For almost two decades, Brandon Hinman, Grady Powell, and Joe Waters have been engaged in serious dialogue. It began at Furman University where the three first met as undergraduates. While many other students were spending their weekends cruising Main Street or sneaking cases of cheap beer into dorm rooms, Brandon, Grady, and Joe were reading the classics, contemplating the paradoxes of spirituality, and pondering the mysteries of the universe. They were teenage philosophers not just curious about the meaning of life but determined to understand how one could best live a life of meaning.
After Furman, the three friends went their separate ways but continued to talk and ponder. Now they have come together and connected in a way that seems almost inevitable. Through Capita, a non-profit ideas lab, Brandon, Grady, and Joe are working together to ensure a future in which children and families flourish. Here, the friends tell their own story.
GRADY POWELL: Brandon and I both came to Furman in 1999. We met on our first day. We were on the same freshman hall. We had breakfast together and talked about the fact that our fathers’ fathers died when they were pretty young. Our fathers grew up without fathers basically. That was our very first conversation, and I thought, okay, this is going to be good because at least we are going to be able to have some good conversations about who we are.
BRANDON HINMAN: It was good to connect right from the start on a fairly deep level.
GRADY: I studied economics and stayed with it the whole time. But I did it in a very liberal-artsy way, so I took philosophy, and history, and geology, and religion.
BRANDON: I came in with a very small scholarship for art, but I ended up shifting my major to philosophy.
GRADY: Brandon and I didn’t have cars, so we were often on campus on the weekends, reading, hiking, going for long walks. It was a different world because we didn’t have social media. I think I came into downtown maybe twice the whole time I was at Furman.
BRANDON: I remember thinking, wow, the world is wide open because on a Friday night I could go read or take a walk. Then I thought is this good or is it sad. It was lonesomeness mixed with possibility.
GRADY: Brandon and I were both part of a group at the chapel that was an ecumenical group exploring faith and life. That’s the context we were in because there were a lot of people asking really big questions.
BRANDON: I didn’t grow up in a church and there was this certain pressure that I felt at Furman to identify myself with some sort of religious practice.
JOE WATERS: Can I insert my story here?
BRANDON: When I first met Joe Waters, I really
didn’t like him.
JOE: It’s still an open question.
BRANDON: Joe introduced himself to me as the future governor of South Carolina. He may have been joking, I’m still not sure. Joe did run for the South Carolina State House of Representatives as a Democrat at twenty-six years old.
JOE: Actually, I first announced my desire to run for governor of South Carolina when I was in sixth grade and had bumper stickers made. I came to Furman as a music major. I dropped that after my encounter with music theory. So I became a history major. I wanted something much broader than history was allowing me. Grady and I lived across the hall from each other my freshman year. He was one of the first people I met at Furman. I grew up Roman Catholic and still am Roman Catholic. So I arrived at Furman as a bit of a misfit. That’s how I got involved in some of these conversations. There was a lot of seriousness in our college lives. Not necessarily studiousness, but seriousness.
GRADY: We were all connected to the Mere Christianity Forum, and the tagline does it the best justice: Faith, Reason, and Tomfoolery. I felt like Furman was a place with a very narrow religious experience, and we were more interested in something more intellectually robust. The tomfoolery piece could handle the paradoxes and humor of life.
JOE: At Furman, Brandon and I worked very closely on this program called Vista House (created by Furman student and Mere Christianity co-founder Shawn Plunkett). Shawn purchased a house on eight acres of land in Travelers Rest. This is a college senior who is purchasing a house and basically turning the keys over to us to live at the house to do programming around weekly meals and weekly conversation series with professors and guest speakers, and a variety of other cultural programs.
GRADY: It was meant to be a little bit provocative. The core of it was to find something that everyone is not questioning and that’s what we’re going
BRANDON: After Furman, I went and worked for a year at Vista House and from there got a live-in-chef job in Boston that launched a better part of ten years working as a private chef. Then I went to work for my family’s company in Georgia. Now I’m the executive director at Air Serenbe (a non-profit artist residency program near Atlanta).
JOE: I went to work at St. Mary’s in Greenville, then did a master’s in divinity at Duke University. I came back to Greenville, ran for the State House, then transitioned into the vice-president role at the Institute for Child Success, which is a think tank based here in Greenville. I was there until last February (Joe launched Capita in May of this year).
GRADY: I worked at Erwin Penland. Then I got married, moved to Maryland, and had three kids. I would see Joe maybe once or twice a year. Then, when I moved back to Greenville in 2014, Joe and I started spending a lot of time together. (Grady is the founder and CEO of Openfields, a Greenville-based social innovation consulting firm.)
JOE: By 2014, we got to places in our careers where we were a little bit more self-directed and could choose who we wanted to work with. We had a season of life where it was necessary that we were doing things quite separately. Now we are in a season of life where we have been able to direct our careers into collaborative projects.
GRADY: I think one of the reasons we get along so well is the amount of dialogue we have about our existing work and new ideas we have. All of our work is very integrated.
JOE: I’m the chair of Brandon’s board. Brandon and Grady are both on my board. We co-founded Capita together. Openfields is a corporate sponsor of Air Serenbe.
GRADY: The more we work together the closer we get.
JOE: Capita exists to catalyze ideas and strategies, to help organizations, people, and policy makers ensure that all children flourish. Flourish is a word that evokes so much more than what we typically think of when we think of how we are going to solve the problems of the poor. We are now living in a post-industrial society. There’s a new set of challenges, but there are not new policies or new systems to support families. This is a conversation Grady, Brandon, and I were having. What are the futures that we would prefer for children and families ten or fifteen years from now? That was the context in which we started talking about an organization, an ideas lab, a think tank, that would be focused on catalyzing more of these conversations, broadening the cultural understanding, ensuring that all families flourish. That is why Capita exists.
GRADY: What motivates us is the question, ‘How do you stay free?’ A lot of people are afraid, a lot of things are changing. They don’t have a lot of sense of freedom about their lives. How do you stay free in the way that you think and the things that you care about, the relationships that you build so that you can serve this common good? It’s not freedom so that we cannot have attachments; it’s freedom so that you can be the kind of person we feel we need to be and invite other people into it.
BRANDON: We really like new projects. There’s excitement around an idea and putting frame around it then working on it. There’s a certain entrepreneurial spirit there. We’re not motivated typically by personal financial gain. We’re excited about winning an $800,000 grant for a project or an idea.
JOE: What’s exciting is getting people to think differently about the future of childhood and not just of the problems children face today.
GRADY: It’s the process of having an idea and bringing it to life. We are very idealistic about having some type of impact that goes beyond the material. It’s about freedom, it’s about flourishing.
JOE: I think it’s compelling how we’ve been able to turn a friendship and a commitment to collaborative projects at Furman into part of our careers.
To learn more about Capita, visit capitasocial.org.