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The Power of Half: One Family's Decision to Stop Taking and Start Giving Back Paperback – January 7, 2011
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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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Top Customer Reviews
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.
Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2009
This book illustrates the concept of using one's personal wealth to do some good in the world, rather than just getting and spending. It's a great story. A family sells their mansion, buys a smaller home (although still palatial compared to what many have), and donates half the excess proceeds to charity. But, really, if one examines where on the economic ladder this family was (the daughter had an elevator to her room, and the son was flown to a playdate), the self-congratulatory aspects of the story become a bit like a cake-eater expecting a medal for leaving half a piece after he'd had his fill.
The author used to write for the Wall Street Journal, and the book is written in a similar dry, neocolloquial style. The prose is clean and moves quickly. However, the tone of the book in places was a bit hard to take. The author works, in my opinion, a bit too hard establishing his family's philanthropic and hardworking American credentials before getting to the meat and potatoes of making what had to be, even for someone with as much as they have, a difficult and frightening change.
That said, in modern America, where greed and selfishness have been elevated to fundamental rights, the very fact that people who had so much were able to step off the acquisition treadmill and actually see that other people had needs is extraordinary. We're becoming a nation in which altruism and compassion are derided as counterproductive if not downright un-American. Not only that, for some reason, people who have as much or more than the Salwen family feel like they don't have enough.
This family showed some real courage in bucking both of those trends, and I think the book provides a great starting point for any discussion of the societal value of private charity, the personal value of giving, and the costs and benefits to society of acquisitiveness in general.
The book urges readers to give and offers up the idea that "half" is measurable goal. In this economy, for many of us, half has already become the new whole, so, while measurable, that goal may no longer be attainable.
Still, a good read and plenty of food for thought.