Liberating Alternatives

Born into the arms of an inventor and a poet, questioning the status quo and seeking new ways of doing and being is sequenced in both my genetic inheritance and the core values I learned as a child. Surrounded by poverty and raised with great books, great teachers, and profound  compassion, I have always loved and been loved by poor people, and I have sought out the margins and the marginalized in my personal and professional life. As an undergraduate, a mentor of mine once asked me, “Eli, do you know that you don’t have to be poor?” The question shook me to my core, and still reverberates more than two decades later, because Jon saw something in my worldview that I had been blind to up until that point: I had always “known” that I was going to be poor. His question was liberating for me and for the economics of my life; not because I suddenly wanted or sought wealth, but because I realized that part of my economic inheritance, the idea and the narrative that I had to be poor, had been shaping my development and my choices as a person, as a thinker, and as a contributor in the world. Liberating alternative futures was a welcome blessing. Thank you, Jon.

Speaking of wealth, recently, after about twenty interviews in two different cities, I was on the brink of accepting a position as Managing Director of a wealth management firm in San Francisco. I believed that I had found my vocation because I had a vision for redirecting capital from traditional investments into investments that serve the common good. I had convinced both myself and my interviewers that by aligning the investments of wealthy individuals and families with their values, we could help them feel better about their investments, increase the firm’s Assets Under Management, and deliver returns on capital by investing it in companies that thrive and deliver financial gains because they are good stewards of this planet and its people. Shortly after my final interview, which was with the second of this firm’s two co-founders, they told me that they were not going to hire me.

I was devastated. I began an introspection that helped me reframe how I was looking at my life and my work. Now, almost two years later, my work is with community organizers and nonprofit leaders to support a digital transformation of grassroots organizing so that they can continue serving the most vulnerable and marginalized members of their community in this COVID-19 time and beyond.

Had I been given that position as Managing Director of a wealth management firm in San Francisco, I would have dived deep into the world of wealth, and now, instead of serving the most impoverished, vulnerable and marginalized, I would be worried every day about how to preserve the capital of the most wealthy people on the planet as we enter a global recession and depression. What a grace that rejection was. Thank you, Brighton Jones.

This year, together with a national network of nonprofit partners, we will likely run the largest and most impactful Get Out The Vote Campaign in history, one that engages under-represented, low-income, disenfranchised and marginalized communities in unprecedented numbers. This national collaboration might help shift the outcome of a very significant U.S. election.

Yes, but: how will this election liberate? What will it transform?

Success in this year’s election, as important as it is for many, many reasons, is most likely, at best, an incremental gain for the most impoverished and the most marginalized among us. 

A new U.S. presidency will not ask how to systemically liberate those in poverty; it will not seek to transform our systems. I hope it embrace principles of a shared economy. I fear it will, for its own internally coherent and good reasons, ask how to rebuild the status quo in a time of crisis.

The systemic inequity and injustice that is everywhere in these covid times impels me to work less on outcomes like this election and more on deep systems change. The invitation to join this community with all of you, this reminder that I am, together with all of you, on a journey to envision and build a more just world is exciting. I am excited to commune and eager to learn with all of you. Please don’t hesitate to point me toward my blind spots.

The future I aim to invest my time, labor, and money in is one that accelerates the emergence of a new generation of organizations that exist to serve the common good and are sustained and scaled with market forces. I am currently working on two projects that seek to implement this vision. One is a startup called re-SKU, that salvages clothes from being destroyed, tells their rescue and carbon footprint story with a digital label, and donates 100% of profits to efforts to develop sustainable, zero-carbon manufacturing alternatives. The other is an ecosystem of investors and startups called Unlimited Partners whose fiduciary is to the common good, and whose beneficiaries of Return On Investment include the planet and communities by investing in scalable, financially sustainable, market-based startups that exist to save the world.

8 thoughts on “Liberating Alternatives

  1. Eli – its clear from this post that poetry is part of your inheritance. Not only did the content resonant, but your writing style is beautiful.

    This line really stuck out to me: “how will this election liberate? What will it transform?”

    How do you navigate the tension between wanting the election to be liberatory and the reality that it may not be? What structural barriers exist that make a liberatory politics seem out of reach?

    “I fear it will, for its own internally coherent and good reasons, ask how to rebuild the status quo in a time of crisis.” Ideally, what would you like to see happen instead? What conditions would need to exist to make that a reality?

