“I don’t believe the economy is getting better,” says Billy R., a member of a mutual aid group in Oregon that he jokingly calls “my reality support group.” “All around me I’m surrounded by media and advertising urging me to keep borrowing, buying, and sleepwalking. I love meeting with others who are staring down the potential risks and challenges of the future.”
Maybe more of us could use a reality support group.
Even with the announcement that the official unemployment rate fell to 9.4 percent, millions of people remain in dismal economic straits. The pace of home foreclosures has barely slowed and millions remain out of work. Even upbeat scenarios still assume protracted unemployment and economic stagnation for much of the decade ahead. The unspoken scenario is that things could get worse.
So here’s the point: you must not face the future alone. Find your own “reality support group” (we’ll tell you how below). This year, make a resolution to deepen your relationships with people around you with whom you can face what’s coming down the pike.
Sometime during the next couple of years, there will likely be a fundamental shift. It might be another economic meltdown along the lines of 2008, or a shock to the economy thanks to a rapid spike in energy costs. It could be a series of extreme weather events that result in flooding, drought, or unprecedented heat waves. Think Hurricane Katrina on a larger scale. These changes could lead to food and water shortages—and test our personal and community preparedness in ways that we have not experienced in our lifetimes.
You should know that we, the authors of this piece, are not apocalyptic, bunker-building, pessimistic people. We’re both parents, gardeners, and active in our neighborhoods. We like a good football party—though we root for different teams (Patriots v. Steelers).
We believe our society has almost everything we need to build stronger communities, reduce inequality, live in harmony with the earth, and make a graceful transition to a new sustainable economy. But we won’t get there ignoring the data, and we won’t get there disconnected from one another.
We’re not talking about yet another issue campaign. We certainly need to remain engaged in the good fights around economic justice, peace, democracy, the environment. But there is something huge missing right now in our approach to social change. Our social movements are weak and, with some inspiring exceptions, not changing the political dynamics. The “Net Roots”—online organizing and social media—are creative ways to aggregate money and power in specific situations, but online activism is not a substitute for a movement based on durable and trusting face-to-face relationships. In some religious and labor traditions, this is called solidarity.
Fearful, Alone, & Ashamed
Presently in the United States we are witnessing the emergence of politics based on fear and the erosion of status. Millions of people saw their livelihoods and dreams collapse in the aftermath of the economic meltdown. People lost their homes, jobs, savings, and sense of a positive future. They’ve had to adjust their expectations—for example, facing the reality that they may never be able to retire or improve their standard of living.
Some people respond to these circumstances by blaming themselves and feeling ashamed about their difficulties. Many are hunkering down, feeling depressed and withdrawn. In the U.S., we tend to think everything is about the individual—even blaming ourselves for things that are largely beyond our control.
Others of us respond by scapegoating others, often those more disadvantaged. These responses often come from a place of fear, isolation, and shame.
There is good reason to be angry and focus on powerful financial and political actors who are responsible. But, as in the grieving process, we must move from anger to a place where we can boldly face today’s difficult realities and also initiate pro-active responses. We can start by learning to accept and live within new limits set by economic and ecological reality. Many people are already deliberately moving away from the old economy, and they’re finding new types of security and abundance. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they often feel much richer than they did in lives defined by the “work-watch-spend” cycle.
Rebecca Solnit, in her remarkable book A Paradise Built In Hell, reminds us to look for the “shadow governments of kindness,” the deep reservoirs of resilience and compassion that emerge during disasters and troubled times. All over the planet, people are defying the stereotypes of the self-centered “economic man” and instead caring for one another, building alternative economies, and deepening solidarity.
A Movement to Build Economic Security
The good news is people are already coming together in small groups to form and strengthen relationships. Some are called “common security clubs,” while others go by names like “mutual aid groups,” “resilience circles,” and “unemployed support groups.”
Call it what you want, but the purpose is the same: getting together regularly—8 to 15 adults—to face ecological and economic change. Small group organizing is part of the missing architecture in our social movements ... which may be why it’s catching on so quickly.
