Releasing my “noble poverty” mindset has been an exhilarating journey.
When I first heard the term “noble poverty,” I had a visceral reaction of relief at finally having a name for a condition I had lived with since I was a child.
Mikelann Valterra, founder of the Women’s Earning Institute, has defined noble poverty as “the belief that there is virtue in not having money and that good people do not have it.” People with this mindset live by the phrase “It is better to be good and poor than rich and evil.”
The roots of the noble poverty mindset I used to carry run deep. I was raised in a devout Catholic family in a small rural town in Kentucky. My parents had me when they were both nineteen and worked hard to make a sweet little home for my siblings and me, but they struggled over money. The conflicts over power and control were exacerbated during their divorce, when I was a teen.
My experience of church teachings gave me clear messages about money: “You cannot serve both God and money,” “The love of money is the root of all evil,” and the most memorable to me as a child, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”
I first started earning money through small jobs: brushing my grandmother’s hair for ten cents and later babysitting. At sixteen, I worked at a local video and record store and did my own tax returns. I worked two to three jobs at once to put myself through college, and even still, I took out as much in student loans as I could to pay my tuition; I was part of the first generation of students to incur unprecedented educational loan debt without fully grasping the consequences.
I went on to get an M.S.S.W. in social work and worked for nonprofit organizations with refugee and immigrant families and affordable housing. In my early thirties, when I began teaching financial literacy, I realized that I needed to start a retirement account and found an SRI mutual fund for my first IRA.
Even then, by age forty, I was still living with a mindset of noble poverty. I realized that I wanted to retire from this way of thinking and living. I came to understand that my calling was socially responsible investing, and I began doing deeper personal money work to liberate myself from the noble poverty mindset as I helped people align their money with their values.
As they say, when the student is ready the teacher will appear. Lynne Twist, author of The Soul of Money, taught me that we live in a world of abundance, not one of scarcity. From her work with Buckminster Fuller, she saw that our systems that are still catching up with the reality of abundance. I now work with my clients to leverage their investments to transform these systems, so that fair trade, gender equity, inclusion, and economic justice become integral to our economy.
Barbara Stanny, in her book Sacred Success, taught me about women and our relationship to both money and power. She says that women’s challenges with money are often really challenges in their relationship with power. I continue to explore this for myself and help my clients in their own challenges with power.
There are many other teachers, of course, who have helped shaped the unique path I find myself on today. I am thankful to have defined my own “brand of joy,” an idea coined by Tanya Geisler that emphasizes the WHY of my work. As we begin a new year, I am thrilled to be continuing this journey with my clients and colleagues.
Quakers are often given credit for being pioneers in the formative era of Socially Responsible Investment. As I was reading an array of early SRI publications, it was easy to see that Quaker traditions and practices have played an important role in this movement’s history. While you may not have the same faith as the thinkers and authors quoted here, the lessons and insights are applicable regardless of your spiritual background or belief.
When we remember that many of the concerns we are trying to address through our investments are global issues (climate change, deforestation, gender equity and LGBT rights, supply chain/human rights, etc.), it becomes even more important to broaden our understanding. While Quakers come from the Judeo-Christian tradition, universalism is a commonly held belief among Friends, as Quakers are often called. There is diversity among Quakers, and an openness and curiosity about others is central. As Tom Head wrote in Envisioning a Moral Economy, “To study well the other faith traditions through which all humankind knows and experiences the sacred is especially important in our era of globalization.” (Footnote 1)
Quakers are one of the three historic Peace Churches, believing there is “that of God” in all people. This has inspired a strong history, still continuing today, of social justice advocacy on pressing topics of the day, from slavery to women’s rights, prison reform, and armament issues. As early as 1688, Quaker meetings in the United States were corresponding and discussing the ethical issue of profiting from the slave trade, and in 1758 the Philadelphia yearly meeting unanimously issued a proclamation forbidding its members from participating in the slave trade.
Could you imagine a church/mosque/temple in 2017 forbidding its members to profit from the fossil fuel industry? Or forbidding its members from investing in and working with predatory or discriminatory financial institutions?
