The Currency and Wealth of Relationships

Over the past year, my mom dealt with a cancer diagnosis and during that period of emotional ups and downs, my parents and I spent time to discuss and take steps towards preparing for the “tough stuff” and the difficult decisions when it was their time to depart. These discussions allowed us all to reflect upon their years of work hours and hustle I saw coming up as a child through adulthood, but also all the years of planning and sacrifice I didn’t always see. After my youngest brother was born, my dad began requesting the engineering firm that employed him to send him to out of state jobs for weeks at a time, which paid better. For years, while we’d only see him a few weekends a month, my brothers and I learned about quality time, making moments count, and how to share my dad’s attention. He had settled with his role designing pipe systems because although he was a licensed, experienced mechanical engineer in the Philippines, it was beyond his means to become licensed in the States. Both my parents would go several years at a time without seeing their families back home, but I am awash with gratitude and awe for what they accomplished as immigrants in a country that didn’t always treat them fairly. Even moreso, I’m thankful for their consistent commitment to faith and family relationships, which I believe was most key to ensuring my siblings and our families would not experience hardship. I realized that even without any of the material foundation they’ve built throughout a lifetime, my brothers and I were still privileged to inherit wealth: a wealth of important choices, lessons, planning and relationships grounded in core values. A wealth defined by a constant thread of care for others, stringing together a diverse economy ecology in which we actively participate. A few insights from my parents stand out which have shaped the ways I encounter others and interact within my economic life:

Trusted relationships are the real currency – my parents chose to participate in communities with a diverse representation of people that cultivated collective care (our neighborhood, faith-based groups, YMCA, public school) and avoided communities that didn’t. Members of these communities often modeled the economic value of including others, of living by The Golden Rule (treating others how I want to be treated / not treating others in ways I don’t) and of approaching all types of endeavors with the motivation to do right by all involved. I learned to view material wealth as nonpermanent nor the end goal because actual value shows up in a person’s interests, talents, skills and ability to give and receive concrete kindness. I learned that diverse = better, stronger, lasting.

Concrete kindness has afforded many mutual exchanges of goods, services, and unique experiences in my life without an exchange of money – such as adding a chef friend to the guest list for a sought-out concert and later enjoying a complimentary dinner at her restaurant. Reciprocal kindness has also served as a lifeboat during some of my darkest moments, such as when a domestic violence survivor whom I’d helped as a client to secure her first job in the States later showed up for me as the nonjudgmental confidante and unofficial therapist I desperately needed during my divorce. A high degree of trust and quality of relationship was our currency.

As a young person within these communities of care, I was exposed to the power of the ripple effect from one person’s action and its contribution to personal transformation and social change movements. I recall how my vegan friend, Leanne, in high school went to our principal and school board to halt animal dissections in biology classes because of the cruelty involved and her belief that the practice taught a disrespect for life – her action not only won approval within the school district (due to local media attention generating tons of community support), but it helped get a related state bill at the time signed into law. She continued her activism through the launch of a vegan fashion company.

Such moments of courage also later informed what I chose to study and where I chose to work. At Cara Chicago, where I’ve spent almost a decade working in poverty alleviation, I’ve experienced first-hand how a culture of coaching and relationship building rooted in embracing one’s human vulnerability and authenticity can lead to real healing and liberation at an individual level and shared benefits at broader, social levels. We hold up mirrors and ask questions, rather than parent, instruct and “boss”. With my peers, we often ask, “through this shifting of perspectives, how might we transform people, employers, and institutions?” Bringing that experience to scale in other community contexts while influencing dominant institutions to change has been a most engaging challenge. However, I believe that strengths-based relationships, collaboration, and movements that prioritize healing, sustainability, and lifting up voices at the margins will springboard us towards collective prosperity.  And making those efforts fluid and holistic versus compartmentalizing them between home and work / personal and professional builds greater strength and momentum towards the loftier changes of deconcentrating power and resources from the few and distributing them more equitably. 

Trusted relationships are the source of real wealth: Coming from immigrant parents who grew up in material poverty and working with individuals currently experiencing financial poverty and homelessness, the source of both has often appeared to be relational poverty, or a lack of awareness and access to resource networks, guidance, and support systems. The wider the net of interconnected supports and greater presence of trust to access them, the higher likelihood to rise out of material or financial poverty. My parents often tell my siblings and me that “we are their greater wealth, their greatest success story”. I recognize the privilege of having parents who share such sentiments with their kids as well as the privilege of their access to opportunities and supports, beyond making it to the USA from the Philippines. How I’ve carried that idea into my work and everyday life is recognizing that through successes and failures, it’s vital to maintain trust where it’s led to positive outcomes and to repair trust where it’s been broken and done harm. I remember as a child not speaking up when I saw or experienced something hurtful or wrong in order to avoid trouble. I believe my parents modeled behavior driven by assimilation and survival which taught me complicitness over rocking the boat. Such behavior harms and is my personal work in progress to unlearn. I know my family’s experience is shared across many communities of color, which drives my desire to live out self-advocacy and guide others towards their own in order to demand access to wealth-generating opportunities. To really delve at reparations to specific communities, we need a culture that prioritizes repairing trust.

