THE FOUNDATION FOR A COMPASSIONATE SOCIETY
GENEVIEVE VAUGHAN: FOUNDER,
I was born in Corpus Christi, Texas in 1939, and inherited money that my maternal grandfather made in oil and gas and that my father managed after my grandfather’s death.
From an early age I began to wonder why my family had so much and other people had so little. My mother was involved in charitable activities which sometimes took her to the parts of town where poor, mostly Latina, and African American people lived. Sometimes she took my brother and me with her. She made us roll up the car windows so that we would not get polio germs – it was before the epoch of the Salk vaccine. What about the children who lived there? I wondered. They were right out there on the sidewalk breathing the air. Would they get polio? How was it that I wouldn’t get polio and they would?
A kind and brave African American woman who worked in our house, Bessie Thomas, sometimes took me to visit her home. She was good to me but her situation was different and much harder than ours. Her co-worker Delilah Hegwood was also very good to me, but had a lot of difficulties. Some of the children in our school were poor while some of us had a lot. Sometimes we went on trips to the border with Mexico. Children on the Mexican side begged in the street. All of these experiences made me wonder Why. My parents believed in tolerance and told me that there were good and bad people in every race and condition. Mama respected Bessie Thomas a lot, and relied on her. But when I asked her why we were rich and other people were poor, she seemed to think it was because we were better. Our family deserved it for being good people.
During the time I was growing up, there was a strong conservative mentality in my family. My aunt showed right- wing, films to groups in her gameroom. I was away in boarding school most of the time and did not receive the full treatment. Somehow I acquired a progressive bent, though the schools I attended (Hockaday School in Dallas and Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania) did not provide any plausible explanation for the poverty of the many and the well being of the few.
I guess it was my Italian husband who finally communicated the concept of exploitation to me. We were talking about Texas and Mexico and why people were poorer other side of the border. It was because the U.S. took from Mexico in many small and large way; he said, moving wealth from there to here. Of course sometimes there were transactions that went in the other direction, but the overall picture provided us with a lot more. A similar thing happened with wealthy individuals and families and poor individuals and families. There was a transfer from one group to the other. I was grateful to receive this information. I did not feel guilty, I had not personally exploited anybody, but I finally understood my place in the bigger picture and had an idea of how things worked.
I married at 23 and moved to Italy. Ferruccio Rossi-Landi was a philosophy professor who had an original mind and a very good education. We were married for 14 years and had three daughters, Amelia, Beatrice, and Emma. In 1965 he was asked to write for a journal which was then in formation, but which never actually materialized. His job was to apply the economic analysis of the commodity to the analysis of language, something that was already being thought about by French philosophers. I was fascinated by this challenge and thought about it a lot over the years. Ferruccio explored the theme in many books, and I began writing about it myself some years later. Something about it made me uneasy, however, as it did not really seem to fit.
I finally realized that the problem was the concentration on the fact of exchange. It left out my experience as a woman, of free giving, of satisfying needs without compensation. As I was going through the process of my divorce, I became a feminist and joined a consciousness raising group, which reinforced my faith in a alternative perspective of women, and gave me the strength to take my uneasiness seriously. I began to look at language as free giving (of words) to satisfy (communicative) needs. Like women’s free nurturing it created the bonds of community.
Turning this around again, it seemed to me that we should give materially to satisfy needs, instead of trying to aggrandize ourselves by accumulation, and that upon this life enhancing way we could build a women’s economics. It would be an economics which would not be based on the exploitation of individuals and countries but on nurturing, and on the creation of social institutions which would give respect fully without (exchange) strings attached. The book which took shape from these ideas is still in the writing; because I decided TO practice the theory before preaching it. The Foundation for a Compassionate Society is one of the results of this decision.
In my lifetime, I have seen the distance between the rich and the poor grow enormously and I have witnessed the waste of the world’s wealth on armaments, justified by military paranoia. It is no longer only the transfer of the (free)’gift’ of wealth from the poor to the rich that is the problem, but the defense of that transfer by the military, and resources wasted on that defense. We have fostered institutions of Patriarchal paranoia, instead of institutions of human nurturing and the creation of community.
