Chuck Collins is one of America's leading economic equality campaigners. He grew up in Detroit and went to school alongside some of the elite the United States including former Presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Chuck could perhaps be known as the man who gave away all his money after he chose to give away a massive inheritance in his twenties.
Chuck is a powerful voice for justice, he is a Senior Scholar at the Institute of Policy Studies, he's a co-founder of several organisations and projects, an author of several books including his new autobiography: Born on third base. Part of Chuck’s work involves works with millionaires and billionaires to encourage them to share their wealth and he co-wrote a book on this topic alongside Bill Gates' father, William H Gates. I interviewed Chuck at his home Boston in the run up to the 2016 US Presidential election.
The Love and Courage podcast
The Love and Courage podcast features interviews with inspirational people who are making a real difference in the world today. Guests are typically people passionate about social justice, and who have demonstrated courage and conviction in their lives.
Host Ruairí McKiernan is leading Irish social innovator, campaigner, writer and public speaker. He is the founder of the pioneering SpunOut.ie youth organization, and helped set-up the Uplift and the A Lust For Life non-profits. In 2012 the President of Ireland Michael D Higgins appointed Ruairí to the Council of State, a national constitutional advisory body whose members include all current and former leaders of the country. Ruairí is the recipient of numerous awards, including a Fulbright fellowship, and he contributes regularly to the media on youth, health, community and social justice issues.
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CC: There are a lot of people waiting to be called to something greater. And we are in a critical time – we are both living in a time of extreme wealth inequality, and the instability that that will create, and we’re living in an ecological crisis that will destroy the foundations of wealth as we know them. You know, what is wealth in a degraded planet?
RM: My guest in this episode is Chuck Collins, one of America’s leading economic equality campaigners. He grew up in Detroit and went to school alongside some of the elite of the United States, including former presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Chuck could, perhaps, be known as the man who gave away all his money, after he chose to give away a massive inheritance in his twenties. Chuck is a powerful voice for justice, a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies - he’s the author of several books, including his new autobiography: Born on Third Base. Part of Chuck’s work also involves working with millionaires and billionaires, to encourage them to share their wealth and to create a more equal world for all – and he co-wrote a book on this topic with Bill Gates’s father, William. I was fortunate to stay with Chuck and his partner Mary at their home when I visited Boston recently. In an early morning conversation at their kitchen table, Chuck talked about his remarkable life story, and his unflinching thirst for a more equal world. The man is a gem – I’m sure you’ll agree.
RM: Good morning, Chuck. Very welcome and thanks for joining me with my podcast today.
CC: Good morning.
RM: How’s life for you, these days?
CC: Life is good, life is good. No complaints.
RM: What’s keeping you busy?
CC: I’m actually packing off to visit my daughter in Indiana today, and it’s marathon day today, here in Boston - and it’s also tax day in the United States, so I’m doing a little bit of radio interviews about the tax system. And I just planted 11 fruit trees yesterday, so my hands and body are a little tired from that – digging holes, hauling water. So yes, that’s the last day.
RM: Excellent. So tax is obviously one of the big things we’re going to be talking about, and how some people are maybe paying more, and some people less. And we’ll get into that conversation soon, because you do some amazing work in that area. Before we get onto that, Chuck, I want to give listeners a sense of who you are and your upbringing – and I specifically want to go back to around the time when you were seven, because from what I understand, there was a lot of upheaval and change in the US at that particular time, and I think, our surroundings, our society when we’re young inform us, a lot of the time, and inform our consciousness. Would that be true for you?
CC: Absolutely. I think of myself having grown up in kind of a bubble of privilege in this suburb of Detroit, Bloomfield Hills. And, like every kid, you sort of think that most of the world is like you. And I think it was at seven that I began to understand: “No. There’s a lot of different worlds,” if you will. So growing up next to the city of Detroit, the gap, the gulf, really, between urban Detroit – largely black, very poor – and where I lived – almost entirely white, very affluent – that gap. Really it was only 12, 15 miles from my neighborhood to someone else’s neighborhood… I didn’t quite understand that – but at age seven was when the Detroit riots kind of emerged. I was just at home. Like any kid, I was interested in baseball, and we lived on a farm and I was making good use of the woods and the ponds and just exploring, and just being outside all the time. But I remember, on a July day, a summer day, when my father was about to go to work. But there was a little bit of a buzz in our house. It was a Monday morning, and I heard the word “riot”. And I began to learn that there had been this riot in the downtown of Detroit. It had come about because an all-white police force had broken up an after-hours club – an illegal club that was, you know, having a party in the wee hours. It was called a “blind pig” – that was what they called the after-hours clubs. And so it created a very powerful clash between a white police force and a black citizenry that felt like they were under a police state. And people fought back. But in the aftermath of that there were hundreds of buildings burned, dozens of people killed, many hundreds of people injured. And they ended up bringing in the National Guard to put down the riots. But I remember asking my mom: “Why is this happening?” I’m looking at the newspapers and the television and trying to understand this. And my mom could have answered that in a lot of different ways. But her answer was: “You know, people feel like things are not fair.” And I think that was the beginning of a little kernel in my consciousness, like: “Huh. Yes, things are out of balance here.” I understood the principle of fairness - I didn’t really understand what it meant in a larger, community context.
RM: And that was important for you because you grew up in relative wealth and privilege.
CC: Yes – I mean I’m growing up in a bubble, really, of wealth and affluence, where everybody around me was also affluent. So it was the beginning of, sort of, understanding that maybe there’s something broken here. Maybe there’s something wrong here.
RM: And that story really came home for you around the age of 16, from what I understand?
CC: It was when I was 16. So you know, I continued to live in the same community, and – well I would call it the nice comfortable pillow of privilege, where it’s very easy to go back to sleep and think everything’s fine. But I think at age 16, you know, I was much more aware of what was going on in Detroit. And it was at that point that my father and I were taking a drive – we were going up to northern Michigan. And he explained to me that I would inherit quite a substantial amount of money. Enough money that I would not actually have to work - although he encouraged me to work, because work is a way to find your way.
