Build a Joyful Economy Center Racial Equity, Invest in People, Share Ownership, Respect Local Ecosystems, Depower Money, and Repower Democracyscroll down arrow

YES! photo by John Lok

1. Center Racial Equity

What Happens When the Rich Invest in Racial Equity

Illustration by Kate Poole

Illustration by Kate Poole

In 2013, Kate Poole was at a conference for young people who wanted to put their vast wealth to good use. There were opportunities to invest in green technology and local food, but she felt that even well-intentioned investing often extracted interest from communities.

“As a wealthy White person, I don’t need to keep looking to grow my return,” Poole said. “That’s not going to redistribute wealth.”

Instead, Poole joined seven peers to form Regenerative Finance, an organization made up of young people with access to wealth. They wanted to use their unique financial leverage to show what “non-extractive” investing could look like — putting wealth back into places that long experienced exploitation.

Member Leah Fury said that growing up wealthy, they felt a dissonance between valuing equity and justice and what they identify as their “settler privilege.” By putting their money into non-extractive projects, they hope to reconcile that disconnect. “There are some things that I’m absolutely giving up, and other ways I’m getting access to connections that I wouldn’t have otherwise,” Fury said.

Soon after forming, the group was approached by the Renaissance Community Co-op, a fledgling grocery store in Greensboro, North Carolina, that needed funding. At the time, the city’s Northeast neighborhood, which has a large African American population, was considered unprofitable by large grocery stores and had been without one for 18 years. The neighbors who founded RCC needed loans to build one there.

“A lot of us are from the Northeast [region], mostly White inheritors,” Poole said of the group. “There was this clear connection between this money that our families had amassed and extraction from the Black South.” So they rallied 28 investors to raise $253,000 for a loan to RCC. But rather than pay the interest to wealthy investors, RCC will put that money into the Southern Reparations Loan Fund, a community-operated fund that reinvests in other Southern co-ops, particularly those that benefit African Americans and people in poverty. It can then be reinvested in other ventures.

“There are lots and lots of different ways White supremacy is active in building White wealth,” Poole said. Growing up, she came to understand that her family’s money came from owning and selling stolen land, and from stock in companies with histories of racial and environmental exploitation.

At times in the past, she’d felt she had to hide her privilege. But not anymore: “The more I’ve been able to share resources and the more I’ve been able to be honest about who I am and who my family is, [the more it] has allowed me to show up more as myself.”

Commentary

The Elite Is Not Who You Think It Is — It Might Be You

YES! infographic

YES! infographic

To most, the occupy movement is best characterized by the slogan “We are the 99 percent.” Indeed, a year before Occupy sprang to life, the top 1 percent held roughly 35 percent of the nation’s wealth, while the bottom 50 percent held about 1 percent. But the data tell a more complex story, and the bifurcated way that we define “elite” may need adjustment.

As senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Richard Reeves describes in his new book, Dream Hoarders, that while the top 1 percent overwhelmingly receives a disproportionate share of economic gains, the upper middle class is also “hoarding” resources. Families in the 80th to the 99th percentiles — or those earning at least $112,000 — have made out pretty well over the past 35 years. Since 1980, incomes for the top 1 percent skyrocketed, and wages for those in the next 19 percent increased considerably. Comparably, the bottom 80 percent saw wages stagnate. Reeves details how the wage gains for the top 20 percent translate into access to better schools, better colleges, and, eventually, better jobs with higher wages.

Simply put, the privileged upper middle class is “hoarding” the benefits of economic growth for themselves and their kids.

Reeves is spot on — “class barriers” to enter either the rich or the upper middle class are on the rise. But there’s yet another complexity to consider in identifying the elite. What is glaringly missing from Dream Hoarders is an adequate discussion of race and the racially stratified American economy. When we are talking about the upper middle class, or the top 20 percent, we are de facto talking about a group that is overwhelmingly White.

