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The Power of Half: One Family's Decision to Stop Taking and Start Giving Back Paperback – January 7, 2011
"Rebound" by Kwame Alexander
Don't miss best-selling author Kwame Alexander's "Rebound," a new companion novel to his Newbery Award-winner, "The Crossover,"" illustrated with striking graphic novel panels. Pre-order today
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It all started when 14-year old Hannah Salwen, idealistic but troubled by a growing sense of injustice in the world, had a eureka moment when a homeless man in her neighborhood was juxtaposed against a glistening Mercedes coupe. "You know, Dad," she said, pointing, "If that man had a less nice car, that man there could have a meal."
Amazon Exclusive: A Letter from Author Kevin SalwenDear Amazon Readers, What does "living well" mean? By traditional standards, our family was there--nice cars, expensive vacations, dream house, fancy stuff in it. It took a fourteen-year-old to make us take a second look. That teenager, as you probably know from glancing at the book description above, is Hannah (now seventeen). As she and I waited at a stoplight just a few blocks from our home, Hannah's head swiveled between a homeless man and a pricey new car. As she wrote in her journal later: "Driving past the homeless man that one time changed my life. I felt sad, like I wanted to help him, but angry, really angry. At myself mainly. Thinking there was so much I could do for this man and for a lot of the poor people in this world considering I had so much." Now, Hannah is not one to keep emotions to herself. She brought that anger back to our family's dinner table, challenging us to "be a family that makes a difference in the world, even if it's a small difference." My wife, Joan, and I defended ourselves: We volunteer for Habitat and work at the food bank. Hannah stared, unimpressed. Joan and I described the checks we wrote to charities each December. Hannah rolled her eyes. Finally, Joan decided to challenge back: "What do you want to do, sell our house? Move into one half the size? Give up your room?" That opening series of questions launched our family on an audacious project that we chronicle in The Power of Half. How we decided to sell our house. How we chose to invest the proceeds. Our travels to the places where we decided to work. Along the way, we tried to figure out how much was the right amount to give to charity, both in time and money (the average American gives 2.1 percent of income). We learned about extreme giving (50 percent, anyone?) by average people and about new programs popping up to teach kids about sharing and spending. But if that were the whole story, I doubt we would have written this book. Joan and I began to realize that our "Half" project was transforming our family--heightening our trust in one another, empowering our kids, building a deeper connection. Because we, as the parents, shared influence and listened in a new way to our kids, our project to make the world a little better was making the chemistry between us a lot better. In other words, we had traded some stuff for togetherness--and I bet a lot of folks would take that deal. So Hannah and I are hoping that our book can inspire you to create your own "Half" project. We don't expect you to sell your house, of course (that's nuts!), just to look at your life to determine what you have more than enough of. It could be time; it could be belongings. Depending on what issue you care about, you can brainstorm creatively what you can live with half of. (One example: If fighting drug addiction is your passion, you could give up half of the cups of caffeine-laced coffee and cola you drink.) By following the road map in the book, you can build your own project, and in turn create deeper bonds among your family, community, any group you choose. Oh, and of course make the world a little better at the same time. That's our definition of living well now. Kevin Salwen
(Photo © Allison Shirrefs)
A Q&A with Kevin and Hannah Salwen, Authors of The Power of Half
• we view the world as a single community, a place where the luck of where you're born shouldn't be the biggest determining factor in whether you receive help
• there is no safety net in rural Africa--no Head Start, no food stamps--to fill critical gaps
• we wanted our project to completely solve a problem with a group of people, and since our money goes further in Africa, we learned that we could help entire villages build their futures
• we wanted something exotic, something that would take us out of our comfort zone. It was so helpful for our kids (and for us as parents too) to be "the other" for a little while, to recognize what it feels like to be someone born without the privileges we enjoy. Q: Any other reasons The Power of Half is particularly relevant now? KS: These times are extraordinary for so many reasons, particularly the competing moods of fear, change, hope, stress. Parents are feeling those emotions even more strongly (and it's even more acute with divorced or single parents). With our senses heightened, so many of us are rethinking our lives. The Power of Half offers readers inspiration and new tools to bring their lives a healthier focus, all wrapped up in an entertaining family tale.
