I auction off stuff at fancy parties around the world to benefit charitable organizations. Earlier this month I looked down from the stage and recognized Jay Z as the bidder. Behind him another gentlemen put up his hand at $75,000. It was Leonardo DiCaprio. Back and forth they went, until Jay Z finally won the Chopard necklace — Beyoncé was sitting right next to him.
It’s a good story for when you end up as a plus one at a wedding and you need something to talk about. But it’s not really the meat of my job. Some 1,500 miles south of that NYC gala is an orphanage in Kenscoff, Haiti that I visited back in July. World Wide Orphans runs a toy library there, and on that steaming hot summer morning I helped three and four year olds fit brightly colored blocks together. I met WWO’s locally trained staff, and in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere we played, clapped, and sang with kids who, more often than not, lack the basic human interactions critical to healthy development. Later, we drove up into the foothills above Port au Prince to visit a camp WWO runs for teens living with HIV; many former campers are now thriving staff members themselves.
A few weeks from now, I’ll stand on the same stage from which I sold that necklace, but this time I’ll be recounting my time in Haiti, imploring 500 wealthy New Yorkers to give more. A lot more. Somewhere in the range of $200,000 for communities where even a few bucks can go a long way toward lifting the crushing weight of poverty. And I’ll likely get it, the $200k, because the work the WWO does is real, and I’ve seen the impact with my own eyes.
My calendar informs me that that November gala 13th will be my 87th of 2017, and probably in the neighborhood of the 400th of my seven-year career. In that time I’ve visited schools in rural Guatemala and a community center in Soweto, South Africa. I’ve shared lunch with women in domestic violence shelters and served lunch to the homeless in food kitchens. I’ve donned a blue jump suit and emptied trash cans on the Upper East Side with formerly incarcerated men of color working to put their lives back together. I’ve squeezed through specially designed apparatus for kids with severe disabilities and taken a beginner’s tap dance class with Savion Glover. Once, I tagged along on the midnight-to-3-AM shift for an organization that provides aid for people sleeping in subway stations. From there I went home, changed into my workout gear, and joined a group of runners on the north end of Prospect Park who jog together twice weekly as part of a program that helps them overcome, among other things, chemical addiction.
Empathy is a state of mind that appears to be near record lows these days. In turn, deep, sustained empathy is not to be found at the fancy parties where I ply my trade. Rather, it’s to be found in the places those parties are designed to support.
Showing up. Being a witness. Not flinching from the world’s pain — and often times, its beauty — but gazing steadily at it. This is what gives me the urgent courage, night in and night out, to get on that stage and raise as much money as possible.
CK Swett, a California native and Duke University graduate, began his career in the auction world in 2006, and has worked at Christie’s, Phillips and Heritage during the intervening ten years. In 2016, he founded Lot 1 with former Christie’s colleague, Charles Antin, in order to better address the critical importance of not-for-profit fundraising.