Peter and Jennifer Buffett are the founders of the NoVo Foundation, which they created in 2006 to “foster a transformation from a world of domination and exploitation to one of collaboration and partnership.”
That being a huge undertaking, the foundation has broken its work into investments in four key areas: supporting women and girls, particularly adolescent girls in the U.S. and Global South and ending violence against girls and women; investing in social and emotional learning (SEL) to give individuals the skills to recognize and manage emotions, develop caring and concern for others, establish positive relationships, make responsible decisions, and deal with histories of trauma; supporting the transition to local, living economies that provide secure and fulfilling livelihoods for all people, work in harmony with natural systems, and support biological and cultural diversity; and finally, addressing centuries of oppression against Indigenous communities, and trusting the leadership of these communities to guide us toward a more just and balanced world.
Peter and Jennifer are both co-president and co-chair of the foundation, guiding NoVo’s vision, strategic mission, and program development. Peter is the youngest son of Berkshire-Hathaway founder and philanthropist Warren Buffett. A musician and composer, he composed the fire dance scene in the Oscar-winning film Dances with Wolves and the entire score for 500 Nations, the 8-hour miniseries produced by Kevin Costner for CBS. He also produced Spirit—The Seventh Fire, which combined Imax scale film and imagery, native dancers, and a live band to tell the story of one man’s journey toward reconnection with his heritage and the land. The piece was performed on the National Mall for the Smithsonian’s opening of the National Museum of the American Indian.
In addition to guiding the foundation’s overall vision and program development, Jennifer is a passionate advocate for girls and women worldwide, promoting “whole-child” education practices, and supporting balanced, regenerative communities. She began her work in philanthropy in 1997 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, primarily as a funder of social service organizations, with a focus on early childhood education for at-risk children and families.
Jennifer and Peter were named to Barron’s list of top 25 most-effective philanthropists in 2009 and 2010. Because they work together in the field of conscious transformation, The MOON wanted to speak with them about the rewards and challenges of conscious partnership. They were kind enough to speak with me on two occasions by telephone. – Leslee Goodman
The MOON: How did the two of you meet?
Peter: We were both going through major transformations in our lives. Jennifer was on her way to a new life in a new state, while I was unknowingly on my way out of my old life and into a new one. We met by accident in a restaurant and have been together ever since—26 years ago on June 1, 2017.
Jennifer: We got married five years to the day after we met. I had been out to dinner in Milwaukee with a girlfriend with whom I had plans to relocate to the West Coast. My girlfriend and I were not in any way “looking” to engage with anyone other than ourselves. I’d recently ended a relationship and was about to reinvent myself in California. But you know the old saying, “If you want to make God laugh, make plans.”
Peter and I had a pretty much instantaneous heart connection. In retrospect, it was really a soul recognition that we had work to do together.
Peter: I’d been married to someone else for 10 years and helped to raise her children from four to 14 years old. I had been engrossed in that relationship, but it had just become clear, literally days before meeting Jennifer, that that relationship had sustained a break that was not going to be repaired. I’d come to that conclusion and then walked out the door with some friends to have dinner.
My friends and I were seated at a table next to Jen and her friend. I saw Jen and thought to myself, “This is someone I have to meet.” I was very shy in those days, but my friends weren’t. I knew that if I left the table, by the time I came back my friends would be talking to these two women. So that’s what I did; and that’s what happened. I really owe our relationship to my friends. If they hadn’t been outgoing, I’d never have met Jennifer. [Laughter]
The MOON: Jennifer, you mentioned that the two of you had work to do together. Was that apparent from the beginning?
Jennifer: No, not at all. We were kind of kids at the time; we didn’t think in those terms. We both recognized some kind of power drawing us together, though we didn’t know why. We’ve only fairly recently come to see what our particular partnership can accomplish in terms of a contribution to the world and social change—twenty-six years later.
Peter is a musician and a composer. When we met he was very engaged in his work and had carved out a successful life and name for himself in California. However, he had recently moved back to the Midwest to discern what was even more deeply in his heart and soul to do next. His search really is what sparked the whole genesis of what is now the NoVo Foundation. It began from an immersion in telling the true story of the creation of this country, which involved taking it from people who were here first. Both Peter and I believe you can’t truly know where you’re going until you know where you’ve come from, what happened in the land you’re living on, and what energies and systems you’re perpetuating. Most Americans don’t have this understanding. We didn’t either, at the outset.