RM: You would never have to work, ever?
CC: I would never have to work for income. I could live off of inheritance, if I wanted to.
CC: So I remember, at that moment, feeling like, well. I guess for some reason, I thought: “Well my parents are wealthy, but I’m going to just go off and make my own way, and I’m going to do whatever job people do.” And it, all of a sudden, meant it got very personal for me. It was like: “Oh.” And I had two reactions - one was like: “Wow, that’s great,” because I could go to college and I wouldn’t have to go to debt. But I also felt kind of horrified by it – that I was really going to be different than everybody else. That this was kind of, like, maybe a little bit of a curse, too. And I wouldn’t know what to do. So, you know, I tried to make sense of that. But it also meant, like: “Wow, I’m really in that wealthy group. I’m really at the very top.” I didn’t know that it was going to apply to me in the same way.
RM: So, talk to me about the next few years. How did life progress for you, into your late teens, early twenties?
CC: Well I left home at age 17 and I moved to Worcester, Massachusetts, which was a working-class city in New England, and I did a variety of odd jobs.
RM: So you didn’t go to college?
CC: I should say, I went to Cranbrook School, which is a private school modelled after Cranbrook School in Kent, England – so it had, it was very much of a…The sons and daughters of the episcopal, the aristocracy, the Anglican kind of wing of the United States.
RM: Any names we may know?
CC: Well, one of my classmates was Mitt Romney, who ran for President. His father was the governor. His father, incidentally, was the governor during the riots. But he was kind of a – we call him a “moderate” Republican, which is not something you see as often these days. But he was, sort of, like a Republican who believed that the government could do good for the world, you know? Anyway, so I went to this elite private school where the focus was preparing the sons of the ruling class to, you know, go to college and take their anointed positions at the head of corporations or civic groups, or whatever. And I sort of went off the rails a little bit, there. I was the only one not to go straight to college. In fact, I didn’t go to college for a couple of years.
So when I moved to Worcester, I worked as a teacher in a daycare center, I worked as a community organizer in a public housing project, I got involved with a group trying to keep the Seabrook nuclear power plant from being built. And in that process, I became friends and co-workers and fell in love with people who were from entirely different class circumstances, class and race backgrounds. So, I got an education as I burst out of my little bubble there, about the rest of the world. And I have to say, I was completely in the closet. I didn’t go around and, you know, tell anybody, you know, about my circumstances. You know, I’m sure some of them figured it out, but I wasn’t advertising the fact that I grew up in a privileged family. And – but it was an opportunity to meditate on that gap between: “Oh, OK, I’m going to inherit this substantial money one day – and here’s what the rest of the world is like,” you know?
So I lived that tension, if you will, that quiet tension, for most of my…up until the age of 26. At which point I had made a decision to give away the inheritance.
RM: Can you talk to me about what brought you to that decision? Did you decide to give it all away, or part of it?
CC: You know, when you’re in your early twenties, sometimes it seems a little more all or nothing. So I did decide to give it all away. I think that the thing that was most striking to me was: at a certain point, I realized I didn’t need this money. That it was sort of a barrier to my own…making my own way. And that I was in intimate contact with all kinds of really good ways that money could be used to transform situations. And so, I may have at different points felt bad or felt guilty or felt complex, you know, complex emotions about it – but in the end, the impulse to give it away was joyful, you know? I really felt like this was the passing on of a gift. I had been given a gift, I had benefited from it, I had been able to pay for a college education without going into any debt. I had been given the opportunities that come from a privileged upbringing. And at a certain point, it was time to move that gift along and give it to those who didn’t have the same opportunities. So that was the impulse, in the end.
RM: Would you say you were motivated by any ideology, or was there any religion involved? Were you involved in the hippie movement – was there anything else going on that was driving it, or was it purely like a personal, internal decision?
CC: You know, I was part of all kinds of movements, if you will. I mean, there was a foundation called the Haymarket People’s Fund, which was younger people with inherited wealth trying to figure out how to support social change. So that was a positive influence – a community of other people. You know, I had this experience of being connected to the Catholic Worker Movement, which was a movement around, you know, to address poverty. I was around, yes, people who were kind of questioning the inequalities of wealth and power at the root of so much evil and suffering in the United States. So I was both tuned into the personal side, but also looking at the big picture, if you will, of how inequality was undermining the common good.
RM: And can I ask how you decided where to give the money away?
CC: I felt like I should not make all the decisions by myself. That felt, like, a little bit like playing God with a bunch of money. So I gave it to four different foundations that had a certain expertise in giving money to social change, not charity – not traditional charity. One of them was a fund called, well it was connected to something called The Funding Exchange. It was a fund that funded leadership of women of color – African-American and Latino and Asian women – in the United States and, actually, around the world. So it was basically giving grants to organizations that lifted up women of color who are organizing for justice in their communities. So that seemed like a good cosmic redistribution: here I was, you know, white and privileged and advantaged, and this money would now go to support these women around the world.
RM: “Cosmic redistribution” – I love that. Have you coined that one yet?
CC: I mean, it’s just a…it’s like water going to the parched places.
RM: So Chuck, you’re working as a community organizer, you start to become really aware of the stark divisions in wealth, and that presumably really triggered you and, I suppose, provoked you, did it?
CC: I think so. I think it was that I was seeing the gulf, the divide, very personally. You know, so with a group of mobile home tenants, I could look and see: “Wow, these are people who have worked their whole lives – this is all the money they’ve saved. And I was born, and given more money – twice as much money – as they had, thirty people, saved.” And my heart was open, you know? I mean, I’m in a relationship with these people, and there’s no rationale. There’s no mythology or justification or story in my head that can possibly justify why I should have so much, and they should have so little. And I think it was in that space that I thought: “You know, this gift that’s been given to me, that’s helped me go to college, I don’t have any debt – but it’s time to move it on. You know? It’s time to share the gift. In fact, if I hold onto this money, it may be kind of an impediment to my own path or journey.”
