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.
Peter: What happened was either divine providence or dumb luck, because we were on this path as a couple, and I was on this path as an artist, and they were intertwined in all kinds of complicated and wonderful ways. Then in 2004, my mother passed away. My father had always assumed that he would die first, and that my mother would go about dispersing the money he had made in the form of charitable gifts and philanthropic activities. When she died first, it not only took him by surprise, but he realized he was going to have to decide what to do with all his money. It took him a little while to figure it out, but not long. In 2006 he made his big announcement, which I call the Big Bang, which was to give all his money away.
My parents previously had set up a far smaller fund for each of their kids, which was a blessing because it gave us an opportunity to learn what it meant to be involved in philanthropic activities. But with the underwriting of the NoVo Foundation in 2006, philanthropy became a fulltime job, requiring a much more intentional focus on “Where should these dollars go?” Because there was so much more to give away and so many possible places to invest it.
Jennifer: So, after Los Angeles Peter and I returned to Milwaukee, got married maybe a year later, and then at Christmas time Peter’s parents gave the three kids—Peter, and his brother and sister, and their spouses—a philanthropic fund each. Not a foundation, but $100,000 to spend each year on philanthropic work. It seemed like every couple of years the amount grew, and everyone started to get a sense of the work they were passionate about. It was great for me because, while I had been doing a lot of work to support what Peter was doing, I was also trying to figure out, “Okay, well where do I fit here and what do I want to do?” Getting involved in philanthropy has been an amazing education and opportunity for me to learn what positive work is being done in the world and how I can get involved and contribute.
We were so grateful to have that time—about seven years—to really learn the basics, so that in 2006, when we suddenly became the stewards of a lot of resources, we weren’t overwhelmed. We’d had experience; we’d been involved in different issues and projects and had experience with different approaches. We still had to build an organization, but we had a pretty good idea what we wanted that organization to do.
At the same time, we’d also had the experience of being on the grantee side of fundraising, because Peter had created a theatrical piece, Spirit: The Seventh Fire. So we’d had to raise money for that, an experience that truly informed how we respect and treat grantees, which distinguishes us from a lot of grantors.
The MOON: Tell us about the theatrical piece.
Jennifer: Spirit: The Seventh Fire is about an Anishinaabe prophecy that deals with the time we’re living in—a crossroads where we have the opportunity to remember who we are and return to the wisdom of our ancestors and our connection to all life, or continue down the path of technology and lose our way. One path ignites the eighth fire—a time of peace and harmony among all people—and the other leads to our destruction.
The story is also about the losses endured by the Native people of North America because the story is told through the experience of a young Indian man, living a modern-day life, who goes down a rabbit hole, meets his ancestors and confronts his history, and then has to return to modern-day life.
Peter: You can now–finally–find the filmed performance of the piece on YouTube.
It’s really the classic hero’s journey: Joseph Campbell 101. It’s told through Indigenous culture, but it’s really all of us. We all came from a tribe at some point. So it’s really about anybody who rediscovers a deep connection to their true self. While it’s an indigenous story, it’s also the American story.
Jennifer: Our own process of consciousness-raising also informed us of the importance of dealing with trauma—because trauma has impacted virtually everyone—and of giving people time and knowledge to undertake their own shifts in consciousness if we’re really going to spark meaningful and lasting social change. You can’t just throw money at problems; you’ll just be spinning your wheels. There has to be a willingness to meet people where they are in their understanding of history; there has to be a sharing of tools for dealing with trauma that enables a subsequent shift in consciousness; and then, finally, we can discuss and implement social change.
The MOON: That’s a fairly tall order. How do you get to all that?
Peter: The only way Jennifer and I have come to it, both individually and in our relationship, is through our own reckoning. We had to come to our own acknowledgement of the stories we’ve been told and, ultimately, told to ourselves. We’ve had to understand the trauma that informed our behaviors; and finally, be willing to take responsibility for the choice of either perpetuating systemic trauma, or actively choosing something different.
That required a lot of investigation into “how did I learn what I learned? How did Jennifer learn what she learned? How was it serving us? How was it not serving us?” It was only after we felt that we’d addressed and started to heal those things in our relationship and in our lives, that we could legitimately engage the foundation’s work of trying to address those things in our culture.
The MOON: But that’s huge.
Peter: It is huge, and it doesn’t stop.
Jennifer: Right, we can’t ever check it off the list.
