NoVo in the Media

Peter Buffett: Shifting the Balance

03 September 2012
BY Tracy L. Barnett
PUBLISHED IN The Esperanza Project
Peter Buffett: Shifting the Balance

Warren Buffett’s gift of a charitable foundation to each of his children opened new doors for them that they never knew existed. For Peter, it has been one of many transformative experiences along the way. Here he discusses finding his voice as a singer, his reasons for focusing his foundation’s efforts on women, his thoughts about the Occupy Movement, the Divine Feminine, solar flares, and much more.

Tracy: So that brings us up to 2006, when you got the philanthropic pledge from your father and you and your wife Jennifer set up the NoVo Foundation, and at that point you really shifted your focus quite a bit. Can you talk with me about that?

Peter: I did; a number of things happened. My sister and brother and I had always known that my Dad would give all his money away, so that wasn’t a surprise, and that felt right to us. We did not feel entitled to his fortune or his success. He felt the society he was born into gave him the opportunity to do what he loved every day. He had happened to make a lot of money, but he felt that society should get that money back, because that’s what allowed him to do it in the first place – and that makes perfect sense to me.

A lot of people are surprised by that; they say, ‘Gee don’t you think you should get that money,’ and I just don’t feel that way at all. And so my parents started giving us kids a small foundation in 1999. Actually before 1999 we had a very small foundation, but in 1999 we all got a foundation to kind of prime the pump, to get us used to it, to see if we liked it, to see if it was something we wanted to do in a bigger way.

My mother passed away in 2004, just as Spirit happened, she was there at the premiere and she actually passed away a couple of weeks later, and it was a kind of extraordinary set of circumstances. Then my very best friend in the world passed away in 2005. So I had a lot of loss and a lot of accomplishment as well around that time. A lot of things completed their cycle, for lack of a better word.

So it was a big time for me. And in 2005 I started to sing for the first time ever. My mother was a singer, and after my mother passed away, and my friend passed away, and Spirit really took its toll on my relationships with everything – my wife Jennifer as well as myself – learning what I could do and I couldn’t do… I learned what “sing your heart out” means. I started to sing and it was extremely transformative for me.

And then, in 2006, my Dad decided to give all his money away and my wife Jennifer and I benefitted from that as well as my sister and brother, and that’s when the NoVo Foundation was really born. Because it created a much larger foundation, something where we really had to hire a staff, and take on a real sense of what our mission and our vision and our approach were going to be. So those transformative years between 2004 and 2006 really culminated in the foundation work.

Tracy: And the focus you chose for this foundation was based on empowering girls and women. Can you talk about that?

Peter: It was really this deeper sense that the world is so based in domination and exploitation and how can we move it to a world of collaboration and partnership. How can we shift to what we would call feminine values – but it doesn’t mean literally women, it just means the idea that instead of exploitation and “power-over” and greed and scarcity, it’s “power-with,” it’s collaboration, it’s the things that generally fall on the feminine side – and just the fact that the world is out of balance in that way.

And what we did find as we talked to more and more people in the philanthropic world and beyond is that by supporting girls and women, it’s one of the fastest paths toward a more balanced world. Because in fact girls are the most marginalized people in the world, and if their voices aren’t heard, of course you’re missing half the population – but more importantly when you support them, they support their families, and their communities, and it starts to transform how the world is taken care of.

That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of men who work the same way and that’s not to say there aren’t women who work out of a masculine paradigm. It’s really not about men and women so much, but in fact girls and women are often the most efficient way to get to a balanced place in the world.

Tracy: I was really struck by a statistic I read in one of your videos, “Set Us Free,” the one filmed in Bangladesh, which said that when a girl earns income, she reinvests 90% of it in her family, compared with 35% for a man. I saw the same thing when I was in Bangladesh, and also in Africa when I was there.

Peter: That’s what’s incredible; you really do see that everywhere. The women are doing all the work; and when they get the resources, they put it right back into their families and their communities. There was an indigenous community somewhere in Central America – some students from Harvard went down thinking they were going to do one little project and write about it for the school.

And they found these women who were making these beautiful little bags of some sort. They turned them into cell phone covers and different things, and it ended up taking off, and these women suddenly got a big check. And they wanted to think about where should this money go, and they built a school; they put it back into the community. They didn’t say, what can we do for ourselves? They were thinking about the children, and future generations.

The future generation part is a fundamental thing, as you know with indigenous cultures everywhere. Nothing belongs to anybody, but it’s just held and passed on.

Tracy: Talking about the model of power with and collaboration – I keep hearing that we must move into a time and hopefully we are moving into a time where the Divine Feminine is becoming more dominant. Is that something you’re hearing and seeing?

Peter: Absolutely, and Jennifer has been digging deep into the historical ways it was suppressed and controlled, obviously religion is an easy way to look at that, but even just the domestication of so many things; the control, and the power, and the scarcity, really, and the fear of the creative force is fascinating to me.

I think of that as feminine, and certainly as divine; and it’s interesting to me that somewhere I think on the masculine side – because we don’t have that same power of creation, we don’t understand it as much, and we’re not connected to it physically, there’s something that stirs up a lot of fear and need for control because of it. And I think that can only last so long – it’s a cycle like everything else, and I do believe that the divine feminine elements you start to see coming out in different ways. The short answer is you see it and are aware of it – it’s exciting to see how it gets switched on in people and again, its not about men or women; it has no gender base, it’s about all of us.