Such groups are designed to strengthen our personal and community resilience. They typically have three purposes: to learn together, support one another through mutual aid, and engage in social action.
Learn together. It’s hard enough for each of us alone to keep up with news about the ways our changing economy and ecology are impacting our lives. But it’s particularly challenging to face unsettling realities in isolation. In order to move forward, we need a community to help us learn and figure out how to deal with our fear, anger, loss, and feelings of betrayal.
Group members watch videos, read articles, talk to each other, and organize forums. Since the “experts” mostly got things wrong two years ago, participants are investigating things for themselves. What’s really happening in the economy? What caused the economic meltdown? What’s changed? What are the ecological risk points? How will the decline of cheap, easy-to-get oil affect the future economy? What will a transition to a new economy look like?
Mutual Aid. Our mutual aid muscles are out of shape. We need to find ways to increase our real economic security and web of support through shared resources, skills, experience, and capacities. Some folks do this through extended families, religious congregations, and ethnic and fraternal associations. But millions of people are disconnected from extended family and the immigrant and civic associations that helped earlier generations survive. And many religious congregations have gotten out of the practice of being centers of mutual aid.
Common security clubs often gather around potlucks, sharing food and recipes for healthy, low-cost meals. They support one another to get out of debt, brainstorm about employment options, share tips on saving money. They form bartering circles to swap skills, tools, and time. They talk about the challenges of parents moving in with children, children moving in with parents—and adjusting to new norms and limits as a result of the changing economy and future.
Social Action. Many of us want to make meaningful change at the local and national level. We want to find ways to constructively channel our anger and fear to resist further Wall Street destruction of our local economies. We want to act together in ways that go beyond online petitions or phone calls to our member of Congress. Think “affinity group” or “social action group”—a place to deepen our effectiveness as a small unit, but be part of larger movements.
Common security clubs in particular have worked for national policy changes, from universal health care and Wall Street financial reform to the extension of unemployment benefits. Many clubs, animated by the “break up with your bank” and “move your money” efforts, relocated personal, congregational, and other funds out of Wall Street, and into community banks and credit unions.
Other clubs have connected with community-wide “transition” efforts, inspired by the Transition Town movement sweeping England and now moving U.S. communities into action. Transition neighborhoods and towns proactively prepare themselves for climate change, economic hardship, and the decline in easy-to-get oil and cheap energy—with its huge implications for transportation, food security, building design, and our standard of living. Within the broader initiatives, small personal groups like common security clubs provide a place where people can meet to practice mutual aid and reciprocity. Both transition towns and common security clubs are integral components of building needed personal and community resilience.
A Few Stories
Encouraging stories are emerging from common security clubs and other mutual aid groups.
A group of unemployed workers in Maine created a resource sharing exchange. They met regularly at the library and laughed so much the librarian didn’t believe they were economically struggling.
A group in Greenfield, Massachusetts calls themselves “the neighbors” and meets monthly to check in, sing together, and practice mutual aid. On another night they meet for a monthly game night—what one member called “fun and affordable entertainment.”
In Fort Wayne, Indiana, a network of Unemployed and Anxiously Employed Workers meets weekly and has formed committees to help educate one another about computer use, unemployment insurance, stress management in tough times, and green job opportunities. “Part of our work is to help face the unemployment bureaucracy so people get their benefits,” said Tom Lewandowski, a founder of the group. They invite people leaving unemployment offices to join the group. Members volunteer at libraries on Sunday afternoons to help unemployed workers file claims online.
Small Groups in Social Movements
Can forming a small group like this really make a difference, when the problems we face seem so overwhelming? History tells us they can. At many crucial moments in our past, small groups have played an essential role in incubating the seeds of great change.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, more than 27,000 “Share Our Wealth” clubs formed to discuss the causes of the Depression and advocate for a radical program of wealth redistribution.