So I made a decision, you know, at 26, 27 to give away this inheritance that my parents had given to me. I, of course, talked to them about that, and made sure they understood why, and responded to their questions and concerns.
RM: What were their questions and concerns?
CC: Well, they’re not uncommon of any parent. You know, it’s like: “How do you plan to support yourself? This money could be very useful – let’s say you have a partner, you get married and that person is sick. Wouldn’t you want that money to be able to take care of them? Or if you have a child, and that child has a special need or a disability, wouldn’t you like to have that money to take care of them?”
RM: OK, so they were kind of reasonable questions.
CC: Practical questions.
RM: They weren’t ideologically outraged or…
CC: No, I think it was just…
RM: Were they worried about you? Like in a deep way, or was it just general concern, parental concern?
CC: I think it was, sort of, just normal parental concern, except for, you know – you have this wealth, and that wealth can help buffer you as you go forward. But my response was: “Well, then I would be in the same boat…if something bad like that happened, I’d be in the same boat as 99% of the population that I know, and I would have to get help. And don’t we want to have a society where you don’t need to have a buffering of wealth to just, sort of, have a decent life if something bad happens?” I remember my father saying: “Well, that’s quite idealistic.” [Laughter]. And I said: “I know.” And I’m 26, 27 – I don’t have any children at this point, I’m not in a relationship. They were trying to say: “Look, you’re young. You don’t know what could happen.” And they were right, you know? But, in the end, I think they understood. One: I needed to make my own way, and frankly I didn’t quite understand all the privilege I still had. Right? I mean, I had this money, I could give that money away – but I’m still a white male in the United States, with a college education and a social network and all kinds of other advantages that have flowed my way.
RM: Did you experience guilt? Was that an emotion that you felt around that time?
CC: I think it’s hard not to feel something when your heart is open to the inequalities around me. So, basically, I feel like I was feeling – you could call it guilt. I came to understand it as…Guilt is kind of a paralyzing emotion, because you are feeling bad about yourself and your own circumstances. Whereas I think what I was feeling was more, like, empathy. It’s like, or just: “This doesn’t make sense. How come a retiree in this mobile home park can work his entire life at Greenfield Tap and Die as a machinist, and have so little to fall back on to make his life secure, and I could be born on third base?”
RM: So speak to me about that a little more, because there is a prevailing idea, particularly in the US, around the notion of the American Dream, whereby if that guy has arrived, or that woman has arrived in a mobile home and they’re 60 years old and they’ve no savings and no health insurance – then maybe they didn’t make good choices in their life. You know, that’s an idea that does prevail, that: “Well, anybody can make it here. You don’t make it, too bad.”
CC: Yes, I think that we, as a society, are incredibly confused about why we have inequality. We often put it into a story, a narrative of deservedness. So, as you say, well: “If this person has all this wealth, it must be because they got up early every morning, they worked hard all day, and they made good decisions and they took risks – and they should be rewarded for that. And this other person over here, you know, has nothing to show - and obviously they don’t work as hard, work as smart.” Whatever. That is the, sort of…I call it “the myth of deservedness.” And we sort of put that on top of these structural, economic forces which are pulling our society apart, that have nothing to do with individual behavior. So that story of deservedness – of which there is a kernel, an itty-bitty kernel of truth, which is: “Yes, what you do matters.” You know, your own effort matters. And maybe there might be some difference in rewards based on that – but not much. Compared to, you know…is one person really worth a thousand times more than another person’s effort? I don’t think so.
So, yes, it feels like a big part of my work in my life has been to try to turn that mythology upside down, through storytelling, through interviewing, through campaigning. I’ll give you an example: you know, there was a campaign to abolish our inheritance tax here in the United States, a very well-financed campaign funded by, you know, the Mars family, the candy dynasty and the Waltons, the Walmart dynasty – you know, these very wealthy families funded a campaign to get rid of the inheritance tax. And it sort of landed right in that myth – so people would say, well, you know: “Well, these wealthy people should be able to keep all of their money because they’re hard-working, virtuous. You know, they’re capital investors that, you know, help create more jobs and wealth, so we shouldn’t be taxing them.” A lot of people, you know, believe that. And so, part of what we did was, we actually did a campaign where we organized 1,500 millionaires and billionaires to go out and say: “We should have an inheritance tax in the United States – the reason we should have it is because no-one creates this wealth alone. It’s a function of the public investments and societal investments that create the fertile ground for enterprise and wealth creation.” And we had individuals, like Bill Gates’s dad and others, tell their story through the lens of how society helped them. So, at a very core level, it’s about explaining how wealth is created, and how society has a role – a huge role, and individuals have a relatively small role in that. And that is the justification, the rationale, for progressive taxation, which is those who have disproportionately benefited from the investments and the activities that we all do together – society has a claim on that wealth. Bill Gates used to say: “The inheritance tax is an economic opportunity recycling program: if you are so fortunate that you have that amount of wealth, that at the end of your life it should be taxed and invested in things that help the next generation have the same opportunities.”
RM: Yes, it strikes me that, if we were to bring society down to a smaller unit – let’s call it a tribe or a small community – then we can’t necessarily… Like, the young guy grows up in the tribe, and he probably has more privilege than the other guy, but we don’t want to create a situation where he goes off and creates his own little sub-tribe on the side and isolates himself from the core unit, and essentially cuts himself off from the thing that created him. So there’s something about going back to the core notion of what it is to be human here, isn’t there? Like our interconnectivity, where: is it acceptable for one…for two societies to split off from each other? And it’s almost like an apartheid of humanity.
CC: Yes. I mean, these inequalities couldn’t exist if people were connected across difference, and we didn’t have this mythology of deservedness. Like, it didn’t work on me. But of course, I inherited wealth – I was born on third base, which I understand is, sort of, United States baseball imagery. But, basically, I was born far along. There was no way that the myth of deservedness would work for me, after my life experience of being connected with hard-working people who had nothing to show. It’s just like, you could tell me that myth but it just wouldn’t stick.
