.
“We never pledged to be Mother Teresa,” Kevin said. “We pledged to do one thing. And it’s felt great.”
“There’s an endorphin release when you give,” he continued. “Some people refer to it as a ‘giver’s high.’ You know the saying, ‘Give till it hurts?’ We don’t believe in that at all. Guilt is not a sustaining state of mind. We believe you should give till it’s joyful.”
Meanwhile, you may ask: What about the girls’ school connection that I mentioned up top?
Hannah is a junior at the Atlanta Girls’ School, a new independent girls’ school founded around the same time as Julia Morgan. (It’s one of the schools I visited when researching Where Girls Come First.)
She started there in 7th grade – but only because her parents forced her.
“I fought it and fought it and fought it,” she said. “I wanted that typical high school experience with stuff like an awesome prom. I think it was freshman year that I realized that I loved it. I changed, and the people around me changed, and I realized it was an awesome school.”
She credits the Atlanta Girls’ School with helping give her confidence to push her family into their Power of Half journey.
“If I was still at (my previous) big coed private school, I don’t think I’d have been so eager to get the project going and keep nagging my parents about it,” she said.
P.S. Sandra Luna, our head of school at Julia Morgan, told me that three students came up to her on Friday morning and said they had decided to make changes in their lives after hearing the Salwens. Two girls had decided to give away half their clothes. The third said that her mother had decided to sell half their cars. “How do you feel about that?” Sandra asked.
“I guess a little scared,” the girl said.