    Both re-SKU and Unlimited Partners seem like very exciting projects. I love the concept of planet and communities receiving a return on investment.
    I really appreciated the clarity of your analysis around electoral politics and your vision for the future. What did you learn from writing this piece?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Jennifer for the thoughtful read and for the nudge to envision an alternative to rebuilding the political status quo. I find myself in equal parts full of hope and skepticism for anything truly liberatory coming from the current political realm. To find balance, I’m giving everything I can to this 2020 election, and then I hope to shift focus to the re-SKU and Unlimited Partners work.

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  2. Thank you, Eli, for this very thoughtful piece.

    I really appreciated your observation that your economy in your early life created a mindset where you assumed you would be poor. Does your work now set out to change that mindset for others? Does your idea of “poor” still hold, or has it evolved?

    Where does your work fit in the Social Change Ecosystem? Are there more than one of the areas where this work resides?

    Thank you for being such a critical part of the change that is needed to transform this country and the world. Are the outcomes you seek in different time horizons? What are the outcomes? Does the traditional notion of metrics really apply here?

    This line resonates: “The future I aim to invest my time, labor, and money in is one that accelerates the emergence of a new generation of organizations that exist to serve the common good and are sustained and scaled with market forces.” How will you work to bend the market to these new social outcomes? What precedents will you look to?

    I look forward to continuing this path with you during this workshop. You have much to offer the fellow participants. Thank you for your generousity.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Doug: I appreciate the depth of your questions. Bending the market sounds like trying to swim upstream. Envisioning re-SKU as a consumer brand, I can see a new channel molded off to the side of a raging river, one that starts as an alternative path– a different way for people to spend money on clothing, starting with new products created from the waste and excess of traditional clothing manufacturers. We start with branded, digital labels telling the waste and carbon story of every product to educate and impact how people spend money on clothing, and we invest every dollar of profit in sustainable manufacturing. Our re-SKU work succeeds if and when unsustainable production is supported by a trickle, while the raging river of consumer spending supports sustainable manufacturing. The time horizon for the shift from repurposing waste and excess to new modes of production is roughly nine years in order to avoid dire climate crisis. Precedents like Patagonia and Seventh Generation inspire, but they are not enough. One great challenge in envisioning this systems change is how to achieve global scale quickly enough to move the needle on climate change before it’s too late.

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  3. Eli, I am grateful that the union of a poet and inventor produced a rare combination of both, one with a strong desire to transform and liberate structures and people for the common good and planet. When you were considering the wealth management position in San Francisco you mentioned that you believed you had found your vocation. How has your understanding, definition, and experience of vocation changed over time? Do you believe you have found it now? What does confirmation of your vocation look like, feel like for you?

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  4. Eli- thank you for your poetic post. I was struck by the intro “Surrounded by poverty and raised with great books, great teachers, and profound compassion, I have always loved and been loved by poor people, and I have sought out the margins and the marginalized in my personal and professional life. As an undergraduate, a mentor of mine once asked me, “Eli, do you know that you don’t have to be poor?” ”

    I wonder if you could dig deeper into this: Do you feel like you had the access to education and the opportunity to build wealth but you rejected that construct? Do you have a safety net in your poverty because of access, race, gender, etc? How has your relationship with capital and money changed over the years? How do all of these constructs impact your work and vision?

    Thanks again.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for sharing these parts of your story. I’m struck by how fruitful the rejection from the Managing Director position has been for you. Can you imagine a fruitful rejection within your current aspirations, an area where failure may help you to get unstuck in some other way?

    An emphasis on bigness and scale jump out to me when reading how you describe your work. What is the value of this emphasis for you? What are its potential blindspots/pitfalls?

    What good reasons do people have for rejecting a systemic change agenda?

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  6. Eli,

    I enjoyed reading your post.

    The question you were asked, “Eli, do you know that you don’t have to be poor?” It reminded me of moments when I was able to see myself – place, options, limitations, etc. – more completely than I had before.

    I served in a religious tradition that paces great emphasis on a “moment of change.” I’ve also served in a tradition that emphasizes the gradual transformation.

    How have you continued that awareness that you don’t have to be poor? Does it still hold true? Must you be poor?

    Liked by 1 person

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