I decided to go ahead and try to create community and institutions based on free giving at least on a small scale. This would provide a model which to some extent would embody the values I had identified. Perhaps like a tiny cog in a larger mechanism it would begin to move things in a different way. It seemed to me that my own economic nurturing needed to have a multiplier effect, and that by giving to alternative organizations which were already working to create social change, not only would the model be provided, but the cause of peace would be served.
Funding others, creating projects along these lines myself, and hiring feminists to work on them, has made possible a community of activist women which is diverse in race, age, class, sexual preference, and religion. It is a microcosm, a seed of a more egalitarian, woman based society. We struggle with each other of course. We know that we are not in Utopia and as the saying goes, “we are all the walking wounded”. The Foundation is a transitional organization, to get us to a better world. It is not perfect and all of us are deeply influenced by the Patriarchal society in which we live. But it is real. It has continuity. And I think we love each other.
Each project that is added to the Foundation’s list covers a somewhat different area of interest and allows us to see new horizons. For example, our collaboration with the Western Shoshone in Nevada, and our protests at the nuclear test site there, led us lo meet with Dr. Ernest Sternglass, who brought up the issue of the connection between low level radiation and breast cancer. His talks lead to our decision to take up that issue by putting on a national conference on the subject.
Each of the women working in the Foundation has connections and interests shared with other activists nationally and internationally. Funding the work of Ellen Diederich, and Fasia Jansen, on various projects in Germany, including the four Directions store, has allowed me to support Ellen’s work in procuring supplies for refugees in ex-Yugoslavia. When we sponsored a delegation of women from the U.S. to the United Nations’ Human Rights Conference in Vienna in 1993, Ellen was able to organize a visit of the delegation to refugee camps near Zagreb and a meeting with feminist groups there. This experience lead Foundation arts activist Sally Jacques, to organize relief efforts here in Austin, which led to many tons of supplies being sent to ex-Yugoslavia.
The feeling of helplessness which paralyzes many of us when watching international tragedies take place on TV, can be overcome by actually doing something useful locally. The drive for supplies provided Austinites with a way to make human contact with the real people behind the TV images. This has been facilitated through personal contacts that we have with dedicated individual women peace activists living in other countries.
For me, the idea of an economic way based on nurturing, allows the inclusion of men in our projects, because it avoids the essentialist bias of biologically determined behavior, and considers Patriarchy as a product of socialization. Biological men can behave according to the values of nurturing and the creation of community just as biological women behave according to the values of competition and short term profit. Of course men’s nurturing behavior requires some practice in supporting others’ leadership rather than insisting on the me-first ego that comes from socialization towards the profit motive. It is important that women have the positions of leadership so that the values we promote can be identified as providing a different model. Patriarchy requires its members to coopt others’ models, energies and values in order to succeed, and it is important not to allow and promote the model of co optation.
I know many women with money who do not feel empowered to use it for social change, or at least do not feel comfortable using lots of it for that purpose. “Liberate your money” a friend once urged me years ago.
The idea of nurturing social change with money as a part of a wider non-Patriarchal logic of nurturing comforted and supported me in my decision to become a funder. I am convinced that we are now on the “edge of time.” The Patriarchal me-first profit motive is devastating the planet, and causing starvation, disease, war and death for billions of people. The only honorable course of action for those of us who have wealth but who have not yet lost our compassion and sweet reason, is to try to change the very system of exploitation by which we have become privileged. We must find ways of addressing the roots of the problem.
I believe it is Patriarchy which is causing this sickness of the body and the soul, and I believe there is an alternative way in woman-based economics and culture. I extend an invitation to anyone with a similar understanding or desire to join me in providing the sustenance for this work.
By now, I have used up most of my resources, but the organization itself is valid, has an excellent track record and a self propelling momentum. To create another, similar organization might require a similar outlay of capital. I hope that other women and men who have the capacity, will share their resources with us. I personally feel very blessed to have been involved with this group of women and with the projects for social change we have created together. I think we have already helped to make a better world. This gives me optimism and joy in spite of negative appearances. Funding projects for peace and social change, among other things, gives the funder hope.