PROVIDENCE — The Resource Generation wants to know: What if we relied on our communities for financial security instead of trying to accumulate wealth individually?
A group of Brown University students is urging their wealthy peers to contribute to a “redistribution fund,” so they can help meet the financial needs of the school’s UFLI (undocumented, first-generation, low-income) population.
Matthew Mellea, 23, co-founded the Brown University chapter of the Resource Generation in September 2021, along with Caroline David and Zoe Kupetz. By Dec. 30, 2021, the group had received more than 100 requests for help with housing, transportation, medical emergencies, and other expenses — and raised $17,450.
“I realized that there’s no need for me to just continue to hoard my own wealth while there are other students having trouble making their basic needs met,” Mellea said.
When Mellea, now a junior, started college in 2017, he said, he was struck by the large socioeconomic disparities he noticed among students. According to a New York Times study, the median family income of a student at Brown University is just over $200,000. About 19 percent of students come from families who earn $630,000 or more per year, while just 4.1 percent come from families making $20,000 or less per year.
Mellea said he wanted to challenge the norm and, in 2018, learned about Resource Generation, a nonprofit organization founded in 1998 with a vision “in which wealth, land, and power are equitably shared.”
According to Resource Generation, wealth privilege is when a young person has $50,000 under their own control, is a part of a family with a net worth over $1 million, or belongs to the top 10 percent.
Members of Resource Generation ask individuals to assess what it would mean to stop accumulating wealth altogether and suggest using a “redistribution fund” to help those with less wealth.
Using the organization’s guidelines, Mellea and David led weekly meetings last fall for a group of seven other students to discuss how to leverage privilege for social change. By the end of the eight-week series, participants were inspired to do more than simply critique structures of inequality, and had opted to commit to the redistribution fund.
Zoe Fuad, 20, was a participant who decided to contribute to the fund on a monthly basis. She said, “I was re-conditioned to stop wanting more and more. I realized ‘success’ was not measured by money and material goods.”
The money in the redistribution fund is managed by Adela Herce, 21, a program coordinator at the university’s U-Fli Center. She wants participants to ask themselves: “What money am I not using now that could directly benefit someone at the moment?”
“My upbringing de-emphasized the role of money,” she said, “I’ve always valued people over money.”
When students request from the fund, Herce said, they tend to minimize their needs in order to allow others to also receive help from the fund. Herce said she has prioritized fulfilling requests for help with housing and food and kept $700 in the fund’s reserves for emergencies.
The students are challenging how wealth is seen as a competitive metric, explained Johnathan Collins, a history professor at Brown who studies democratizing wealth and resource redistribution. Instead, wealth should be viewed as an opportunity to spread resources and involve others.
“It starts with the understanding that the whole is as big or bigger than the sum of its parts,” Collins said. “Wealth redistribution opens up opportunities so there is a plurality of access for everyone.”
Not all students see it that way.
Jay Young Cho, 21, said every person should take advantage of discipline and hard work to build wealth.
Ryan Handel, 21, expressed skepticism toward how wealth redistribution would be implemented on a national scale and said individuals should be able to manage their wealth however they want. He said, “Any charity should be an individual’s decision, and not compelled by law.”
Still, Mellea said he can imagine a future where the value of community replaces individual agendas.
“During the pandemic, the ultra-rich have profited while other people have faced unsafe working and living conditions,” he said. “These problems can be fixed with a more equal distribution of wealth.”
In the coming semester, Brown University’s Resource Generation chapter will continue raising money and responding to students’ requests. The fund received many one-time donations but Mellea wants to underscore that redistribution should be a recurring action to challenge wealth accumulation. In partnership with low-income students, the group is imagining a more equitable society.