“We can’t all be free in a system that was never built for most of us”: A Conversation on Wealth Redistribution
By Daniela Jungova
Illustration by Amanda Stosz
Three years ago, 27-year-old Emma Weinstein-Levey found herself examining her family’s economic status through the lens of social justice. For Weinstein-Levey, it was increasingly important to understand why inequality was so rampant in American society, and it soon became clear that—not in spite of, but because of her class background—she had to do something to leverage her access if she wanted to be a part of a better world.
She decided to join Resource Generation, the only national membership group in the U.S. organizing young people with wealth around the equitable distribution of wealth, land, and power. Shortly thereafter, her mother sold her thriving Minneapolis seafood business to give back to the local community. Inspired in part by her mom’s devotion to giving back, she believes that young people with class privilege and access to wealth have opportunity and responsibility to rectify things like the racial wealth gap and wage discrimination.
But wealth redistribution goes far beyond transferring money from the “rich” to the “poor.” Here, Emma talks about how anyone—regardless of class, income, and net wealth—can take a step toward a more just world that we need to actively imagine.
Emma, wealth accumulation is an inherent part of the American dream. When did you first realize meritocracy was a myth?
At a young age, I noticed how hard-working adults received different treatment based on their profession. In school, a custodian does as essential a job as the principal, but how different are their salaries? These dynamics were visible to me in part because my parents emphasized feminist values. My mom ran a seafood market and parented, while my dad was able to take care of our family full-time. As my mom’s business grew, I made friends and family from different backgrounds, learned about white privilege, and got involved with community arts groups, anti-war and human rights organizing. It was a while before I even thought to reckon with my own class privilege within these frameworks.
I think this was a manifestation of always having had access. Because I saw my family work hard and live a fairly modest lifestyle, it didn’t immediately occur to me to interrogate how the social, cultural, financial, and political resources I have access to could be borne both of hard work and systems that perpetuate inequality. When I graduated from a private college debt-free, I learned there was still $35,000 left in my education fund. Then it really sunk in how different my experience was from so many of my peers. Thankfully, friends, mentors, and experience called me to confront the reality of economic inequality in my own life.
Also, growing up Jewish, it was hammered into my consciousness that we had experienced exclusion and persecution for millennia. I learned that stereotypes about Jews and money derive from laws that prevented us from working many jobs. If a whole system was created to keep us serving one economic function as bankers and merchants, then how could any part of our current class structure be natural? It was clear that it was about maintaining a rigid power structure that favored white, Christian, land-owning Western European men.
How can we then practice a more equitable economic system? What are the mechanisms that can effectively contribute to a radical redistribution of wealth?
Those with direct access to capital can give money back to the land, people, and their labor that grew that capital. My mom’s business flourished in a neighborhood invigorated by Somali, Eritrean, and Ethiopian community members since the 1980s. Her employees are a part of our extended family. The city of Minneapolis is built on the Dakota people’s land. Both sides of my ancestry are Ashkenazi Jews who emigrated from Eastern Europe to Midwestern cities that we then left and divested from a generation later as more Black neighbors moved in and we further assimilated into whiteness. I want to honor these connections, be accountable for harm done throughout history, and value our interdependence. Reinvesting in these relationships spiritually and materially is a way to be in active solidarity and reconnect with our shared humanity.
But it’s not just giving money away. It’s about re-evaluating who and what we value, giving without stipulation (restricting donation money is effectively saying that the donor knows how to use funds better than the recipient, which is another class pattern), and being honest with ourselves about the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” narrative. Just like the saying that “no man is an island,” no one that I can think of has become wealthy entirely on their own. All the supporting people, policies, and circumstances that allow for such a small percentage of individuals to accumulate wealth deserve to be honored and funded.
