How do people of wealth leverage their status to advance social justice? How can we use the power of storytelling to shift social and economic paradigms? Join Abigail Disney in a candid conversation about her Disney heritage, the power of creativity, and how she leverages her identities as filmmaker, philanthropist and activist to uplift peace and justice.
Abigail E. Disney is a filmmaker, philanthropist, activist, and the Emmy-winning director of The Armor of Light. As president and CEO of the documentary production company Fork Films, she produced the groundbreaking Pray the Devil Back to Hell and co-created the subsequent PBS series Women, War & Peace. She is also the Chair and Co-Founder of Level Forward, a new breed storytelling company focused on systemic change through creative excellence.
ResourcesLevel Forward Peace is Loud Daphne Foundation Seeding by Ceding by MacKenzie Scott
Mallika Dutt: Welcome to Leadership Moves, presented by Inter-Connected. I’m Mallika Dutt. How do people of wealth leverage their status to advance social justice? How do we use the power of storytelling to shift economic paradigms? In this episode of Leadership Moves, join Abby Disney and myself in a candid conversation about Money, Movies, and Movements.
Good morning everybody. Welcome, welcome, welcome to this next conversation that we’re going to be having for the Build Leadership Move series. I’m really excited because today we’re joined by Abigail Disney, who is — I mean, there’s all these very formal descriptions of Abby that I can share with you, but here’s what I would like to say. Abby is one of those people who really takes storytelling and meaning making to a whole other level of engagement. Yes, she comes from the Disney family. So film and storytelling is an ancestral legacy for her. She’s taken that to a place of really calling in conversations about justice, about equality, beyond that really a new way in which we can all live together on this planet.
She’s done an extraordinary amount of work around economic justice issues. She’s going to talk about her current film that is really challenging the inequities and the economic systems, particularly here in the United States, but really which has global implications. She has produced and directed films that have really been quite iconic, made history. She won an Emmy for Armor of Light. She produced Pray the Devil Back to Hell. She is constantly rabble- rousing around wealth, demanding more taxes for people of wealth as part of movements that have looked at how we address Covid from more equitable perspectives and demanding that people of wealth be taxed more. And of course she is an incredible philanthropist and does her philanthropy very creatively through a number of different vehicles and organizations.
And most recently, she has co-founded something called Level Forward that is investing in cutting edge media of different sorts and bringing more of these voices into the public sphere. Aside from all of that, she’s one of the smartest, most generous and funny people that I know. So I am so delighted to be having this conversation with you here today Abby, welcome.
Abigail Disney: Thank you. Thank you, Mallika for that lovely introduction.
Mallika Dutt: Abby, I’d like to begin with having a conversation with you about something that you’re passionately engaged in right now, and that’s the film that you’re making about inequality at this moment, which draws from your heritage, from your Disney identity, as well as your commitment to social justice. So can you tell us a little bit more about the film, what it’s about, and what’s exciting you about it these days?
Abigail Disney: Well, first of all, the idea of my Disney heritage cracks me up a little bit. But yeah, it’s a really unique name to grow up with, and it has really shaped a lot of my life both for good and bad. And one of the people who works in Anaheim — I mean, I grew up going to Disneyland with my grandfather holding his hand. We would go in the back entrance, and so we would meet all the cast members, and it was a beautiful thing. And everyone knew him, and he knew everyone and he asked about their families, was the CEO of the company who insisted everyone call him Roy. So these are the memories I have as a child. He taught us that those were the hardest working people you’ll ever, ever meet, and you better respect them or there’s hell to pay for it. And he always made a point of picking up garbage. I know that sounds like a trivial thing but he went out of his way to ensure that people saw him do that, because he wanted to make sure everybody know that the CEO didn’t think he was too good to pick up a piece of garbage.
So flash forward to two years ago, I get a Facebook message, and I don’t generally read my Facebook messages, but it’s from this guy named Ralph who said the company is really intransigent, we’re trying to get a new contract with the Union and the company, and they just won’t move. Is there anything you can do to help us? And at the time, I answered him with like, well, no, I don’t have a role at the company, and they really don’t care what I think. So I said, no, I can’t help you. And then I kind of didn’t sleep for a while because I had to admit to myself that there wasn’t exactly nothing I could do, because I still had the opportunity to kind of raise my voice. It’s just I didn’t really want to do that. But I did. And it led to a whole series of newspaper articles and things. So we picked up a camera and we went out to Anaheim and we met with Ralph and a couple of the other people that work with him. And we’ve been looking at their lives and what it’s like to come home as a cast member when you’re not really sure you can feed your family, what it’s like to be losing your housing over and over again. What it’s like to be 20 years old and really want to go to college, but there’s just not enough money to do that.
So we’re going to be talking about that, but what we want to do is use Disney as a thing that draws people in and then make sure they are only doing what every company in America does. They are only lifting everything they’re doing from every business school textbook. And the problem is Disney but it’s also not Disney; the problem is the way we think we’re supposed to operate businesses now. And it’s the result of 50 years of — well, more than 50 years but the more immediate version is the result of 50 years of conscious reconstructing of the American economy to center capital and ownership. And so I’ll be using animation, I’ll be using storytelling, I’ll be using talking heads telling us the history of this, so hopefully we can move some hearts.
