Thursday, March 10, 2016

Bridges to Community (with Valerie)

Trev: 
I don't wish for a world where we all lived in little tribes. There was however an advantage to being part of groups that were intimately involved in each others lives. Where problems could be shared, and support provided for every day ups and downs. I think of things as simple as having pets or plants. I love the idea of gardening, but also of travel. I don't want to kill everything I grow. I also worry about putting pets in strange homes while I wander. But there are also grander issues 'tribes' helped with. Those who did well lived with those who struggled. There wasn't as much of a success filter creating bubbles which continually reinforce themselves. I have recently heard about Commonchange.com which Valerie Anderson is involved in. How would this help?

Valerie:
Let me ask you a question: if tomorrow you lost everything - your house was repossessed, your bank account was cleared out, and you lost your job - how long would it take you before you had your first meal, a place to stay, and a new job? Like me, you probably wouldn't miss a meal, you wouldn't be in danger of sleeping on the street, and you'd be back earning a living and supporting yourself within a couple of weeks or a month or two at most. Now how'd you do that? You most likely picked up the phone and called a friend. What if poverty is not so much about a lack of "things" or stuff, but about relational isolation? I believe that it's not that we don't care about each other; it's that we don't know each other. That's what we're interested in at Common Change - helping people to connect their resources to draw alongside the people they care about. 




Trev:
I love that thought experiment. Tim Ferriss also talks about it. Thinking of the 'worst case scenario'. For me, it helped me realise just how lucky I am. From parents, teachers, friends and people I have met through my life, I have a deep internal reserve of belief that I can cope with whatever is thrown at me. Poverty as relational isolation resonates deeply with me. It is why quite often people with little material wealth often wouldn't be considered poor if their life was understood. Similarly many wealthy people are relationally impoverished. Whether through time poverty or just focusing on things that don't matter. I love the idea of consciously building these groups of concern. How does Common Change go about it?


'Worst Case Scenario' thinking


Val:
Exactly - relational isolation is certainly not socio-economically limited. We all have a desire to know and be known, to care and be cared for. It's at the heart of what it means to be human. At Common Change we're passionate about inspiring and equipping people to connect their resources to needs in ways that are more connected and collaborative. We help groups of people to pool resources with people they know, to share with people they care about. It's a way to create your own giving circle to meet the needs and opportunities of the people you are in relationship with - whether friends, family, co-workers, neighbours or schoolmates. 

Trev:
The idea of giving circles, or more broadly sharing economies, fascinates me. We are so used to a world of exchange. This bothers me because there ends up being an automatic accounting going on at the back of my head when ever I am in an interaction. Is this person being fair? What am I getting out of this? Am I being taken advantage of? Is it my turn? Is everyone else doing their bit? The better friendships I have are the ones where this has fallen away. Where I feel comfortable asking when I need help. When I love being of help. I definitely get more of a kick out of those kind of interactions than ones I have paid for. But most of my friends, family, co-workers, neighbours and schoolmates are like me. How does Common Change go about making introductions to broaden those circles?

Val:
You've hit the nail on the head, Trevor. It's a beautiful thing when we replace transactions with relationships. At the core of Common Change is what we term, "the wisdom of the group." This isn't about merely throwing money at "issues" in the hopes that they'll go away. We are invited to participate in meeting needs with all we bring to the table - not just money, but our experience, expertise, networks and social capital. You'll be astounded at how much richer the solutions are that a group can come up with by tapping into this wealth of wisdom and creativity - we truly make better decisions together than we could alone. 

As to how Common Change helps to broaden circles, part of that is built into the group model itself - you may not have direct contact with people in need but out of the 9 of you in the group those connections will exist. A solid group will always have a healthy dose of "bridge builders". To be honest though, maybe this conversation gets to the ways we hem ourselves in, closing ourselves off to the myriad messy, beautiful relationships that are inviting us deeper everywhere we go - that guy you pass everyday on the way to the bus, the checkout clerk, the teacher's aide at your kid's school - should I go on?

Trev:
As I type this, I am sitting in the Seattle Public Library. I just overheard the person next to me speak and they had a South African accent. I said hello and it turned out they were here on conference from Pretoria. The ones best friend's daughter had been at Westville Girls High (I was at Westville Boys'). The other had lived in Kloof for seven years. My grandparents, an aunt, uncle and cousins are from there. If we had been in South Africa, a conversation wouldn't have started. Like you say... life would have continued. Like people in the tube in London. The question is how to create more situations where we are open to exploring these connections. As you say, we rely on bridge builders. Ice breakers. Catalysts. How do we overcome the protective bubble that makes a checkout clerk just a checkout clerk? To see a shared love of music. Or running. Or football.

Val:
What a great connection to make. Few things better than hearing the familiar accents of home when you're travelling abroad! It may sound trite, Trevor, but I think the answer to "how do we overcome the protective bubble", is that we just start! We begin to break down the barriers by slowing down, by pausing, by noticing, by lifting our eyes from our phones for a second as we hand over cash to the clerk, by asking people their names or how their day has been, by greeting in their first language (I know you're diving into learning isiXhosa). Katherine Fulton has a brilliant TedTalk titled, "You are the future of Philanthropy." A phrase from that talk was on my email signature for a long time: "We're not thinking our way into a new way of acting; we're acting our way into a new way of thinking." At some point we've got get out of our heads and start doing - and in the doing we'll find ourselves living into the answers. 



Trev:
I like the idea of being micro-ambitious. The danger with acting your way into thinking is that we barge in like the proverbial 'Bull in a China Shop'. Many of the worst out-comes in our shared global history have come from people believing they had the solution to other people's problems, and spreading those problems by force. But action with the necessary respect seems like the right approach. Walking with people. Starting with relationships. Learning from each other. Quite often that micro-ambition might start with ourselves, e.g. learning a language, curbing conspicuous consumption, actively building new friendships. Little steps that accumulate. A friend of mine is involved in a run every Friday at the Langa Hockey Club in Cape Town. It is open to all. Building bridges may just start with putting on some running shoes... and finding out more about commonchange.com.



Val:
Certainly much damage has been done by well-meaning but naive, overly enthusiastic or out-of-touch individuals rushing in with an intent to "save". One of the beauties of Common Change is how the group model mitigates some of the power dynamics that come into play when resources are transferred, and opens up spaces for wrestling together to come up with better solutions - the "wisdom of the group" I mentioned. We also have some great resources on how to move towards ways of helping without hurting,  avoiding the traps of "toxic charity" (check out the book by the same name). My advise? Do the work to explore what it means to help in ways that are empowering and uphold the dignity of person-hood, but don't be paralysed into inaction by the fear of "what ifs." Start small and relationally. Build collaboratively. People are more valuable than projects and relationships are greater than transactions. Check us out online and drop me an email if you want to chat more. I'm always up for a hangout, coffee or (better yet) walk in the park!

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