Dancing with Risk

I grew up bilingual and bicultural, half French, half American; we lived in Paris, London, Los Angeles, and New York City, my parents pursuing careers in film and TV. Economics, politics, business, pragmatism – these were all things that I didn’t think about, had no interest in, as I focused on culture, art, embodied action, and social critique. I believed in my long term commitment to a vision of the world where it was worthwhile for me to interpret, illuminate, and digest the process of being human in a changing world through the arts, sciences, writing, and philosophy. I inherited the privilege that comes along with a financially secure childhood, access to quality education, being white, and so, I was linked to that network of the international “elite”. My economic story begins when I diverged from that path, in my twenties, with a young artist’s repudiation of mainstream goals – “Security, money, full time employment? Bah! Too bourgeois!” – while being relatively blind to the safety net that allowed me to make that choice as a newly minted Ivy League college grad. 

Money was in chronic short supply in my early adult life and among my artist friends, and money-making endeavors were seen as in service of the real labor of creating art, outside of the money system. In the international experimental artistic scene I was a part of, we made a living by teaching, in arts administration, in the wellness industries, and through performance fees, sales of artworks, grants, fellowships, and funded residencies. It was precarious, but I was surrounded by a curious, passionate, wide-ranging, intense community of people: we all had a high level of risk tolerance, a dose of naiveté, commitment to our chosen craft, and collaboration in our bones. Some of us benefited from having a web of hidden support from family. If we fell on hard times, we weren’t above sleeping on each other’s (or our mom’s) couches –  until we had babies or entered into caregiving. Then the calculus became impossible for many of us. An untethered, insubstantial financial life is only viable when you are healthy and don’t have anyone else depending on you.

Fast forward to today. After 15 years in the international contemporary arts, I shifted radically (Trump winning the election was the last straw). My skills in improvisational dance come in handy every day, as I navigate a completely different life than I had envisioned for myself, with a new role in the ecology of my community, working for long-range change in the economy. I am rooted in the Hudson Valley of NY state, with a family of my own, immersed in a practice of weaving all those elements together that make up my current life: working at Good Work Institute for Just Transition; raising two girls in the forest, in the mountains, connected to nature, curiosity, hands-on work, with my husband; volunteering on my local Democratic Committee despite the squabbles and drama that make it seem fruitless; co-founding and then leading a cooperative coworking space that is facing extinction with COVID-19; fundraising for my kids’ school, my nonprofit org, and other projects; mentoring a young woman from Cote D’Ivoire who wants to launch a business; helping an accelerator for cooperatives called Start.coop; coaching entrepreneurs; participating in the Small Business Advisory Committee to help my congressman stay connected to projects on the ground; and staying open to what is coming. As a student of a radical new economics that would bring the financial system out of extraction mode and into regeneration, I am looking to redistribute wealth and reallocate capital to the benefit of people and planet, and reimagine how we could balance life and work and money, and eventually, yes, culture.

I still operate from a place of risk tolerance – no doubt why startups are appealing to me – and from a view that most of my activities will not result in my own financial wealth, but rather in a wealth of relationships, experiences, and learning journeys. I am able to acknowledge the incredible luck and privilege I had to be born into opportunity. The commons that I am trying to steward is one of communal action; a community of people building healthy, interdependent, diverse, translocal ecosystems, maintaining hope and energy in the face of so many challenges by working collaboratively, motivated by a vision of generosity and wellbeing for all.

The future I am interested in is the future described in the Just Transition framework. That is why I joined the Good Work Institute and it is how I assess the places where I put my energy and time. The five principles of Just Transition that guide our work at GWI also guide me personally. It is the reason I am so interested in projects that work to move wealth outwards instead of upwards: cooperative ownership, community finance, local governance, localism, social benefit startups, sharing resources and making things, and lastly, democratizing access to so much of what we all need today: technology, quality food, the ballot box, and the opportunity to grow, learn, participate, and work. I have greatly reduced my geographic range since my days on the international festival circuit. I work with people in the Hudson Valley because I believe that the impact I want to make, as well as real change, happens locally, in the places we inhabit and know and love, in community. I have friends and colleagues all over the world, but I am mostly engaging day to day with the people here in my region. Because it’s what we need right now to build a regenerative system that nourishes all life and that has the potential to reverse the desecration of our planet. 

… the root of the word economy is eco. Eco comes from the Greek word oikos, which means “home.” So economy is most simply defined as the management of home. Home is nested in a web of relationships that can be defined as an ecosystem. And though the current dominant extractive economy has tried to disentangle the economy from the environment, the escalation of climate disruption makes it clear that the economy is not separate from the environment but is, instead, rooted firmly in it.

– From “The Case for a Just Transition” by Michelle Mascarenhas-Swan

If “economy” means “management of home”, then it’s time we looked with sharper eyes at the story we are being told that the economy is about the management of capital. It is time to reclaim the larger and more expansive view of the economy as the responsible stewardship of the earth and all of its living beings, and clean up our home together.

