Discussing Privilege: How Conversations Can Transform Our Giving

Recognizing privilege is not limited to those young people who consider themselves 'activists' or even those who come from privileged backgrounds. Software designer Martin Rothenberg defended the federal estate tax in a white house ceremony with the following words:

My wealth is not only a product of my own hard work. It also resulted from a strong economy and lots of public investment in me and in others. I received a good public school education and used free libraries and museums paid for by others. I went to college under the GI Bill. I went to graduate school to study computers and language on a complete government scholarship, paid for by others.

Beginning conversations on wealth, privilege and philanthropy based on the theories of Resource Generation www.resourcegeneration.org could have an array of positive results. The following may be benefits that make the risk of discomfort worthwhile.

Jewish 20 and 30 something's who do not usually walk in the doors of a synagogue without a stroller will be interested in a new approach to social change. While tikkun olam projects and social programming may be created especially to target this age bracket, the fast-passed lifestyle of Generations X and Y presents a particular challenge. This group wants engage in work that will be transformative, not just facts or one-shot service projects. Any adult who experienced privilege can benefit from reflecting on and investigating the role that these advantages have played throughout life.

It is common for Jewish people with access to wealth to feel conflicted about privilege, clinging to their family's immigration stories of poverty to disassociate themselves from 'gentry.' It is better to confront guilt than assuage it. When power is used to make change there is less shame associated with possessing financial advantages. One theory asserts that Jewish charitable can an expression of both gratitude and ambivalence about being middle class.

Initiating conversations on wealth and philanthropy can be uncomfortable in any age group. If discussions on privilege encourage us to be better stewards of wealth and created social change, the discomfort is worthwhile. An effort to address injustice is strengthened by our awareness of the role we play in the economic system in which we live. In Jewish tradition, there is a difference between ownership and possession. While an individual may possess wealth, God can be understood as the true owner of material goods. Helping someone to clarify their relationship to their own wealth may encourage their generosity. In the words of Rabbi Elazar, "One who causes others to give is greater than one who gives himself." (Bava Batra 9a)

The following activity from Karen Pittelman's Classified is incredibly useful for helping to broach this topic and may be most efficiently led by lay volunteers.

Examining the kinds of privilege that some people enjoy, we learn that the playing field is never level!

1. Using page 48,49, & 50 from Classified (link to text at bottom of document) ask participants in small groups to discuss the kinds of advantages that they know are available.

For example: access to healthcare, education, travel, highly educated parents

2. From these 'advantages', have them list all the potential positive outcomes that can come from having been raised with these benefits.

3. Still in small groups, ask each member of the group to share one element of privilege that they enjoyed whether it was having one parent who did not work full time, not having to work in high school, having access to a car at 16, family vacations, etc. From this personal experience have them share one part of their adult life that has benefited from that experience.

4. As a whole group, open the floor to comments on what was surprising or thought provoking about this experience.

5. Invite groups to share a story that was discussed in their group, with the owner's permission. Have participants who shared a similar experience raise their hands and respond.

6. Close with a Jewish text on stewardship that appeals to you as the facilitator. (click here to find such resources)