RM: I actually want to go back to that – because what’s coming to mind is a conversation with a guy, I had recently. He’s a friend of a friend. We were in a pub having a pint, and we got chatting about how Ireland is doing. And there was a lot of talk about the recovery and how things are back on track, and so on. And, obviously, there is a massive homelessness crisis at the moment. This guy – the friend of a friend, we won’t name names here – is an aspiring entrepreneur, he’s involved in a number of start-ups. And he talked about the kind of, single mother, welfare mother who’s living in, quite often…there’s a kind of derogatory term, “pajama women” or “pajama ladies,” where they don’t get dressed during the day. They live in these sprawling housing estates. And I talked about child poverty and the poverty trap, and his reaction was that if a child goes to school without a breakfast and without being fed, then the mother deserves to be shot. And that was his view. And, as outrageous as it sounds, I believe that that is, particularly in Ireland, a growing view. Not necessarily the violent aspect, but the idea that a so-called “welfare class” exists, and they’re somehow benefitting off our taxes. So how do you, kind of, get in and explore what are the truths and the realities in that, and get a guy like this guy to understand that there’s a deeper reality at play?
CC: No pressure [laughter]. I think that the more unequal a society becomes, the harder it is to walk in other people’s shoes, and to understand what their experience, what their barriers are, what their demons are. I also think we don’t understand the physics of inequality. Like, what I’ve noticed about my own life, and about the life of people, say, in the top 10%, is we have what I would call compounding advantages. Think about, like, compounding interest. You get a good head-start, you’re born on third base, and then you do do some things that maybe, you know – you do go to school and you do learn a trade, or you learn a skill. But you have all this advantage at the beginning, so that it makes the next step easier, and the next step easier, and so…
RM: It’s like a forward momentum snowball.
CC: Yes. It’s essentially like a wind at your back, is one way to think about it. You sort of feel – you don’t feel it, actually. You really only feel the wind at your back when you turn around and start walking into it. In this case it’s a subtle wind, but it’s sort of like compounding advantages. You know, you’re born into a stable house with books and parents who have social capital to talk to you and teach you things. You’re born into a community that’s functioning, and you learn how to talk to other adults, and you learn a skill. And so each of those steps gets, builds on it to the point where your, sort of, your advantages start to accelerate. On the other hand, there are people who are born into circumstances where there’s deprivation, or there’s alcoholism, or there’s woundedness, or there’s dysfunction – or poverty. And everybody thinks: “Oh, well we all have some kind of level playing field.” We all have some sort of fantasy starting race where we’re all comparably starting at the same place. What happens then is compounding disadvantages. You know, it’s harder to get a job, your car breaks down, you don’t health insurance or you don’t have access to healthy food so you get sick. Whatever. So these sort of things compound on the other way.
So I think we just don’t understand those dynamics. And we don’t have empathy across difference, because we’re not in…we don’t know each other. The more unequal we become, the more we’re not in a relationship with people. I like to think you can’t hate another person when you know their story. You can’t judge somebody’s economic circumstances till we understand how those forces work.
RM: That brings to mind, for me, the status of African-American people. Because, I mean, I only flew in here a couple of days ago, and one of the first things I tend to do when I get off a plane is go to the bathroom and wash my face. But it’s actually pretty much always in that experience that I see my first African-American person, because they’re cleaning the bathroom. And that really says to me: “Welcome to America.” And there’s so much beauty and brilliance about America, but the status of African-American people, I feel, is so clear, in a physical way, in terms of the jobs that many of them do. Obviously there’s a black President, which is a slightly separate issue, here. But we can’t really talk about that without talking about slavery, can we?
CC: No – I mean, I think that people like to say: “Well, in the United States we’re now entering into a post-racial period. We have a black President.” And implicit in that is the sort of judgement that: “Listen, if you haven’t made it, there’s something wrong with you. You know? Because we don’t have racial barriers any more.” And there’s plenty of examples of people of color who’ve risen through the ranks. But what we don’t look at is, you know, those forces that we were just talking about – accelerating advantage, accelerating or compounding disadvantage – work over generations. So if you dispossess people of the…you know, slavery. People don’t even own themselves. You have a legacy of slavery and you have a culture around slavery. But, even, let’s just look at the years since legal slavery ended, you know, 1865. You had another century of what we call Jim Crow, where you had structural violence. In the United States there’s a history of…we could call them pogroms. You know, riots where, you know, the entire black business district of Tulsa, Oklahoma was attacked and burned. So we have, in our history – you know, racism is really the original sin in the United States. We’re a country built on the exploitation of African-American labor. Our Capitol building was built with slave labor, right? So that original sin, that initial dispossession, was also reflected in wealth. You know, people did not accumulate wealth. Sometimes when they had wealth, it was destroyed. Even right up into the current…in my lifetime, African Americans trying to purchase homes, get access to home mortgages – there’s a structural legacy of discrimination in mortgage lending. So at every step, people were barred from getting on the wealth-building train. And that’s not to say that there are not heroic individuals that somehow figured out how to do that. But the racial wealth divide in the United States – the median wealth of a white family is thirteen times greater than the median wealth of a black family. Well why is that? Well, it’s because there’s a legacy of discrimination in wealth building that goes back many, many generations. You can’t… So the advantages of white families, and whites in this society, is an example of compounding advantage.
RM: Yes – it just strikes me that, even when you were growing up, there was actually legal apartheid. And, you know, it was in living memory that there were lynchings and KKK and all of these things that…There’s been so much advances, but a young African-American guy today, his mother potentially grew up in that period. And it’s, for me as an Irish person, I’m interested in those kind of, what I might call psychic wounds, where…the post-colonial legacy of what filters through the consciousness or the belief system. And, to some extent, I feel that can also feed victimhood, which is a paralyzing and disempowering [35:13 inaudible] where you fall into your story, and you don’t resist or transform or transcend your story. But it is a reality, that if our great-grandparents, our grandparents, our parents grew up believing certain things about their – well, it’s not even believing them, it’s the reality that they faced. Through police and power and privilege.