Census data from 2015 demonstrate that just 5 percent of Black households have an annual income of $150,000 or more, compared to 12 percent of White households. In contrast, 22 percent of Black households earn less than $15,000 a year, which is double the 11 percent rate for White households. In terms of income trends, Blacks are the only racial group that actually saw a decline in their real income since 2000.

Disparities are worse when looking at wealth. The 2016 Survey of Consumer Finances indicates that Black households have median wealth of about $17,600 (inclusive of home equity), in contrast to $171,000 in median wealth for White households. And these disparities persist and even worsen factoring in education. Black families where the head of household has a college degree have less wealth than White families where the head of household dropped out of high school.

The racial wealth gap is an inheritance that predates the 35 years referenced by Reeves. It begins with chattel slavery, when Blacks literally served as capital assets for a White landowning plantation class. And America’s current regressive tax system hoards resources and underwrites dreams, as Reeves details, primarily for the top 20 percent.

YES! infographic

YES! infographic

A 2014 report by Prosperity Now corroborates that the federal government, through deduction and subsidy, spent $540 billion in asset-building tax programs, like the mortgage interest deduction, the IRA and other retirement accounts, 529 college savings plans, and capital gains rate reductions — policies that reward savings and investments.

And who has savings and investments? The best estimates suggest that 70 percent of the billions in tax savings go to upper middle class and wealthy households. The bottom 60 percent received just 12 percent of these benefits. In the case of mortgage interest deduction, high-income households can receive upward of tens of thousands of dollars of benefit, while the bottom 20 percent of households receive on average just $3 in deduction.

Ultimately, to reverse the wrongs of the past and to create a more equitable society, we need ambitious race-conscious solutions.

Baby bonds, originally proposed by economists William Darity Jr. and Darrick Hamilton (co-author of this article), is a bold solution in that vein. It would provide every American newborn with an account at birth. These accounts would serve as seed capital for when the child matures to adulthood to purchase the economic security of an appreciating asset like a house, a new business, or a debt-free education. The program is race-conscious and universal given the fact that the bottom 50 percent of American households own 1 percent of the nation’s wealth and because all American babies would qualify. The average account at birth would be $20,000 and progressively rise to about $50,000 to $60,000 for children born into the most wealth-poor families. Such a program would cost upward of about $90 billion — that’s less than 20 percent of the $540 billion that the federal government already spends on tax expenditures that mostly benefit the wealthy.

We applaud Reeves for refuting a naive narrative that vilifies the superrich as the only source of economic injustice. We need to pinpoint accurately the elite, then explicitly recognize the racial dimensions of American economic stratification — that the wealthy and upper middle class are overwhelmingly White and underwhelmingly Black. Ultimately, we need ambitious solutions: “race-conscious universal programs,” a term even coined by Reeves and colleague Elizabeth Sawhill.

It is one thing to recognize income inequality and wealth disparity — and the racially stratified economy. It is another for what is arguably its most powerful cohort — the top 20 percent — to reverse its “opportunity hoarding” ways and assume its fair share of responsibility for fixing it. The easy out is to point at the top 1 percent and stop there; but if you are part of the professional class, you too are likely among the culprits and beneficiaries of an unjust economy.


2. Invest in People

Freedom Can’t Wait When a Community Decides No One Should Stay in Jail Just Because They’re Too Poor for Bail

YES! Photo by Lyndon Eugene

Dorothy Hinton-Adams stands outside the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta, where she was stuck in jail because she couldn’t afford her $500 bail. Her bail was eventually paid by a campaign to highlight the injustice of cash bail and its disproportionate impact on women of color and LGBTQ women. Later, the charges against her were dropped.YES! Photo by Lyndon Eugene

When she was arrested for allegedly shoplifting a can of peanuts in May, Dorothy Hinton-Adams didn’t have the money to pay for her bail, which a judge set at $500.