(Photo © Allison Shirrefs)
Photographs from the Authors of The Power of Half
(Click on images to enlarge)
|The Salwen family in front of their old house||Moving day at the Salwen house||Hannah Salwen cuts the ribbon for the Hunger Project||Where "the power of half" brought the Salwen family|
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
In this well-meaning but self-congratulatory memoir, the Salwen family decides to sell their gorgeous Atlanta mansion, move to a home half the size, and commit half the proceeds to the needy. Putting their plan into action, a raft of family decisions and meetings are led by mom Joan, a former corporate consulting executive and teacher, with the help of an actual whiteboard. Entrepreneur and activist Kevin, a former Wall Street Journal editor, writes with daughter Hannah, who, as instigator of the family project, provides commentary and practical suggestions. The chronicle is intriguing and the cohesiveness of the four family members is remarkable: "Friends and others... always focused on... the big house, the big donation, or the trip to Africa" with their eventual partner, The Hunger Project, rather than "the transformational energy" of "a family eager to stand for something collectively." The authors tend to gush over their efforts while discounting the privileged position that allows them to make them ("we think everyone can give one of the three T's: time, talent or treasure"); their unflagging optimism, buttressed by clear self-regard, can also be tiring.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Perhaps, if others follow in this family's footsteps, perhaps they would consider spending the money in this country. Our family will continue to support American charities with our American dollars.
The book turned out to be more a story of project-management (which they may be successful at...the book ends without us knowing whether there is any real fruit being harvested by those they planned to help) and parenting responsible, decent children (which they are definitely successful at.)
Because I live near Atlanta I know that the Salwen's are upper "class" folks living in an upscale neighborhood with children attending schools that cost $20+k per year to attend (per child.) I begrudge them none of this. However, knowing that the only thing they appear to have cut in half is their home's "value" leaves me knowing that while they have done a great thing in donating sizable financial resources to alleviate poverty in Africa, they really haven't given anything that cost them dearly. They still live well, have substantial savings and investments that allow them to live well with two expensive homes and still write an $80k check, attend private schools and experienced no change in lifestyle, etc.
While I think their children have learned good critical thinking skills, how to make a commitment and stick with it, I was left with a sad feeling at the end of the book. In the end this felt like a very clinical, business-like approach to "managing" the ugly reality of poverty. Hannah and her family will still be seeing the homeless men (in growing numbers right now) in Atlanta poised beside the BMW/Mercedes crowd. Nothing appears to have changed either for the man that inspired Hannah's idea or for Hannah herself.
In the event that the family reads this review, I hope this and other reviews like it do not discourage you from continuing to give. I don't think that is the point of any of the reviewers (or myself.) I think we are hoping that you take another huge leap and share your successes and growth with us.
I'd like to ask Hannah a question (in a truly loving manner, Hannah, because I think you are fine young woman with incredible potential): How do you feel now when you continue to drive by the growing number homeless men, women and little children next to the BMWs and Mercedes on the streets of Atlanta? Should you encounter one of these people as you leave your $20k/year school grounds, are you conscious of the fact that between school, housing, transportation, food, utilities, clothing and entertainment, your family spends hundreds of dollars a day to maintain just your own individual lifestyle? You may not have considered this before, but I promise you if you do the math it is literally hundreds a day. Perhaps enough in a day to pay for a single mom to go back to school to learn a trade, or day care for a month so she can get a start in her new job, or rehab for the addicted veteran, or six monthly Marta passes for minimum-wage workers trying to get ahead. You've been given incredible privileges (rich in finances and family and education). To whom much has been given, much is required. I'm glad you serve with our local social service groups to help others. You have the time, talent and treasure to do radically more than that. I hope you are able to channel those blessings into serving in an administrative capacity (which may require working for a fraction of what you are "worth" but surprise you with the joy of being rich in other ways) for a group or organization that captures your heart.
