How to create systems for community support
“If people have skills and needs, then they have the basis for an economy.” - Douglas Rushkoff
Today, many of us are helping others get their health back and are wondering what we can do to take care of our friends, family members, colleagues, and neighbors. Times like these are painful and difficult, but they are also an opportunity to organize improvised and experimental efforts to lift up our communities. Responses to today’s crisis can become the seeds for tomorrow’s community institutions and shape the future of how we work together.
Historically, during periods of economic hardship, we’ve seen examples of cooperative, self-help networks emerge. When deficient in economic power, people have organized together to create local and non-hierarchical ways of cooperating economically. It’s in times of necessity and survival that inventive ways of sharing or helping one another have materialized:
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, informal systems of barter and value emerged, such as The Unemployed Exchange Association of Oakland, where unemployed people developed alternative systems for exchanging goods and services.
In the Civil Rights era, sharecroppers pooled resources together to purchase land to help extend economic freedom to one another.
After the Great Recession of the late 2000s, Occupy Wall Street groups purchased millions of dollars of medical, student, and personal debt at a fraction of the cost, in order to forgive it.
For vulnerable workers and marginalized communities, this is a moment to join together and build solidarity. We can seize this time to create an economy of productive generosity and self-sustaining support systems that will outlast this crisis.
Right now, there are well-intentioned philanthropic initiatives and emergency grants doing commendable work. The government has promised to help small businesses and the working class, but it won’t be enough. We should be prepared for both private and public support to underwhelm us.
Charity vs. Solidarity
“Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.” ― Martin Luther King, Jr.
Lately, you’ve probably seen a lot of new charitable programs from institutions and wealthy individuals offering grants to artists and arts institutions. However, the efforts of philanthrocapitalism are likely to fall short for several reasons:
Charity is temporary. Crumbs from winners are a band-aid, not a permanent solution.
Charity is conditional. In order to receive charitable support, you must meet requirements and criteria determined by benefactors. Sometimes, these limitations can be specific to geographies or areas of focus. Other times, they can exclude people based on criteria such as sobriety or incarceration history.
Applications waste time. Grant makers will ask thousands of people in desperate need to fill out long applications to compete for relief.
The need is overwhelming. There is simply not enough institutional private charitable giving to match needs.
Meaningful and lasting solutions will require viewing problems through a systems-thinking lens. By merging efforts and building solidarity, we can create systems that provide lasting economic power, self-sufficiency, and resilience.
Creating alternative systems for value exchange and wealth distribution may seem abstract, but there are several examples of self-organizing, grassroots efforts forming and taking action now.
The following are examples of community support networks that are systemic in nature, and can be modeled and replicated.
Mutual Aid Societies
At their core, mutual aid efforts create a reciprocal economy that communities use to create and exchange value. Mutual aid societies are when people form networks to care for one another and meet each other’s needs when existing public and private support systems won’t. They’re for taking matters into our own hands to provide meaningful support and help each other survive, now.
Mutual aid networks can emerge with varying degrees of formality as improvised barter systems that connect skills and resources with needs, independent of monetary exchange. In fact, many mutual aid efforts of the past have matured to become today’s mutual insurance companies and credit unions.
Recently, we’ve seen several local mutual aid efforts emerge to connect people who need social services like child care, grocery delivery, bail funds, food donations, transportation, and other support, with people willing to help.
Time Banks & Favor Banks
Money isn’t necessary for a local economy of value exchange. Alternatives to monetary exchange are particularly useful in times like these, when our spending power is depressed, yet we have time and value to give. One way to exchange value without money is through a time bank, or favor bank. This is effectively a store of trust, generosity, and goodwill kept on a ledger that allows people to record their contributions to one another.
For instance, within a particular community, one member may offer transportation to other members. When this member gives one hour of rides, this can be recorded as one hour point. Then, this point can be redeemed for an hour of another favor or service like website design, for example. Contributions like this are often recognized irrespective of how the market would determine a particular skill’s productivity or value. Instead, favors are measured in a more egalitarian way based on time. This way, community networks can generate value for each other in ways that are not predicated on outside public or private support.
Libraries of Things
The concept of a “library of things” is a membership-based resource for pooling physical belongings for shared use. This allows for people to rent or borrow materials, tools, resources, and other objects from a shared central source as needed.
