“I feel the pain of the trashing of the planet very deeply,” said Jenny Ladd. We are walking on a leafy path through a tall hardwood forest.
“Humans might be short-sighted and greedy, but do we have to take down this beautiful planet? Such a waste, such a horror,” Ladd says.
This piece is an updated excerpt from Chuck Collins’ new book, Born on Third Base: A One Percenter Makes the Case for Tackling Inequality, Bringing Wealth Home, and Committing to the Common Good (Chelsea Green). Chuck Collins is director of the Program on Inequality at the Institute for Policy Studies where he co-edits Inequality.org..
On cue, we approach a flowering tree, its buds opening around the winter solstice in New England. The seasons have gone haywire, a combination of El Niño and climate change.
Ladd and I are at Temenos, a rustic retreat center in Western Massachusetts, where she often stays in a cabin and goes on silent retreats. I’ve been looking forward to my visit with her. She is someone who “walks the walk” as a person with wealth who is deeply aware of the economic and ecological moment we are living in and has made thoughtful decisions and lives her values. It’s her last day here, and we’re spending the afternoon together, walking outside and then driving back to her home.
“We are facing a transition,” Ladd says, patting the trunk of the tree with concern. She is wearing a gray wool sweater and hiking boots. Though in her early 60s, she seems unchanged from when I met her over twenty-five years earlier—youthful, funny, lively, and grounded. But in this moment, she is dead serious.
“I don’t want to act based on fear, but I see how fragile the institutions are around us. Things could suddenly change. I listen behind the headlines to the trends in the news, the signs of our societal decomposition. There are many ways we should prepare for the transition, and connecting with neighbors and local people is key.”
Jennifer Ladd grew up in a wealthy family, an heiress to the Standard Oil fortune. She was raised without any formal religion, but was instilled with a deep interconnectedness with nature. “We spent many weeks each year camping and hiking in the White Mountains. And we had an old lobster boat with two bunks and we would bounce around out at sea. For me, being involved on issues of the environment and climate change are easy.”
At the age of 21, she inherited just under $1 million that she has mostly given away over her lifetime. When she was 40, she “came out” to people about having money and made a plan to give away substantial assets. “That was upsetting and destabilizing to some people, because they were attached to me having money and being a source of support to them.” Decades later, Ladd is deeply engaged in supporting the transition to a just and resilient local economy in Western Massachusetts.
“Fossil fuel oil was a great achievement in the 1860s, but we have to move quickly to a new energy economy.” One of her ancestors, Charles Pratt, worked with the founder of Standard Oil, John D. Rockefeller, to refine the process of oil production. Ladd’s mother died in 2012, and she inherited an additional bundle of 1924 Standard Oil stock, now ExxonMobil. She gave all of it away to fund organizing around climate change.
“It was the perfect thing to do,” she says. “I used the money to heal the wounds caused by the way the money was made. I felt part of the historical moment spurred by the Divest-Invest movement. Giving the money now, in terms of its impact on these movements, is more important than ten years from now. Don’t wait.”
Ladd and I arrive at a hand-pump well, next to a large rock out-cropping. This is the source of water for all the cabins. We fill up a few water jugs at the pump. I ask Ladd how she felt divesting from Standard Oil and funding organizations addressing the climate crisis.
“GREAT!” she laughed. “It felt clean, good, like defragging your computer. It’s like I closed a loop. I felt in line.”
“In line?” I ask.
“It felt in line with my deepest values. It’s liberating. I feel like I played my part in a relay race. I got the baton, ran my leg of the race without tripping, and passed it on.”
Ladd explains she has held onto some money, placed in socially responsible investment funds, to cover her future needs. “I’m single, and we don’t live in Scandinavia where I know I’d be taken care of with dignity in my old age,” she says, and she has no regrets about using the rest to create change. “It feels better to me not to hold back and to instead be part of a movement to create a better society. I do trust that one thing leads to another, that money can be a catalyst.”
Ladd has spent more than a decade working with people as a coach and advisor, especially with those with substantial wealth. She has accompanied many people in their process of figuring out money and how to use it effectively.
“I believe how people give, the spirit of giving, is as important as the gift,” she says, hoisting up two jugs of water. I carry another two, and we walk on another path to her car.
“The best giving is out of gratitude, when you feel like you are in the flow. Listen for a ‘yes’ in your heart and mind.”
She has given money to friends, but instead of asking them to pay her back, she asks them to make contributions to organizations or pass the gift along. She helped one friend who was unable to finish her schooling because of money. “I gave money to her with the understanding that she would pay it back as a gift to another woman over 40 finishing her education. That gift has been passed on many times.”
Ladd has done creative giving and watched others do it as well. “It opens up the flow of giving and generosity. Others have the experience of being givers, as well.”
From her coaching and advising work, she knows the inner barriers and demons that some wealthy people face in the process of aligning their lives with their values and hopes. “It is not easy,” she says. We arrive at her car and begin driving back to her house in Northampton. “We live in an insecure world. And many people don’t have a sense of family and community they can depend on. If very wealthy people feel this vulnerability, think what it’s like for the rest of the society?”
Like many others I’ve talked to over the years, Ladd understands how wealthy people can miss out on the interdependence and community that is formed by people helping one another. “Why ask someone to help you with gardening if you could hire a gardener?”