Amy Roe

Award-winning journalist Amy Roe has written for The Guardian, Utne Reader, Truthout, and others. She is the former editor of Real Change, a newspaper sold by low-income and homeless vendors on the streets of Seattle. Amy is currently senior writer at the ACLU of Washington, where she writes about efforts to reform America’s criminal justice system.

No bail bond company would help her, so Hinton-Adams, 71, was forced to stay in Fulton County Jail in Atlanta until her court date. “After the 15th day, I got kind of panicky,” Hinton-Adams said. “So I asked around how I could find out if I had a court date? There was a lady in there who wrote down my name and booking number.”

That night, a stranger appeared and paid the $500 to bail Hinton-Adams out.

Hinton-Adams is among some 60 women across the South freed during Black Mamas Bail-Out, a coordinated, month-long effort in May by the grassroots group Southerners on New Ground to highlight the injustice of cash bail and its disproportionate impact on women of color and LGBTQ women.

At any one time in this country, about 450,000 people are behind bars awaiting trial, and the vast majority of these people — 5 out of 6 — are there simply because they cannot afford the bail a judge has set for them.

While lawyers and policy advocates launch pilot projects aimed at nudging jurisdictions to reduce the number of people they lock up pre-trial, community bail funds — either ongoing endeavors or one-off programs like Black Mamas Bail-Out — take a different approach: Get them out now.

“You don’t have to wait for a law, you don’t need a litigation strategy. You just get them out, and you change their lives,” said David Feige, co-founder of the Bronx Freedom Fund, the pioneer of the current wave of community bail funds. Grassroots activists frequently contact the Bronx Freedom Fund to get advice on how to set up bail funds in their own communities, Feige said.

“It’s a turnkey operation. They’re very easy to set up. It’s scalable,” he said.

Bail was originally intended as a deposit to ensure that an accused person would return to court. But in recent years, judges have been setting bail higher and higher. Between 1992 and 2009 there was a 43 percent increase, after adjusting for inflation, in the amount of bail imposed in felony cases in the 75 largest counties in the U.S.

The overall effect is that people who have not been convicted of any crime are increasingly filling America’s jails. Ninety-five percent of the growth in the overall jail inmate population in the U.S. since 2000 was just people in jails awaiting trial. Poor people, people of color, and people with certain disabilities are more likely to be held in jail before trial and to be assigned high bail amounts, and thus face a greater likelihood that they’ll end up with a criminal conviction.

Ninety-seven percent of the more than 1,000 people the Bronx Freedom Fund has bailed out have shown up for court, Feige said. When those who have received bail from community bail funds show up for court, it demonstrates the injustice of holding people behind bars before trial simply because they are poor.

“About 50 percent of cases we bail out get dismissed,” Feige said. “They were crap cases. Of the remaining 50 percent, half of those result in noncriminal dispositions, and in the history of the fund, almost no one ever has gone back to jail. We have a radical effect on case outcomes just by posting bail.”

YES! photo by Lyndon Eugene

In Atlanta, Black Mamas Bail-Out freed Dorothy Hinton-Adams from jail using community bail funds. Members and partners of Southerners on New Ground, a grassroots regional queer liberation organization, helped coordinate the campaign. Left to right, seated: Dorothy Hinton-Adams, Amina Abdul-Jalil. Left to right, standing: Akiva Freidlin, Taylor Money-Worthy, Angelica Wheelis, Alyssa Green.YES! photo by Lyndon Eugene

Community bail funds give people accused of crimes a better chance for a fair trial. Studies show people who are jailed before trial are more likely to receive a jail or prison sentence, and for a longer time, than those who are free.

This is partly because being incarcerated is so horrible and so packed with collateral consequences for individuals and their communities — loss of income, job, and housing, and stress on families, to name a few — that most are willing to do anything to avoid it, even if it means disregarding their own innocence to accept a criminal conviction and the discrimination and stigma that come with it.

“Faced with ‘plead guilty, get out; maintain innocence, stay in,’ pretty much everyone makes the decision to plead guilty,” Feige said.