Peter: Yeah, I mean there’s a great line I love: we are a process, not an identity. For us it helped that we met as we were going through a transitional period—a moment in our lives where everything was sort of ripped apart, giving us an opportunity to examine our goals, our values, our direction. Then, when we mounted this gigantic show, Spirit: The Seventh Fire, and took it on the road, it put all sorts of pressure on our relationship we never could have imagined. It forced us to really stop and say, “Do we want to be together? If so, we have to recreate what this relationship is about and what it’s built on, and therefore we have to look at the foundation of it.”
Jennifer: Well said, Peter. I think we’d had ten years of a kind of bliss, you know, which lulled us into semi-consciousness. Then we found ourselves in the pressure cooker of this huge project, which forced out some of the stuff that had been hiding in the shadows, which we really needed to see and understand. I think we are both pretty strong people, and not the kind to say, “Oh well, you’re not fitting my profile anymore. I’m moving on.” Instead we were asking ourselves, “Why is this happening?”
Challenges and crises are also opportunities; we knew there was value in the crisis. And there sure was. It gave us the opportunity to look at how we were socialized into the system that we’re in, and to look at patriarchy, privilege, and so many things—for example, our values. What is valued? What is undervalued? How have we determined these things? Are they really our values, or have we just inherited them from others?
It’s funny that the project that precipitated the crisis was called Spirit: The Seventh Fire because fire burns and cleanses. We went through our own personal fire and knew that with all that burned down something new would come. We both had the will and the commitment to the relationship to stick around and figure it out.
The MOON: Can you give us some examples of how the crisis played out in your relationship, and how you came to identify the causes as social conditioning instead of personal character defects?
Jennifer: The pressure of it was so great that the habitual patterns we’d developed for negotiating our lives and our relationship didn’t hold up any longer. From my side, I felt this very independent masculine behavior in Peter that was sort of fearful, controlling, singular, and oblivious to the effects it was having on me and our relationship. Meanwhile, he was telling me that he didn’t have time to hear the criticisms or issues I wanted to bring up. He just needed to focus.
Peter: Yeah, but upon further reflection, I got the opportunity to realize that I was a product of a relationship—my parents’ relationship—where my father metaphorically locked himself in a room and pursued his goals. He wasn’t angry, or drinking, or engaging other dysfunctional behaviors. In fact, one obvious result of his isolation and focus was that we—his wife and kids—got to live in a comfortable environment, but at the cost of him being present. What I hadn’t realized as a child was that I’d been swimming in this highly structured patriarchy that just happened to have what appeared to be a happy outcome for me. My mom, in fact, had given her life over to the machinery that was at work in both of them. We all do that. It wasn’t my dad’s fault; he wasn’t a bad guy; he isn’t a bad guy. He was just a product of his culture; as was my mom; as was I.
So I was swimming in this upbringing without any self-awareness. That’s how we get conditioned to generations of behavior: it just gets distilled into who we become. But this crisis with Jennifer gave me an opportunity to choose to break the pattern. If we’re lucky, that’s sort of the ultimate moment we can come to, where we can pause and say to ourselves, “Wait a minute, I think we can do better than this.” Personally, I feel it’s almost our duty to do better. Otherwise, what did our ancestors struggle for—if not for their descendants being and doing better than they’d been able to? Each generation has the obligation—I feel—to push the bar a little bit higher.
Jennifer: I agree, Peter. And as a product of the same patriarchal system myself, and as a woman, I found myself trying to fill in whatever gaps that Peter wasn’t able to get to. I mean, that’s women’s traditional role, right? The man builds his career, and the woman takes care of everything else. Even women who have jobs, and kids, are always saying, “God, the majority of the housework and laundry and shopping and schlepping falls on me, as do the relational aspects of maintaining family and friends.”
So I was feeling all that kind of resentment, along with questioning myself “Was I supporting him, or enabling him? Is it right that his life should feel primary and mine secondary?” All of which brought up a lot of anger in me—to the point that we disconnected from each other. But fortunately, through our processes we realized that the form of our relationship—the belief structure it was built upon—was the thing that had to die. We would have to remake ourselves on a new belief system, and then remake the relationship. And we did.
The MOON: Wow. That’s a lot.
Peter: Yeah. I’d always heard the line that difficult times build character, but I’ve come to think that difficult times reveal character. That external pressure can come from all sorts of things—even good things. People often forget that when their dream comes true it’s likely to throw them into a crisis of self-doubt. “Oh, wow. Now what? Am I worthy of this? How am I going to live up to these heightened expectations?”
