My dad, the money, and me

About 14 months ago, I quit my more-than-full-time job as an educational researcher. The theory was to lead a life that involves less work and more play. Less than two months later, that change was followed by another big change: In January 2007, my dad, W. Hayden Thompson, of Cleveland, Ohio, died at the age of 79.

I was lucky to have been able to arrange my life even before I quit my job to have work-related reasons to be in Cleveland on a regular basis (a project in the Cleveland Municipal School District). So, I got to spend more than usual amounts of time with Dad and Mom, my brothers, and sister in the three years before Dad died. This was enormously gratifying and certainly cuts the sting of losing him.

Nevertheless, Dad’s death was, and is, a big deal to me. A lot of people my age are going through this right now — losing our parents. It’s a big deal even if it’s expected.

Now, besides being my dad, W. Hayden Thompson was a wealthy man. When I was very young, I didn’t understand this, but as I grew older, I came to see that our family had lots more money than most families.

Long before my dad died (15-20 years earlier), I began processing what it meant to be the daughter of a very rich man. The more I thought about it, the more I thought three things:

  1. The day I lost my dad, I did not want to also have to deal with another huge change in my own life – I did not want his death to forever be associated with a huge influx of money. Because inheriting a lot of money does exactly that to the person who inherits it at a time when they should probably be feeling and thinking lots of other things, more human-focused things.
  2. Though I believe my dad was a very good, very smart man, I did not share his appreciation for capitalism and the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a small number of people. While he worked very hard almost every day of his life, I knew many other people who worked as hard and who were as smart, but did not experience the same results – largely by virtue of where they were born in US society. “Wrong” skin color, “wrong” school, “wrong” neighborhood, “wrong” class, sometimes “wrong” gender. The wealth that my dad had accumulated was not only a product of his work and brilliance, it was leveraged off of the wealth, education, and connections that he inherited by being born into the “right” family in the “right” neighborhood and attending the “right” schools.
  3. I certainly don’t need a lot of money to lead a happy, engaged, productive life. True, too little money is definitely a problem. But I have many times had the distinct experience of life being richer and more meaningful when I have NOT had access to an excess of resources, and I was forced to figure things out in ways that relied on a mix of my wits and character as well as the depth, density, and diversity of my friendships. I have seen in my own life and in the lives of others that the “perks” of being rich often come with costs — isolation, insecurity about why your friends really like you, fear of someone taking your stuff, obliviousness about how the world really works, and so on. My partner Stephen and I, like most US-ers, use too great a share of this world’s resources to support our “way of life,” and in no way do we need even more! In other words, we do just fine on what we can earn going to work like most folks. We can even do just fine working a little less if we decide to live a little differently.

Through this line of thinking I came to a pretty early conclusion that if my dad willed me an inheritance, I would give it back — not to his estate, but rather to the wider world from which it had come. I knew of some other people who had made and acted on similar decisions, and that was helpful. But in most places I talked about this, it was viewed, at best, as pretty weird or irresponsible, and at worst disrespectful of my dad. “A slap in the face of your father’s hard work and generosity” was one sentiment I heard.

As far back as the late 80s or early 90s, I started talking with my dad about my idea, not because I wanted to (in fact, I mostly dreaded these conversations), but because I thought staying silent was chicken, in its own way disrespectful, and a barrier to any hope of closeness between him and me.

I broached it whenever he made mention of my inheritance, which he would do in concrete terms every few years. I’d be visiting in Cleveland, and he’d ask me to come down to his office. He’d push a piece of paper across his desk at me with a 7-digit figure on it — my “share” of what his estate was worth at the time. This number always felt very abstract, disconnected from whatever struggles or interests or passions I had for myself or my family. The number would vary a bit from occasion to occasion, in an upward direction.

I was uncomfortable telling him my intentions, and I am sure I was not articulate. The most difficult thing was that I was afraid he’d hear my decision as a critique of how he lived, and what he did to “make” the money. In truth, I thought and continue to think very highly of my dad as a moral person, but yes, this difference between us about what extreme wealth means, where it comes from, and what money is good for sure felt personal. How could it not have?

He was not pleased to hear my decision, and sometimes would put some effort into talking me out of it. “This is not just about you, think about your daughter ” was one argument, along with “You never know what kind of medical or financial crisis might befall you, and you can’t count on the government or anyone else to look after you.” Also, “Why do you always have to be so weird?” Sometimes he would just kind of sigh.

I suspect he occasionally thought about cutting me out of the will, or setting up some kind of trust I couldn’t touch. I went along year to year trying not to instigate any “extra” conversations about this topic, but fulfilling my periodic obligation to tell him I was sticking with my decision. It got easier over time as I became grateful for the chance to show him a little bit of who I really am and what I believe in.

A year after my dad’s death, I am only beginning to feel how far he and I were able to come, and understand the gift he gave me, when he decided to trust my thinking about this.