CC: That’s why I think privileged people have to tell the truth about how their advantages came about. If we believe a myth that we did this ourselves and we are deserving, the corollary of that myth is: “Those folks get what they deserve.” So to demystify, to shift that dynamic, I’m not even… I feel like my job isn’t to… My job is to demystify, for instance, how wealth is created. You know, like, tell the real story. For me to tell you the story of, like: “Look, I was born on third base, I just landed in this world and this wealth flowed to me.” And that society had a tremendous role in the creation of it, and that there was a racial bias in the creation of that wealth. And while my family was starting a business in Chicago, my friend’s African-American family was having their business destroyed in Tulsa. You know, like, there’s a parallel story here that helps explain why we’re in this situation.
You know, we in the United States have not fully grappled with our debt to black people. You know, we have a debt that goes back centuries. The institutional wealth in our universities – I mean, you’re visiting Harvard, Brown University. These were institutions that were built by families that benefitted from slave labor, whose wealth – that built those buildings – came from the slave trade. But we don’t talk about that. This year, Harvard is starting to address – you know, 370, 380 years later, you know - address the legacy of slavery in the formation and funding of their institution. So, when we can’t even have a study commission on reparations pass through Congress, you know. There’s a… Congressman John Conyers introduces every year a bill called the H.R. 40, which invokes 40 acres and a mule, which was the…you know, after slavery, that was supposed to be what was given to all former slaves. “We’re going to give you 40 acres and a mule.” H.R. 40 basically calls for a study commission to look, to investigate reparations for slavery. If we can’t even have the conversation… Because here we are, it’s, you know…we don’t have slavery any more. But the legacy of slavery, we have to understand how powerful that’s been. No-one here, living, owns slaves. Sometimes people say: “Why do we have to have this conversation?” It’s because we’ll never grow up – we’ll stay in a state of arrested development if we don’t understand this fundamental part of our history.
RM: So it’s denying part of your foundation myth, or cutting it off. And speaking of that, I mean, I’m guessing we can’t really talk about this without talking about the Native people of this land, as well.
CC: Yes, I mean, the dispossession of land was the original action. I mean, we basically took land from a Native people. We took the ecological wealth and commons and dispossessed a whole people. I mean, we’re in New England. This part of the country, pretty much pushed all of its Native peoples out of this region. So this is all stolen land that we’re sitting on.
RM: So some people might feel: “Well, that’s ancient history. What, in a practical way, am I meant to do about that, other than perhaps feel guilty?” You know, how does somebody react to that, or how would you envisage that people can react? Obviously you made your own reaction, in terms of giving away your inheritance.
CC: I think it’s just understanding the legacy, and how that affects the present. You know, to say that it doesn’t have any impact on the present is to, just, not look around and see what some people have and what other people don’t have. So it’s an invitation to be mindful about advantage. That’s, I think, the take-away. And to look at, what does that mean in terms of institutions? I mean, the Native people in this country… You know, if we were to properly repay the debts for what was stolen and what was taken, the institutions that preserve culture for Native people and for African Americans would be robust. We would have museums in every community reminding us of this history. Sites, markers – and there would be restitution. I mean, there would be an attempt to repair that economic breach. I mean, here’s a concrete example: we could have a reparations where we fund debt-free college education for Native people and, you know, the descendants of the legacy of slavery for the next century. You know, I think we should have debt-free education for everybody, but there are things that we could do to honor and try to repair that breach.
RM: Presumably there were Native American people and tribes living in this area, in Boston. I’m sadly ignorant in my history on this one. Because it just strikes me that, when I arrived in Boston, and so much of the…so many of the museums and the plaques and the signs all come back to the pilgrims and when the Europeans arrived. And it was almost like history began then. I’ve no sense that anything ever existed before then.
CC: Well, this was – we’re in the Wampanoag and the [42:23 inaudible: Massachusett?] it was Sachem, the chief of this area. I mean, we’re - actually, if you look at our state symbol of Massachusetts, it’s an indigenous person, you know, the original land-holders here. Cape Cod was Wampanoag people. So the people who welcomed the pilgrims, the Mayflower – there are still some descendants in the area. But many of those descendants were pushed to reservations and regions outside New England. Or there was just huge massacres and genocide. You know, there’s a terrific book called 1491, which is: “What did the world look like before 1492, when Columbus landed?” You know, the area, the region was vibrant and populated – not only did we, you know, violently take away people’s land. We also brought our germs, from Europe, our smallpox and other various diseases and, you know, partly, our European societies developed with animal husbandry and the plagues. We had sort of, like, several generations of germs that had advanced in a certain way – but when we came to the United States, whole populations wiped out.
RM: So, Chuck – you’re in your late twenties, you’re immersed in community organizing, you’ve given away your wealth, or most of your inheritance. Can we say most, or all of your inheritance?
RM: Because that’s probably something people are…Have you encountered any suspicion about that? “Does he have a secret bank account somewhere?”
CC: Well, come see how we live [laughter].
RM: Because a lot of people would say: “Well, if I had that money I would certainly – yeah OK, maybe I’d like to think I’d give it away, but I’d keep a stash.”
CC: Yes, and you know, it probably would have been rational to keep a little bit.
RM: Any regrets?
CC: There are times when it would be helpful to have a little more of a cushion, but what I… I have no regrets, and the reason being: it sort of opened a door for me. Well, and I should come back and say, again – I have a lot of advantages. I have a lot of privilege. You know? Even without that money, without that cash, I have an education, I have confidence, I have a sense of agency. These are all things that are actually rooted in privilege. You know, so I have, like, lots of privilege that continues to flow. White skin, male, a sense of possibility, entitlement. “Oh, I can do this, I can fix this.” Confidence that comes through multiple generations. But it opened a door for me to look unflinchingly at these grotesque inequalities in our society, and not feel compromised or complicated by the fact that I had…I was a beneficiary of this unequal system. So by stepping out of that wealth-creating, wealth dynamic, I could sort of say: “Wow, there’s something wrong here. And I can work on this – there’s things we can do to address these inequalities.”