Tracy: We’re hearing about climate change, peak oil, peak everything – that we’ve already reached the tipping point, and we’re going to start to see some serious crises. How bad do you think it will be?

Peter: I think it probably is that bad, in a sense. It’s amazing to me when people are comfortable how far they’ll go before they realize their comfort is coming at a huge price and that they are actually going to have to shift their behavior. And we’re so entrenched; I talk about this on my show with my cell phone. We all seem to need one now – and yet what’s going on in the name of controlling the minerals in those phones is unbelievable. When you hear the stories coming out of the Congo and other places where these minerals are being mined – we’re all complicit.

We’re not paying a real price for virtually anything, whether it’s the electric meter or the cell phone we buy – everything’s got an additional cost that we’re not seeing. So I think it’s bad, I think it’s going to get worse, I think it will be fascinating to see if things get reset by something as simple as a solar flare… which we’re certainly seeing this year a lot.

If a few grids get wiped out for a few weeks, some extraordinary things will happen. It may be that simple, and in some ways I hope it is: Where a few not totally catastrophic events or certainly events that reset our thinking about how vulnerable we are, and how much we have to take care of the things around us, that might be the best way that could happen. It would be awful to think that it might be something truly manmade, like a war, like a bomb –because then you get finger pointing, and there would be good guys and bad guys – but the truth is we are really all in this together, and you have to break down the binary thinking, that somebody’s good and somebody’s bad, or one particular process is good and one is bad, and all of that.

Because something is going to wake us up, and nobody knows what form it’s going to take. I hope it takes a form that is outside of our finger-pointing behavior, so that we can realize, we’d better all wake up together.

Tracy: And something that’s reversible would be great, too.

Peter: George Carlin has this great routine about plastic and about saving the Earth. He said, “The Earth doesn’t need saving. It’s been here for 4 billion years – It will take care of itself. And he jokes that maybe the Earth just wanted plastic, and humans were only created to make plastic, and now it can sluff us off. But the truth is, the Earth doesn’t need saving. It will be here; we need to save ourselves from ourselves.

The only way to do that is to recognize we are all from a tribe at some point; we all bleed the same blood, we all have the same hopes and dreams for our kids, there isn’t just an us and them. And that gets back to fear and scarcity – not so much the world we live in, but ourselves.

Tracy: How can we move in that direction?

Peter: Well, it’s going to take some very serious reimagining, because it’s very systemic. Occupy Wall Street is a great awareness raiser; anybody who’s talking about the environment, anyone who’s talking about agriculture, anyone who’s talking about the health system, and pharmaceuticals – they’re all related, they’re all symptoms. I don’t think any one of those things is the problem; it’s a symptom of the problem, which does get back to this fear-based, scarcity-driven model of behavior, which has been going on for thousands of years.

It’s not something that can just be fixed by passing some legislation for banking laws, or pass environmental standards. All those things are important, and they’re steps, but they’re still band-aids – and we have to look at a transformation in consciousness – and I don’t quite know how that’s going to happen, but we all have to do our part and we have to talk about it and we have to be aware that it’s systemic. If everyone does their part, we can make something happen.

Tracy: What is it that gives you hope in these times – that this transition is going to be something good and not a catastrophic, Mad Max type of disintegration?

Peter: It’s funny because someone mentioned not too long ago, or made me think about the terms hope and belief, and the fact that both of these words leave an opening for doubt.

I struggle with that – in one sense, everywhere there’s a beating heart there’s hope, and I see it everywhere, whether I’m doing my show in China or in Detroit or in Las Vegas, with these very different demographic makeups. And I get everyone everywhere to sing the last song in the show with me, and the chorus is: “Can we love in the time that we live in?” And everyone wants to sing along, and wants to know its true – and that gets back to hoping vs. knowing.

I know we have the capability for love and acceptance, and it’s taken out of us through our need for love and acceptance. The fact is we’re born so much in need of nurturing – we cannot walk around on our own in the first years of life and so we need that love and will do anything to get it – and in that process we all get hurt and wounded in some way, some more than others, because you can’t get it perfectly. So you end up coming into life needing to be nurtured to grow, and to live – and you end up getting those expectations – they fall short in some way or another. And so we start to get wounded, and we start to figure out how we adjust ourselves to get what we need, and we’re afraid of judgment – and it starts to create this other human being that we weren’t when we first started out.

But we’re all capable. We all are born with it; that I know. That’s not in me as a hope; that’s in me as knowing; we all have hearts that beat and are capable of love and acceptance, and being in relationship. I know we need to be in relationship and I know we can create a world that starts there and really is about something that is very simple and very small – which is about our hearts, our selves, our community, the people around us – and builds out from there, as opposed to this big, complicated, economic corporate juggernaut that’s just swallowing up everything in its path.

Tracy: Do you think we can pull it off?

Peter: I think we can. I think we have to just accept and be OK with vulnerability. The bankers on Wall Street are just vulnerable people who have figured out how to game the system to get the things they need to feed the fear that started when they were little kids. They’re just little kids; and we all are – even Rush Limbaugh – I have compassion for the guy. He’s working directly out of his wound. And it’s kind of funny how you can start to see that, and you can see that everyone’s got this light saber that they’re carrying around that is powered directly from where they were wounded. If you remove that part of it and say, “Oh my God, that poor kid – how can I allow that to come out and be nurtured and taken care of?”

In my show I try to model vulnerability and say it’s OK, we’re all just people on this planet, and let’s start reaching our hand out to reach somebody else in that way.

This is the third interview in a three part series available at The Esperanza Project.