What Jennifer and I went through was a level of pressure I had never felt, and yet it was an exciting thing. It felt purposeful. So you throw yourself into it, not knowing how it will turn out, but with a willingness to-
Jennifer: Take responsibility. And THAT was the key to us surviving it. When you’re going through something hard and you feel hurt, it’s so easy to blame your partner who is-
Peter: Or your parents, or your-
Jennifer: Or your parents, yeah. So I had to really look at feelings I didn’t want to admit to myself: feelings of unworthiness and the sense that I had to try to become of value; I had to earn it; as if I wasn’t inherently valuable.
Peter: That’s huge.
Jennifer: I think I’d made supporting Peter and his work look so easy that he thought, “This is great, but it’s easy for her.” Meanwhile, I kept thinking, “Why am I not being acknowledged for this? Is he not seeing that it actually requires effort and is valuable?” And then when there was so much work to do for the Spirit show—everything from raising money to cleaning bathrooms to managing people—I started to realize I was following a pattern I’d noticed as a child. I believed it was a man’s world and my job was to fit within it; that men would tell me how, and give me education and training if I somehow measured up; and then I’d get the points and rewards from the men, from the patriarchy. Now, as an adult, it started making me sick. I realized I really needed to unhook and not give my last drop of blood in service to it.
The MOON: Yes, but that’s the culture we’re living in, right? Given that fact, it’s almost impossible to imagine a different way. What were some of the strategies that helped you free yourselves?
Peter: We employed various healing modalities. Some of it was therapy; some of it was going on retreat. One of the most powerful modalities was working with an indigenous healer and sacred plant medicine. We found that was able to break open the container that we’d been in since we were born so that something new could enter, or that we could see it differently.
Jennifer: Yes, it got us out of our heads and into our hearts so that we could really see what was going on in our patterns. You know, so much of the West is about fixing things on the outside. You get a new partner, job, house, iPhone; you remake your image. But we took ourselves down to the studs. That’s what facilitates change at the core, though I don’t think there’s a lot of support in our culture for that. I hope that’s changing, but I recall a study where 67% of men voluntarily gave themselves an electric shock rather than sit alone with their thoughts. That tells you a lot.
Early on in the process of figuring out how Peter and I would heal, I needed some time away and left for Africa. I camped with a group of San Bushmen – the most ancient people—in the Kalahari and lived in a tent and learned how they foraged for food and water, and was just held within this tribe of people. I was with a loving group of older women and it was exactly what I needed to sort of reset myself.
Meanwhile, Peter stayed in New York in a newly-found apartment and I said, “I don’t want you to put a thing on the walls. Do not decorate this place.” [Laughs] I didn’t want him to do anything because we didn’t know who we were yet, internally, or to each other. So I said, “I just want clean white walls,” like a fresh canvas. When I got home he lit the whole apartment with candles, wrote me an incredible love song and sang it for me (I had never heard him sing before!), and said, “I had to sing my heart open.” We both did; we had to break ourselves open.
Then we started this process, if I look back, of rewilding ourselves, finding our deepest cores. We moved to the country, we spent much more time in nature, we simplified our life, got rid of our stuff. Now we don’t watch TV, we eat off our farm, we support the community. We went back to nature and we found our true selves.
The MOON: I was fortunate enough to interview West African shaman Malidoma Somé, who also says that ritual experience is capable of breaking people’s hearts open, which he believes is the only way we’re going to come out of our current system and return to taking care of each other.
Jennifer: We agree. Exactly right.
Peter: It’s also ongoing; it will never stop. It involves having the courage to look at ourselves in the mirror, which is the hardest part—for an individual, or a couple, or a collective, like a country. We choose to take that challenge.
Then, when we created NoVo, we realized we needed to make this self-examination and healing process available to everyone—and particularly the people who’ve been beaten up the most by the violence of our culture. I know a lot of people hear that and think, “Oh God, now we’re going to hear about victims again.” But the violence of our culture victimizes its perpetrators, too. I’m a privileged white male, and I’m a casualty of it. And yes, at NoVo Foundation, we’re going to reach out first to the people who’ve been hurt most. Wisdom comes as a result of challenges; as a result of loss and pain, so we’re investing in those who have been hurt because we believe they have unacknowledged gifts to offer us.
That’s why we put NoVo’s resources where we do. We believe that people who have experienced pain, have been knocked around the rocks by our current culture, know where the solutions are. We don’t want to be colonizers one more time and say, “Here’s a whole bunch of money to solve the problem the way we think it should be solved.” That’s absurd. The truth is that the people who are feeling pain know what to do to fix the system that’s broken.