RM: So, as you say, you reached the 30-year-old mark – how did your working life evolve then, from then on?
CC: I worked probably, you know, the first 10 years, in my twenties as I described, working with tenants trying to buy their houses. Then I got really interested in these issues of inequality. So by my mid-thirties, I helped co-found a group called United for a Fair Economy, to do popular education and advocacy around these issues of growing wealth inequality. And it was later in my thirties that I realized: “Oh, OK. I come from an owning-class background. Maybe part of my work should be to help organize other people with privilege to become effective advocates for greater equality.” So, you know, I started organizing, like I said, around this fight around the inheritance tax. It was very, very important to have these millionaires and billionaires step up and say: “No, don’t abolish the inheritance tax – it’s a very important tax in the United States. It raises money from those most able to pay, and funds things that create opportunity and a good life in this country.” So to have those messengers was a key part of the strategy of why we were able to keep the inheritance tax from being abolished. So we had a successful campaign to keep the inheritance tax – it was a goner, you know? George Bush wanted to get rid of it.
So that’s an example of the kind of organizing work that I think is the responsibility, if you will, of people who were born on third base like me. So that’s…and then behind that are these mythologies that we’re talking about. It’s like, we can try to defend progressive taxes on wealth, but we also have to get at these underlying mythologies that justify these inequalities of wealth. And so, again, through storytelling, through lifting up the stories of people who are looking at this differently – that is very much a part of how I understand my work. So fast forward to today: you know, we have this network called the Patriotic Millionaires. You know, 200 very well-known business leaders who are very vocal on raising living wages, reducing the influence of money in our democratic system, and having a fair tax system. And they’re out there in the news, and they’re out there advocating – and they’re lobbying directly on Capitol Hill. And it’s very interesting when you have, you know, a member of Congress sitting there, and in comes a Patriotic Millionaire who’s a big donor, and who says: “Listen, why aren’t you raising the minimum wage for low-wage workers?” And they’re like: “Well, why are you here, as a wealthy business owner, lobbying to raise the minimum wage?” “Well, because no-one can live on these low wages. And it’s good for business when you raise the minimum wage, because that money goes straight into the economy and stimulates the economy, and our employees are happier and our workers don’t have to work two jobs, they can have one job.” You know, they’re making a billionaire case for why the minimum wage should be raised. So, you know, that’s not what congressmen are usually hearing – congressmen and women are used to the tired old debate. “Oh, the labor people want to raise the minimum wage and capital and investors and the wealthy business owners don’t want to do that.” We’re there to, like, disrupt some of those narratives.
RM: And do you feel like a lot of these people are walking the talk? Have they increased their own wages, are they better employers?
CC: Yes, I would call them “high road” business owners. They understand, like, you know – first of all, they understand these grotesque inequalities are bad for everybody, including people at the top end of the ladder. That sounds strange, but too much inequality actually creates economic instability. You know, the economic meltdown of 2008 – we had, the rich had so much money that they were speculating wildly. You know, speculating in the economy, and working people were deeper in debt, or unable to actually participate in the economy. And that creates distortions - and it’s bad for everybody.
RM: What do you think the legacy is of Obama in all of this?
CC: I mean, in some ways I wish he had gone further to regulate the speculative impulses, you know? After the economic meltdown we had a very important moment – we could have broken up the big financial institutions, we could have said: “Look, too much inequality is undermining the quality of life for everybody in this country.” And just like every…you know, his administration was captured by, you know, the forces of Wall Street: the Larry Summerses and the… You know, the big mistake he made was, right at the beginning, he brought in the people who had created the problem, and put them inside his administration. And so, you know, the Obama administration was compromised in its ability to fully regulate Wall Street.
RM: So when he brought in all these guys, Goldman Sachs and all these guys – how sinister was that, or how naïve was that? Because he didn’t have a huge political track record, here, of operating at that level.
CC: Well, I think he always was trying to…his – getting into the President’s, you know…he’s always been centrist, I think, in his outlook on things. He governs from a: “Look, there’s two perspectives here, and I’m going to find the middle path.” He grew up in Chicago, you know, he’s a community organizer, but he also is exposed to Wall Street and the business. You know, he’s surrounded by people who are part of this professional, financial class, who have a certain worldview. And I think in some ways it was naïve.
RM: So we speak about today – and the other night I was lucky to watch the Hillary Clinton debate with Bernie Sanders in New York, and it was fascinating for me to just be here and share that experience with you. Can you speak to me about what Hillary represents and what Bernie represents, at the moment, in terms of how the US is sitting at a point of transformation, as we approach an election later this year?
CC: Well I think that Hillary represents the status quo, in that sense, you know, the continuation of the Obama policies. And Bernie is, you know, a hugely disruptive force there because, first of all, these issues of inequality have been, sort of, percolating for a while, but he’s brought them to the center of the presidential conversation. He’s brought the fact that, sort of, the billionaire class and Wall Street have pretty much run the show, and that that’s not how it should be. And his whole concept of a political revolution is a kind of…recapturing the United States for everybody, not just the 1%. So his challenge, which has gone way further than people thought – I mean, when Bernie Sanders entered the presidential race, no-one would have thought, no-one would have predicted that he would be, you know, challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. And it is because, at the base of the US society, there’s a realignment happening. People understand these inequalities, young people under the age of 35 are feeling the brunt of these inequalities – whether it’s student debt, or low-wage work without opportunity, or the inability to save – so they’re out there for Bernie. Working people, you know, and middle class people who’ve seen their standard of living decline are all in for Bernie. Some of them are going over to Trump, as well, but… You know, so think about Trump and Sanders as the challenge, in a sense, of working people to the elite structures - and Hillary and, you know, the Republican elite, have a lot in common. They basically have, for 30 years, run the economy to primarily benefit people at the top. So this is a…there’s a rebellion going on. And it’s happening below the surface, but Bernie is a sign of the times. I mean, I’ve known him for 30 years - I worked with him when he was the mayor of Burlington. He’s been saying the same thing for 30 years: the 1% have too much control and power and wealth. It just happens that millions of people are in agreement with him.
