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Neighborly Economics: A Way Towards the Exchange of Gifts by Peter Block

In other times, our culture, our way of being with each other, the way we spend our days, were constructed by Emperors, Popes, Generals and Public Servants.

Our cultural way of being is now constructed by the Private Sector, organizations of the free market consumer economy. The narrative of this economy is that productivity, convenience, scale, speed and cost are the dominant values and constitute success. These values, born out of the modern economy, have now spread into our souls and blanket any endeavor, including efforts in service of humanity and the common good. Best described as the tools of empire, this is a modern re-performance of Pharaoh’s Egypt.

We cannot end poverty, end the diaspora, terminate slavery, produce health, care for the planet, create well-being or end violence using the narrative and tools of empire. Our task it to create ways of being together based on an alternative economy which confront and re-frames this dominant economic narrative. Thus the word Economics in the title.  

If we depart from the dominant narrative of consumption, we need a place to go. The Exodus into the wilderness away from Pharaoh is a metaphor for our journey. When viewed from within the context of empire economics, the wilderness appears to be a place of no visible means of life support. Inconvenient. What was discovered in the wilderness was the means of life support which we can call neighborliness. From God. From other immigrants. It was a gift minded community. It was based on associational life. Out of this came commandments of neighborliness. Paralleled in Islam were Sharia laws banning usury and devoting one third of the land to the common good. Thus the word Neighborly in the title.

All of this calls for something radical. The word, radical, asks that we reimagine the root of the matter. The habit of our immersion in the consumer economy often drives us to think in terms of the methodologies of the dominant culture. To become practical, goal oriented, measurement minded, desirous of scale, time pressured, asking how long will this take and where is it working. This is the wish to return to Egypt.

Neighborly economy means we operate as if we have enough time, begin with a possibility, accept an uncertain future, see the value of small, make relatedness and cooperation central, and are willing to invent the way.

(This article was originally published on https://www.restorecommons.com)

When the Safety Net Isn’t There

We all want to believe there are social safety nets that will prevent our most vulnerable from falling through the cracks created by poverty and economic insecurity. But, the reality is that almost half of Americans could not cover an emergency expense of $400 or less. We live in a time of great economic isolation for which safety nets no longer exist. Read more now


The Table of Collective Abundance

You might know people like Charlie and June. They’re the ones who are always giving, always sharing, always opening their home, asking what others may need. They’ll open up about their needs if asked, but they don’t usually put the spotlight on their own struggles. But stay close enough to Charlie and June, and you may get the opportunity to see something amazing. The moment when the caregivers become the recipients of abundant generosity brings an unexpected joy. Being able to give reminds each of us of our shared humanity; it reminds us of the vulnerability of merely being alive. We all know the saying that it’s better to give than to receive, and in this way, Charlie and June get to share the joy of giving by being on the other end for a change. Common Change provides the opportunity to experience that joy, inviting all to the table of collective abundance.

Finding Relationships Beyond The Headlines

Do you ever read the news or scan your social media feeds or even just step outside and feel the weight of all that seems to be going wrong in the world? You know in your heart that not all is lost, and for all the negativity and despair that seems to grow louder every day, there’ve got to be people out there who remind you of what’s good and true. Common Change is one place where you can connect with others to make a positive, tangible difference in the lives of people all around the world.

Behind the headlines of conflict in the Middle East are real people trying to get through each day with their real lives. They want to work to pay their bills to feed their families and see their kids off to school. The geopolitical realities present unique challenges, but at the end of the day, they’re just like you and me. However, those daily, often mundane, realities can feel so far away from us and our desire to make a difference. What if I told you that even if you were connected to one person who was connected to someone in need, you could be a big part of that person’s redemption story? My friend Shaun met Hassan when he studied abroad during college. Somehow, thanks to the strength of long-distance loyalty and pre-whats app calling cards, they have stayed in touch all these years. Hassan could tell the friendship was genuine from the first time he met Shaun. Not too long ago, in one of their conversations, Hassan seemed discouraged, and Shaun knew things were not going well. It was not like Hassan to dwell on his challenges, but because he trusted Shaun, he shared with him some of what was going on. He had been laid off, and his family was living on his wife’s nursing salary. Two of his four kids were in university and were at risk of not being able to pay school fees. The fact that Hassan had to sneak across the border into Israel every day to increase his chances of finding employment only added to the drama of the situation. Shaun wanted to honor his friend’s dignity, but also knew that he needed some help. Shaun tapped into the shared resources of his Common Change group, and the funds to meet Hassan’s needs were approved in just a few days.

After the money reached Hassan, he called Shaun to share his gratitude. “Shaun,” Hassan started, while holding back tears, “I’m just amazed at this gift. I have been thanking God that there are still good people in the world who would take care of others no matter where they are from.” Shaun was also nearly in tears at this point as his heart swelled to know that the love he felt for his friend could be demonstrated by the generosity of those who might never meet Hassan. Indeed the world is not so big after all and is full of people who want to do good.

We Are More Than Our Worse Moments

Whenever I see someone standing at the corner with a sign asking for help, the first thing I want to ask is “What’s your story and how did you get here?” I know they are more than what this moment tells me, defined not just by what they seem to lack. Inevitably the light turns green, and I drive away, and I’m left to wonder until the next distraction occupies my mind. Their sign may say they want some change or food or a cigarette, but I can only imagine how powerful it might be if they were given a chance to identify their own needs and desires at that moment. That happened recently in a parking lot in North Dakota. Billy was coming out from the grocery store, and he noticed a woman in distress in her car. He didn’t have any grand plans or heroic intentions that day, but he made himself available and open to whatever might come next. He learned this woman’s name was Stacey, and her family had become far-flung because of trouble finding jobs and now she was on the verge of eviction. Without knowing how things would turn out, Billy started by offering to buy her a cup of coffee.

