My economy story, like most of my stories, starts with my grandmother. She was 70 by the time I was born, no longer showing up on employment statistics or GDP but deeply involved in the reproductive labor of our household. She cooked, cleaned, and provided constant childcare and education for me and my siblings. She was crucial to our household economy.
You could try to estimate her economic “value” in those years. Add up the savings from childcare, housekeeping, food prep. Account for the market labor this work allowed my parents to do. Subtract room and board and the increasing healthcare costs. You could get a number. That number, I think, has its place in household and even policy decisions. However, that number alone misses most of the story.
The invisible worth of my grandmother’s work serves as a constant corrective to traditional economic analysis. It reminds me to consider things unaccounted for, like non-market labor, relational impacts, and informal education. These things constitute a major part of my inheritance from her and others.
EMT by training. Drunk driver hit his ambulance leading to disability leading to living in a shelter. That’s where we met when I was a student “organizer”. I remember the day they made him sit out in the rain to wait for the bus. He had to go because everyone else had to go. Didn’t matter that his chronic back pain made it impossible to stand under the awning. “The worst part about this place,” he said, “is the ‘institutional thinking.’ There are no people. Only clients and rules.”
My places and spaces are filled with “institutional thinking.” Clinics, hospitals. To the new healthcare provider, rules are a life raft. They do save lives. But woe to us who turn a safety net into a cage. Woe to us who forget whether rules were made for the person or the person for the rules.
What I want you to know about Doc is not that he was forced to sit in the rain or that institutional thinking would one day take his life (that’s another story and not mine to tell) but that he showed another way. His group started a street newspaper, a meal site, and a shelter run by people who were currently or formerly living in shelters or outdoors. Each project had its problems, but they had rules made for people. They tried to be homes, not institutions.
Hot Dog Sunday
My roommate started a weekly ritual cooking hotdogs on our row home porch. The investment: $5 and 1 hour (like Mass, if I have no singles). Feeds 6 kids. Week 2 someone offers a bag of marshmallows to roast on the grill. Week 3 sidewalk chalk. Week 4 more hot dogs. Feeds 12 kids. Week 5 boom box. Week 6 more hot dogs and buns. Feeds 12 kids, 12 adults. Week 7 watermelon. A 4ft x 10ft porch becomes a magnet for food and community for one hour a week. People come out of the woodwork to bring something to add.
This is what I want to invest in. A small magnetic core of snowballing mutuality.
(This is what I want to get out of the way of stifling. It seems sometimes the main thing is to get out of the way.)
When they asked Gandhi what was at the heart of his Constructive Program, he pointed to the spinning wheel.
- It is a spiritual tool: the repetitive manual labor forming a contemplative and grounded spirit.
- It is a social tool: widely accessible, used communally, meeting a community need.
- It is a structural tool: a rejection of colonial dependence, a reunification of local capacity and need, an invitation to decolonized consciousness.
What is the spinning wheel of our current predicament?
Maybe it’s something like PWA Handymen, an immigrant-owned home remodeling cooperative founded by day laborers.
- It is a spiritual tool: One worker-owner tells me he learned from the cooperative meetings how to address conflict in his family.
- It is a social tool: PWA Handymen was chosen to distribute COVID relief to undocumented workers due to its deep community ties.
- It is a structural tool: Worker ownership dissolves the power of the exploitative contractor and the coop develops immigrants’ political and economic power.
The co-op’s balance sheet is important but misses most of the story: the non-market labor, relational impacts, informal education.
The co-op’s rules are made by and for those who follow them, ensuring they act as a safety net instead of a cage.
And people come out of the woodwork to feed and be fed by the co-op: the corporate lawyer, the Catholic nun, the medical student. Like Hot Dog Sunday.
Thank you for your your thoughtful questions and challenges. Some initial responses:
- “Getting out of the way”: In my experience, much transformative work is stifled by the (often well-intentioned) intervention of others, especially those with institutional power and the blind spots that accompany it. One of the lessons of family medicine is to know when to get out of the way. Let the wound continue its healing. Let the cold run its course. I imagine much, if not most, of my contribution to building transformative alternatives will be to get out of the way of others’ efforts. Make sure they have space for what they’re doing. I appreciate the challenge not to shrink from personally intervening or creating when necessary. That is important. I also know that the power to create is also a power to destroy. There are many times when letting things happen will be more important than trying to make them happen.
- Imagining my grandmother at 25 years old: This invitation has stuck with me, mostly because I can’t. A reminder that people are more than who they are to us. An invitation to fill in that picture more so I can understand her, and others, more on their own terms.
- Unlearning: Reminded in our discussions and questions that much of learning is unlearning. This is at the heart of any alternative-building work. Decolonizing our thinking and interactions. Not acting from scarcity. As one PWA Handymen worker-owner described it to me, “taking out the old computer chip and putting in the new one.” Easy to say. Hard to do.