Plea agreements have become so prevalent in America’s courts that only about 5 percent of criminal cases at either the state or federal level ever go to trial. In misdemeanor proceedings where public defense is involved, plea bargaining is also the default setting, a tendency derided by critics as “meet ’em and plead ’em.” But when bail funds remove the threat of jail and the pressure to enter a guilty plea, the results are revealing.

In setting bail at all, the judge has made a determination that the accused individual is not too dangerous to be released to the community, said Matt Suchan, co-founder of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, which provides bail money for people who don’t have it and are being held in the county jail on felony charges.

“Our position is [that] even a $2 million bond is a release decision by that judge,” Suchan said. “Setting a very high bond is still a release decision.”

It’s a decision that’s made quickly. In Cook County, Illinois, bond hearings that determine whether someone gets locked up or walks free take an average of 37 seconds, and while one person might walk free on their own recognizance, another person charged with the same offense might face $10,000 in bail.

“Judges will barely look up sometimes,” Suchan said. “They’ll hear the charge, the criminal history, and sometimes just shout out a number.”

Bailing out people is only one tactic to address the harm of mass incarceration, and, he adds, its impact is limited. A single bail fund will never be able to free the 4,000 people who on any given day are in Cook County Jail because they can’t afford their bail. Instead, Suchan said, Chicago Community Bond Fund wants to prevent people from ever going in.

For people like Hinton-Adams, who has felt the sharp end of America’s dependence on cash bail, the result can’t come soon enough. Five days after being bailed out of Fulton County Jail, she still didn’t have a court date, so she went down to the county courthouse to inquire. They sent her next door, to the state courthouse.

There, Hinton-Adams learned the charges against her had been dismissed; her record expunged. It was proof, she said, of what she’d known all along: “I should’ve just been let out.”

Amy Roe

Award-winning journalist Amy Roe has written for The Guardian, Utne Reader, Truthout, and others. She is the former editor of Real Change, a newspaper sold by low-income and homeless vendors on the streets of Seattle. Amy is currently senior writer at the ACLU of Washington, where she writes about efforts to reform America’s criminal justice system.

Commentary

How to Bring Caring for Children and Elders (and Other Acts of Love) Into the Economy

Ask anyone about caregiving, and you’ll likely hear a story about personal sacrifice. Heather Boldon, a single mother from Minnesota, gave up her full-time job to care for her mother. She took a more than 50 percent pay cut, spent down her 401k, and lost her health insurance. When she was injured, she couldn’t visit a doctor to see whether she needed surgery. In New York, Delores McCrae, a home care worker, was evicted from her home and lived in a women’s homeless shelter where she was separated from her 11-year-old son. She made just $10 an hour.

Many say that our care system — the paid and unpaid labor of caring for our families and communities — is broken: Our economy doesn’t take care of caregivers. But care comes from love, community, and mutual respect; while we may be far from holistic, sustainable infrastructure that meets our families’ needs, some innovations hint at a better way.

On the whole, U.S. policies have little regard for what caregiving takes. In a country where almost everything can be bought and sold, care work, one of the most concrete representations of love that we have, is extremely undervalued and comes at an economic and emotional cost. A 2017 Brookings Institution study revealed that over one-third of unemployed women in the United States left the workforce due to caregiving responsibilities. These women lose an estimated $324,044 in wages and benefits over their lifetimes, weakening their ability to support their families and themselves in the future and into retirement. Meanwhile, with a median hourly wage of around $10, often without benefits, many professional caregivers in the United States don’t make enough money for their own families.

This system isn’t working for any of us. Thankfully, there are other models.

Japan’s Fureai Kippu welfare system allows people to earn credits caring for the elderly, which they can save for themselves as they age, transfer to family members, or exchange for services. In the Netherlands, students can live in nursing homes, volunteering 30 hours a month in exchange for rent.

In the United States, people are stepping up, creating community-centered care economies and breakthroughs in policy.