I think this family is a good family with very good intentions. I am happy that this experience tightened their bonds as a family at a time when families are completely disintegrating. I just can't imagine this book inspiring many people. It would have helped a great deal if the Salwens had waited to write the book a couple of years from now when they could have included the successes and failures they encountered in their journey and had time to see what kind of changes it made in their individual and collective lives as well as the lives of those they intended to help. Would they have seen their contributions changing things so much that they continued to cut more and more of their lives in "half?"
Would they have found that just contributing money wasn't creating the change they wanted to see so they committed to giving more of their time and their hearts and talents through personal involvment? Would Hannah have agreed to leave the Atlanta Girls School and settle for a $10k/year school and provide a $10k/year scholarship to another girl so she could have the same privilege? Would the Salwen's forego a family vacation and give that money to the parents of a terminally ill child to take one last trip with that child?
I would love to have read something like this: "When we started on our journey we used to reward ourselves for serving others by going out to eat (this is in the book). Now we celebrate our ability to give and serve by inviting our newfound homeless friends out for a fine meal at our favorite restaurant (this is not in the book)." Oh, how I WISH this was in the book.
I'll tell you for free. Read it here. Donate to a charity - local, national, international. There. That's all there is to it.
As far as the contents of this family's story. Going from a 6,000sq' mansion to a 3,000sq' very large home right as their kids are on their way to college is called downsizing, and people do it all the time. Also, I would have been a lot more inspired if the daughter had looked at their mansion, then at the man sitting on the curb, back to their mansion and had said, "Dad, if WE didn't live so well, that man could have a meal." Instead, she focused on "SOMEONE ELSE'S" money. The daughter's anger was at "all those other people who live well." And that's the moral of this story.
Many Americans, including myself, love America because of the freedom with which we can live our lives here. We are not taxed to nearly the levels of most European countries and have higher home-ownership and a greater degree of meritocratic upward mobility. Everyone is free to buy what they can afford (sometimes more, but that's a different story), love who they want to love, work where they want to work, and live where they want to live.
If there were a wealthy family which you knew nothing about, and through some real estate deal they came into an extra $800,000, you wouldn't criticize them for purchasing a new yacht instead of a new jet... it's their money, so its their choice. SO WHY IS IT that so many people in favor of all the CHOICES that come with living in a democratic free-market nation like this one feel the need to criticize the choice of the Salwen family to mobilize their huge donation in Ghana, rather than in the US?
As a patriotic American, I care that people in my country are suffering from hunger, health problems they can't afford to treat, and foreclosures on their homes. As a doctor who enjoys living in the US and has no plans to move abroad, I make it a priority to do my part to help who I can, which for me sometimes involves seeking out and treaking vulnerable Americans in my community with low or no charge. HOWEVER, as a rational being, I know that any donations I make to charity (which so far, have been a pittance compared to what this family has done), will go much further if executed correctly in many other parts of the world. $800,000 used productively (ie - not just "giving out food and money" but instead creating self-sustaining programs which help folks get educated, grow food in an optimal way, and set up small businesses), can go way further in Ghana than it can in the US, where things are more expensive and the average person is way better off in absolute terms.
For the person who recommended that the Salwens donate money towards reducing the subprime burden in their own Atlanta community instead of picking out some 'random' Ghanian village, I say: (1) I would be delighted if instead of buying a yacht or a plane or keeping their mansion, they helped about 10 needy American families get back on their feet financially with $80,000 of debt forgiveness each; but (2) I am MORE delighted that they chose to make an impact that will help about 10 THOUSAND people get on their feet. People are people - no matter what patriotic way you slice it, helping a thousand Ghanians is more impactful than helping out one American. When you have little prior information about the person you're directing your philanthropy towards, why not donate where your money goes the furthest and can in fact be transformative?
Not that I have the authority to praise or criticize their decision in the first place... it's THEIR MONEY after all.
PS. The book is decently written and readable, not a masterpiece of literature... But I gave it five stars for the IDEA behind it and the hope that it will inspire many. Has definitely inspired me.