What can a member of the elite 1 percent do to bring about more economic equality and social justice? That is one of the animating questions of Leah Hunt-Hendrix’s young life, and it is one the 33-year-old has answered by taking a creative approach with philanthropy.
The granddaughter of Texas oil and gas billionaire H.L. Hunt (whose life provided inspiration for the J. R. Ewing character on Dallas), Leah grew up privileged on Fifth Avenue. She attended Sacred Heart, where the Hiltons were among her schoolmates and where, she says, “the pressure was to be as wealthy as possible.” Eventually, she came to the realization that extreme wealth and the competition for it, rather than making people happy, was instead isolating them and causing them a great deal of strife. She had seen it in her own family and witnessed it with her friends.
A brief move to New Mexico at age 11, where some of her classmates lacked the benefit of indoor plumbing, opened her eyes, and she had trouble squaring the poverty she had witnessed with the extremes of materialism she experienced in New York. She lived in the lap of luxury, with trappings that included a yacht. Still her parents, best-selling authors and relationship therapists Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt, were deep thinkers. Her mother is a pioneering philanthropist who helped start the New York Women’s Foundation and the Dallas Women’s Foundation. As she matured, Leah’s intellectual life made her question the very structures that allowed her to have so much while others had so little.
She had always been a big reader; her father had started her off on reading philosophy at a young age. It accustomed Leah to asking the big questions early on, questions, like what does it mean live a life worth living? Eventually, her restless intellect brought her to Princeton where she got a PhD in religion ethics and politics, and where she studied with Cornel West, among other luminaries. Writing a dissertation on the concept of solidarity further helped her distill her thinking, which is both political and very personal. “Relationships are what make you happy,” she says. “Relationships, a sense of purpose and a sense of community.”
Galvanized in part by the Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street movement and anti-austerity protests in Europe, Leah wondered what her role in producing the sort of structural changes in society she had become convinced were necessary might be. She came to the conclusion that she needed to organize within her own community. In 2012, she cofounded the Solidaire Network, which she describes as “a way for people with a lot of privilege to find a role in the social movements of our time.” That role is, naturally, providing funding for grassroots activist groups. Solidaire is a membership organization, with a $15,000 price of admission, and it funds everything from Black Lives Matter groups to OUR Walmart—which helped get Walmart workers a raise—to groups fighting against climate change and for immigration rights. Solidaire especially seeks out organizations that are “new, experimental and not foundation ready,” Leah says. They also look to fund Black-led organizations in particular to redress the startling stat that less that 2 percent of philanthropy goes to such groups.
If addressing what she sees as structural racism in the world of philanthropic world and funding groups that fight for a more equitable distribution of wealth seems like a paradox for an heiress, Leah understands, but she does not see it that way. “Having a role in making a better society is more fulfilling than having extreme wealth,” she says. “Being wealthy can feel isolating. We’re trying to find a way for people to be connected to the society around them, and to the communities that are impacted by structural inequities. It can be scary to admit that our system is broken, and people may be worried, ‘am I going to lose everything?’ But it does not need to be scary. It can be exciting.”
Her role in funding radical social movements has won Leah plaudits from one of her heroes, Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor, publisher and part owner of The Nation and author of several books. “Leah is a remarkable figure,” vanden Heuvel says. “She has displayed grace, skill and boldness in forging a community of affluent people committed to funding transformational, systemic change. Leah understands that these times of unprecedented inequality demand not only nimbly moving resources to support social movements but also shifting the paradigm of philanthropy.”
Longtime family friend Abigail Disney is similarly impressed, but somehow not surprised. “I’ve known Leah since she was a very young woman, and there is something so elegantly consistent about what she does now with who she was back then,” Disney, a filmmaker and philanthropist herself, says. “She was always thoughtful, reflective, consistent with her convictions even when convictions are inconvenient.” Disney also hails Solidaire as a “burst of new thinking from someone who grew up with the old thinking and knows it is time to turn the page.