The MOON: So let’s talk about the areas you’ve decided to invest in.
Jennifer: I’d like to first say a few words about how we decided upon our focus areas, because the process involved a lot of soul-searching and travel—particularly to places where things were really not working, including Africa, India, and Bangladesh; places of deep poverty. Wherever we went we saw that the world is so out of balance between the masculine forces of domination, exploitation, control, and competition for resources versus the feminine role of nurturing, cooperating, and being in harmony with life. Everywhere, we saw hyper-masculinity encouraged, while the roles of women and girls were undervalued. We both felt that this couldn’t continue; it was an imbalance that had to be acknowledged and addressed.
So that was our first decision: “We’ve got to explicitly value women and girls.” There hadn’t been many big foundations saying, “We fund women and girls and this is why,” but we thought that our size could help us call attention to the issue. So we partnered with the Nike Foundation to create “The Girl Effect” campaign, to show how, if you invest in girls, it changes everything.
Then we also realized that a lot of work needs to be done with men because they are intricately bound up in the system of violence, too. This is how patriarchy sustains itself, through violence. Violence towards men takes the form of emotional circumcision—cutting them off from their emotions. It also takes the form of war and all types of physical domination. And we also have to reach men to change the power dynamic that results in gender violence, because violence against women is not a women’s issue; it’s a men’s issue and a boy’s issue. It’s a socialization issue. Men and boys need healing too.
These are the two focus areas we started with. We realized that our work was not a question of “fixing some bad or uneducated people over there.” We’d already recognized from the power dynamics in our own relationship that the issue is everywhere—sometimes subtly and sometimes overtly. That caused us to ask, “How are kids being socialized to perpetuate these unequal power dynamics?” And we found that you can see them played out in virtually all of our systems—healthcare, government, the economy, education. Education, for example, was designed for assimilation and domination. There are hierarchies of subjects; we divide kids into grade levels; we require them to stand in line, to sit in rows at desks, to keep silent and listen to the authority figure—the teacher. We get them to compete—which is not how you learn; you learn by making mistakes. It’s a crazy, fear-based system designed to create workers who will fit into the slots available in the industrial economy—which are shrinking, creating a scarcity mindset. “If I don’t do well, there might not be a slot for me.” The whole system is completely antithetical to the Indigenous notion, for example, that every person comes into this world with a gift and the point of education is to empower them to offer it to the world.
So that led us to focus on social and emotional learning. We’re putting an emphasis on creating healthy school cultures in which children are seen as valued individuals in a safe environment. “Safe, seen, and celebrated” is our motto. We also want to help students identify and express their feelings and develop empathy and compassion, rather than watch the educational system destroy these qualities in kids. In the school I attended as a child, I felt like I had to keep my head down. Everyone had to keep their head down or you might get whacked. I mean it’s just crazy, the environments we put kids in.
Both Peter and I believe that learning is innate and natural, so we’re interested in reformulating the notion of education so that it answers the question of how to prepare people to become the best possible humans—who know how to work and live and create and dream together. If we put our energy into answering that question, we’ll have a different society than the one we have now.
And then we realized the need for the local living community piece. We originally called it “local, living economies,” now we’re changing it to local, living communities, putting an emphasis—very much like biomimicry or nature—on “small is beautiful.” By that we mean communities small enough for members to know each other and to also recognize their reliance on nature—our original capital resource. Relationships are what keep us real and in our loving, best selves, sustaining those around us who sustain us—local food producers, manufacturers, business owners, and the like—and the beautiful places some of us are lucky enough to live in. Local living communities occur at a small scale, not in a highly centralized system that has resulted in global exploitation in order to deliver strawberries out of season, metals for cell phones, or whatever. That, too, is an effect of masculine thinking behind globalization, resource extraction, empire building and all that. So that’s how we arrived at our priorities: one led to another to another.
The MOON: All of them are so huge. And what about Indigenous preservation?
Jennifer: Yes, that’s the fourth wheel of our vehicle. Peter, do you want to talk about that since I’ve been talking a lot?
Peter: Sure. I’ll also add that the 2008 financial crisis would never have happened if people still saw their mortgage holder in the grocery store, or if your kids went to school with their kids. The personal has been stripped from so many of our relationships; they’re now merely impersonal transactions, and we’ve all suffered as a result. People used to go to the grocery store and they’d have a tab going, because everybody knew so-and-so got paid on this day. But now most of us don’t have commercial relationships built on familiarity and trust anymore. We want to invest in getting them back.