Mallika Dutt: So Abby, you believe deeply in the power of storytelling for shifting hearts and minds. And this example that you just shared with us is a testimony to that commitment. Can you talk a little bit about why you think storytelling is so important? What do you think it allows us to do? And what is your — as the director, as the creative mind and the creative voice, what is the way in which you enter into that space of storytelling? What is it that you’re trying to bring alive?
Abigail Disney: Well, I always say it’s not hearts and minds because it’s hearts. We drag our minds behind our hearts, but we make our decisions with our hearts. And very often that’s a good decision making process because it’s rooted in the heart. But when fear takes over and other things took over — storytelling is everything, I’m sorry to say, because narrative drives so much of our decision making. And most of the world is now sort of enslaved by a very specific narrative about the way the economy works. And so we’ve been taught in the United States that the economy is like the weather. It’s just a thing that happens. And so you really need to get in there and interrupt the narratives that are disabling people from defending their own interests and from speaking up for people who can’t speak for themselves, and that’s really what I’m trying to do. You use one narrative to replace another one.
And what I have found is when you’re using storytelling to interrupt these destructive narratives, you have to speak all to the heart. What I found was every time in a film that I’ve resorted to a little bit of explaining to the front part of the brain, people kind of step out of your film a little bit, and it’s tempting to want to lecture the audience. But if you can invite them into a story, and if you can get them to feel that thing called flow, where they sort of are losing themselves in the story, that’s when they open up the most, and that’s when they’re open to new narratives and new ideas.
Mallika Dutt: How does this approach of really speaking to people’s hearts and bringing new meaning and new narratives into very old constructs for how we have been doing, not just the economy, but everything in our world, how does that then play into the voice that you carry into corporate spaces? Because you’ve also been very — out there, very vociferous, very articulate with other economic leaders, with CEOs, with other people of wealth. And so you’ve been speaking to this agenda for a long time. Tell us a little bit about what it’s like to be presenting the counter narrative when you are inside the boardroom or inside a corporate space, and how this approach of speaking to hearts through moviemaking and through filmmaking connects with that other approach?
Abigail Disney: I’ve been invited into boardrooms kind of all my life, and from a very young age I was engaged in corporate decision making around our family’s assets and engaged in a dialogue in our house about business decision making. It was just something that was always very transparent and out there. And when I started taking up a role in an investing community and on a board of directors, on boards of directors, what I found was, in a business context, they don’t want you to speak to hearts for sure. They have driven hearts right out of that space very consciously. And any kind of language that indicates that you’re speaking on that plane is totally unwelcome and sort of dismissed as immature or unsophisticated or unimportant or overly emotional and all these things. It took me a long time. It took me getting older, frankly, and more impatient to realize that actually that’s what was all the more reason to be speaking on that plane.
And I know enough about the way businesses operate to call DS when I hear it. And I’ve been hearing so much of it, especially around the idea that you can’t possibly pay a living wage to people. The year I started speaking up, Disney paid its CEO $66 million in a single year. It was the most profitable year in the history of the company, and the hourly workers were still going home and not able to put food on the table for their families. And I am sorry there isn’t a CEO in this country who does recognize what I’m saying when I say bastard, that is absolutely unacceptable. And you know as well as I do, if you want to share those profits, you can share those profits. It’s not that hard. It’s not rocket science. So I have decided to unify — I mean, I had fractured myself into two parts where I spoke with one vocabulary in one group of people and another one with another group of people. And I decided to just use the vocabulary that felt right when I spoke on the subject of business. And that’s honestly, I think, why I’ve gotten so much traction, it’s because there’s just sort of relief in the air to hear someone speaking with a moral frame of reference about the way business operates.
Mallika Dutt: That’s such an important insight, Abby, about how in our advocacy, in our leadership, we often end up fragmenting ourselves, how we end up sort of segmenting the personal, the political, the emotional, the feeling self, the intellectual self, and then forget about all of those parts, the gazillion other parts, right? So the parts that are joyous, funny, sassy, sexy, or the parts that are sad or wounded or have experienced abused, and we end up with all of these different fragments. And I think that one of the things that storytelling allows is the ability to weave, start weaving all of these dimensions back together and showing up again as whole people and as whole leaders. And so I’m really struck by what you just said and the importance of the fact that you’re saying that by doing that you can experience the shift, you can experience the shift in how conversations are happening. I’m curious about whether you’re seeing a shift culturally? Is there a generational shift that you’re seeing around these approaches to economic equality, equity, justice? Is it more sort of in our generation? What is your experience of showing up whole, speaking truth in this way? And then what’s happening with the different audiences that you’re engaging with, particularly young people?
Abigail Disney: I find that the people our age and older are 61. So I’m at the very, very, very end of the baby boom, one of the last years of the baby boom. So I kind of don’t really fit into a particular generation. But I will say that I do think that our generation is a little bit of a lost cause. There’s been such an indoctrination from the day we came out of our parents’ lives in the idea that business is business, and it just is what it is and you don’t challenge it. Because I was in my teens in the ’70s and especially in my conservative family, the ’60s were seen as this terrible aberration, and any impulse in that direction ever again was just a very destructive thing. So I find that what I have to say resonates much better with younger people because they’re so hungry to see someone my age speak up in a way that feels natural to them. And I honestly think that because of the way everything is integrated in younger people in terms of the way they go online.
