Gwendolyn VanSant
Generative Ways to Shift Money and Power for Well Being and

When life gets busy or perhaps just challenging, the work is always to “come back to center.” As a coach, one tool that I suggest to people is to consider when they feel most happy, where they find the most meaning, and what are they good at.

Answering these questions can help you find an overlapping “sweet spot” where you want to try to spend the majority of your time. This can help you identify your personal values and be the agent of your time. Then you can reflect on whether or not you are centered and what keeps you centered or brings you back to center. With this knowledge, you can make better choices around where to put your time and energy. This exercise, combined with a clear vision of your ideal self and your best possible outcomes (to borrow a page out of positive psychology), is a recipe for success. In her book Dare to Lead, Brené Brown writes about some of these same ideas as well. She asks us to know what gets in the way of our “living into” our values and then think about how we can be supported in doing so. This is where money and resources come in.

The task I want to reflect on here is how to connect our values to our money. After returning from Austin in September from our Changemaker Strategies and What Will It Take Movements event, “Women & Money: Making Money Moves that Matter” (where I served as an Equity and Inclusion consultant on the design and execution of the event as well as the Accountability Host on site), it is even more clear to me how folks need to realize their power and use their privilege and capital for positive social impact. We have to talk about values, talk about our resources, and yes, talk about money. So often there is just an avoidance to speaking about money as currency because of the same history and guilt attached for some, and for others, the familiar violence, oppression, and abuse associated with money.

As an African American woman, I can speak to my own reasons for avoiding talking about money. To get excited about flourishing in capitalist models calls integrity into question every time! Money does and always will manifest as the whip of my ancestors. I have often been faced with the intentional choice to avoid the “Devil’s handshake” (when I am asked to give something of my mission and vision up to obtain the capital to survive). Therefore, part of my “wake work” is to consider money as something generative, to transform my relationship to money so that I may achieve, steward, and facilitate the reparations and social justice I want to see in the world… starting with my own home and work communities. Our Black family culture has always taught us to stay woke, to not sleep on those who say they are helping. But scholar Christina Sharpe takes us a step beyond this, guiding us to the notion that being woke requires us to stay in “wake work,” or stay in the process of being vigilant about the safety of Black lives.

This is why I have spent the last few years working on concepts like “abundance thinking” and “scarcity thinking” and how they are the byproduct of intersecting systems of oppression, what White feminist theologian Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza calls the kyriarchy), which are designed to suppress liberation of women and African Americans… two identities I have held for time memorial. Thanks to Black feminist Patricia Hill Collins’ work, among others, I am constantly aware of the interrelatedness of class, gender, and race oppressions and identities. I am also aware that I am part of a very real legacy of struggle around class, gender, and racial oppression. Part of shifting my relationship to money has also been about my seeing how it can be a resource to both heal and repair.

In my own life and with adult students, I have the opportunity to explore and steward the teaching of Black feminist theologians and others through teaching courses at The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Berkshire Community College on “Gender Roles in the 21st Century,” “Black Feminist Thought,” and “Poverty and Privilege Systems.” In my current role facilitating the BLK FMNNST Loaner Library book club at Mass MoCA to accompany the Cauleen Smith exhibit by the same name, I am always asking, how might we take the teachings into our everyday activism and work?

In this generative conversation here, I ask those in my affinity groups, which “money messages” do we need to transcend? Not forget, but transcend? Which do we need to eradicate entirely for our very survival? This is part of understanding all systems of oppression including, and most especially, capitalism which has been built on the subjugation and objectification of black bodies and women’s reproduction and labor assets.

As just one example of what I mean here, Wikipedia will tells us that “social justice” is “justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society.” But when I personally use the term, I specifically mean “leveraging and reallocating resources to create a more equitable playing field.”

When it comes to money and the idea of giving (or as I say, leveraging and reallocating resources), I turn to Maya Angelou’s words. In a conversation at the National Museum for Women in the Arts, she spoke about philanthropy, this way:

“I appreciate it most when it is used as a gift. When [it is given] because ‘I have and you do not.’ That’s the gift. That, to me, is charity… And it’s [also] giving of your time, your resources, and particularly, giving of your soul, your spirit. And that means giving up something, giving up the ignorance.”

To me, Angelou is still one of the most inspiring “givers” of our time. Her resources (not only of money and time, but of words and life experience) improve all of humanity.

In her essay “The Sweetness of Charity” (recapped beautifully in Nonprofit Quarterly earlier this year), Angelou wrote about how offering a helping hand can enrich the soul:

“The New Testament informs the reader that it is more blessed to give than to receive. I have found that among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the giver. The size and substance of the gift should be important to the recipient, but not to the donor save that the best thing one can give is that which is appreciated. The giver is as enriched as is the recipient, and more important, that intangible but very real psychic force of good in the world is increased. When we cast our bread upon the waters, we can presume that someone downstream whose face we will never know will benefit from our action, as we who are downstream from another will profit from that grantor’s gift.

Since time is the one immaterial object which we cannot influence -neither speed up nor slow down, add to nor diminish — it is an imponderably valuable gift. Each of us has a few minutes a day or a few hours a week which we could donate to an old folks’ home or a children’s hospital ward. The elderly whose pillows we plump or whose water pitchers we refill may or may not thank us for our gift, but the gift is upholding the foundation of the universe. The children to whom we read simple stories may or may not show gratitude, but each boon we give strengthens the pillars of the world.”

Angelou writes about how the greatest gift of all really is our common goal: “the liberation of the human mind and spirit.”

Another Black woman thinker who I experience as helping to transcend my ideas about money and giving is adrienne maree brown. In her book Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, she writes:

“Do you already know that your existence — who and how you are — is in and of itself a contribution to the people and place around you? Not after or because you do some particular thing, but simply the miracle of your life. And that the people around you, and the place(s), have contributions as well? Do you understand that your quality of life and your survival are tied to how authentic and generous the connections are between you and the people and place you live with and in?

Are you actively practicing generosity and vulnerability in order to make the connections between you and others clear, open, available, durable? Generosity here means giving of what you have without strings or expectations attached. Vulnerability means showing your needs.”

When I read these words, I am even more prepared to intentionally renew my answers to these three questions most authentically… When do I feel most happy? Where do I find the most meaning? What am I good at?

I feel the most happy when… I remember that happiness is about fulfillment and feeling genuinely fulfilled. I am happiest when I feel like my own being, my family, and my community are aligned.

I find the most meaning when… I see positive growth in others and know that I am a part of making that positive change happen.

I am good at… teaching and leading. I know that I work hard and am an excellent thinker.

As the CEO and Founding Director of BRIDGE and as a consultant, coach, and convener at large, I am grateful that I have been able to craft a career path that allows me to work at this sweet spot where all of these elements intersect. And I have to acknowledge a lot of intentional work is required to maintain an “abundance mindset” and attempt to resource all of this good work! I like this exercise not only because it helps me define and construct that sweet spot where I need to spend my time so that I stay centered; I like it because I know that, in all essence, my journey is coming to understand what I need for my own well-being and survival. I must ask for what I need and steward those resources well in order to pave the way for my family, peers, and colleagues as well as for generations to follow.

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