An important part of my process has been to examine the leadership of campaigns and organizations whose work I care about. So much advocacy work, especially in mainstream nonprofits, is not led by people who come from the communities they claim to serve. For example, if a housing equity group is staffed by people who are new to the neighborhood they’re working in, they might not be the best people to organize local residents. Organizational diversity is not about quotas; it’s about the distribution of power and resources to reflect the organization’s values, and ultimately, the world it hopes to create.
How do we then switch gears to build fairer structures?
I think that deep accountability to the communities upon whose backs wealth inequality has been built on is the key. Here in D.C., the Resource Generation chapter is building our relationship with ONE D.C., an organization devoted to racial and economic equity in the city, and with the Diverse City Fund, a local social justice fund. We heed the call of community organizers working to keep this rapidly gentrifying city accessible to the people who built it for generations before it was of interest to so many more white wealthy folks.
Speaking more generally, Resource Generation was founded to organize wealthy folks for redistribution. We need to switch gears from distancing ourselves from class privilege to confronting it and doing something about it. To organize ourselves, we host national retreats like Making Money Make Change and Transforming Philanthropy, and maintain 17 local chapters, most of which host praxis groups for new members to process and act together. Within these convenings and chapters there are a myriad of fundraising efforts and cross-class relationships through which we pursue our vision.
Another great mechanism to upend traditional power structures in philanthropy are social justice funds—examples include Headwaters Foundation in Minneapolis and the aforementioned Diverse City Fund. These are often housed at foundations with which impacted community members decide how the funding is distributed. Giving to these funds as a person with class privilege is a way to acknowledge that we may not be authorities on what other communities need. If people with wealth stay in decision-making roles, we remake the problems we are trying to solve.
The last thing I’ll mention is taxes. Tax policy is one mechanism to make our economic outcomes more fair, but we know that U.S. tax law could do more to support redistribution. Many people with wealth gain it via intergenerational transfers. I will be the sole inheritor for both my parents. With the recently signed tax bill, these assets may no longer be subject to the estate tax. Knowing this, I joined fellow RG members to disrupt the Senate’s vote on the tax bill in an act of civil disobedience. It was important for me to publicly reject this vile plan as someone who stands to “benefit” from it (in the eyes of the corrupt politicians and corporate interests that created it, that is).
Can a more equitable distribution of wealth exist within the current economic system, or do you think they are mutually exclusive?
It seems to me that the global trend, led by the United States, is to skew the ability to accumulate power and wealth to the ruling class. That class is constructed and maintained by colonialism, imperialism, destruction of natural resources, white supremacy, patriarchy, and the prison-industrial complex. These ideologies are embedded in our economy and government by the very people who believe they have something to lose if all people are treated equally. Even as a white person, someone who is not treated as less than for my race, class, or ability, it’s hard for me to believe that we can all be free in a system that was never built for most of us.
Could universal basic income be a part of the solution?
Sounds like a good idea to me!
And what do you say to those who think that a thorough re-evaluation of merit, labor, and wealth is too naive, too radical, or un-American?
I would ask if those people are satisfied with how we live now. I believe that most of us would like to see an end to homelessness, hunger, and other related issues. These problems are symptoms of the illness that is defining humans’ worth by how much they are able to produce (or their ability to game the system as is so often the case).
Now could be the time to try a different approach to fixing these problems. I think people imagine that wealth redistribution only happens if poor and working class folks storm the proverbial castle with torches and pitchforks (which, let’s be honest, can you blame them?). But it doesn’t have to be. We can live better than this fight to the death. As a fellow RG member told me last summer, “the future is something we haven’t even imagined yet.”
Emma Weinstein-Levey is trying to stay optimistic while living in Washington, D.C. By day, she does public relations for civil rights advocates. Nights and weekends she is baking bread, running, organizing (economic equity, prison abolition, reproductive justice), reading, or seeing live music and art. Originally from Minneapolis, she is a champion of the Land of 10,000 Lakes and will gladly tell you it about its many virtues (Prince is just the beginning). She has been a member of Resource Generation since 2015 and is involved in the D.C. chapter. Find her on Twitter @ebwlevey.