Hawai’i was ripe for a policy change. East Asian and Native Hawaiian cultural influences have meant that, in general, Hawaiian families prioritize care for elders. As in many communities of color, the work of caregiving here is seen as a collective, intergenerational effort. But because family-centered caregiving was not supported by public policy until recently, people experienced widespread burnout. Led by local leaders, community organizations, and our organization, Caring Across Generations, caregivers began telling their representatives that the system was not working for them and they needed support. In July, the state adopted the Kupuna Caregiver Assistance Act, the first legislation of its kind in the nation. It provides a voucher for up to $70 a day to eligible working family members to care for their aging loved ones at home. The program is intended to allow more caregivers — often wives and daughters — to stay in the workforce and receive some relief while they manage family responsibilities. When we use our creativity to pass policies like these, we invest in people on the front lines showing up for those who need it most.

Maria is an undocumented single mother of five and caregiver for her late husband’s friend Jose, who is in a wheelchair. In Texas, after Hurricane Harvey hit, she fled her flooded trailer but was unsure of where to go. She feared going to a shelter could lead to deportation, so she waited with Jose and her younger children in an inflatable pool for over an hour until three men picked them up and took them to a local furniture store, which had been turned into a shelter. Instead of meeting agents asking for papers, Maria was greeted with hot dogs, coffee, a place to sleep, and a wheelchair for Jose.

Disasters like these can bring out the worst in our systems, but also the best in our ability to show up for one another. Every day, people in our communities are figuring out how to care for one another against the odds — and to value that vital work. That is what should inspire and inform the larger changes we need. Creating an economy that allows our families to live, care, and age with dignity is the challenge of a generation.

3. Share Ownership

Together, Making Music Dreams Come True

Photo by Ben Lafond

Members of the Doomtree collective: Lazerbeak, Cecil Otter, Sims, Mike Mictlan, Paper Tiger, P.O.S, and DessaPhoto by Ben Lafond

When the Minneapolis hip-hop collective Doomtree started in 2001, it joined a genre with a long tradition of collaboration, from Run-DMC to the Wu-Tang Clan. At the time, the group comprised 15 musicians, most of them fresh out of high school.

“I got invited into the crew before I ever made a beat,” said DJ and Doomtree member Lazerbeak. “I don’t think any of us fully knew how to make rap. We just really wanted to do it and kind of taught each other.”

Today’s roster has seven members — Cecil Otter, Dessa, Mike Mictlan, P.O.S, Paper Tiger, Sims, and Lazerbeak — who have practiced and learned from each other for years. They have been able to turn their music into livelihoods because they all put their heads, hearts, and resources together. They were able to book showcases as a crew that they wouldn’t have been able to do as solo artists, and to feature each other’s work on albums and tours. That commitment to collaboration helped build a new local hip-hop scene, establishing a market for their music that may not have otherwise grown.

“It’s the punk rock [do-it-yourself] ethos,” rapper Sims said. “There’s no major labels here [in Minneapolis], so we kind of had to do it ourselves.” To get their music out, Sims said, “we had to find a network of people — each other.” Through the collective, the members launched their own label.

One reason Doomtree has worked is that it’s a cooperatively owned business. Everyone has a say in how it’s run and a role in how it works, whether it’s logo design, budgeting, or ordering T-shirts. Shared ownership and decision-making have allowed members to explore careers they never would have been able to have under a traditional label. “This is about artists being able to control and have more power and do more for themselves than they have in previous iterations of this music business,” Sims said.

Now they’re helping to create that space for new generations of artists. “We’re the old guys, and we’re seeing the new generation of artists come up,” Lazerbeak said. “It feels good to be a link in that chain.”

4. Respect Local Ecosystems

The 150-Mile Wardrobe Clothes That Reflect the Abundance (and Limits) of Home

Photo by Paige Green

At right, Fibershed founder Rebecca Burgess, Mike Lewis of Growing Warriors in Kentucky, and Arnie Valdez of Rezolana Institute in Colorado collaborate on hemp processing.Photo by Paige Green

Between pesticides, chemical dyes, and plastic, producing a typical sweater eats an enormous amount of natural and industrial resources. Apparel is one of the world’s most polluting industries, and the U.S. sends up to 75 percent of its cotton abroad — only to ship it back as cheap T-shirts.

