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Reading Along: My family's parallel journey
Posted by Luana Nissan on 01.20.2010Share


In a series of posts, my family of 5 will reflect on our reading of The Power of Half, chapter by chapter. For this site, we will give our thoughts about the Salwens' journey – its challenges and lessons – and reflect on how the book’s topics relate to our family’s philanthropic life.

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Chapter 1: “The Treadmill”
A Mom’s perspective:
What parent can’t relate to a search for more meaning in family life and in our life of accumulation? In “Treadmill” we appear at a marker along the Salwens’ meaning-finding path. On one hand, I am in awe because my professional years have been spent studying philanthropy and how young people become engaged in it. (For example, if you’re interested in inspiring youth stories, check out The Teen Guide to Global Action by Barbara A. Lewis.)

Few stories have touched me the way the Salwens’ has. They changed their lives in response to Hannah’s “philanthropic impulse” – her moment of realization that she needed to address a need in the world. They took her request seriously, created a space for “youth voice” and authentic youth empowerment in their family, developed an informed strategy, and made real sacrifices few families would make. For those
readers who are critical of the Salwens’ choices or publicity, I challenge you to DO something, to back up what you believe needs to be improved in this world with your own philanthropic actions.

There is real suffering and human potential unfulfilled because of geography, gender, and lack of access to resources. The world needs us all to become engaged in philanthropy. After years of parenting – my husband Dennis and I have three girls (11, 9, and 5) – the Salwens’ story has challenged me to ask: How can our family get to that place, to commit to and discover our village mill (a vivid image from Chapter 1)?

I cannot compare our lives directly with that of the Salwens’. We don’t have enough equity in our house and it’s not a mansion, but that’s not the point of this book. The point is: What’s our version of “half”? Many parents attracted to The Power of Half may have biographies similar to Joan and Kevin Salwen – two successful working professionals accustomed to an upscale life.

But more parents will not. Like my family, they make careful choices to afford private school or private music lessons. They buy few gourmet foods and budget the replacement of an old computer that won’t keep up. They weigh each luxury in which to indulge. They remind themselves to be grateful because even these annoying choices are out of reach for the majority of American families who are less likely to buy this book because they’re busy working two jobs to make ends meet.

The personal importance of this book is: What’s our family’s “treadmill”? We live a life of PLENTY and what of all of our habits is too much? How can we make a significant difference? I hope we'll be learning that along the way. I'll keep you posted.

Interesting to see the distinctively different comments from our two blog responders. Valerie recognizes the intentionality and rare level of attention give to philanthropy by the Salwens. John makes the very poignant point that some people live with very little disposable income, and their giving is seriously felt and can be very self-sacrificing because of what they give up to be generous (the opportunity cost). Studies about informal philanthropy and the giving of people in communities of color (read: usually of lower socioeconomic means), bears out a generosity that shares very limited resources (often food, shelter, what remains from working two minimum-wage jobs) to care for others in their direct communities or to send to another country as remittances to care for those beyond their nuclear families. I think this issue of disposable income and giving is important to recognize and validates the inspirational giving of limited resources and self-lessness of those who aren't recognized for their philanthropy. Oseola McCarty's story (look it up) is a prime example but did get much attention (finally!). But why does the Salwens's career success make them somehow culprits for why or how much or to what they give? I've never before heard the story of someone willing to sell their largest asset and split it in half for philanthropy. The Salwens are not the Gateses. If one lives in this country, believes in the free market system, and in some version of "the American dream", then this type of giving - the proportion, strategic nature, and research and planning approach - is simply rarely a part of the picture. It sets a new and different precedent. Don't damn the Salwens for their success or the way they've chosen to give. Rather join them for the way their teenagers have an authentic vote in the family and that they walk the talk. The question is: what is that walking for each of us?
Posted by Luana at 06:19am on 01.25.2010

I've always felt that giving was measured not by what you give but what you have left. (A millionaire giving 10,000$ is not as impressive as someone with 10,000$ giving $1,000.) Out of curiosity, what is the value of your 1/2 home?
Posted by John at 10:58pm on 01.24.2010

Hello Salwens! Your family is a truly wonderful inspiration to us all and I look forward to hearing you speak when you come to Wellesley. Imagine what wonderful change could happen if your story inspires every family to sit down at the dinner table and talk about what they stand for, what they can give half of, and come up with a plan to carry it out. I haven't even read your book or met your yet, but I already know what I plan to talk to my family about tonight at the dinner table.
Posted by Valerie at 4:09pm on 01.24.2010