Values of a fulfilling path: Concert/conversation with Peter Buffett at Bard

Before becoming deeply involved in philanthropy and moving to Ulster County, Peter Buffett grew up “normal” in Omaha and then established a successful career as a composer and musician. (photo by Dion Ogust)

In 2013, Peter Buffett wrote an op/ed piece for The New York Times titled “The Charitable/Industrial Complex,” which criticized the top-down approach of many philanthropic organizations: an approach that often failed to solve the problem it was meant to help and, in some cases, even caused harm. He went further, lambasting the rising inequality in which “philanthropy has become the ‘it’ vehicle for leveling the playing field” and noting that “giving back” had become a conscience-salving ploy by the very rich that did nothing to chip away at the system of exploitation that had enabled them to amass their fortunes in the first place.

The topic was of more than academic interest: In 2006, Peter’s father, Warren, had gifted a billion dollars to each of his three children’s foundations. The gauntlet had been thrown down, and in condemning “philanthropic colonialism,” Peter Buffett wrote how he and his wife, Jennifer, were seeking a different path. “We don’t have the answers, but we do know how to listen,” he wrote. “As we learn, we will continue to support conditions for systemic change,” which he described as a “new operating system…built from the ground up” that would do more than “kick the can down the road.”

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Hence the mission of the Buffetts’ NoVo Foundation: “to foster a transformation from a world of domination and exploitation to one of collaboration and partnership.” The foundation focuses on five key areas: advancing the rights of adolescent girls and ending violence towards women and girls in developing nations and underserved communities; supporting education and life skills for underserved youth (including an initiative that provides higher education to low-income high school students, as well as the mentoring that helps them to succeed); supporting indigenous communities; and promoting local living economies.

Since 2012, Peter and Jennifer have resided full-time in Ulster County: a proximity that has made the mid-Hudson Valley a unique beneficiary of the foundation’s commitment to strengthening local living economies. In December 2013, NoVo gifted $13 million to an initiative called the Local Economies Project of the New World Foundation to purchase the 1,255-acre Gill Farm, on the Hurley flats. With an additional $20 million, the Hudson Valley Farm Hub, as it is now called, is training growers in all aspects of running a farm, including business management and experimenting with a variety of crops and ecological farming methods, in collaboration with regional partners such as Cornell Cooperative Extension of Ulster County. All of the land is dedicated to organic farming.

NoVo also has given generous grants to the Hawthorne Valley Farm, and it’s funding a program to connect local farms to food processors and food-service buyers at New York State institutions: A pilot program at SUNY-New Paltz and three other SUNY schools is providing fresh local farm produce to the school cafeterias, and student interns are helping with marketing and various aspects of the program. Other grants include an agricultural curriculum at the Rondout Valley School District, linking farmers with food banks and funding the Hudson Valley Agribusiness Development Corporation, which provides technical assistance to food entrepreneurs.

Local radio has also gotten a boost, with a NoVo grant to the Community Foundation funding the recent purchase of WKNY, with new headquarters in a historic octagonal building on Kingston’s Broadway. With Jimmy Buff at the helm as executive director, the station will offer 168 hours of commercial-free weekly programming. Peter Buffett, who usually likes to remain behind the scenes, will serve as chair of the board.

Before becoming deeply involved in philanthropy, Buffett, who grew up “normal” in Omaha prior to his father’s earning billions from his investments, established a successful career as a composer and musician. When he was 19, he dropped out of Stanford and moved to San Francisco. He started out writing jingles for a new cable channel called MTV and composed the music for the famous “Fire Dance” scene in Dances with Wolves, as well as the score for an Emmy-Awarded CBS mini-series titled 500 Nations, which traced the history of Native Americans. In 2004, his theatrical show Spirit: The Seventh Fire premiered on the National Mall at the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

But he has found perhaps his greatest success with his bestselling autobiography, Life Is What You Make It: Find Your Own Path to Fulfillment, which has been translated into 15 languages. In describing pivotal points in the development of his career as a teenager and young man, Buffett turns each story into a morality tale about the importance of underlying values, even if, at the time, failure or frustrated expectations seemed to be the short-term outcome.

Buffett brings his performing talents to the narrative with Life Is What You Make It: A Concert & Conversation with Peter Buffett, which will be performed at Bard College’s Fisher Center on March 13, 14 and 15, with Buffett playing piano and Michael Kott on cello. Lynn Woods recently interviewed Buffett:

Not every best-selling author turns his book into a popular show. How did this production evolve?