And they move from screen to screen and app to app, and there’s a flow in their lives that we are maybe ill-equipped to understand. And so when I speak in an integrated way about business, and when I say you have permission to bring all of yourself to that context, no matter what any older person tells you about that, I find that there’s real hunger for that idea. So in business schools right now, one of the people I talked to for the film is the woman who teaches the ethics course at the Harvard Business School. And until a few years ago, that was a four-week optional course that you didn’t take for credit. So you can imagine how seriously everybody was taking it. And she’s now teaching one of the most popular courses at the Harvard Business School. And what she says to me is actually when I start talking about ethics in business, I find the young people coming in are already halfway there. They’re already thinking differently about how to go forward differently.
Mallika Dutt: Abby, that just makes me feel such a sense of — I don’t know, hope really, because for so many of us who’ve been in movement space, the folks on this call, the folks who are part of this community, so many of us who’ve been in the social justice movement space for so long, sometimes it feels like such a slog, that we’re just constantly trying to move this boulder uphill. And on the one hand we can see the impact of the work that we’ve done and the shifts that have happened as a result; and on the other hand, we also see growing inequality. The pandemic has certainly opened up our eyes to really just the dystopian structures and systems that we’ve created around the world. We saw the levels of violence against women and girls, gender- based violence sort of increased dramatically while we were in lockdown, increasing threats to democracy in so many different parts of the world. So there’s all of that happening. And then there’s what you just shared that a four- week course on ethics at Harvard Business School has become one of the most popular one-year courses and that young people are coming into that space with a totally different mindset than our generation.
And so I’m reflecting on that and thinking that, yes, really it’s so important for us to celebrate those moments and to be able to see the consequences of our actions in that way. And it’s making me think about some of the movies that you’ve already made, starting out with Pray the Devil Back to Hell, that really looked at peacebuilding in Liberia. But really the larger question of women’s voices in peacebuilding and how that became such a national and global catalyst for conversation around peace. And I wonder if you would reflect on what that journey was like for you, as well as where you see some of the same, perhaps positive consequences, in our quest for peace and the role of women in peacebuilding?
Abigail Disney: Right. I think that as activists, the slog is long and hard, and the deeper you are in it, the harder it is to appreciate the incremental change as you make it. And real change is increments, increments until it’s paradigms, and the paradigm shifts come suddenly at a moment when they feel the most impossible. And so activists are such an interesting blend of pessimists and optimists because they believe that change is possible. But they’re also seeing the next problem, seeing the next problem, seeing the next problem. And so I think that if we want to strengthen the activist community, one of the things we have to learn is how to appreciate what we’ve accomplished and spend some time in appreciation, offer ourselves that grace long enough before we move forward to the next problem, because there’s always the next problem and there’s no promised land that we’re building towards – there is no finish line. And I say all of that because one of the most discouraging things about having made that Liberian film is that it’s a mess now in Liberia, it’s a mess.
And Ellen Johnson certainly was a terrible President who brought a lot of corruption with her. And I know that’s not the international community’s view of her, but I was closer to what actual people were saying and it is going to be a long time before anybody votes for a woman again in Liberia. That having been said, nobody is firing a weapon in Liberia either, at least not in an organized, violent way and they’re still at peace. And so you have to take the time to acknowledge that these women really did stop the shooting, these women really did affect the peace process. These women really continue, the same women who are out there on the field dressed in white and so forth to dog the administration and make sure that the corruption is fought and that people don’t operate with impunity. So, yeah, it was a long journey for me to get to the point of being able to make Pray the Devil Back to Hell, because I had sort of started in my early 30s when my children were learning about women’s activism here in New York.
And it was through the grassroots, community-based organizations in New York that I sort of taught myself about philanthropy, and I’m so glad that I did it that way. I’m so glad that I stayed close to home and drilled really deep instead of getting on an airplane and from the stratosphere looking down upon whatever the way the international community tends to do it, because I developed an incredible faith in women and the way women organize and the way they understand the job of leadership. And so I started walking upstream one step at a time, from understanding who women are as leaders in communities, to what they might bring in a larger political context. And that’s how I got to Liberia, I went with [Indiscernible] [00:22:04] who asked me to come and meet the woman president and hear the story and it was there I heard the story that became, Pray the Devil Back to Hell. So I wouldn’t have made that film — I heard the story, everyone else heard the story, nobody understood it.
I understood it because of the relationships I had here in New York City, right here in New York City, because the story was totally credible to me. And I completely understood who was doing it and why they were doing it, and what they brought to the party in terms of power. So I understood that first of all I needed to lift this story up. It needed to be heard and it needed to be seen as credible in the international community, because up until that point, someone from Human Rights watch said to me, why would you make a story about those women, they were pathetic. That was how they were seen until we made this film. And I needed to lift them up because they deserve, first of all, they just deserve the decency and respect that they had earned. But also because I knew what it could unlock in other women. Women are very motivated by seeing other women like them operate effectively. I mean, I think our neurons they are like heavily developed, and so when we see it, we feel like we can live it. So I knew that this film had the potential, really, to trigger a lot of other change in other places, and that’s kind of what it did.