During the pandemic, there’s been greater exposure to polarizing communication challenges and a lack of/broken trust in the different spaces I encounter others. I attribute much of broken trust to a lack of self or organizational accountability. I see it at work, on my block, and across institutions people rely on to live.  At home in Chicago, people stare if you’re not wearing a mask. In Roanoke, Virginia, people stare if you are wearing a mask. When there was a surge of looting in my Latino-dominant neighborhood, individual residents came together to police their own blocks because they didn’t trust the actual police. With neighbors in my building, we maintained a mini community garden of sorts in our shared space and in solidarity, shopped at local bodegas to avoid transmission at major grocery stores and because we didn’t trust big business to ensure public health and safety at the time. There seems to be a greater desire to dialogue in uncomfortable settings but we need more tools, guidance, and practice across larger numbers of people. I’ve seen smaller pockets of community trust organically surface where public and institutional trust is lacking and dialogue is happening. If only we could better connect all those pockets of trust more comprehensively to build greater relational power and wealth. I recognize I might more likely act on perceptions or assumptions, especially in this remote environment, without taking extra time and effort to ask and clarify what someone intended or meant. I find myself fighting the powers that drive our inequitable systems, like efficiency. And while an increase of intentional communication is often less efficient, it yields outcomes that are more sustainable in the long run. If there was a compelling enough case for prioritizing sustainability and a standard quality of life for all over economic efficiency, would funding/investment, policy making and governance entities adopt equitable practices more quickly and readily? How might we overcome the power of corporate greed and capitalism within our funding, policy making and governance entities and get them to buy into alternative definitions and outcomes of “success” and “wealth”? How do we convince those benefitting from an imbalance of power to share more of it with a sincere desire to prioritize collective prosperity and environmental sustainability?

3 thoughts on “The Currency and Wealth of Relationships

  1. Hey Sasha, great first post! Below are some of my initial thoughts and feedback:
    You have a lot of great observations and conclusions especially in the opening paragraphs. It feels like there’s a story behind each sentence, and I want to hear some of them! Thank you for opening up about your parents’ experience, would you be willing to share 1 or 2 specific stories from them and your upbringing–a story about their unseen “planning and sacrifice,” for example?
    Similarly, I’d love a story about a time your parents rejected a community because it wasn’t diverse enough, or a time the strength from the diversity in your chosen communities really shone through. (At the end of this paragraph you use a story of your friend who is a cook to demonstrate the currency of trust/friendship, more of this please!!)
    I’d also love to explore this butterfly effect of personal acts of kindness rippling into social movements. In my life, I feel a jarring disconnect between my individual acts and the movement in the streets (eg, can I do one and not the other? is one enough? is one the answer?) I’d love you to help me reconcile this disconnect.
    Lastly, you have a really strong through-line in this piece from “You are our greatest wealth” (sentiment from parents) to the concept of “relational poverty” (relating your parents’ immigrant experience and returning citizens) to policy implications (how to include relationships/trust in conversations/policy on wealth). I hadn’t thought of “relational poverty” in exactly the way you paint it, and it is a really powerful concept.

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  2. Sasha, from our one-on-one in the first full-group meeting to your post, I appreciate that you’re bringing trust front of mind for me as I explore this topic. It seems like critical fuel to the social movement ecology. If it is, I have so many questions on how to build and nurture it. Your observations on complicity and avoiding trouble were really thought-provoking for me. I’ve experienced where those feelings can cause real fracturing and erosion of trust between myself and others on a common cause. I’m curious to think through how shared ownership and cooperative structures might allow a space to honor people’s very valid and sometimes life-or-death need to avoid trouble and survive while maintaining trust, respect, relationship, and common cause with those that feel a need to take a different stance. Acknowledging that existing systems can be extremely oppressive and even life-threatening, how can we build strong and trusting relationships across the spectrum of comfort levels around self-advocacy?

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  3. I learned so much from this post. It’s chock full of wisdom. I use the word wisdom because I think that’s what comes from integrating the personal with the theoretical. You clearly have a razor sharp mind and are unafraid to turn it inward, outward, and in between.

    Like “garden gnome” above, I’d love to see one or two more anecdotes that would show even more clearly how your past and your heritage has shaped the person you’ve become. What are some of the ways your parents’ hard work and determination became apparent to you as a child? The details further on about polarization were, I thought, very effective. And so that’s the part I remember best.

    Putting on my skeptics’ hat (even though it was a wonderful post) I wanted to push a little on the specific anecdotes you chose to demonstrate an alternative form of currency. I think an anecdote that didn’t include commodities (tickets and restaurant dinners) could be a more effective demonstration of that point.

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