The Indigenous work goes back to one of our foundational principles, that there is so much knowledge inherent in the people who have been here the longest. How can we lift up, amplify, illuminate, remember how people here lived for thousands of years? What can we learn from them? How can we create again more thriving Indigenous communities, so that we’re all better off?
Jennifer: The Indigenous piece also reflects our understanding, which grew out of the Spirit show, that ancient cultures with wisdom we have not heeded are still here! They hold the memory of how to live for eons on this planet in more harmonious, regenerative ways. These people are still being marginalized and decimated at a time when they should be embraced. They’re the Earth keepers and the water protectors we need. I feel like we need an Indigenous revolution on the planet for people to wake up to the fact that the Earth is our mother and the only home we have. We are Indigenous to this planet. It is our responsibility to steward life here and to ensure that there’s a healthy planet for the next generation.
We also feel a responsibility to give back to people from whom so much has been taken. Those losses are not okay. We always say we want to go to the last girl. We want to be the foundation that reaches the absolutely most marginalized people. If we can bring light there, there has to be a shift. It’s just so important. For the wisdom that these groups hold, for the healing of the trauma we’ve inflicted on the Earth and each other, for the connection to the Earth, these people are the way-showers. We need to sit and listen, and give and nourish, and fund and empower these people who hold the key to our own collective salvation.
The MOON: Yet we are living in an environment where there’s such a backlash even against—especially against—efforts to dismantle patriarchy and racism. What’s your strategy for getting past that?
Peter: One person at a time. It’s the most effective way. This is actually where I think social media may be helpful. I mean it’s like any tool: it’s both negative and positive depending on how it’s used and the intention behind it. But other people’s stories, which can now be told—and shared—more widely than ever are very powerful. Somebody said that the most powerful two words in the English language are “me too.” The idea of seeing yourself in another and getting a better sense of the complexity of our species is our best chance at understanding each other. There isn’t, either literally or figuratively, a black and white. There’s complexity everywhere. But the more we can share our stories, the better chance I think we have.
Jennifer always says that the three words that matter most are “safe, seen, and celebrated.” Safety is first. You have to feel safe enough to tell your story. And then, to be seen is life-changing.
Jennifer: As individuals, and as a foundation, we really believe in the capacity of human beings and the genius of the human heart, the resilience to come back from losing everything, to pull us through. We’ve seen it time and time again. We’ve worked with land mine survivors, and survivors of war, and rape and pillage, and people who have just lost everything, who are so transcendent. You’re just on your knees when you see the light that emerges in the face of incredible pain and loss. There is a human light there that is just unbelievable.
We believe—we don’t sort of believe, we firmly believe—that if we can start to connect and share those lights that we—humanity—will make it through, somehow. There will be processes of healing or of igniting the human imagination that will find a way from the disconnection, the trauma, the loss to healing and a new way of being together. There are moments when the resilience, the self-awareness and self-reclamation after loss are so palpable as to be almost unstoppable.
The MOON: What is some of the work that is going on that you find inspirational right now?
Jennifer: So many things. We’re supporting Spirit Aligned, which is led by Katsi Cook, a Mohawk woman we’ve known for many years, who has gathered a group of eight Indigenous women leaders around the country for this first circle (and more circles will form each year) to address the healing of ancestral trauma, violence against Indigenous girls and women, and build the capacity for Indigenous leadership, cultural expression, and sustainability within their communities. This type of work is happening around the world, as well—in Latin America, Africa, the Indian subcontinent—gathering and supporting the women who are undertaking projects in their own communities.
Peter: I’m also encouraged by how many people are writing in mainstream publications about how the system is fundamentally broken and working on solutions. I’m thinking of David Bollier, who writes about reclaiming the commons as a true public resource; or The Next System Project, which rallies interdisciplinary researchers and activists to propose alternative models and pathways capable of delivering superior social, economic and ecological outcomes. There are also many smaller, more locally focused groups in places like Detroit; or Jackson, Mississippi; or Baltimore, where people are saying, “You know what? Nobody is going to come save us. These larger powers came in, they extracted what they wanted and now they’re gone. Whatever solutions are needed, we’re going to have to come up with them ourselves.” And so, block-by-block, neighborhood-by-neighborhood, people are investing in the place they’re in. It’s taking the form of permaculture, or digital fabrication, or local energy production, or alternative currencies, or barter networks, or whatever.