Also in the 1930s, seniors organized “Townsend Clubs” to advocate for old age pensions—a formidable social movement that added to the pressure to establish Social Security. By 1936, more than 8,000 Townsend Clubs had been formed with over 2 million members. In ten states—including Oregon, Colorado, California, Florida, South Dakota—there were more than 50 clubs per congressional district.
In the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, people formed nonviolent direct action groups to engage in sit-ins and keep up morale. Activists rooted in faith-based congregations and tight-knit communities were able to take greater risks knowing that if they should be jailed (or worse), there were others to care for their children and elders.
The women’s movement was built upon small consciousness-raising groups, which enabled millions of women to reflect on their identity. “The personal is political” was experienced in thousands of face-to-face gatherings, ultimately shifting gender attitudes throughout the society. The anti-nuclear movement in the late 1970s formed “affinity groups” as part of direct action efforts to prevent power plants from being built.
In the labor movement, the success of organizing female clerical workers into trade unions depended upon an organizing approach that included small support groups. Large mega-churches have grown upon a foundation of “small group ministry” in which members connect through smaller, face-to-face groups. A growing number of organizers today are examining the “power of networks” in social movements.
Given the challenges we’re collectively facing in the present, where are such movements today? It appears that without a lived experience of “solidarity” in our personal lives, it can be difficult to respond to an abstract call for the common good. It may be that small group organizing is central to our hopes for broad-based change.
Potential Shock Points
There is good reason to believe that the next 10 years are going to be very different than the 10 years prior to the 2008 economic meltdown. Persistent unemployment means that millions of people may live out the decade in an economic depression.
Moreover, the underlying economic structures that brought on the collapse have not been addressed. We remain at risk for more financial nosedives. As a result, new Wall Street economic bubbles and busts may emerge. The “danger” light on the dashboard is still flashing…
In fact, the future could bring any number of “shock points”: another economic meltdown along the lines of 2008; a further increase in unemployment, even to 20 percent; more extreme weather events (hurricanes, floods, droughts, heat waves); new spikes in the cost of energy; rapid deflation as the value of money falls; a dramatic increase in the cost of food; and/or shortages of fresh water.
Because of the extreme inequalities of income and wealth that have opened up over the last generation, the brunt of these changes is falling, and will continue to fall, most intensely on lower and middle income and disadvantaged folks. But these changes will touch everyone in various ways, even those who believe they have built a wall of economic security around their families.
These are some of the reasons people need to face the future together and strengthen the social fabric of our communities. This is not a future you can, or should, face alone.
The Transition to the New Economy
Eight million jobs in the old economy are not coming back. But new jobs, enterprises, and livelihoods are emerging. We are seeing vibrant new kinds of enterprises in the local food sector, green building, and alternative transportation, as well as locally rooted cooperatives and producers. These are the pieces of a new economy that is emerging piecemeal around the country—an economy based upon entirely different models of economic growth and indicators of community health, and also new conceptions of wealth, community, and governance.
This new economy includes financial institutions invested in the real economy, like community banks and credit unions walled off from the Wall Street speculation that adds no real value to our economy. It includes respect for “all that we share”—our commons of public and private institutions such as libraries, schools, or agricultural knowledge. It is based on sound management and protection of the gifts of nature including water systems, seed banks, and land conservancies.
In the current political moment, leadership for large-scale transition to this new economy will not come from Washington, D.C., but from movements around green jobs, local manufacturing, alternative transportation, regional food, and more. This is a moment for each of us to reflect on our own power and agency. We each have a role to play, but perhaps we aren’t sure what it is yet. This is where your small group is important. Small groups help disconnected individuals find their roles, turning them into community players who contribute to the movements toward the new economy.
If we are prepared for a transition, we will be in much better shape than if we simply hope life will somehow return to normal. If we have our “core group,” we can face changes with less fear and more sense of our personal agency. Together, we will be able to work toward an economy that works for everyone.
--Chuck Collins and Sarah Byrnes wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Chuck is a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) where he directs the Program on Inequality and the Common Good. Sarah is the organizer for the Common Security Clubs at IPS.