I grew up in a small midwestern town, the oldest of four children. When I was ten, my dad lost his job. He wasn’t able to get back to work (beyond some random day-time construction jobs) for three years. During that time, my family struggled financially to make ends meet. I was old enough to comprehend that we might lose our house, that we were benefiting from food pantries and other charity.
I was also aware enough to see the social safety net that our community provided for us. Anonymous checks would arrive in our mailbox. My mom was offered odd jobs that I could support her with. One year, a group of neighbors anonymously gave my brother and sisters and I a surprise Christmas, complete with gifts on the doorstep, knowing my parents wouldn’t be able to afford one. Overall, it seemed we were being carried by a providence beyond our grasping.
This experience impacted me in a number of ways. One one hand, it solidified for me the importance of civil society and civic action. It reaffirmed for me how essential it is to invest in a relational economy, and to show up for one another in the context of that. It also has meant that for most of my life, I have struggled with a pervasive scarcity mindset that has tugged at my attention – mostly encouraging me to try and build some semblance of a financial reserve so as not to encounter the stress I remember witnessing and experiencing (with some dose of naivete) as a child. Those feelings have often been in a tango dance with my sense of wanting to do deeply mission-driven work that has often meant a lower annual salary or less financial security. I got caught up briefly in the “you can do well and do good” mantra, eventually realizing tat when people said “well”, they often meant making salaries that were still derived from largely extractive economic activity. Now, I try to focus on discerning what is enough and how to balance it in a way that allows for a deep sense of care and connection with one another.
As I’ve grown in my work, I’ve also come to acknowledge that while I had this powerful experience of the gift economy as a kid, I can’t necessarily expect that to play out in all settings. It is beautiful in practice, it is hard to scale – especially in areas of concentrated poverty. To this day, I still wonder why so many of our economic experiments rooted in care and reciprocity remain fringe. Today, I find myself focusing on translating that experience of reciprocity into systems and structures – financial and government – in an attempt to usher in a more robust, modern economic system of care for one another and our planet. Specifically, that has looked like working in the fields of government, philanthropy and finance. Today, I am working on policy experimentation to support family economic well-being.
As I reflect on the movement ecology framework, I see that I have toggled between the alternatives and the changing dominant institutions spheres. Actually, what I think I’m most interested in is trying to build interstitial tissue between them. Increasingly, it feels like an exercise in translation – what language does each speak? how can I foster more understanding and collective action? I don’t want to just dream about a world where gift economy principles are widespread, I want to focus on envisioning and activating the means to that end.