People are re-creating the units of belonging that humans have lived in for thousands of years. The atomized nuclear family unit is a far more recent phenomena. There’s something called the Dunbar number—from anthropologist Robin Dunbar—which is the maximum number of people with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships. The number is 150. Instead, however, we’re living in these massive, densely populated, over-extractive, deeply dependent conglomerations. Most big cities, for example, have only a three day’s food supply. If the power goes out, or the transportation system breaks down, millions of people would be in serious trouble after three days. That is not sustainable. So all over the country, pockets of neighborhoods in Detroit, or L.A., or wherever, are saying, “Let’s figure out a way to take care of ourselves, because the system could collapse and no one will be able to save us.” The foundation supports a number of groups involved in that work, such as BALLE, the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies.
We also work on practicing what we’re preaching in our own community, which is the Kingston area in upstate New York. I think of philanthropy as applied philosophy, so here in Kingston we’re at the beginning of a journey to find what it means for a community to know itself and figure out how to take care of each other through the community. Initially we’ve supported the purchase of a large farm here, although the conversation is still under way to determine what it can become for the community. For starters, it is a very fertile piece of land that can grow food. And food always brings people together.
On the other end of the spectrum, the community just bought a legacy radio station that has been here in Kingston for 78 years. It was owned by one conglomerate after another over the past decades, and now we’ve bought it back so that it can again be reflective of the community. I imagine it will become a very different broadcast medium than anything that’s out there right now. So those are just two little examples of how we’re trying to bring what we believe into action here where we live.
Jennifer: Especially in this time of kind of extreme racism, classism, and divisiveness in this country, it’s essential to have places where people can come together to share food and tell their stories, so that we can see and hear and understand one another as human beings. Because once you know someone’s story, and once they feel seen and heard in how they’ve gotten to where they are, it creates a collective understanding that leads to compassion and empathy. We come to know each other in a deeper way, rather than as a member of an identity group—whether it’s Mexican, or Muslim, or Jew, or white person. Instead, we can fall in love with each other because of our shared vulnerability.
We’re also finding in our broader work with local, living communities that they want to learn from each other and connect. There’s no cookie-cutter way to do it; every community gets to decide for itself what they want and how to provide it; but it’s great to learn from other people’s experience. It feels like we’re at a very tender, nascent phase of exploration that needs a lot of love and support.
The MOON: I’ve been watching Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States, which only goes back as far as WWII, so there’s a lot of untold history he doesn’t get to, but it’s pretty discouraging how, as a people, we just keep believing the same lies over and over again. It makes me wonder what it’s going to take to stop this juggernaut that is destroying the planet as fast as possible.
Peter: It will come to an end because everything does. And beyond that, there are cracks in the foundation that have been there since the beginning that will bring the house down. You can’t have a Declaration of Independence that says all men are created equal, and then have a Constitution that says no they aren’t. The larger truth is that we have to be pro-ecosystem, pro-planet, rather than “pro-American,” but we weren’t founded on that. We were founded as a commercial enterprise on self-serving concepts like Manifest Destiny. The more deeply you examine the structures of the country you realize how flawed they are. They can’t survive. You can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet. I mean there are certain facts that are just true.
And so the question really is not will it end, but how will it end, and how painful will it be. We’re seeing now how desperately people in power will try to hang on. That’s where the damage is going to be done, by people refusing to accept the inevitable. And that’s really too bad.
The MOON: Barbara Marx Hubbard has proposed that since the Earth has more than enough people on it, conscious couples now come together for co-creation rather than procreation.
Jennifer: Right. I love that.
Peter: You just named us. We consciously chose not to have kids at some point in our relationship for reasons we didn’t even fully understand at the time but turned out to be true. It gives you a sense that you should follow your gut; that there was—as Jennifer started out saying—bigger work to do. Co-creating is also fundamental in all relationships. We’ve been falsely identified with competition, survival of the fittest, might makes right, progress is linear, and all of these concepts that have served this juggernaut of American “exceptionalism” over the past couple hundred years. None of it’s true. Everything is a co-creative act. We are nothing but our relationships. And so for us as a couple to be able to really focus on that and recognize co-creation as our work in the world has been very powerful and rewarding.
Jennifer: Perfectly said, love. I do think there’s such an opportunity to evolve now—and, you know, crisis creates that opportunity. The reality is, we are all in this together. We share a single planet, and our destinies are entwined. How do we awaken that feeling in people? I think it has to come from an inner connection back to the heart. I’m grateful to be involved with Peter and so many others in that work.
Photo of the Buffetts by C. Taylor Crothers