The Northern California Fibershed was designed to circumvent all that.

About 104 farmers, ranchers, weavers, spinners, and designers across 19 counties make up a garment-producing system where every producer uses materials sourced within a 150-mile radius: A shop in Oakland buys marigolds from a farm in Chico to dye yarn shorn from sheep in Sonoma and weaves it into sweaters sold in San Francisco.

The concept started in 2010 when textile artist and sustainability advocate Rebecca Burgess challenged herself for one year to wear only clothes produced near her community.

“Six weeks in, I still only had two items of clothing,” says Burgess, who drew inspiration from Southeast Asian cultures with highly localized fiber production. “Your region can hold all you need to survive — that transformed my understanding of what was possible.”

Piece by piece, she built a regional wardrobe and learned what resources were available nearby — and what was needed to “create a functional system out of an abundant system.”

Since then, Burgess has been working in Northern California and across the country to help farmers and artisans connect and create their own regional fiber systems, first by analyzing the supply chain, then by connecting producers to each other. A complete circuit starts with the production of dye and fiber, which is processed, spun, and turned into fabric, then handed to designers and makers before reaching the wearer.

Photo by Paige Green

An organic, naturally colored cotton plant in Northern California.Photo by Paige Green

At heart, the system is about connecting and respecting the gifts and limits of the land. Burgess says the system sequesters as much carbon from the atmosphere as it emits, and the organically dyed garments are compostable. The farmers plan to strengthen their network as an agricultural cooperative by the end of 2018.

“You realize you have such a community of people here who are helping you survive,” Burgess said. “You become grateful to each other in ways that modern culture strips us of.”

5. Depower Money

Commentary

The Gift Economy and a Radical Vision for Food

“If 100% of the people were farming, it would be ideal.” — Masanobu Fukuoka

YES! Photo by Federica Armstrong

Oakland community members share a blessing before picking up produce from FrutaGift volunteers at Hidden Creek Cohousing in Fruitvale, California. When translators are present, the blessing is given in Spanish, English, Mandarin, Arabic, Mam, Japanese, and Catalan.YES! Photo by Federica Armstrong

I grow a half-dozen fruit trees along my 40-foot stretch of sidewalk. The generous fig tree just finished, two young apple trees and a pomegranate are full of bounty, and the kumquat and persimmon are ripening. As much as I love the simple act of orcharding, I’m also sharing a radical vision for food and economy in my suburban Los Angeles community of Altadena. What if all my neighbors grew food in their yards, too? What if we shared the bounty with each other? What if you could eat a delicious, varied, and healthy meal from the abundance provided by your neighborhood trees?

Peter Kalmus

Peter Kalmus is a NASA climate scientist (he writes as a citizen, not on behalf of NASA, JPL, or Caltech). His new book is Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution.

Forty percent of the food produced in the part of the planet we call the U.S. is wasted. Much of this waste ends up in landfills, where it produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The food-climate nexus is a window into a deeply broken system; studying it- — and experimenting with alternative economics within our communities — can reveal solutions that benefit everyone.

Consider the gift economy, brilliantly on display every Sunday in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, California. Pancho Ramos-Stierle is a driving force behind this free community farm stand, FrutaGift, which is painted in the colors of the season.

For over six years, Ramos-Stierle and his friends have gone to a local farmers market after closing time to help farmers clean and pack up. Farmers began offering their unsold organic fruits and vegetables for Ramos-Stierle to bring to the people in his neighborhood. Using this produce, he and his friends cook a sumptuous vegan meal that they bring the following week to share with the tired workers. A circle is created; everyone benefits. There is bounty and gratitude.

