These are challenging times economically. With official unemployment rates hovering around 8% in both the U.S. and Canada, and millions more either unaccounted for, or severely underemployed, struggling to make ends meet is becoming more the norm. More and more, the promise of getting a college education and then moving up the corporate ladder is disappearing. Not only is it so much less possible in this age of de-unionization and regular corporate layoffs, but for many people, myself including, it’s simply not the story of a fulfilling life.
My entire adult life has been dedicated to being a community leader through grassroots service, activism, and organizational development. When given the choice between just making more money and potentially making the world a better place, I always have chosen the latter. I live my life by the motto “Serve locally; transform the world!,” believing that it is both easier to have a deep impact in one’s own community, but also that those benefits have ripple effects across the planet.
While it may seem like things are dire, the current economic crisis is also an amazing opportunity to reassess how it is that we work and live together. To challenge the stories we have about what is valuable and what isn’t. And to learn to come together in renewed, more interconnected ways.
About a year and a half ago, I left the career I had been developing as an adult ESL teacher. I loved my students, but everything else about my work felt limiting. Getting a decent, steady paycheck, for example, was often both a blessing and a curse. Over and over again, I watched co-workers (and sometimes myself) making decisions primarily based on personal job retention and/or maintaining the reputation of the organization we worked for. Too often, the need to challenge the larger systems our programs functioned within was either squashed, or marginalized in favor of maintaining the safety of the status quo. In the end, all of us – students and teachers alike – suffered as a result.
Here are a few other conclusions about our society in general that have come to me since leaving my teaching position.
1. The dominant paradigm tells us that we have to choose between taking care of ourselves financially and serving our communities.
2. The ways in which most jobs are structured make it difficult for the average person to place service and social activism work at the center of their lives. In other words, what drives our hearts is too often marginalized by trying to take care of basic needs.
3. There is a strong storyline that says “you must be self-sufficient, and that any form of asking for financial support from others means you’ve failed.”
4. The majority of paid work is underwritten by a single employer, or a small number of people donating money or paying for goods and services.
While I have not had a steady full time or part time job over the past sixteen months, I have been very active in my community. From volunteering my time to help develop a small non-profit to being part of the visioning team for an urban, eco-centric village project, my life has been rich with wonderful people, amazing ideas, and loads of generosity. More and more, I have been asking myself: “What would it look like if this were the norm? What if more of us didn’t have to choose between taking care of our financial needs and serving others?”
And so, I have started an experiment in generosity. There are basically three ideas behind the community change maker campaign.
- First off, I want to spark conversations about what we value as work, and what we collectively support financially as work. Specifically, I’m hoping to inspire more people to re-center serving and giving back in the communities we live in. And that we need to find creative ways to help each other be able to afford to serve more, as opposed to treating service, volunteering, and the like as something “extra” people do when they can. Or as something only the financially privileged are able to do.
- The campaign is raising funds to support my work in three community groups here in Minneapolis/St. Paul. The idea behind this is that there are different kinds of generosity that mutually support each other. I can give much more of my time and skills because others have given money, well wishes, and written support.
- When the campaign is finished towards the end of April, I hope to be able to share my experiences and learnings with others (online and in person) who are actively serving and giving in their community, but who are also living on the edge financially. Too often, basic financial needs prevent people from doing more in their communities, and I’d like to be a part of changing that, through offering a different approach to dealing with those financial needs.
Although it’s designed to support my current work, I want others to do something similar. Indeed, I’d like to spark a community change maker revolution.
In this age of high unemployment and crumbling economies, we need to create ways to re-center service, while also shifting how we think about supporting each other financially. Instead of considering community as the place where we go home to after long, stressful work commutes, let’s come together to make our communities the lifeblood of our existence. Places where joy, service, and sharing spontaneously arise on a daily basis.
I view this project as an inspirational prototype. Not only for folks like myself who are taking a deep (risky) plunge, but also for anyone who wants to keep their day jobs, but perhaps could shave some hours off of their regular schedules to do more volunteering and activist work.
It’s already happening. What I’m doing is not brand new, but maybe the way I’m framing it is. Regardless, the world is calling us to think anew how we work, come together, and live. Come join me and be part of the change maker revolution.
Photo courtesy of Nathanserves