Mallika Dutt: Abby, there’s so many things you just said. There’s so many leadership moves, if you will, one being the importance of being rooted in community of one’s own community and really learning from community and grassroots. The second is the phenomenon of sort of the international parachute and from above way of being in relationship to other parts of the world, particularly if you’re based in the global north and your relationship to global south countries, and so many of those dynamics that play out in philanthropy and organizing and all manner of things. And so you’re kind of pointing to that. The third thing that you’re uplifting is the ways in which women’s organizing and women’s leadership can get dismissed or overlooked or not taken seriously in so many different kinds of ways. Another thing that I think was very important, what you said was the complexity of social change. So the movement led to a new president who was a woman who ended up not being what we had desired. And that has happened in so many different contexts, not just with new leadership that is female, but new leadership that is thought to be progressive or following our values in certain ways.
And then it turns out, what’s happening in Myanmar is really sort of another example of that and how those things can play out. So just so much in what you just laid out for us to be thinking about in our own organizing work and in our own leadership work. What I’d like to take this though, is the way in which Pray the Devil Back to Hell opened up conversations around women and conflict, and women and peace. There was a PBS series. There were all kinds of other initiatives that sort of emerged out of that. And so I’m curious to know in terms of some of the shifts that you have seen, like you pointed out with young people and their approach to business ethics today. Are there other trends or consequences like that that you see across the peacebuilding field?
Abigail Disney: Absolutely. It’s funny, I spent a lot of time in the 1990s working with Marie Wilson who at the time was the head of the Ms. Foundation. And she had read Carol Gilligan’s research about girls and the kind of cliff they all fall off of around 12 years old. And she created Take Our Daughters to Work Day as a response. And it was such an elegant, simple act that contains so much, the bonding and the taking your kid and seeing leadership at work, seeing the way it really worked and so forth. It really was powerful. Now, girls empowerment has in many ways turned into a not entirely great juggernaut that is now being used to kind of girl wash all kinds of companies. It’s disingenuous, so unfortunately. But that’s always the case, right? Things always get taken and run with by all the wrong actors and so forth. But I say that because that is a massive change. I mean, since I was paying attention to this 25 years ago, things have shifted on the idea of whether or not girls matter.
So categorically that the early it would be almost unrecognizable to you, most of you younger people who are listening to this, the way we talk about girls now is completely different and transform in part because of this small, tiny program that the Ms. Foundation started that took off. And Marie went on to do a lot of work around women’s representation in the media and whether or not that would translate into more women in politics. And it absolutely has and she was absolutely right about that. So there have been changes, and certainly we’re seeing more women move into spaces of leadership. The problem was always to assume that if a woman moves into leadership, everything will be great. I mean, Ellen Johnson certainly came from the international community.
She worked at the World Bank, she worked for the UN. She was a creature of the structure. And so she understood enough to know that she could draft on this movement of grassroots women and to translate that into power.
And she wasn’t an entirely horrible president. She just wasn’t all we’d hoped she would be. And the story of her kind of less-than-great leadership is the story of somebody who came from inside of a system that is not working and was very much kind of educated by emotionally and politically and spiritually by a system that doesn’t work. So we need to take what we’ve learned about women’s leadership, we need to go the next step. And it matters very much where the women come from and what frame of reference they bring with us into leadership. And there are women who bring all of themselves to the work, and there are women who know how to game the system better than the men do. And that’s where you get the Sarah Palin, Margret Thatcher, and people like that. So we are learning. We’ve made great progress on women leadership. When people push back on me, when I talk about women and peace and peacebuilding in the natural relationship, I invariably get somebody who mentions Margaret Thatcher, always, always 100% of the time.
My response is, you just named the exception that proves the rule, because I can tell you about 30,000 years of human history, and I can tell you who, generally speaking, is more likely to pick up a weapon than who is not. So I can’t argue that every single woman on Earth is more peaceful than every single man. But I can tell you, at the level of what’s generally true, there is a major difference. And when we were making Pray, we got a chance to talk to one of the warlords who had been in the room at the peace talks, who is now a Minister of Justice. But anyway, I said to him, the pivotal moment is when women threaten to strip naked unless peace talks go forward. I said, so many women in your country have been raped, like, clearly, you don’t care about their sexual autonomy and self-determination. So why does one woman stripping naked have such an impact on you guys?
And he said they were our mothers. And you would have to ask yourself, what would drive your mother to do something like that? There wasn’t one man in that room who didn’t ask himself, what have I done to bring us to this point? So there is a way in which, in the right framework and under the right leadership, and I could use language as crazy, pure enough heart or strong enough relationship to the heart, women have the capacity to speak on a wavelength that penetrates all the layers of corruption and structural power and so forth, just right to the core of people. It’s why I argue that actually the most peace we have, each of us as a human being is generally and it’s not true for everyone obviously, but it’s generally in the arms of the woman who just gave birth to us. And she does the first real spiritual peacebuilding, which is to say, I love you, you’re going to be okay, I’m here to take care of you.
That is we all know peace. We have all felt it deeply at some point in our lives. And so I believe that what women do when they invoke their maternal stature socially, what they’re also doing is reminding people that they’ve already been in peace. Peace is not some external state that we build toward, but rather something maybe that we should peel back and find there already. It’s a place we know. And so what women can bring to those public spaces of formal spaces is the capacity, just like with a machete sliced right through all the nonsense.
