Kevin Salwen, a former editor for The Wall Street Journal who co-wrote “The Power of Half” with his daughter Hannah, came to Yale on Thursday to speak about why his family decided to sell their house and donate half the proceeds to The Hunger Project in Africa. Before making his scheduled appearance in Dwight Hall, Mr. Salwen sat down with the News and shared his experiences as a philanthropist and agent of change.
Q What motivated your decision to sell your house and donate half the sales to charity?
A What triggered this whole project was our daughter’s recognition of and anger about the disparities of the world. She recognized that we had a lot — more than we needed — and she wanted us, well, prodded us to be a family who didn’t just talk about doing things but instead was out in the world doing them.
Q How have people reacted to your decision?
A In two large buckets. Most people have been great. They may think we’re a little weird, but we’ve had a ton of people who’ve said, “I’ve started my own project. I’m inspired by what you’ve done.” We’ve had prisoners in two different prisons send us letters saying, “This was inspiring to me.” We’ve had a couple in Hawaii send us a blank check, with $50 written into it saying, “Use it any way you want to. I thought what you guys did was really cool.” On the flip side, we’ve had people call us everything you can be called … People have ripped us for being yanked around by our daughter who’s never worked a day in her life. Some of these used to bother us, but now they don’t.
Q You and your family have been to Africa a few times. Can you tell us more about what you’ve done there?
A We’re working with an organization called The Hunger Project. All of the work done in the communities is done by the people there. There’s none of that, “We’ll show you what to do; we’re from the West, and we’ll do it for you.” The most important thing we do for the people there is listen to them and tell them that we came 5,000 miles to hear their stories. We give them a sense of achievement that goes far beyond digging a well or building a school.
Q What are some things that Yalies, who often do not have a lot of independent money, can do as well?
A That’s a great question, because we all have more of something. It could be money, stuff, but more often, it’s time. If we all watch four hours of TV a week and cut it down to two, then we now have a new resource: two hours a week completely free. Maybe we could go to the local school and teach kids how to read. Maybe we could go to the nursing home and sing to the residents there or play bingo.
Q Where do you envision yourself in the future?
A You mean like tomorrow? [laughs] Well, right now, Hannah and I are giving 100-110 talks by the end of the school year. A lot of these are to school groups and nonprofits, but the message is always the same: Be out there in the world for others. We are evangelists for good, and we don’t even define good for you, because we think you know it. I don’t know where that puts me in five years — probably a tired old guy repeating the same message that nobody is listening to anymore.
Q Do you have any advice for the younger generation?
A Be out there in the world for others; the world needs what you have. Everyone on this campus should realize that they have the power to make a change and, more importantly, the power to help others make a change. And I’m not just saying that because I’m sitting on a lovely, fake leather couch in Dwight Hall.