RM: I think it’s interesting: this comes at a time, also, of the Panama Papers being released, and it shows for the first time the really true, global network of tax havens. And stuff we kind of knew but didn’t know. One thing that’s come to mind out of that is the importance of whistle-blowers. I don’t know who the woman or man was that gave us the Panama Papers – I know there was a great team of investigative journalists involved. But people, for me, like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning really, I suppose, are front and center in terms of – we talk about love and courage: it’s the courage to actually act on the conviction. Because knowing about all these injustices is one thing. But the ability to act… How do you feel about the importance of whistle-blowers, yourself?
CC: Well, I mean, in this case, these are people who’ve taken enormous risk to, just, shine a light on how the system is working. We know, on some level, feel it, that the rules are rigged against most people. But what the Panama Papers and other disclosures do is show how those rules work, you know? Give us an insight, name names, you know? We know in early May they’re going to disclose the next tranche of names, and there’s a lot of people, I’m sure, a lot of wealthy people that are a little bit nervous about that, because the secrecy is part of what holds the system in place, right? You can mask where the wealth is going. We did a study in, at the Institute for Policy Studies, that showed that the richest 400 households in the United States have as much wealth as the bottom 62% of the population. And the richest 20 billionaires have – enough who could fit in one Gulfstream 650 private jet – 20 people have as much wealth as the entire bottom half of the population. But what we said was: “Look, this is what we know.” There’s billions, trillions of dollars hidden in offshore tax havens, and also in these complicated trust mechanisms that the wealthy use to mask their holdings. Trillions and trillions of dollars of wealth, that are hidden. So the more whistle-blowers step up and expose these machinations, the more ordinary people understand, like: “This is wrong, the rules are rigged, and we have to wake up and do something about it.”
RM: This is very much the focus of your next book – can you talk to me a little bit about that?
CC: Well, I have a book called Born on Third Base coming out, and it’s an invitation to the 1% to bring their wealth home. And what I mean by that is: bring this wealth of the commons, if you will, bring it back to society. It’s not all…it doesn’t belong to you entirely. And to bring it home. And this is based on my decades of working with people who are in the 1%, who are in the top one tenth of 1%, who are trying… You know, there are some that don’t care about what’s going on, and don’t care about inequality – but there’s a lot of people, there’s a lot of potential allies, actually in the 1%, that if we compassionately have a courageous conversation with them about the state of the world, will come our way. Meaning, they will look critically at how to bring their wealth back to the society, by giving it away or investing it in the real economy that will help us make a transition to the future.
RM: You told me of a great story, that – I think it’s in the book – about a particular individual who did come to this realization. Can you talk to me about this particular man?
CC: Well there’s a guy, Dariel Garner, who has a remarkable story: in brief, he over his lifetime built 40 different companies, he was a big agricultural exporter, he had a company based in Mexico that exported food to the United States, he built a number of resorts. But, in his own words, he was miserable and, kind of, slowly killing himself by eating, to death. He weighed, you know, almost 400 pounds. And he sort of had his own personal transformation, where, you know, he describes being sort of touched by somebody – and that it was a powerful, sort of, energy shift for him.
RM: We’re talking about physically touched by someone here?
CC: Physically touched.
RM: Can you actually just elaborate on that?
CC: Yes – he had been told by his doctor, you know: “Dariel, you’re not going to live much longer. You’re killing yourself.” And he was so depressed, his reaction was: “So what?” And then he was literally, you know, at the resort that he’d built, in the dining room, and there was a woman, you know, showing him to his table for dinner. And she touched him, and it had like a… You know, he said: “People didn’t touch me. You know, I’m this wealthy, powerful guy – maybe the only other person that touches me is my wife. But this person that didn’t even know me touched me.” And it, sort of, must have had a transformative effect on him. He said, you know: “I could feel…I’m worthy. I can live. I want to live.” And he totally changed his life and, in his words, he walked away from that wealth. He gave it away, and lives, now, a very simple life. But he would say that, and this is true for a lot of the people – in this book I interview all these people who I think of as bringing their wealth home. Some of them are like Dariel, where they gave their wealth away. There’s another person I interview whose wealth was in an offshore tax haven, and how he forced his family to, sort of, bring this wealth out of the shadows and pay taxes on it. So there are these stories of these people that we don’t often hear, in the 1%, who are working toward the common good. So I want to lift up and tell those stories, as well as invite others to consider this, these options.
There are a lot of people waiting to be called to something greater. And we are in a critical time: we are both living in a time of extreme wealth inequality - and the instability that that will create - and we’re living in an ecological crisis that will destroy the foundations of wealth as we know them. You know, what is wealth in a degraded planet? It’s a…so it is actually in the selfish interest of many people in this, what we call the 1%, to join together with the rest of humanity to move…do haste to reduce our carbon emissions, reduce our methane emissions, reduce these extreme inequalities of wealth and power, and rebuild our societies at a more sustainable level. It’s in everybody’s interest – if there are wealthy people sitting there thinking somehow they’re going to be able to opt out of this, they’re going to get on a spaceship and go to a satellite or they’re going to build a mountain [1:04:07 inaudible] or live on an island: guess what? That island is going to be swamped with sea level rise, that mountain [1:04:14 inaudible] is going to be choked with forest fires. So, there’s no Planet B. We have one earth, and our…we’re wound together now. And it is time for the disconnected wealthy to rejoin humanity. It’s in their interest – that disconnection hurts them. And it’s time to come home. So the invitation is: bring the wealth home.
RM: Chuck, you’ve recently come back from a trip to Ireland. I’d just be curious of any reflections that you’ve had on that trip. You’ve been to Ireland a number of times, you’re of Irish-American heritage – how do you see Ireland at the moment, and what was your experience like?