Mallika Dutt: The relationship between peace and the home and peace as we think about it in the context of war, it’s such an important relationship to connect and recognize, right. I mean, there are so many ways in which we think about violence in the home are separate from violence in public spaces or separate from violence in war. And really the relationship of how violence and discrimination have become ways in which to support many of the inequities and the structures that we’ve created across a multiplicity of systems and structures are something that we forget, particularly when we talk about peacebuilding. So, what you just said about remembering that the state of peace is something that we all actually intrinsically in our beingness know, and there is a way in which we can remove the layers to find that place within us, and then perhaps from that place engage with one another and create different kinds of conversations and different kinds of societies is — it’s a big thing. It’s a big thing to be able to access and to speak to and to address and to own and to claim. So thank you for that. Thank you for making that connection and for that insight.
You’ve just gone through this Covid campaign, if you will, where 83 millionaires and I don’t know if that’s the correct number, but that’s the number that’s out there, 83 millionaires came together to organize and demand increase taxation, to provide the kinds of services that were needed during this pandemic. And in a way, that also is a journey into people kind of finding some core values within themselves to be able to subvert or shift this way of thinking that money making or people who are millionaires are only about more wealth creation or protection of wealth, that there are different ways of thinking about this. So I’d love to hear more about that campaign and how it came together. And I can’t help but think about MacKenzie Scott and all of the gifts that she’s making and the letter that she wrote, the public medium statement that she shared just day before yesterday in making large gifts to organizations actually around the world. So I’ve just been sort of thinking about the shift that’s not just taking place in young people, but also amongst people of wealth who are identifying different steps. So your reflections on that?
Abigail Disney: Yeah, that statement, MacKenzie Scott was extraordinary and an example of just what I’m talking about. Like what happens, man or woman, if you bring all of what you know about the world and all of your emotional connectedness that otherwise needs to be suppressed, there’s in the American economic system, it’s been built over the presumption that people must suffer. And I really believe it’s rooted in slavery. The fact that slavery trained us all North and South to believe that suffering, pain, and death are necessary aspects of a healthy economy. And MacKenzie, I wish I knew her, I’m calling her by her first name, but honestly, I would give her the biggest hug in the world right now if I could. MacKenzie said no, well actually, no, I don’t want to accumulate. I understand that this money has come to me, it’s ill- gotten gains, and I don’t want more of it.
And believe me, when you have 50-whatever billion dollars that she has, it’s actually quite hard in a year to spend the money that’s coming out of the money, much less. So it’s hard to prevent it from growing. So you can’t wash yourself clean from that money; you just can’t. And what she’s doing is she’s diving straight into it headfirst and saying, yes, I’ll never be clean, but I will still do good and right things in the world. And believe me, I know many of those organizations, and they are amazing organizations that got funded by her. And I completely lost track of your question.
Mallika Dutt: I was curious if you felt that there were shifts happening with people of wealth around how they practice not just philanthropy, but also in terms of taxation and other ways in which we’re reorganizing these economic structures?
Abigail Disney: I mean, there’s always been the capacity for things to be different. There’s always been that possibility. If, for instance, when I go through my day and go to the market or do the regular things that I do, I take into consideration other people, that’s just natural to the human condition. We care about other people. And so if somebody gets hit by car, I stop and see how they are and so forth. Yes, so what I’ve learned is that my job is not as a member of a high functioning society, simply to look out for my own interests or simply to look out for the interests of my class. And that’s all these people are doing when they say, we need to step up and pay our fair share. No, democracy is simply about everybody just sticking up for their own wellbeing. And I know that I’m a better, happier person in a high functioning society where there is less suffering. So I don’t think that my job should be to find a way to further double down on what is already a terribly unfair situation.
And Jeff Bezos, MacKenzie Scott’s former husband, seems to have an insatiable thirst for more money and more power. And by the way, the rocket that I don’t know if you’ve seen the rocket, he’s going to space on, it’s exactly a penis. It’s just like exactly a penis. So take that to mean whatever you want it to mean. But it really does reflect a sort of fundamentalist version. It’s a fundamentalist version of patriarchy what he’s doing there, not masculinity and not being male patriarch. MacKenzie Scott and the other kind of people who are stepping forward are saying like, that is not a working relationship. That is not a situation that we believe is best for society and we’re going to start to speak up. No. I’ve been reading about the French Revolution. There were lots of wealthy people who stepped up and stuck up for people who were impoverished. Many of them were insincere, many of them failed, many of them were ineffective, many of them defected the minute it got uncomfortable for them. I know that it’s not good for a society to rely on its noblesse oblige in its wealthy people for change. But I also know that we can be constructive members of a larger set of actions that could rebalance the structures around us.
Mallika Dutt: When you were talking about the contrast between MacKenzie Scott and her former husband, Jeff Bezos, and sort of the insatiable need for scale and wealth and more and more and more, there’s a way in which that makes me think about how a lot of funders approach organizations, which is all about how are you going to scale? How are you going to scale? What is the impact? How large can you possibly be? How many people can you reach? How many millions of lives can you impact and change? And certainly in the impact investing world, and the social entrepreneur world, that push towards scale and size can often really undermine the quality of the work that people are doing in very complex, very challenging situations.