And yet, FrutaGift is just one part of a larger gift economy. Ramos-Stierle’s inspiration was the Free Farm Stand in the Mission District in San Francisco, started decades ago by a man named Tree. Says Ramos-Stierle, “I still remember the sense of awe and gratitude he evoked in me when I first met him. Like the giant redwoods and sequoias, Tree’s giant heart is filled with selfless service and love for all.”

Ramos-Stierle tries to carry this same gratitude for food and community to FrutaGift in Oakland. “Before we start distributing the food, we make a gratitude circle. We hold hands, and someone gives a blessing in their own tradition to honor all that made it possible to gather and be nourished in such a way.” Visitors to FrutaGift and the Free Farm Stand have gone on to do the same in their own communities.

YES! Photo by Federica Armstrong
YES! Photo by Federica Armstrong

Left, Miyuki Baker, left, and Nidia Castillo Lopez pack produce from the farmers market into their van. Right, locals pick up fruits and vegetables from the Free Farm Stand. Sometimes neighbors bring their own produce to share. YES! Photos by Federica Armstrong

Capitalism and its cash economy seem to lead inexorably to exploitation and wealth disparity, a few haves and mostly have-nots. But perhaps food can be the leading edge toward a sustainable, resilient economy of abundance.

Unlike many specialized goods and services, food is practical to barter — or, better yet, to gift. Here in Altadena, I’m part of a group that exchanges homegrown produce. We meet once a month in a local park, each bringing whatever surplus we happen to have. We create community and share abundance outside the cash economy. Imagine if instead of only one household every few blocks, all households were growing and trading food? The density of fresh, in-season produce would be so high (except perhaps for some portion of staple crops that could be grown on larger farms outside of town centers) that we’d meet each other’s needs, creating a local, waste-free, cash-free food system.

Ramos-Stierle likes to point out that an entire complex civilization, the Inca, functioned without money or markets of any kind. Everyone participated in growing food. Our societies and economies are reflections of our food systems.

I mull these things over while walking my dog, the sun setting in the L.A. sky. As I walk, I take another bite of a perfect guava, a windfall from my neighbor’s wonderful, sidewalk-facing guava tree. A gift.

Peter Kalmus

Peter Kalmus is a NASA climate scientist (he writes as a citizen, not on behalf of NASA, JPL, or Caltech). His new book is Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution.

What If We Exchange Time Instead of Money

Photo by Tosha Phoenix

Cowry Collective members participate in a time bank market, where products and produce can be exchanged for tokens, not cash, at the New Roots Urban Farm in St. Louis, Missouri.Photo by Tosha Phoenix

When Chinyere Oteh welcomed her first child in 2009, she found herself in a predicament familiar to many new stay-at-home mothers: Stress was high, but money and time were short.

“I thought to myself, I can’t be the only person trying to figure out how to have a healthy family life as well as make ends meet,” Oteh said. That’s when she remembered an article she had read on time-banking.

Time-banking is a model for trading skills, goods, and labor instead of money — a sort of barter system where members “deposit” hours doing things like teaching, cooking, or repairing things, and “withdraw” hours of other members’ services. It’s been around in the U.S. since the 1980s, and there are close to 500 such banks across the country today.

Oteh started small in 2010. She invited 10 friends in St. Louis to meet and gauge whether there was enough interest to start exchanging. Those who liked the idea invited more friends, and the group quickly grew to 25 people swapping things like lawn-mowing (Oteh’s first ask) for casseroles, mural-painting for help cleaning. The goal was to improve their quality of life and show that neighbors can meet some needs without money — and that everyone has something to offer.

Photo by Paige Green

A token used, instead of cash, for purchases at the New Roots Urban Farm.

Oteh named the group Cowry Collective after the cowry shells once used as currency in Africa, China, and North America (and a throwback to her own West African and Ojibwe heritage). Each hour earned and exchanged is a “cowry”: You can use one cowry to get an hour of service from anyone else in the time bank.