It actually happened in reverse. In 2006 I was asked to speak to a wealth-management group. They said, “We hear you’re pretty normal. Could you speak to our wealthy clients and give them tips on how to raise a ‘normal’ child?” I gave a talk to a couple of these groups and thought, “I’d like to bring who I am into this talk, where I can play some songs and tell stories about growing up.” Pat Mitchell at the Paley Center for Media approached me about doing an evening event. I put together this idea of playing music and storytelling, projecting old pictures from my childhood, at that event, and someone said, “That’s a book.”  I was introduced to an agent, and the book was born.

Did you find it difficult to write the book, given that this was a completely different medium from writing scores?

I wrote the book with the help of a very active editor, and when it was published I felt really good about it. I ended up writing the op/ed for The New York Times on my own, and it was extremely popular. I spent my whole life trying to write a hit song, and instead wrote a hit op/ed!

 

You’ve performed the show all over the world. What kind of response have you received?

The most gratifying and consistent response across the board is, “You’re so honest and real.” It’s got to be the easiest thing in the world to just show up and tell the truth.

In China, my father is wildly popular, but I didn’t know how much until the book made an entrance into the country, selling over 400,000 copies. They retitled the book for different markets, and in China the title was Be Yourself. I didn’t fully grasp the concept of what “being yourself” meant in a communist country until I went there. Kids and young adults were just floored by someone who did not follow in his father’s footsteps and found it more important to live a life than amass a future fortune.

Will there be anything special about your upcoming show at Bard?

We’ll be filming the show, which is particularly unique and exciting. It’s the first time we’ve done so, and it will turn the show into some other kind of project, give it a boost.

Looking back, is there anything you would change in Life Is What You Make It?

I don’t think I would make changes. I still get feedback. I would write a different book, focusing on my experience of my relationship with my wife and community, what it means to engage with people. An interview came out with my wife and me this year in Moon Magazine, and it got so much reaction. We were so deeply honest about what we’ve been through and how we healed our relationship.

How long have you been together?

We’ve been together for 27 years and married for 22. I have two grown daughters from a previous marriage. (I was married when I was 22 to a woman who had four-year-old twin girls.) This is a benchmark year, since I’ll be 60.

Do you have an apartment in the City?

No, we gave it up six years ago, when we moved up to Ulster County full-time. Six acres of our 50-acre parcel are farmed by a wonderful couple, who live in a farmhouse on the property and have a CSA.

What motivated you to provide the NoVo funds for the purchase of the Gill Farm?

We felt it was such an asset to the community, and we didn’t want it to fall into the hands of developers. It’s been a process of discovery, to see how farming can be best-supported. It starts with the agricultural community. We have young farmers learning midscale farm practices, and we are also developing a farmscape ecology program. We’re learning as we go: how to get the soil health back and generally steward the land into what’s best for the community, including the farmworkers.

Jennifer and I both have a connection to indigenous people, which has led us to discover a deeper knowledge of indigenous ways of being and an indigenous worldview. The farm to me represents a beautiful piece of land, extremely giving in terms of what grows on it. How do we reconnect our relationship to that and help feed those nearby, including the schools? How do we define how people experience the land, and what’s the best way to do this, from a holistic point of view?

Moving here and eating food from the land I live on changed me. You can tell life is better when you know what a tomato actually tastes like. This is an opportunity to explore an alternative: Instead of the sadly extractive aspects of the economy, where you make the most and ship the most you can to market, let’s shift to growing what the community needs and wants. We don’t want to compete with local farmers, but we are looking for opportunities, such as bringing fresh local produce to institutions.

Your exposure of the “philanthropy/industrial complex” in your New York Times op/ed and your response to that – an alternative approach to philanthropy, based upon listening and empowering people who are the focus of the aid – is refreshing.

I love talking about this in my show. I take questions throughout the show, which gives me an opportunity to put my mouth where my money is. It’s been an enormous learning opportunity for me. What we’ve seen, experienced and learned is that so often philanthropy is about keeping the fundamental structures in place. I’m reading a book about Reconstruction after the Civil War, The Republic for Which It Stands, and it’s such a lesson on why we are where we are today. When the Civil War was won, it was a new day, with guiding principles and ideas to [take the nation away from slavery]. But the minute Lincoln was assassinated, those ideas went away. [Incoming president] Andrew Johnson was a white supremacist who was pro-slavery. The nation got the worst leader at the exact time we needed someone enlightened.

What kinds of hard choices do you have to make as a philanthropist?

The challenge is: How much do you fight and how much do you reimagine? Instead of pushing against something, perhaps it’s better to go around it and go to another place. A lot of philanthropy is the tension between, for instance, do we need more beds in domestic shelters or do we want to stop domestic violence? Yes, we want to stop the bleeding and address the root cause, but we know there are priorities right now.