Reflection Script

  • I received a wonderful comment that has me thinking more deeply about how I might support people to find a path forward towards the change we need, when taking a risk is simply not available to them for either personal, financial, or other structural reasons. I can’t stand the idea that we would just say, “We need to exit “scarcity” as a mindset, and enter an “abundance” mindset!” when there are legitimate scarcity issues in so many people’s lives. I don’t have answers but some questions that I feel help light that path:
    • How do we define “risk” more broadly, and with more sensitivity to context and experience? We need to acknowledge that there is a wide variety in the experience and tolerance of risk, even in one situation. For example, in a gathering where people are asked to introduce themselves to a group of strangers, does it feel riskier to do that to the one person who is not in the majority race, gender or other identity group? Most likely. For someone who has a fat bank account, does it feel “risky” to invest in a startup that their college friend has started if they already have thought of that investment as “play money”? Likely not.
    • Is our ability to change directly connected to our ability to take a risk? Change is scary. Are there ways we could support each other to take the necessary leaps into the unknown without having that experience be inequitably risky? I do believe in the concept that radical self-care is part of radical change, because we can’t show up for the hard work of changing this world if we ourselves are depleted and motivated by rage. However, that doesn’t really address the issue of risk-tolerance and building up our faith that taking that leap is safe enough. Maybe the answer lies in a world where we have radical mutual-care. That way, the risk is not experienced as existential because we know we are being held in a living, resilient community and we take turns taking those leaps, with support.
    • Are funders and investors going to be able to do the work to look beyond their usual pattern-matching risk profiles to support emergent work? How can I help them? Arlan Hamilton comes to mind – as a Black, queer, outsider woman in venture capital, she uses different language within the structures of VC to reorient her investment thesis towards a different kind of pattern-matching. She calls her female POC entrepreneurs “under-estimated” instead of “under-served” or “disadvantaged”. I think those language shifts and lens shifts are really essential to this question of risk.

7 thoughts on “Dancing with Risk

  1. Helene, thank you for this provocative and beautifully written piece. Having collaborated with GWI in the past (more on this soon), I have a perhaps superficial understanding but deeper appreciation for where you’re coming from.
    I too wonder how we can shift from an economy that mostly is about the management of scarce resources i.e. defined mostly in financial terms, to one that is about the management of a whole range of indicators for our well-being and flourishing. So often the experiments such as those you are engaged with, remain fringe. I wonder if we are at a point where we might exam what it would look like to mainstream them in someway. How do we bring them into the fold of those with decision making power (at least in today’s dominant power construct), in-service of allowing them to truly reach more people and have access to the support needed for sustainment? I’m not sure if you are familiar with Tim Jackson’s work, but he does reflect on that in his writing about the post growth economy. How do we start to bring the kind of economic experiments you have been crafting and living into the fold of more peoples lives…?
    I’m so excited to talk further in our group! Thank you for being here.

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  2. Hélène, I enjoyed getting to know you through your writing and on today’s call. I think your perspectives as an artist are so critical to this conversation, and I already know I will learn a lot from you!

    I appreciated your acknowledgment of your privilege and how it relates to your risk tolerance. I often think about that as well and how the ability to take risks can sometime be a privilege. It makes me wonder if the path to shared ownership and communal action should attempt to concentrate risk-taking on the privileged or if our risk tolerance and risk taking inequitably puts us in the drivers seat for innovation and change… something I truly haven’t answered for myself and curious your thoughts. Assuming risk, innovation, and growth are key to change, how might we equitably manage distribution of risk tolerance in the ecosystem in a way that supports our vision?

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    1. Oh, this is super interesting. How to take risks and support equity in ur projects when risk-taking is so inequitably experienced. Thank you for that insight!! I need to mull on it. 🙂

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  3. Hélène, I also enjoyed getting to know you on today’s call and reading your beautiful post. Artists, especially multidisciplinary ones, are able to experience and communicate the world in unique ways. They are usually able to transcend boundaries and draw out the complex fabric of our reality as few can. I also appreciate and relate to privilege we have enjoyed and having spent a good part of my early career in finance modeling risk, I appreciate how risk-taking is often a luxury afforded to the well heeled and well resourced. It is interesting how in the field of investing the risk sharing is always tipped in favor of the investors, especially in debt contracts, while the entrepreneurs are often asked to risk it all (and sometimes put their own personal assets up as collateral for the venture). Besides the conversation about power we also need to have a conversation about fair risk-sharing as we build the new economy.

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    1. Absolutely! I have often heard investors say that they won’t invest unless the entrepreneur has shown that they are “all in” – which usually means personally financially invested in the business. This is advice is given to the entrepreneurs, and of course the ones best able to be “all in” are the ones who can afford to work full-time on a new venture without pay, or who have conducted “friends and family” fundraising rounds to sustain them until they can show traction and go to professional investors or VCs. It is a system that rewards privilege and the ability to take massive risks with a safety net, as well as innovation and grit.Therefore it is inherently inequitable. Not that this is news to anyone!

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  4. We are kindred spirits in that we have a high tolerance for risk. Ha!

    Although we arrived at that point through different journeys.

    Thanks for offering that definition of economy. “Home” makes me think about the vastly different experiences and relationship people have their homes. It helps me to think about a larger vision and smaller acts.

    How do we define progress?

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    1. I love that phrase: “a larger vision and smaller acts” – that really resonates. I think about permaculture, localism, speaking truth to power, and giving or listening for smaller ripples of influence as all in that family…

      And I wonder, can we start thinking about “progress” as unrelated to “growth”? We talk a lot about “right sizing” when we start engaging with or helping with something, rather than assuming that an initiative, organization, or project needs to grow to show it is working. I like Industrial Commons approach of creating small cooperatives and then linking them together. That sounds very permaculture to me!

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