“The wider community reinforces this dynamic, thinking it strange or cheap that someone wants to be in relationship other than a paid relationship,” she says. “So then all the relationships this wealthy person has become transactional rather than reciprocal. If you never have to ask, only pay and are never vulnerable, you miss out on a fundamental part of the human experience.”
Ladd describes many wealthy people who are locked into disconnected situations. They live in large houses at the end of long driveways or in the countryside. This might be a family house or land, so it has meaning to them. But it keeps them apart. “They can’t see their neighbors, so they have less interaction. They don’t really get to know them, so the bonds of community are weak.”
“It’s less of a problem if you live in a neighborhood like mine,” Ladd says, pulling onto her street in Northampton, a neighborhood of modest bungalows and mature trees. Her block is a tight row of older single-family homes on small lots, close together, without fences. No one is building McMansions here. Neighbors see each other on a daily basis, adding to a sense of community security, well-being, and resilience.
“When I had a fire in my house, I stayed with two of the families on my street who were very welcoming. Another family on the street let me stay in an apartment they had, so they really helped me out.”
We are standing in her driveway, looking up and down the street. Neighbors drive past and wave. Ladd points at different houses, each with a story. “See those neighbors park their cars across from each other, creating a sort of speed bump. People are reminded to slow down because of all the kids.”
“My neighbor Peter snow blows my sidewalk when he can,” she says. Another neighbor worked with her to take down large weed trees on their shared lot line, opening up more sunlight for gardens. Together, they planted blueberry bushes between their houses that both families share. There are lots of kids on the street and lots of shared family activities and potlucks. “We help each other out,” she says. “We have a book group that turned into a movie group.”
“This is my neighborhood,” says Ladd. “But I consider my community to be this wider valley, including Springfield and Holyoke. My stake in this area includes communities that have been excluded from prosperity.” Ladd is part of valley-wide initiatives to bridge racial and class divisions, create local jobs, and invest in local enterprises, similar to the Jamaica Plain New Economy Transition. One group, Invest Here Now, is an impact investment fund moving capital to local projects.
We venture inside and take off our boots. Ladd puts on slippers and pads into the kitchen, putting a teakettle on the stove and assembling a plate of cookies. Her small house is compact, but warm. There’s a wood stove in the living room, but we don’t need it on this summer-like winter day. We sit at her dining room table.
“There are a wide variety of barriers for wealthy people trying to come home, in addition to the fear of the unknown,” Ladd says. She describes one family that is locked into needing to hold onto millions because they own multiple homes and now the next generation of grandchildren all attend expensive private schools. “They are used to having a lot of space,” said Ladd. “And caring for all these things takes inordinate time and energy. You see people trapped by the expectations of a high standard of living and by all their belongings and properties. The wealth owns them rather than they owning the wealth. And there’s still a sense of scarcity, of not having enough.”
“Sometimes the people who have the hardest time are those with the most money,” observes Ladd. “I know people with over $100 million and they feel they are unable to change their situation. I realize it’s hard to give away that much money.” She pauses and thinks. “If I had that much money, I’d find a way to give it to small town governments.”
One challenge of “coming out”—being known as someone with resources—is facing the tremendous deprivations in our communities and people asking for money. “This is one of the ways we experience the great inequalities of our time,” reflects Ladd. “No one wants to be regarded as a ‘walking wallet,’ but sometimes we are. Where else are people going to get money for community organizations and social change projects?
Foundations are hard to reach. Corporations and governments aren’t a source of funds. It’s going to come from individuals.”
Ladd says part of being open and your whole self in community is to develop systems to share money that give boundaries. For example, you might say Send me a letter, I only give twice a year, or I only give through this intermediary that has a community board. “But just remember,” she advises, “this experience is the result of great inequality. And our experience is considerably less intrusive then being a low-income person on welfare, with everyone questioning your choices.”
There is no cookie cutter approach to working through the barriers. Her advice is, “Get over yourself. Find a role. Do stuff. Don’t hold yourself back. Don’t wait for the perfect organization to support.”
Ladd also advises working in collaboration with others—not trying to save the world yourself. “Play your part in the orchestra. Ask yourself: How can I be a portal for the flow? Can I add value and enthusiasm to movements? If you’re stuck, there are plenty of people willing to help you, who don’t want to rip you off.”
“For some people it’s hard to feel like they are part of something bigger,” says Ladd, pouring us each a cup of tea. “One thing that moves people is a powerful vision and plan. People get stuck when they are disconnected from community and social change movements. Or they don’t see anything inspiring. People need a supportive community of others who are coming home, investing money, and giving boldly. I’ve seen people create a plan and program, with others, to move substantial resources—and they do it.”
An important first step is making a plan. Figuring out what you really need to live on and what you can easily give away.
There are huge benefits to sharing wealth and coming home, according to Ladd. “You don’t feel separated. You are not stuck in fear and cynicism. I think it’s good for your physical health. Coming home to community is alive, joyful, and puts you in authentic relationships.”
“There are struggles and pain—and the dynamics of interacting with others in community is not always easy. But at least you’re in the dynamics. You’re not in some sterile nonfeeling zone watching everyone else through a glass window.” Ladd acknowledges knowing what that sometimes feels like as a person without children. “Engagement can be messy, but it’s engagement.”