Something interesting is happening in Tulsa
Or: my Birthright trip to Tulsa, OK
Edit: the name of the program is Tulsa Tomorrow. Click on the link if you’re Jewish and you want a free trip to Tulsa. Tulsa Tomorrow would like me to let you all know that they are first and foremost trying to build a stable and supportive community, so please keep that in mind when contacting them. Also, they cannot sponsor you for a visa.
This past weekend, I went on what was essentially a Birthright Trip to Tulsa, Oklahoma. My plane flight, accommodations, and food were all paid for with the explicit intention of convincing me, as a Jewish person, to move to Tulsa. This was an odd, fascinating experience, and I’m breaking my usual convention of not writing about my personal life because I think it’s interesting to share.
When I signed up for this trip, I had zero background for it. I saw a Facebook ad advertising free trips to Tulsa for young Jews and signed up because that seemed like an interesting thing to do. Even when I got to Tulsa, I still had very little context as to why I was there. I had to piece it together over the course of the weekend. To save you from the same detective work, I’ll just present it here.
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Tulsa is in a weird spot. It’s a little over 100 years old, and has always been a frontier town. Its fortunes have waxed and waned with the oil and gas industry, which alternately produces millionaires, billionaires, and bankruptcies. The town itself was basically stolen from the Indians a bit over a hundred years ago, laid out on a grid, and then developed in fits and spurts as city tax revenues swelled and declined with its main industry. This means that Tulsa has some beautiful art deco buildings, a strange layout including massive parking lots in the middle of downtown and full on suburbs 5 minutes from the city center, and a still unsettled sense of place.
In the 80s and 90s, Tulsa experienced a decline. It got gross and dangerous. Starting in the late 90s, George Kaiser, a local billionaire (oil and gas, naturally, and then banking), decided to do something about it. He established the George Kaiser Family Foundation and then the Tulsa Community Foundation to house the assets of it. The Tulsa Community Foundation, with GKKF’s assets, rapidly grew into the second largest community foundation in the nation, behind only the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. It has over $4 billion in assets, and is almost completely unaccountable to anyone except the people who donate to it (namely, Tulsan billionaires). Because of its structure, it doesn’t even have the normal nonprofit requirements of donating 5% of its assets every year.
So, the single largest force in Tulsan civic life is an opaque, unaccountable community foundation funded mostly by George Kaiser and partially by Lynn Schusterman, who are two elderly Jewish billionaires. And what’s really weird is that this is happening in an otherwise normal, Bible Belt city of 1 million people (and a Jewish population of roughly 2000) with a median household income of $60k. Compare this to Silicon Valley, which has a median household income of $140k and no shortage of billionaires, and you’ll understand the Tulsa Community Foundation’s outsized impact.
By all reports, this has been a very positive relationship. The Tulsa Community Foundation (or, more specifically, the George Kaiser Family Foundation and, to a lesser extent, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation, as TCF is just a house for these family foundations) have spent enormous amounts of money trying to make Tulsa a better place to live. They’ve built multiple beautiful parks (including one incredible one called the Gathering Place), a children’s museum, revitalized downtown, launched scores of programs to improve the lives of Tulsa’s underprivileged children, created Tulsa Remote (which offers $10k and relocation assistance for any remote worker to move to Tulsa for one year), and funded a bunch of different business assistance programs. And all of this is just off the top of my head. I’m sure there’s a lot I don’t know about.
The tide that George Kaiser is beating back is, of course, Tulsa’s natural decay as a midwest, Bible Belt city. Throughout the 90s and 2000s, every young person who could afford to leave Tulsa did so. This included Tulsa’s Jewish population, which declined from about 5000 in the 90s to less than half that number today.
And that’s where my weekend comes in. I visited Tulsa through Tulsa Tomorrow, a program that flies out young Jews to Tulsa for a weekend to try to get them to live there. So far, from their own numbers, they’ve flown out about 150 Jews over the last 6 years and about 70-80 have moved.
Tulsa Tomorrow is partially funded by George Kaiser, but it’s mostly funded by the rest of Tulsa’s Jewish community, with the majority coming from a local family who made their fortune as a fabric distributor. The scion of that family, Dave, was, not coincidentally, one of our main hosts for the weekend.
The pitch that Dave and his fellow Tulsan Jews made to us was simple. In Tulsa, your dreams can come true.
