This weekend I was lucky enough to have family in town, and as we do often, we end up seeing more of our city when we have guests than on normal weekends. We traveled to Pasadena to see the Huntington Library, with its vast open spaces and otherworldly rose gardens, and took a tour of the Will Rogers Ranch House. Both of these locations are incredible examples of how extremely wealthy families can leave massively positive legacies. It was an interesting glimpse into the a past time when financial success brought with it a sense of social responsibility.
We were also fortunate enough to go to the Echo Park Craft Fair where rather than glimpsing the past, we were chasing the future. The coolest gadgets, chicest clothes, and the most interesting new designs and products. Undeniably, nostalgia is in fashion lately, and many products were designed by taking the charm of the past and adding modern refinement. People wanted to show their culture by using organic soy candles and all natural cotton fibers. (Try as we might, however, my mother-in-law and I could not find anyplace to recycle the glass water bottles that were part of the concession there. We had to carry them out.)
There is one thing, however, that was not brought in from the charming past. This is the notion of social responsibility. (See the recycling problem above) From the fedora wearing hipster who decided to park his car in the middle of a road, trapping an entire parking lot of people in there until he finished his shopping, to the let-me-push-you-out-of-my-light-so-I-can-look-cultured-on-instagram attitude, the charm of old-time social responsibility was somehow lacking.
It was SUCH a sharp contrast from the wide open and generous gardens of the Huntington Library or the inviting green of the Will Rogers Ranch. And yet, both of these sets of people- the philanthropists of the past and the Hipsters of today- were interested in the same thing. Making their privilege known to those around them.
In this current political climate, which I will not engage in discussion about, not here, there are a lot of references back to our past. To a simpler time. A time when the United States was "Great". I have a lot of opinions about looking backwards for inspiration, but I do think that America is Great when her citizens are being great. In the past it was expected of the wealthy to give back, to leave something for everyone. To share. Even the Unions of the past- and here I'm thinking specifically of the CWA- used to have service requirements for union members. (Thanks to my Uncle Joe, the Union's Founder.)
So, where did it go? There are so many people doing so many great things, and I have absolutely no intention of undermining them. However, I have been observing that the very basic notion of Giving Back is no longer a top priority. Yes, there are socially responsible startups, but I'm not talking about sharing the profit of your granola bars with a kid who has literally nothing to eat. I'm talking about the idea that we are part of the collective and should be actively seeking to make the collective better-- even if there is nothing in it for us.
Now, maybe there is something in it for the giver. I mean, you can't take a drive through LA without learning the names of the great philanthropists of an earlier time. The Getty Family, the Annenbergs, and many others have left their mark indelibly on this city. But maybe social media has made it easier to get "seen" doing something good. Does a hashtag "#supporthearts" do the same thing as preserving some of the finest pieces in our culture as the Getty's did? Or is it too easy to quickly throw a post up on social media so we can "tick the box" on giving back? I'm not sure, but I do think that there is some type of void currently for the great works of philanthropy of the past. Those works took commitment, they took effort, they took time.
Maybe this article is a bit of a rant, but I am thinking a lot about what our generation can give to this country and by doing so to the world at large. I think just the shift in mindset to a giving back mentality might be the first step. And the shift to having a high standard. Maybe next time you want to share a link about poverty, maybe you spend the afternoon volunteering at a shelter, as well. Just an idea.
Not everyone will reach the fame of Will Rogers, or the wealth of the Huntington Family, but everyone working today who is reading this can be kinder, more socially responsible and more collaborative.
What do you think? Leave it in the comments below!