And so when you were saying that I was just sort of thinking about how some of those orientations and patterns also impact philanthropy because they’re all kind of interconnected. And it takes me to a question that Arturo is asking, which I’ll just read, which I’ll just read out to you, Abby. And Arturo asks, What has been helpful to you in moving people who have wealth to be okay with changing the power setup that gave them that wealth? So, where are the places that you found that people actually are able to resonate with that that have been strategically helpful?
Abigail Disney: Well, I mean, I sort of make it aside that job for me to always speak to young people who are coming into wealth that they didn’t ask for or earn, and to help them with the transition from being a child dependent on parents to being all of a sudden, an adult on whom other people were dependent. And believe it or not, I know it’s hard to sympathize with, but it’s a very difficult time in life. And what helps me be less messed up about my situation was engaging with the world and understanding myself to be just one part of a larger mechanism and not a very big part of that. That’s actually the good news. That’s actually why it helps to become involved and to become engaged. And so that’s how I work with people is to say like, no, actually there’s a big party out here and you’re invited, join it; you don’t have to be isolated, you don’t have to be alone. Wealth can be very, very, very isolating. It breeds paranoia, it breeds insecurity, it breeds megalomania. But if you can get outside of the circles around you of people that are there to benefit by your wealth or there to protect your wealth and so forth, you can get outside of those circles, you’ll find a richer, better life. So I do phrase in terms of self- interest, but if the self-interest is rooted in other interests, I don’t think that’s such a terrible thing.
Mallika Dutt: I mean, you’ve been in the world of philanthropy for a very long time, and Holly is asking a question about spending down, and I’ll just read her question out, and she asks, How do you make philanthropists comfortable spending down their wealth, especially those who inherited it? I’ve had conversations with family foundations in which they get somewhat hysterical discussing the spending down and argue what happens when we’re gone, who will support these causes? I can’t help but contrast this approach to the way in which MacKenzie Scott is approaching the way in which she’s sharing her wealth or making philanthropic gifts to a wide variety of organizations. But I’m curious if you have any thoughts for Holly?
Abigail Disney: Yeah. That’s such a good question, Holly, don’t ever stop raising these questions with the family foundations. Younger people are definitely more sympathetic to the argument, that’s because they’re young and they don’t know a lot yet about how complicated life could be, but also because they’re young and they have the energy to find their way, and they’re not as afraid as older people are who are more sort of entrenched. Yes, so my generation tends to become hysterical when we talk about spending down. And it’s ironic because these are the people who have money because of the way capitalism always generates wealth. So why then suddenly, at the end of your life, are you losing faith in that? So why then at the end of your life, are you not confident that the next generation will generate wealth? I mean, it’s a really interesting blind spot that you find in wealthy people. It’s always been very frustrating to me that if you have a million dollars in an endowment, you can only spend 50,000 of it. That just is ridiculous to me.
On top of which, the money in the endowment, the million dollars that you’re looking to for a 6% to 8% to 10% annual return is invested in all of the activities that you’re trying to redress with your philanthropy, hopefully. So you’re undercutting yourself. The Gates Foundation, the famous example is the funding in the Niger Delta with money made from investments in Shell fracking oil. Come on, you guys. So there has to be — where in my family of origin and my family that I built, we’re all in the process of engaging with the idea of not just spending down, because the answer is never going to be philanthropy, it’s going to be in restructuring the economy. So spending more than 5% and then on top of it, investing in places where — philanthropy and business both have the same problems. If you just take longer, spend more and expect less, then you would have a better result.
And this is true in making money. So we are looking to invest in new economy businesses, in justice related businesses, and employee owned businesses, and things like that. And then if there’s income out of those investments, that goes to philanthropy, but only if there’s investment out of just businesses and just economic activities. So the spend-down makes people crazy. But there’s a lot of ways to think about it. And certainly there has to be some more care given to the idea that your investments, when they’re just sitting over there, spitting out income, they’re not neutral. They are not doing damage. That money that you think of as idle and in the corner is actively destructive and you need to rethink where it is.
Mallika Dutt: That’s one of the most cogent and persuasive cases about the way in which the non-profit industrial complex functions and how all of these pieces are so interconnected. And the paradox, really of so many of us who do social justice work than being dependent on foundations and philanthropy that are actually part of the very things that we’re trying to change and all of the relationships that get created as a result of that. Also, all of the ways in which the way in which, on the other side of the table, we are supposed to speak to philanthropists, whether it’s individuals or families of wealth, whether it’s foundations and all of the anxiety and very complicated relationships that create in the effort to transform the structures that we’re a part of. And so how we kind of often end up being in a situation where — I’m thinking about Audre Lorde’s very famous statement, The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. And I feel like this is a great moment to actually read the Rumi quote that MacKenzie Scott included in her medium statement and she says — well, and Rumi says, A candle as it diminishes explains, ‘Gathering more and more is not the way. Burn, become light and heat and help. Melt’.
Abigail Disney: Melting is a great metaphor for spending down and that’s essentially what she’s saying.
Mallika Dutt: So we have two more folks with questions, Geeta Misra from Korea and then we’ll go to Rukka. So Geeta, go ahead.