So creative pursuits related to Peter’s work was the path we pursued initially. I had not expected to stay in Milwaukee, or to meet someone, so I had to figure out a new direction for myself. I’d graduated from college and had worked for a small publishing company. I was interested in writing; I’d toyed around with graduate school. I knew I wanted to be involved in creative pursuits, but needed a bigger, or more diverse, playground than Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where the opportunities were mostly in insurance, or advertising, or other things that didn’t really resonate with me. In truth, my life path has always been that way—I have to feel my way along. I’m not one of these people who lays out a five-year plan and then goes and does it. This hasn’t always been easy, in terms of explaining it to others, but as you get older you can look back and appreciate it as a kind of a gift. It’s who you are.
Peter: Right. We didn’t set out with philanthropy or the NoVo Foundation in our sights at all. But, as Steve Jobs said, “You can only connect the dots in retrospect.” The work that I was doing artistically ended up informing so much of the work we’re doing now.
I met Jennifer in June 1991, which was the year that, a few months before, Dances with Wolves won the Oscar for best film. I was involved in that film, which launched a whole career path for me—as well as an awareness path, as it did for many people. People saw the film and heard a story about our country that they’d never heard told in that way before.
A friend of Kevin Costner’s told him, “Now you have to tell the story of what really happened in North America and the Native populations who lived here.” That led to the creation of 500 Nations, an eight-hour documentary series on CBS. It was the most ambitious attempt at telling this piece of American history to date, and I had the job of scoring it. Which meant that, every day for eight months I was immersed in the true story of America’s creation, which gave me an education regarding Indigenous ways of being, the forces of domination and oppression that had attempted to eradicate that way of being, the ironies of who tells the history and why they tell it the way they do, and the roots of so many of the issues we see playing out at all levels of our society today. All that was happening simultaneously with meeting Jennifer.
Jennifer: Yes. We lived in Los Angeles while he was working on that project, in a tiny room, literally all day, every day, for months. When it was finished, we had thought we’d stay in L.A. and see what the next creative opportunity for him would be. But when the time came, we both looked at each other and said, “I don’t think we’re supposed to stay here.” Instead we went back to the Midwest, which felt like the next right place for us.
Because Peter had finished his portion of the project a couple of weeks early, we decided to drive back across country, from L.A. to Milwaukee. That trip became a pilgrimage for us. We went to the Four Corners, to Pine Ridge, to Chaco Canyon, and many different Native American sites. Throughout the whole trip, I don’t remember seeing anyone else on the land. We would visit a place in silence and just feel the energy of what had happened there. We were always encountering a presence–of the land, the ancestors, the losses that had been sustained. Then Peter proposed to me on the Southern Rim of the Grand Canyon during a meteor shower, which was pretty spectacularly romantic.
Anyway, the trip seemed to have symbolic significance for us. We’d chosen to receive the gifts of the work Peter had just completed, without getting caught up in all the bright, shiny objects that had been offered: “Oh Peter, if you stay in L.A., we’ll sign you with this agency, you’ll get to score films, we’ll get you to all the right parties,” that sort of thing. Instead, we listened to what was calling to us, and said, “No, I don’t think that’s what we’re supposed to be doing. I think there’s something else.”
When you make a crossroads decision like that to follow your soul calling, your still, small voice, I think paths open up for you. And that’s what happened.
Peter: There’s one thing I’d like to add. At different times in my life I’ve looked back and reflected on patterns I’ve picked up from my father, and this is one of them. My dad rather famously did not go to Wall Street, does not live in New York, but has stayed in Omaha. He knew really early on that if he was going to be able to hear the sound of his own voice he was going to have to not get caught up chasing whatever it seemed like everyone else was chasing. As Jennifer said, we went to L.A. temporarily, but decided not to stay permanently, although there were many pretty baubles being offered. Honestly, I did get pulled into it for a while, but not for very long. It seemed like moving to L.A. is “what you do” if you want to have a career composing for film. But there was a deeper voice that said, “Wait a minute. If you do that, you’re going to lose contact with yourself in pursuit of a path because it’s what others have done.” So I stayed in Milwaukee where I could hear my own voice and do my own work.
The MOON: I have to say that I’m really moved that you decided to take the resources at your disposal and use them to tell the truth about the creation of our country… because, really, what non-Native person wants to hear that?
Peter and Jennifer: Yeah.
Jennifer: But we need to so desperately.