Of course, they didn’t pitch it quite like that. Instead, they put it something like this: Tulsa itself has a few natural advantages. It has cheap housing (e.g. $350k for a 4 bed, 2 bathroom house 5 minutes from downtown), mostly warm weather in the winters, and zero traffic. Also, recently, Tulsa itself has become a cute, fun city, thanks in large part to the largesse of George Kaiser1. Over the course of our visit, we were shown museums, a Tiki bar, a hip brunch place, and a dueling piano bar. We were also told that we had just missed a Journey concert, and that Lizzo was coming to Tulsa shortly on her tour.
But that’s why to come to Tulsa more generally. More importantly, they wanted to pitch us on why to come to Tulsa as a Jew. Their argument here was basically that the Tulsan Jewish community is insanely well-resourced and organized. If you move here, they can pretty much guarantee you a nice job at a Jewish nonprofit and a social event every week at least. That’s not to mention all the social clubs and volunteer opportunities that are available through those nonprofits.
Meanwhile, if your ambitions stretch farther than that, that can also be accommodated. Over the course of the weekend, I heard from a bunch of people who had taken advantage of just that. To take three:
1. Two small-time film producers from LA who had used their Tulsa Tomorrow connections to get meetings with the Oklahoma Legislature and convince them to pass tax credits for films in Oklahoma.
2. A startup operator who had gotten George Kaiser to be the sole LP for a seed/Series A venture capital firm that relocates their portfolio companies to Tulsa2.
3. A Teach For America alumnus who got funding (from an individual with the initials GK) to provide afterschool programs for at-risk youth
And they pitched us hard on this fulfillment of our dreams, too. I got introduced to the VC (who, unsurprisingly, did not invest in biotech). My fellow visitor, a Brooklyn liberal whose dream was to build an “urban kibbutz” in Brooklyn, was introduced to someone doing that exact thing in Tulsa. Even partners were included. One of the girls in my group brought along her black, formerly Pentecostal (and not at all Jewish) girlfriend who was interested in pursuing a career in cybersecurity. Sure enough, her girlfriend got pitched on exactly how they could help her switch her career.
If that last part surprises you, it did for me, too. When I’ve been pitched on Jewish social communities before, they usually lean hard into the Jewish part. Non-Jewish partners are accepted reluctantly, if at all3. This was not the case for Tulsa Tomorrow. On my trip was a gay couple, an interfaith lesbian couple, and a traditional Israeli family with 3 kids. They were all treated equally well, and a nanny was even provided throughout the weekend for the kids.
In fact, much to my surprise, Tulsa Tomorrow actually ended up being quite woke, which I think reflects Tulsa and the Tulsa Community Foundation themselves. I guess, being in such a Republican state, they feel the need to distinguish themselves as being the opposite.
Like, we visited a Reform synagogue and a Conservative synagogue while we were there. The Reform synagogue’s rabbis are a white guy who rides a motorcycle 4 and a woman in a committed relationship with a non-binary person. The Conservative rabbi, meanwhile, specifically told us how the congregation went out of their way to try to provide women with safe abortion options in the wake of the ending of Roe v. Wade.
If you’re wondering how this relentless talk about social justice, equality/equity, and land acknowledgements fits in with an inherently exclusionary mission (i.e. give special resources to Jews in Tulsa), the answer is uneasily. There’s no standard of social justice that can justify a guaranteed cushy jobs program for Jews who move to Tulsa5, especially when it’s largely funded by the same unaccountable billionaires who have wrought huge physical and economic changes across Tulsa. At the end of the day, the only real justification is that people spend their money how they want, and a lot of Jewish people want to spend their money helping other Jews.
At the end of this trip, I decided not to move to Tulsa. Well, I decided that before this trip too, but it was, honestly, a tougher choice than expected. I like the Boston area despite the housing shortage, and I get along better with Bostonians (and especially Cambridgians) than with Tulsans. More importantly, in case you can’t tell, I do feel fundamentally uncomfortable with programs that unfairly benefit one group of people, even if I’m one of the chosen. Still the fundamental message of “Move to Tulsa and you are guaranteed a job, a nice house, a fun social life, and assistance fulfilling whichever dreams you have” is a hard one to pass up.
I certainly understand, however, people who would move to Tulsa with this. I think it’s an appealing offer for literally anyone struggling to make it in a big city, and I think that’s a way bigger category than people realize.
Like, that category includes the family I met, who are actually Bostonians. They were doing fine economically (the wife works as a product manager at Google) but struggling socially, as all their friends kept moving away. Tulsa’s promise of a stable, supportive social life was very appealing for them. That category also includes the film producer couple, who were living in LA in a two bedroom house with two kids, and moved to Tulsa and got a five bedroom house 5 minutes away from downtown for the same amount. Or the Brooklyn liberal, who didn’t have the funds to start her dream urban kibbutz in NYC. Or a musician I met, who went from scrounging together paying gigs in Austin to getting a job as a youth leader/singalong guy at a Jewish organization in Tulsa, giving him the financial stability to be able to pursue non-paying music gigs.