The collective has 236 members, and more than 2,000 cowries have been exchanged (though Oteh estimates many more hours have gone unlogged).

Mary Densmore has been a member for three years and relies on other members to help farm her two small plots of urban land. Over the years, she’s exchanged services like bike repairs and beekeeping lessons, but these days she usually sends helpers home with fresh food. Cowry Collective has helped her connect with new people and even changed the way she thinks.

“Often I’m [thinking], How much money am I making? That’s real, because I have bills to pay,” Densmore said. “But it’s not really about money — it’s cool to be able to produce something that is able to help me meet my needs.”

5. Repower Democracy

Commentary

History Shows Co-op Movement Led to a Populism of Hope

The waning years of the 1800s bore an uncanny resemblance to the present. The U.S. economy was transforming and globalizing, leaving many hardworking people behind. Then, as now, a populist uprising was underway in national politics against politics as usual. Then, as now, tough-talking contenders tried to position themselves as spokesmen for the people.

That earlier populism shared many of the complaints about widespread economic stagnation and urban elites that animated voters in 2016. But, rather than in the apocalyptic preaching of a reality TV star, the movement’s backbone lay in feats of economic self-help. And this made all the difference. The proposals those populists sought called for fuller democracy, not authoritarian retrenchment.

This was a populism of hope, not a populism of fear.

Lawrence Goodwyn’s classic history of the late 19th century “agrarian revolt in America,” The Populist Moment, recounts a fearsome political awakening among farmers of the South and West, White and Black, and their revolt against the financial power of urban robber barons.

Goodwyn became convinced that “the agrarian revolt cannot be understood outside the framework of the cooperative crusade that was its source.” His history traces an outline for a better kind of populism.

The populist movement culminated with the 1896 election. The populists’ People’s Party reluctantly endorsed the Democratic candidate, William Jennings Bryan, who narrowly lost to William McKinley, and the party imploded. But those populists’ legacy remains with us. A flexible money supply, a progressive income tax, a national farm-credit system, secret ballots — these are (albeit incomplete) outgrowths of their demands. After Colorado elected a People’s Party governor in 1892, it became one of the first states to embrace women’s suffrage.

At work behind almost any great social movement, but rarely noticed in the headlines or the popular mythology, is an engine of counter-economy. It is a source of inspiration and a means of material support. Gandhi regarded homegrown enterprise — memorialized in the spinning wheel on India’s flag — as the core of his independence strategy; the more visible confrontations with British colonizers were a secondary outgrowth. African Americans mobilizing for rights in the 1950s and ’60s depended not just on the pooled resources of Black churches, but also on the land and economic freedom they gained through the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. The language of Black Power was born during Stokely Carmichael’s stay on Black-owned co-op land in Georgia.

The roots of the populist movement and the hope it instilled lay in a network of farmer cooperatives known as the Farmers Alliance. In it, rural people organized by building democratic enterprises that could counter the big-city capitalists. They bought supplies together, sold their products together, and extended credit to each other.

When those enterprises ran against the limits of the dominant economy, the people radicalized. They formulated political demands through the practice of mutual self-help. The Farmers Alliance allied with the urban workers and co-ops of the Knights of Labor, then the country’s largest union. When they entered politics together, they did so from a sense of their own power, not just their powerlessness.

“Insurgent movements are not the product of ‘hard times,’” Goodwyn wrote. “They are the product of insurgent cultures.”

When we ground our fed-up politics in a sense of our own potential, rather than in a need for strongmen, we get very different results. One Farmers Alliance leader explained, “We believe in the farmer voting himself, not being voted by demagogues.” He described the co-ops as “means by which the farmers may have the opportunity to emancipate themselves from the grasp of political tricksters.”

For those who would like to see today’s populist moment turn from a tenor of fear to hope, from fantasizing about walls to reimagining banks, the challenge is not a matter of slicker messaging or tweaks to any political party’s platform. Hopeful populism begins when people feel their own power, when they experience it through economies that improve their lives by their own hands.