Conscious partnership | An interview with Jennifer and Peter Buffett

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?



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