After cooking breakfast at a homeless shelter recently, I left knowing what I hoped for those women and men: good shoes, dental care, and a warm, dry place to sleep that night. After talking to a client about her pending retirement, I hung up the phone knowing what I hoped for her: a sense of satisfaction with her well-done work and a sense of adventure for her years ahead.
But in late November as I was leaving the village of Ma, in rural Southeastern Haiti, I didn’t have a clue what to hope for its people.
By “rural,” I mean really rural. Our two-hour drive from Jacmel up (pretty much straight up) drought-parched, rutted, rocky roads ended at a small group of houses and businesses, where our 11-person travel group from Faith and Money Network was met by a gracious group of people from Ma who had walked to meet us. They mercifully carried our luggage up (again, “up” means seriously up) a loose-rock path that took us to the village, where each of us was greeted with a fresh coconut to restore our energy and celebrate our arrival.
What a stunningly beautiful place. My home in Kentucky is also gorgeous—rolling hills, wide rivers, and the world’s largest cave systems—but it is an ancient, quiet beauty. Southern Haiti is more dramatic. Layers of mountains ripple up and down between coasts on the sparkling, turquoise Caribbean Sea. It’s the quintessential postcard image.
Each week, the radio announcer invited people to listen. “Are you seeking meaning beyond work and consumption?” she asked. “Does it sometimes seem that money rules the world and runs your life? Listen to ‘Faith and Money: Making the Connection,’ with host Mike Little.” And people listened—more than 2,000 people each month from DC to Oregon, from Brazil to Indonesia, tuned in to interviews with people sharing their spiritual, holistic perspective on life’s money issues.
Our relationship to money and material possessions helps to define who we are, what we value, how we live, and even what we believe. Yet we often go on auto-pilot, embedded in our money-obsessed culture, and go about life not connecting the material with the spiritual. That disconnect can leave us feeling trapped in our money choices and separates us from our dearest values and from the wider human community. The radio programs were developed to remind us of the ways we already connect our money and our values and to explore new ways we can create those connections.
As made explicit in the name, the programs were designed for faith-based listeners, but most socially and environmentally responsive investors would resonate with the guests who probed the questions we face in our everyday lives.
We know our stress levels are related to our money choices, but can we escape the work-more-spend-more cycle?
Are our relationships distorted by money’s power dynamics?
How do we give and invest our money to make a difference in the world?
The question isn’t, “What is the maximum return?” but “What is the just return?” It’s time to reflect on what is, for you, a “just return.” Can you let a larger chunk of your portfolio do more dramatic social change work, without needing it to grow at the same pace as the rest of your portfolio? This is another variation on the global themes spurred by climate change and resource depletion: how much is enough?
In my “previous life,” working with the United Farmworkers as a young adult, then co-founding a magazine focused on hunger and economic justice, and later being a minister to the homeless, I liked to say that my work was organizing people. When social investing emerged, it seemed a natural extension of this work, and now I see myself as organizing money on behalf of social change.
Yet even within the world of sustainable and socially responsible investing (SRI), there has been a tendency to become trapped in the box of typical investment-think.For so long, we’ve focused on being able to say that screened investments match the returns of unscreened investments. But in focusing so predominantly on this aspect of SRI, we’ve adopted the priorities and goals of mainstream investing.
We can’t let ourselves lose sight of the core purpose of our choice to bring our values to bear in our financial decisions: to foster positive change. Returns matter, of course, but we want to achieve those returns in a way that supports our vision for a healthy, sustainable, equitable world. Put another way: we want to make a living, not a killing.
NI’s Andy Loving and Susan Taylor serve on the board of directors for the Faith and Money Network, which “equips people to transform their relationship with money, to live with integrity and intentionality, and to participate in creating a more equitable world.” For years, they’ve participated in, and at times led, programs sponsored by FMN, which create an open and trusting atmosphere in which participants explore their relationship to money in terms of biblical, social, environmental, and social justice dimensions. A big part of the work is looking directly at the ways our attitudes, assumptions, and habits about money affect our lives and relationships.