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The values you talk about in your book – education; the moral imperative to level the playing field so there is more opportunity for all, as expressed by your mother’s commitment to Civil Rights; the importance of doing one’s work well, rather than serving the Almighty Dollar – are under attack right now at the highest level of government. Do you have hope for the future?

The silver lining is that Trump has been the best organizer we could ever have. He has galvanized and energized people who normally work in a particular silo to look across the bow and realize what we’re all working on really is the same issue, whether it’s equal rights for people of color, people in poverty, women, immigrants or LGBTQ people.

I’m seeing a lot of motivated people because of this election, people coming together, but I personally feel we are living inside a flawed structure. I’m pretty convinced there will be a different form of structural and social cohesion that makes more sense than the United States of America, here and in other places of the world as well. I don’t know if it will take decades or centuries or a minute, because everything’s in constant flux, but we’re talking about a 200-year-old-plus experiment that was just an experiment. Another form will start to take shape, since nothing gets done [under the current government] and this guy [Trump] knows nothing about politics. In his book Surviving the Future, David Fleming talks about the idea of how we have to right-size our world, our economy, and temper the evil of consumerism. Something has to give, and the ultimate question is how many people get hurt in that right-sizing.

Has the election changed how you view the work of your foundation?

It can help mitigate the suffering. Without being prescriptive, we’re trying to create conditions for the change to happen. We believe in the future that partnerships and collaborations will be key. The people with the greatest knowledge are the people who are experiencing that dire situation. Or the organizations that are already supporting aspects of the work that will give a woman or girl agency in her life will know. I believe in staying in the background and finding smart ways that are already happening to solve problems.

NoVo’s Spirit Aligned Leadership Program recently awarded three-year grants to eight “Legacy Leaders”: female elders in indigenous communities, including Oglala Lakota Sioux, Hopi and Mohawk. That approach, of empowering women within a community to effect change, seems rare – yet completely logical and natural, not to say just.

We met with the elders a few months ago and their first question was, “Why are you doing this?” They hold so much knowledge, yet are so marginalized by the culture at large. We are trying to find places to put our money where people haven’t normally looked.

How do you assess the value of a program to which you’ve contributed?

It’s very easy to take your philanthropy dollars and tell the best story and have the best picture. What I’ve learned is: There are three things we need to pay attention to. The money is one. My last name also attracts attention, which we can use when necessary to focus attention on something we want to be mindful of. Most importantly is how we behave and how we act in the world.

Our approach to funding is to listen to our grantees. I listen constantly and am learning from that. We don’t want to bring a colonial consciousness to what we’re doing. Jennifer and I are not saying to people, “We know what’s best for you.” In our partnerships with grantees, we say, “Tell us what you’re learning.” When people are getting funding, they don’t want to lose the funding, so they’ll tell the foundation what they want to hear. But we want to learn and go deeper.

What’s your biggest asset?

We have a tremendous staff. Somewhat related to my dad is the notion that you want to hire people who are smarter than you. The people at NoVo do so much of the heavy lifting. Jennifer and I, quite fortunately, can learn from that and get involved in different things. It means I can read a book, which might change my thinking about what we do at the Farm Hub.

Your philanthropy recently extended to the micro-level, when NoVo provided the funding to the Community Foundation for purchasing the radio station WKNY. What was your motivation?

I got to know Jimmy Buff at WDST doing a show called What’s Next? Also, I had experience with the power of community radio through NoVo’s support of Radio Milwaukee. As I got to know more people in Kingston, I saw a powerful combination of forces that a radio station could help “glue” together. Jimmy shared that feeling as well. So we set out to find a station that might work in and for the community. WKNY, with Warren Laurence at the helm, was the perfect spot.

What do you think of Kingston?

Kingston carries with it all the complexities of a town of 25,000 people. We have a wonderful mayor, and the city government is in a place where they can respond and relate to the things we care about. Someone said the Renaissance was just shared enthusiasm, which says a lot about Kingston. There’s great intentions and passion, at a time when hopeful and helpful communities are a beacon to other communities. It’s a beautiful community of people and projects, and we hope we can lift it up and come up with ways we can all survive the future.

Life Is What You Make It: A Concert & Conversation with Peter Buffett, a multimedia show based on Buffett’s best-selling book with Buffett on piano and Michael Kott on cello, takes place in the LUMA Theater at Bard College’s Fisher Center for the Performing Arts on March 13 at 7:30 p.m., March 14 at 11:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. and March 15 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $20 (admission is free for high school and college students). For more information, call (845) 758-7900 or e-mail fishercenter@bard.edu.

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