That small gesture opened the door to trust and a willingness on both sides to face the bigger challenges together. Stacey opened up about her marriage and her family, the joys and challenges. Billy opened up about his life as well. The real turning point came with a powerful question from Billy. “Stacey,” he said, “if you could do anything right now to improve this situation, what would you do?” See Billy knew something that Stacey didn’t. Billy knew that he was connected to a group of people who had been steadily pooling their resources for such an opportunity as this, unbeknownst to any of them that that particular moment would happen right there in that North Dakota strip mall.

They were tapping into a bigger story, and while Stacey sure didn’t consider herself lucky when the day began, she would soon find out that she was in the right place at just the right time. Billy resisted prescribing to Stacey what she needed. He avoided making his generosity the center of the conversation by asking her what she really wanted. He acknowledged and affirmed that although she was “in need,” she also possessed the dignity to make whatever decisions would be best for her family. Billy wouldn’t have been able to do this if he was operating as an individual at that moment. Because he knew there were resources behind him that he alone could not have produced, he knew that there was collective strength and courage to help Stacey face her challenges.

Who Cares for the Elderly in Cuba?

By Yudelis Rodríguez

When you visit Cuba you notice one thing right away: Older people are everywhere you look. That’s understandable, we are an aging country. People walking everywhere. From the early morning to late at night, people are walking. You walk to go to work, you walk to go to school, you walk to the beach. You see mothers walking with their children, fathers returning from work, young people going out, and elderly walking. There are not many cars and only a few buses, so most of us in Matanzas City get from place to place by walking.

But walking can be tricky for older people. Whether you desire to go out and sit in the park, need to go to the doctor or to the market, walking is no easy task. Cracked sidewalks, holes and uneven pavement and surfaces make for a potentially dangerous obstacle course – one you pray you will make it through without falling.

It is easy to talk ourselves out of things when they become too difficult (or dangerous). Like scars tattooed within, you don’t easily forget a fall or injury. This is, in part, why it can be so hard for elderly people to thrive in my city. Elderly people are willing to walk, but sometimes they merely need a companion to walk with them, to extend an arm for them to hold onto.

The arm of a companion can be the difference between having a meal, seeing a doctor, or getting outdoors and having a conversation with a neighbor in the park – essentially a small act of preserving the humanity, health and dignity of some vulnerable friends. This is a sample of the work we provide in Matanzas City.

Read more about our work in Cuba in The Economist

Our Hurricanes

The hurricanes of last summer tore up a broad swath of destruction from one island to another, and all the way along the Gulf Coast. In an era of more frequent natural disasters, there’s a whole industry of recovery “experts” just waiting to appear with their clipboards and walkie-talkies. When we are in the position of perceived weakness, we are often at the mercy of these outsiders and the resources we believe they will devote to our cause. But what if we flipped the script and entrusted the resources directly to those who seem to be most vulnerable? What if we believed that the resources they possess simply by knowing their own needs were the most powerful tool towards recovery? Those same communities that appear devastated have faced the devastation of different kinds before, and with a strong rootedness in their sense of “home,” have done what was needed to rebuild and carry on.

In much the same way, a person facing the internal hurricane of mental illness may know what he needs before anyone else can bring a diagnosis. He may have lived through generations of stormy weather, his personal history shaped by the waves and winds of family devotion in seasons of uncertainty. We cannot always rescue other people, and many times we need someone to throw us a lifeline. But often, those who seem to lack the most help can be the most attuned to what they really need.

Be Curious

Sometimes the curious ask will open up doors of possibility that we didn’t even know were hidden behind the faces we see each day. Sometimes if needs don’t seem evident around us, it’s not a matter of searching out a different set of people, but perhaps finding a different set of questions. Jerry was intrigued by Common Change; he had caught the vision and started to believe in the disruptive power of relational abundance. There was just one problem – he didn’t think there was anyone in his life who had the kinds of need that he imagined would require such radical generosity. Not that affluence and excess surrounded him, but no one was coming to him asking for real help. He attended a Generosity Dinner and was challenged to look at his life shaped by different questions. Questions can often seem intrusive, but the real magic comes in a simple and consistent presence. Jerry knew the places and people that were a regular part of his daily life, so he just needed to find new ways of getting behind the same old pleasantries that defined their interactions. It may not be standard business practice for a business owner to broadcast his needs, but regular customers can come to feel more like family than a sales transaction. Jerry began slowly but eventually, as one question led to more profound and more engaged conversation, he discovered a need buried not too deep beneath the surface.

Action: Think about your regular interactions and listen for the little bits of information a person shares that can be transformed into compassionate follow-up questions.

How does that make you feel? What are you looking forward to?

Your story of empathy, storytelling, and compassion

You see the traveler standing at the intersection asking for spare change. The guy in your neighborhood who walks around with his two kids in a too-small stroller asking for help buying baby formula for his youngest child. A co-worker’s friend needs bus fare to travel 200 miles to attend her son’s funeral. The instinctive reactions for many of us go something like this: I wish I could help but what difference can I really make? Maybe I could give a few dollars here or there, but is that person’s life really improved? How do I really know the need is real?

But what if you were connected to a group of friends who were willing to approach these challenges and opportunities together? What if the common affinity was a belief in pursuing a different way to share and multiple gifts? With combined resources, perspectives, and empathy, the impact could be magnified. When we act together, not only is our own scarcity transformed into communal abundance, but we also find an antidote to the same isolation that resonated in those stories of need.

Could you take one small step in this direction? Contact Wilmina for a straightforward way to join a community of empathy, storytelling, and compassion.