This winter, FMN is taking this work to the airwaves, with the production of a 13-segment web radio series and podcast. Episode 6, debuting on February 10, will feature Andy, sharing his experiences with community investing and banking. You can listen to all episodes at VoiceAmerica; click on episode link for episode descriptions and streaming audio. The series, or individual episodes, are also available as a podcast in iTunes.
A little bit more. That’s how much most people say they need in order to feel financially secure. No matter how much we have, most of us think we need just a little bit more. This perception of scarcity—of never quite having enough—drives an economy that depends on consumption. It drives us to hoard resources for ever-darker potential emergencies. For example, does this sound familiar? “We have to make more money. What if we need a new car?” “What if we need a new car and one of us loses our job at the same time?” “What if we need a new car, one of us loses our job, AND your parents come to live with us?” “What if …?”
That perception of scarcity also drives our reluctance to share what we have. As my daughter launches off to college this fall and my small-business health insurance premiums leap toward my city’s median income, I’m losing sight of what “enough” even means. Is there any way to save enough? Not until my clone can pitch in. Waiting for that.
When my children were little, I received a catalog from a company called “Perfectly Safe.” “Really?” I laughed. “Perfect safety? If only I could buy that in a catalog.” But that’s what we’re saving for, isn’t it? Striving for, in the most painful sense of that word? A climate of perfect safety. What we need is climate change! No, not that kind of climate change. We need the kind Mary Cosby, a spiritual leader in Washington, DC, wrote about twenty years ago as she described several principles that were key to her, both personally and in the adventurous ministry of the Church of the Saviour, which Mary and her husband Gordon Cosby founded. The first of those principles was “the importance of climate.”
The Sisters’ shareholder activism is just what Jeffrey Sachs says is needed as citizens work to build on the Occupy movement:
The young people in Zuccotti Park and more than 1,000 cities have started America on a path to renewal. The movement, still in its first days, will have to expand in several strategic ways. Activists are needed among shareholders, consumers and students to hold corporations and politicians to account. Shareholders, for example, should pressure companies to get out of politics. Consumers should take their money and purchasing power away from companies that confuse business and political power. The whole range of other actions — shareholder and consumer activism, policy formulation, and running of candidates — will not happen in the park.
Loving contrasts conventional investing — Wall Street economics — with what he calls “Sabbath economics.” With one, it’s all about getting the greatest possible return. With the other, the point is creating the greatest possible good while netting a good return in the process. “There’s enough for everybody’s need,” Loving says, “just not for everybody’s greed.”
I’d like to introduce you to a new program founded by my client, Nancy Wiens: the Center for Nature and Christian Spirituality. CNCS is a collaboration between Westminster Woods Christian Camp and the San Francisco Theological Seminary, and represents an exciting alternative financial model and educational program. For young adults aged 22-30, the program provides a fantastic, eleven-month, living and learning experience in a residential intentional community, with very little cash exchanged. Designed to be “budget cut proof,” the program includes an incredible array of learning opportunities, including an environmental education apprenticeship, challenge course leadership certification, permaculture certification, holistic financial planning (led by yours truly), a wilderness rite of passage, wilderness first responder certification, and last but not least, the Spirituality Concentration at San Francisco Theological Seminary, which includes 8 graduate level credits.
The financial model Nancy developed allows the program to offer an unprecedented value to the apprentices and the collaborators, on a shoestring cash budget. The apprentices receive educational programs and in exchange they work for the providing institutions, adding value in a variety of ways. For example, I taught a Holistic Financial Planning workshop for the apprentices and they returned to our small farm and helped us install a rain garden and rehabilitate the small creek that flows through our property. Meaningful value was exchanged instead of cash.
Nancy is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) with an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Christian spirituality, ritual studies, and the dialogue between theology and science. Her primary goal is to help people “deepen their relationship with God and respond to God’s calling more fully in their lives.” I had an opportunity to speak with Nancy recently and ask her a few questions.