About three years ago, I was visiting in Cleveland, sitting in the kitchen with my dad. Out of the blue he said, “You’re serious, aren’t you? You’re really going to give your inheritance away.” I answered Yes, I was more committed than ever. He then said, “Well, I have been thinking about this, and here is what we are going to do. I am not going to pay estate taxes on money that is going to be given away.” (In fact, he might have said “death taxes,” which would be just like his fiscal Republican self.) “So we’ll set up my estate document so that your share will be treated as a charitable contribution. You should think about setting up some kind of foundation or something.”

So that’s what we did, and that’s what I have been working on since he died: Establishing the Fund for Democratic Communities (or f4dc, as we have come to call it). More about that in a bit, because there is more to this story of me, my dad, and the money. As a further sign of his decision to trust my thinking, my dad went on to amend his estate document so that the value of the estate taxes that didn’t have to be paid on what became known in the trust as “Martha’s Charitable Share” was added to my “regular” share. All this amounts to about $5 million.

I cry weekly or more often about this amazing sign of trust between my dad and me. I don’t want to paint my dad as a shallow, materialistic person — he was not, he was much more complicated. But you gotta understand what this pile of money meant to my dad — in many ways he saw it as his life’s work. And to trust me with it, with my outlandish ideas about money and sharing, when he knew it would be used to do things he could hardly understand, was an incredible gift, especially coming at the end of his life.

So almost every day I stand in very close proximity to my dad, as I go about the business of putting his money back into the control of regular folks. I have him in my heart and mind in a way I seldom have since the time I was a little kid. And for that I am really grateful.

I am also grateful that he set things up like this, so that on the day he died, and in the hard days that followed immediately after, I was not distracted or confused by the money. I did not have to spare a moment’s thought to what I might want or need to do with that money — because it wasn’t mine, and never had been.

Sure, I have more than a few thoughts about what f4dc should do with the money. And I voice them regularly in conversation with Stephen and my life-long community activist friend and colleague Ed Whitfield. Ed’s the first person I called when I got home from the trip in which Dad laid out his plan for “Martha’s Charitable Share.” We’ve been raising hell together for years, especially in the realm of public education, and I knew he was the partner I wanted in this venture.

Ed and I spent 2007 getting the legal identity for f4dc established, laying out our thinking in some founding documents, and most importantly, gathering a powerful group of 14 activists, artists, gardeners, musicians, labor leaders, librarians, teachers, writers — hell raisers all — to form our Board. Oh yes, and a psychometrician – that’d be Stephen – every board needs a psychometrician! Six of our board members are under 30, one of the aspects of this work I am most proud of.

It’s in this company that the decisions about what to do with the money get dealt with. I am one voice among many vibrant voices, each of which is committed to authentic grassroots democracy as a fundamental basis for any kind of decent life.

You can read all about these ideas and these amazing people at our website — You can also read about the launch of our first grant cycle. We don’t have much money yet from the estate, and besides, we are just learning about what this money is good for inside of a democratically focused movement. So we’re giving away $20,000 this spring, and we’ll be practicing how to make collective decisions about it. We’re new to this big time philanthropy thing, and frankly a little suspicious of it. So we’re starting small to see what we can learn.

Plus, it isn’t just money on offer from f4dc — it’s also technical assistance for new groups struggling with how to get organized and how to move forward. And, a thing that really excites me personally, we’re going to be teaching regular folks who are interested lots of research skills so they can set the questions and do the research that answers those questions themselves. And then use that research, that new knowledge, to make the case/push the cause/understand the next steps/persuade/figure out the next question.

Two Saturdays ago, more than 50 people showed up at our office at the HIVE (a collective community space in Greensboro that nurtures cool groups, ideas, and people) to learn about the possibilities. We expected, oh, about a dozen. All kinds of people, young and old, lots of colors (in fact mostly people of color), with lots of good ideas (okay, a few off-the-wall ideas too). Ideas about how they want to work with their neighbors or co-workers or fellow students to turn this crazy unsustainable system into something more beautiful, caring, fair, and sustainable.

Ed was brilliant in his explication of what we mean by authentic democracy. I was pretty good too – talking about what you can do with $500, $1,000, $2,000, or $3,000 – when you join it with people talking/thinking/doing together. The other founding board members were brilliant as well, taking questions, finding room for more people when the room looked too full, and on and on.

The best part had to be when we went all around the room, and people stood up one at a time to say what community they were connected with and what they wanted to do. And again and again, something beautiful would happen: from across the room someone would yell, “I’ll help you with that!” or “Can I work with you?” or “I know how to do that, I’ll teach you.” This was so unbelievably hopeful to me, to all of us. The meeting “ended” at 11:30, and at 12:30 I had to go — there will still 15 people in the HIVE getting to know one another, exchanging ideas.

And the whole time, I kept thinking, “Whew, Dad, what do you think??? Look what we did!”

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