But I’m not trying to sell you on Tulsa (although, if you are sold, I can try to connect you with the right people). Instead, I think the really interesting thing is this model where very rich people take direct action to improve their cities. I think this is easier in a place like Tulsa, which doesn’t have a particularly complex city government or planning process, sometimes for better (e.g. when it comes to zoning and construction) and sometimes for worse (e.g. when I tried to report a stray dog that was hanging out downtown and literally nobody cared).
In a place like this, a wealthy guy can pretty much singlehandedly build a giant park, launch a coworking space with attached business accelerator, build a bunch of apartments and museums, and do literally anything else to turn his city into what he wants it to be all in a span of a few decades. Meanwhile, I look at my own city’s foundation, the “Boston Foundation”, and I see their report on trying to alleviate the insane costs of housing here:
“Health Starts at Home was launched in 2014, with an 18-month development and planning phase.
The foundation received 12 planning grant applications representing collaborations among more than 50 organizations. Following rigorous review by a 10-person panel of both internal and external reviewers, four nine-month planning grants of $40,000 were awarded…In May 2016, the Boston Foundation selected four partnerships from among those invited to submit a proposal to receive three years of support ($200,000 per year) to implement their program models and interventions, and to participate in an overarching evaluation of the initiative.”
This is their flagship program! This is literally the only thing they link to on their website when it comes to both their “Health and Wellness” and “Neighborhoods and Housing” focus areas, which are literally ⅖ of their focus areas! 18 months and 10 people to choose who receives $40k! Two years to choose who receives $600k! That’s a total of $640k donated! A one bed, one bath in my Boston neighborhood goes for $855k!
Ok, I’m done. Sorry for the yelling. My point is that, in comparison, to get anything public done in Boston seems to somehow require way more planning and way more people for way less impact. I remember reading a great article in the New Yorker about how Mark Zuckerberg’s much lauded $100 million donation to Newark public schools vanished without a trace of impact. I can imagine the exact same thing happening in Boston. The donation is announced, a multiyear planning project gets underway, the city comes in, the consultants come in, and somehow the money just disappears.
The same thing doesn’t seem to have happened in Tulsa. The impact of the billions spent are visible all around. While I was walking around the cute downtown, everyone I spoke to said that this was the creepy abandoned warehouse district 20 years ago. The wealthy people of Tulsa changed that. Now they’re trying to change the demographics of Tulsa as well. I sincerely wish them the best of luck, and I wish I knew some way that this could be replicated for the places I care about as well.
Although I was also impressed when we heard a brief talk from Tulsa’s economic development director, who seemed to have interesting ideas about how to continue revitalizing Tulsa’s downtown. I get the sense that Tulsa’s government has the good sense to work with GKFF, or at least to stay out of their way.
This is a very weird business model, in my opinion, and I really doubt their ability to return on capital given the limitation that they could only invest in companies who would agree to move to Tulsa. But that’s probably not the point. On a side note, their offices were like a Hollywood mockup of a VC’s office. They had an open workspace, a stocked fridge, kombucha and cold brew on tap, a fake bookshelf that led to a bar/lounge area, and a conference room behind fake loading dock doors. I had a hard time explaining to my fellow tripgoers how strange it was.
This was one of the deciding factors in me cutting ties with Chabad in college. I always found them a bit creepy, but I got very frustrated hearing the rabbi push a classmate of mine to break up with his non-Jewish girlfriend with the argument that there’s no way it could end in marriage. I told the rabbi that I was a product of an interfaith marriage, and he sputtered a bit but held his ground. In the eyes of conservative Judaism, I’m basically a bastard, which makes me a bit less well-inclined towards them.
Riding a motorcycle isn’t woke; I just thought it was funny that he pointed it out.
If you think I’m exaggerating, I’m not. It seemed like ¾ of the Jewish people who moved to Tulsa through this program have a job at Jewish nonprofit. This leads to very strange overstaffing like a Holocaust museum on the second floor of the Jewish Federation that has two full-time curators and a Jewish elementary school that has 38 children and 11 full-time staffers. This isn’t to mention the bewildering array of George Kaiser-associated nonprofits that employ young Jews (and non-Jews, of course) in Tulsa. I swear, 8 year old Tulsans must have like 20 different afterschool programs to choose from.