Conscious partnership | An interview with Jennifer and Peter Buffett

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.

Peter: Yep.

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.

Jennifer: Right.

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

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