Geeta Misra: Hi. Thanks for this wonderful conversation. And so, Abby, this is so great, because having been with fund, but also being on the side of raising funds, I find often how do we get philanthropists to speak with a mix of activism and connect that to resources? And what I mean is we know some people’s lives have been made less worthy of protection. People in the bottom of society, normatively. So whether it’s men who are raped in war because they’ve been genderized as female or trans people, sex workers, lesbians, Muslims in my country and the intersectionality of their identities, but very often I see philanthropists kind of homogenizing men, homogenizing women, homogenizing people with disabilities as if that’s the only thing people can speak about.
And really not speaking to some of the fault lines around movements that are struggling to advance rights for all people and not creating identity [indiscernible] [00:51:05] my suffering is worse than your suffering. So where do philanthropists — how do we get philanthropists to speak with bit more complexity, intersectionality with those stories because the easier stories to tell are the stories of, oh my god, women are being raped, women are — but there are certain women that are being abused on many different front. So just walking those rooms, how do philanthropists speak?
Abigail Disney: There’s of course so many different kinds of philanthropy operating. And there are places like the Ford Foundation where they’re really leaning into exactly those kinds of questions and trying to think more holistically about life and the way life operates. And then there are small family foundations where — and I’ve had this experience where if you try to make that happen in the room, dad will shut you down. So it all depends on what kind of philanthropy we’re talking about here. But basically, family dynamics are just social dynamics in a smaller form in a test tube I guess. And I think this is about attitude shifts and culture change. I think there is the beginning of a movement, and if you know something is effective when the right wing in this country is up in arms about it, and they are freaking out on critical race theory. And what is critical race theory but a theory, why are they so scared? And they’re scared because it’s a way of analyzing structures that understand how deeply woven racism and sexism and intersectional issues are woven into our systems.
So progress is being made at the general public level. And I’ve noticed that those kinds of changes tend to take a long time to infiltrate philanthropic decision making because philanthropists seem to need to operate slowly and they are very resistant to change. So I feel like the thing we need to do is to continue carrying that message wherever we can to encourage people to understand intersectionality as a genuine thing. It’s a challenge to philanthropists, because what they’re trying to do is take a very complex world and a complex set of problems and parse them and take them apart and then say, Okay, well, if money goes here, it will change this thing. So they’re actually very invested in simplicity, but the burden is on them. They’re the ones stepping in, saying, I want to be helpful, I want to create change. So it’s up to them to make a better effort. And so we need to continue advocating for philanthropy to take a longer look and a more complicated look. Again, they need to spend more, take longer, and expect less. That is the only way philanthropy will return to any kind of effectiveness.
Mallika Dutt: Thank you for that question, Geeta. I think it’s also a matter of the shifts that we need within the movement themselves and how we analyze and construct those fault lines and those identities. So it’s a philanthropy question and then how much does philanthropy affect how we talk about those issues, right. So that’s such an important question for all of us to remember the importance of complexity. Rukka, you had a question, so I will go to you.
Rukka Sombolinggi: I wanted to share some experience that in — and I’m from Indonesia, I’m a Torajan. I am the Secretary General of Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara, Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of Indonesian Archipelago. Our members are indigenous community and our citizens, our members are around 20 million individuals. [Indiscernible] [00:55:28] and I’m the 31st women Secretary General. And my term is hopefully I can go to retirement next year because we are going to have the new election next year. So pray for me, bless me. But for my experience, I’ve been working with the organization throughout since I was graduated from university, like 22 years back. But my experience is one of the movement, one of the struggle, the challenge is the biggest challenge that we are facing as indigenous people when we are communicating our struggle and our situations is in communication.
We are indigenous peoples. We are one of the best storytellers. The way we survive, the way we remember our history is literally through storytelling, that’s through our traditions, our culture. And I still can remember my ancestor, like, 20 levels up because of my great, great, great, great, great grandparents because through storytelling, but however, in this whole modern situations now, I feel like we fail to communicate ourselves not just to philanthropy, but also especially to the general public, which actually we feel like if we get more support from general public, then it’s easy for us actually to allocate for rights. And I think philanthropy in these terms can actually play a very important role. For example, make more epic movie about indigenous peoples and the colonized Hollywood, for example, bring more the history of indigenous peoples in the Hollywood, for example, and not just the white supremacy. It’s all about beautiful European white, because what is happening to us, is actually through the remind, yeah, that’s what I wanted to ask, what do you feel about that Abigail?
Yeah, we are lucky also, my organization has been supported by Ford Foundation. And I remember my story like more than 10 years, 2012 I got an email and say, we are from this family, from philanthropy organization, and we wanted to give you this amount of money. And for us, that time, 100,000 is huge and it was the very first time in our life somebody gave, before we have to go out and beg. And suddenly somebody came and say, we wanted to give you money and I was like, how did you find us? And we’ve been working with them. They’ve been supporting us until now and they are based in California. So I think we need to have more a philanthropy that can help communication more on the colonization of way of seeing things, and in the field of communications, like filmmaking, music industry, which is very helpful for us indigenous peoples, and thank you very much.