For example, many of us have an electric drill that we may use once or twice a year. If given the option, many of us would also share that underutilized drill with someone within a trusted network. Having a localized hub that allows for easy sharing and borrowing can allow us to keep more of our wealth, democratize access to resources, and can discourage wasteful consumerism. Members can spend less money investing in stuff they will barely use, and still access a wide range of belongings.
This logic of membership-based sharing can be applied to a range of purposes- from sharing sporadically used recreational equipment like camping tents, to games, music instruments, vehicles, and more.
Lending & Giving Circles
In order to distribute emergency funds or give within a community, there have been several informal efforts to voluntarily redistribute wealth from salaried workers to unemployed freelancers. “Giving circles” work by collectively pooling money or resources in a group, then democratically choosing where to allocate that money, expecting nothing in return.
One example of a lending circle is a sou-sou, a practice originating in West Africa centuries ago. These “opportunity banks” are where several people, on a regularly recurring schedule, pool an equal amount of money together. Then, at monthly intervals, a new member of the group receives the money as a gift or a loan. This cycle continues until all members have received a payout.
Mission Asset Fund
Wealth inequality is primarily driven by gaps in equity and ownership, not salary. This is why worker-owned organizations are effective at creating community prosperity and systemically battling inequality.
Cooperatives, at a systems level, create sustainable and regenerative ways of capturing and sharing community wealth. Worker co-ops are businesses that are collectively owned by their workers, which in turn empowers them to have a say in how the business is run, and share profits.
Because so many people are currently unable to work, or are being put in precarious work environments, now is the perfect time to organize peers and colleagues to form organizations collectively owned by workers.
If you’re interested in learning more about worker cooperatives, here is a more detailed guide I wrote on how to start a cooperative.
Platform cooperativism is a small but growing movement that advocates for platforms being collectively owned by their users instead of executives and outside investors. In today’s tech-enabled gig economy, exploited workers endure unpredictable hours, volatile income, and hazardous conditions without benefits, protections, or decision-making power.
Technology companies can become incredibly valuable because of their ability to scale, create network effects, and diminish marginal costs. And although we’re increasingly reliant on technology, there’s no reason to accept that these powerful tools should be owned by founders and investors in Silicon Valley. We can organize community interventions in tech that help reverse inequality, rather than exacerbate it. Creating cooperative organizations in tech is especially critical for vulnerable gig workers with volatile income - some of whom are increasingly forced to work in hazardous and dangerous environments.
Up & Go (NYC) is a home cleaning service booked through a mobile app, that is a cooperative owned by the domestic workers. Because the workers own the application and the code, they are able to avoid extractive rent-seeking platform fees, and therefore they get paid nearly twice as much as workers finding clients through similar platforms.
Mensakas (Barcelona) is a food delivery app that is owned collectively by its delivery cyclists. The group was founded by several couriers from Deliveroo and UberEats who organized other cyclists to create their own app to achieve better pay and more dignified work.
Stocksy (Vancouver) is a platform for purchasing stock photography, which is also a co-op owned by the photographers.
Ampled (NYC) is an artist and worker-owned platform that I co-founded, allowing musicians to be directly supported by their community.
There are many ways we can help each other by sharing labor, resources, capital, and ownership. These forms of mutual aid and support can help build community wealth and resilience today, and beyond.
If you are looking to organize a non-hierarchical community of mutual aid, CommunityRule is a helpful resource for open-sourced documentation on forming horizontal governance structures.
Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice by Jessica Gordon Nembhard
The Citizen’s Share: Reducing Inequality in the 21st Century by Joseph R. Blasi, Richard B. Freeman, and Douglas L. Kruse
Leverage Points: Places To Intervene In A System by Donella Meadows
Austin is a co-founder of Ampled, a cooperatively owned web platform that allows musicians to be directly supported by their community. He is interested in the development of alternative economies and building a more democratic, equitable, and inclusive online economy. Austin is a member of NEW INC, the New Museum incubator, as part of the Equitable Platforms track and is also on the project council of the Internet of Ownership. Austin has a Bachelor of Architecture from Pratt Institute and is based in Brooklyn, NY.