My father’s estate was settled during the COVID-19 pandemic, not long before police killed George Floyd. My dad wasn’t among the economic elite but for many racial justice protestors, that might be splitting hairs. Along with some money, there was a rambling house in East Hampton with a heated pool in which my kids learned to swim. My wife and I thought to put most of the inheritance aside for our children’s (and fingers crossed, grandchildren’s) education and down payments on future homes, the kinds of things my father ― a generous caretaker who grew up poor during the Depression ― did for my brother and me.
“No,” my kids pushed back. “Just give it away.”
The pandemic and racial justice uprising that took place last year make for a strange time for parenting and a stranger time still to receive an inheritance. On the one hand, the pull to protect one’s own tugs hard. Harder than I’d imagined. On the other hand, glaring inequalities in health care and powerful calls for racial justice make that instinct a little out of touch. My kids had to shout before we heard, “We’re fine. We’re swimming in privilege we did nothing to deserve and that we received based on the color of our skin.”
My wife and I work in community service. We’ve tried to raise the kids with generous, civic-minded values. We were Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) supporters and lived and volunteered in El Salvador for many years before and after the civil war, accompanying a struggle for radical redistribution of wealth. You’d think we would be easy targets for their agitating.
And yet we stalled. Although fundraising and grant-making are a big part of my job, I was new to giving away my wealth. “Let’s have a family meeting to figure out philanthropic priorities,” I suggested. “Do some research, make a plan.” My kids rolled their eyes, impatient.
We weren’t the sole targets of the kids’ badgering, or, as they put it, invitation to step up. My daughter had previously raised money for a women’s agroecology project in Ghana, where she’d volunteered. During the early waves of protest against police impunity, she sent a plea to family and friends with the subject line, “Please Don’t Stop” and continued, “we NEED to be giving ALL (not some) of the money we spend ... to Black people at this time and forever. This email is not meant to attack anyone. But I do want to remind all of us of our privilege. WHITE WEALTH IS RACISM ... White people will ALWAYS have a leg up.”
Her uncle reported that the email was grist for not one, but two therapy sessions.
My father climbed his way into the upper middle class by being a beneficiary of the GI bill, pretty hard-working, cheap and extremely lucky. His estate included my mother’s savings, who died years before, and her father’s ― a Lithuanian immigrant. My parents’ philanthropic gestures were modest at best ― my mother weirdly, but sweetly, referred to me as her charity ― and for my maternal grandfather, it consisted mostly of giving multiples of $18 for Israel.
“Having what I thought were decent social justice credentials, I flinched at being schooled by my daughter, the more vocal instigator.”
On a night last year when we returned raw and opened from a Black Lives Matter march where we’d locked arms with the kids, my wife and I took a big step and donated thousands of dollars to Black- and immigrant-led organizations, which for us constituted significant giving.
Unimpressed, our daughter bested us. She’d given away her COVID-19 unemployment benefits, on top of which she threw us a curveball.
At her age, I was studying to be a community organizer. For years, I door-knocked in Boston public housing, supporting community leaders fighting City Hall for neighborhood improvements. The next decades were spent moving (other people’s) money into international social movements ― farmer-led struggles for land and water rights. I tended to be dismissive of charitable giving that helps individuals but doesn’t build grassroots power ― scholarship programs for example.
“Let’s pay off Naima’s college debt,” our kids proposed. Naima is a Black, immigrant friend who has been part of our extended family since middle school. I balked, arguing that we need policies and programs for debt-free college and comprehensive reparations. My daughter’s eyes rolled again, skeptical that justice will emerge from a historically racist political system, the new administration notwithstanding. “Naima and her family are financially stressed every day,” she replied. “We have the resources to zero out their debt now. A kind of mini-reparation.”
“Which then?” I sighed. “Pay off her loan or fund social justice organizations?”
“Both,” the kids said.
Argh. Having what I thought were decent social justice credentials, I flinched at being schooled by my daughter, the more vocal instigator. How could I feel simultaneously so proud of our kids for their values while dodging their criticism and feeling ever-so-slightly fleeced? Quarantine dinners were fractious.
I visited the kids in Greece in 2019 while they both volunteered with refugees. (Note: Plane flight paid for with grandpa’s money). Stray cats were everywhere; my daughter lugged around a 10-pound bag of cat food to feed them. “There are too many,” I blurted, as we walked maddeningly slowly. “Feeding them is no solution.” Bending to scatter food, she calmly responded to my fit as a cat rubbed against around her ankle: “I can help some.” We’d had the argument many times before about being more “strategic” and less impulsive; it was strange, I admit, to suggest that she be a little less compassionate in such a heartless world.
Racial justice, COVID-19 recovery, reversing climate change. It was starting to feel difficult to justify holding onto grandpa’s estate. To study nursing, my son had recently snubbed NYU and chosen community college. He couldn’t stomach the expensive elitism. “Use grandpa’s college fund money for Naima’s debt,” he insisted.
But still. The kids are in their early 20s ― could they possibly know they wouldn’t need money later? The layers of irony made my head hurt. Privilege got us the money and it’s an even greater privilege to be able to give it away with the blessing of one’s children. We had just been relieved of the age-old parental worry to leave something behind by kids who would rather take their chances. And they’re probably right ― being white and middle class, even their children likely won’t need help.
But a question nagged: What would my father think? Although crazy about the kids, he’d think they were just plain nuts and would say so. My father was a woodworker; he crafted grandfather clocks, hutches, jewelry boxes ― things that endured. My parents weren’t lavish; pretty much the entire point of making the money was to leave it to the next generation who would use it and leave it to the one after that. Nothing would draw a bigger grin from my dad in heaven than watching his great-great-grandchildren step into a college classroom using the remains of his bank account.
So he would not be happy. But then I imagined the kids returning his firehose of affection: playing with his hair, rubbing his bald spot and cajoling him to flex his once formidable biceps. He’d surely melt. He was doting and tender first; work and money were always a distant second ― priorities he inherited from a father he idolized.
So we took the plunge. We paid off Naima’s loan and are giving most of the rest away in a public way that might motivate others, which risks ― we realize ― receiving undeserved praise for simply doing the right thing. We trust our kids to understand what no inheritance means. We don’t want a philanthropy in perpetuity, taking advantage of unfair tax loopholes and joining the likes of Bezos and Gates in granting pennies on the dollar. As the kids have pointed out, hoarding leaves privilege intact.
And in this time of so much injustice to repair and no roadmap of how to do it, the kids’ hearts, fed by their grandfather’s embrace, offer a sort of compass. Their generosity is my dad’s real legacy ― not his money.
Daniel Moss is the Executive Director of the Agroecology Fund. He collaborates with the Equitable Food Initiative as an on-farm trainer and with Latin American water utilities on source water protection strategies. His writing on food, water, and human rights has been published in The New York Times, National Geographic, Huffington Post, Food Tank, Devex and other media outlets.