Abigail Disney: Thank you. It’s nice to meet you. Yeah, it’s the biggest challenge, I think communicating around activism. I think the hardest thing is around indigenous people and the issues that they confront. I spent some time long ago in the Kalahari Desert with some activists, and we were speaking with the indigenous people there. Some people call them the San people, some people call them the Bushmen. And you could see how deeply disconnected they were from the world of people who are making decisions about their lives. And they were struggling with how do we communicate in a way that they understand us and still be ourselves and still honor the way we communicate? It is so difficult. And then what I find is the politics of indigenous people are such that the further away someone is, the more sympathetic they are to the indigenous population.
But the closer the person becomes, the more they question indigenous people. And there’s a need for the indigenous people to authenticate themselves or credential themselves as really indigenous. The closer people are, they think indigenous people are just faking it or being reverse. So the communication problem depends on where you are in relation to the power structures and where those power structures are in relation to you. I’ll tell you that one of the things that makes a film very effective as a way of changing hearts is time. There’s a certain amount of time you have to spend on a person’s face in a shot to really pull your audience into a relationship with that person. And so if you want people to cry, you need to spend some time with your character before then you ask them to cry. So that’s a problem, right? Because that means that everybody has only got so many hours in the day, which means that there is only so much room for so many films.
And so film can’t be the only way to have these conversations, because right now the world is just so crowded with different kinds of content struggling for everybody’s attention. So I think film is very effective, but they’re also — we have to cultivate other ways, like taking advantage of the internet to have live and real interactions with people from far away and showing our culture in that way, in a live way and talking about our issues with people. What was so interesting to me was we had a woman from the Cherokee Nation with us in the Kalahari, and the number of times and ways in which they connected around indigenous culture, even though wildly different places, that was really powerful to me as somebody white coming from a dominant culture. So working with other indigenous populations is a really interesting way to sort of say, like many indigenous people are facing the same set of problems and approaching them in similar ways and that’s a powerful thing to see, weirdly. It doesn’t make people conflate cultures.
What it does is it causes them to recognize patterns, and that’s exciting to the brain. So short content is also a really good way to communicate, and we forget that. And short content, while it doesn’t create the same emotional resonance, can still, if framed right, really be very effective in switching the switches on in people’s brains to realize something, little epiphanies. So I think that there’s still a lot of different ways to communicate that are very powerful. Writing is a really important medium, and getting people to write about you is also a really important way to communicate. But there’s no question in my mind that people in indigenous cultures are working at a real disadvantage in terms of the communication environment we currently have. And I don’t think that’s — if the indigenous cultures want to maintain their integrity, I think that’s always going to be a problem, because if they really let our communication environment in, it will change the minds and the hearts of the people in these cultures. So yeah, it’s a hard problem, and it’s a question of getting help to communicate.
Mallika Dutt: Thank you, Abby. I mean that was a complex answer to a complex question. And Rukka, thank you for reminding us about the interrelationships between money, movies, movements, and also reminding us how indigenous cultures have this long, incredibly powerful legacy of storytelling, of how meaning making has been such an incredibly important part of those histories and cultures forever. And Abby, I’m listening to you raise the paradox of — well, then if that way of storytelling uses modern ways of communication and storytelling, that somehow that would corrupt one. I’m actually now thinking there would be an amazing conversation to think about how that coming together could actually create new, emergent forms of storytelling that might actually create new ways in which we engage hearts and shift minds, if you will. We have run out of time.
So I am going to just give a nod to Arturo for the question around how do we shift to actually going into communities and listening rather than going into communities with our own agendas, particularly from the point of view of philanthropy? Tarcilla asked the question in a slightly different way, which is about how racism and colonized countries related with the political and economic power is now the complex problem with violence and why that means that we need to be investing in change, not only what’s currently in fashion or the issue that everyone is focusing on right now. I’m going to just go back to you Abby, with this last couple of minutes that we have, and ask a slightly different question and that’s, What’s giving you joy these days? What’s making you really happy other than your doggies who are delightful?
Abigail Disney: Even if they interrupted us. Well, thank you for that question. I like to end on the note of joy. My family – I have four children. They’re all grown up, and every single one of them is just magnificent. I can’t tell you how beautiful it is to see your children turn into really good principled people. And they teach me, and they change me, and they keep me honest and doing the work I need to do every single day to hold to my realness, because it’s not a fixed quality, and you have to constantly be working at it. And my family of origin, which has changed dramatically in the last few years, it has suddenly become so open to the idea of rethinking investment, so open to the idea of giving it all away. And I’m so thrilled to work with them because it has been a long and painful path to this place. So I’m incredibly blessed by family all around me.
Mallika Dutt: So, Abby, really it’s always a joy to talk to you and I always learn so much, and this conversation was no exception. So I hope you can see the folks from around the world who have checked in, and there’s many more folks from around the world who are going to be participating in this conversation. So thank you, thank you, thank you so much. So if you unmute yourselves and just let Abby hear your voices, that would be awesome. And thank you so much for joining us today.
This series of Leadership Moves is supported by the Build Program of the Ford Foundation. Stay connected at mallikadutt.com, that’s mallikadutt.com.
This series is supported by the BUILD program of the Ford Foundation.
“Inter-Connected Theme” composed by Devadas, (c) Mallika Dutt, LLC 2021.
Production team: Mallika Dutt, Devadas Labrecque, Ambika Pressman.