CC: Well, one thing – I was there for the run-up to the election, and I could see a similar dynamic to the United States, which is there’s a kind of…the political system is in transition, because it’s not able to respond to people. So there sort of seems to be a realignment happening at the political party and at the base, and that’s what I see happening in the United States. I also, just, I sensed a kind of growing awakening among Irish people for the changes in the ecology – I mean, more people are interested in trees and figuring out how to grow trees which, you know, coming from the outside…Ireland was covered, blanketed with forests, was covered with beautiful trees, and has the same amount of rainfall as Washington state, you know? It’s a temperate rainforest. And yet, here, because of the history of extraction, if you will, it’s been completely deforested. And, so it has no forestry culture, you know? You have 1960s rows of Sitka pines that, you know, forestry, you know, fast-growing wood supply. But more people are saying: “What about those oak trees? Maybe we can take some of those acorns from the Killarney Woods and plant them in other places and reforest Ireland, and become a carbon sink, if you will. Kind of help do our part to address carbon sequestration.” So I think the potential reforestation of Ireland – I happened to hang out with the tree people a little bit, there – I think that’s quite promising. And we in the United States should be partnering with Ireland to grow more trees.
But yes, I think there’s definitely an awakening. I was very inspired by the way, I should say, by the stories of your referendum on marriage – your marriage equality referendum. You know, because I think of - having gone to Ireland for 30 years – as a more traditional society, much more of a, sort of, Catholic culture. And the idea that you would pass a marriage equality referendum reflected a transformation - a very quick transformation - in culture. And I love the stories of younger people talking to their parents and their grandparents about why that was important, and how that was an important part of the campaign. And I came back, and I wrote a little article called, “Hey Granny, Would You Vote For Bernie?” And it was sort of inspired by that – because there’s a whole generation of young people who feel very invested in Bernie Sanders as a force for change.
RM: Granny was a big force in Ireland, where people contacted their granny – it’s intergenerational…
CC: So my own daughter talked to her grandparents about why she wanted them to support Bernie. And they heard her, and they changed their mind and voted for Bernie.
CC: So that was…the Irish influence, obviously, is enormous, on our culture and our society – but that’s just another little example.
RM: What would be your main message to the average person who might be listening to this interview, and isn’t a millionaire, isn’t a billionaire – is working hard, maybe is unemployed or maybe is not enjoying their work, is just struggling to maintain hope. Amongst all of this we talk about forest fires and climate change and inequality and fear and – a lot of the movies coming out now are about Armageddon and darkness. What do you think is the most important thing for people to keep in mind, at this point we’re in?
CC: I think we’re at a point where we have to come together. People have to form communities of support, to build webs of support to help us transition into the future. And that means looking at some of the experiments like: how do you build community resilience? How do you build support? How do you build a local economy that meets real needs? And then, the other thing is that we need to organize to protect ourselves and our livelihoods against extractive capitalism in its current form, this hyper-capitalism that is chewing up people and the planet. Now, we also have to understand how these rules are rigged against us, you know? So I’m speaking now as, you know, we the 99% have to understand how the rules have been rigged, that we’re not going to have a decent life while the machinery is running the way it is. We have to intervene in those systems. And in order to do that, we have to actually win over some allies in the 1%. We have to invite the 1% back to the table. So, as angry as we may feel, as rage as we may feel towards the rich – and it’s totally justified in many cases – we have to figure out a way to reach across the divide.
Now my…it’s not just up to people at the bottom. I’m trying to encourage the people at the top to reach across the divide, to bring their wealth home. But it will help accelerate that process if we can figure out all together how to invite the wealthy back to the table, not through shame, but through connection. And I’m not sure we all know what that looks like. But I think it looks like - in my neighborhood, there’s a great rich-poor divide, right here in the neighborhood where we’re sitting. But we’ve been figuring out ways to invite the wealthy back, to bring their capital out of the global speculative market and invest it in the local economy - and invest it in local economies around the world, not just, you know, here in the United States. Because obviously we live in a whole planet, with great inequality. So I think that that’s part of the way forward, is: “How do we bridge those, these enormous divides?” There are unreachable wealthy. There are the Coke brothers, and very powerful, wealthy billionaires who use their wealth and power to rig the rules, to keep and grow their wealth and power. There’s a whole dark money network that makes that possible. But the good news is, it’s actually a very small segment of people in the world who are using their wealth to get more wealth. Most people are just, like, letting the machinery run along, hum along in its current state. So there’s tremendous potential for enlisting allies in that struggle.
RM: We’ll wrap up now, Chuck, but I’m just curious – in all of this, and all the writing and campaigning and speaking: on a personal level, how do you invest in your own wellbeing, and how do you, sort of, stay connected yourself, in terms of your own health, your own family? How do you…you know, quite often my experience is that activism can drag you in, and it can be its own machine, you know? How do you stay grounded?
CC: Well, I’m…on the best days, I’m very rooted in a place. I live in a community where I walk or bike to work. I have colleagues and neighbors. I have sense of tribe and community. We have a whole community effort to, sort of, build resilience and a web of relationships here. I’m a member of a vibrant congregation, a religious congregation, that sees its role as not just individual salvation but, you know, building this resilient community. So that’s nourishing, for me. So yes – I think it’s about being connected to people and nature. I live near the Arnold Arboretum, which is this beautiful 300-acre garden – so I walk in there every day. I have a connection to a little cabin. I have a wonderful partner who’s with this in this journey. My partner Mary and our children, and our extended family. So we’re fortunate. I’m nourished in that way. And there’s no way to do it without that, you know? And I guess I try to absorb a steady diet of the good news in the world, you know? [1:14:35 inaudible] says: “Be careful what you put into your body and into your brain.” Same thing, you know – there’s a fair amount of toxic information out there, and there’s some horrible things that are happening. And I try to take that in and keep my heart open, but it’s also important to, sort of, pay attention to the upward trends, to the choices that people make every day – heroic, courageous choices, to go a different path. And to try and nourish myself with those stories as well. So I think it’s being careful what you put in your heart and your brain.
RM: Chuck Collins, it’s been a pleasure talking to you today, thank you very much.
CC: Thanks for having the morning conversation.
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