Buy Nothing Project: A paradigm shift to a gift economy – An Interview with founders, Liesl Clark & Rebecca Rockefeller

ttcflowerApril 2014 TTC Newsletter

Hello All, Welcome to Spring!

The veggie garden is reviving, the Robins are singing in the mornings, our family is healthy, and we have a Women’s Retreat in Yelapa starting in 3 weeks, and a Teen Talking Circle Facilitator’s Training coming up July 10th – 13th. Speaking of which, we have a few more spots in that training, so check in here for more info and to get signed up. The Early Bird Special lasts for 2 more days!!! If you’ve been wanting to take the training, now is a perfect time. These super cool people from Marin County can attest!!!

Marin County Training Group

Marin County Training Group

I don’t know about you but I’m thrilled to have Spring sprung! Even our aches and pains around here are minimized by the sunnier days. I can’t complain myself, though, because I just got back from Oaxaca Mexico, where I was taking a 10 day photography workshop with Mary Ellen Mark, and working for the MacArthur Foundation doing photos in the women’s prison (powerful), with midwives (amazing) and believe it or not I even addressed about 400 people at the state Justice Department’s morning meeting! I got to say to the riot police, “Hey, guys, machismo is dead! Listening from the heart is the only way forward…” I hope they heard me! I think they did. As they piled out in their trucks they were waving at me like old friends! Here’s a shot I did of some of the guys.

Oaxaca State Justice Department, photo by Linda Wolf; copyright MacArthur Foundation 2014,  CC-NC-ND

Oaxaca State Justice Department, photo by Linda Wolf; copyright MacArthur Foundation 2014, CC-NC-ND

 

Rebecca Rockefeller, Liesl Clark & Sailor

Rebecca Rockefeller, Liesl Clark & Sailor

This month we have a great interview on tap with Liesl Clark and Rebecca Rockefeller, founders of Trash Backwards, and the Buy Nothing Project (BNP). Buy Nothing Project is an “experimental, hyper-local gift economy,” founded last July on Bainbridge Island, WA. The first group formed was called Buy Nothing Bainbridge (BNB). I was one of the first 50 members. Since then it’s spread like wildfire. As of today, April 9th, there are more than 159 community specific Buy Nothing groups in 5 countries, hosting 29,084 members with 215 volunteers administering it. And each day this number is growing. The great thing is, you can easily start a Buy Nothing Project in your own community — all you need is have a Facebook account. Once you’re a member of a BNP FB group, you simply post a warm request for something you’re wanting, or respond politely to someone who has posted what you’d love to take off their hands, or post something you have to gift — a thing or a service or whatever! It’s that simple. Today, I posted that I had a philodendron plant that needs a new home, and got a response from a member saying she’d love it. So, now I PM her my address and she’ll come pick it up. Yesterday, I posted that I needed a clothes dryer for my mom, and someone posted that they had one to gift.

BNP is a paradigm shifter. Its about gifting, not trading or bartering. It’s about practicing the art of creating community relationships and about sharing things, time, energy, kindness, and compassion. Personally, I’ve made many new friendships with people in my own community I never would have met. If I got stranded on the road, all I would have to do is post, “help” and a dozen people would respond immediately.Being part of BNB, I’ve witnessed innumerable acts of generosity by BNB members. Like the teenage boy, housebound from the effects of Lyme Disease, who posted for anyone who wanted to come by and play board games with him – he got a bunch of responses; and the woman whose husband was suddenly hospitalized who posted for help to feed her dog and clean up her house left a mess when they quickly left for the hospital. That story got even more complex when the dog got out and was lost and dozens of people from BNB got involved looking for him in the middle of the night and posting sightings of him, until he eventually came home of his own accord! I’ll never forget the woman with cancer who couldn’t get back into her house due to mold making her sicker. She couldn’t take anything out of it as it was permeated by the smell of mold, not even her furniture. She posted that she basically needed to fill an entire rental house with new things. No problem, BNB members fixed her up!

quince2

Then, there’s the various other experiments, offshoots of BNP, like the group of us who gleaned fruit to keep it from rotting, and turned it into jams and preserves to give away, and the family of 12 where the dad lost his job and the mom had to care for all the kids, plus an aging mother – they decided see if they could go for a year buying nothing; just posting their needs. No problem. And, the two women who decided to wear the same black dress for a year. They received lots of gifts of cool slips, shoes, under garments, coats, scarves, sweaters and other goodies to augment that one dress! One man has been posting for at least 4 months, asking for kilos of banana bread ingredients and I think at last count he’s made at least 300 loaves and given them away, even driving across the island to deliver them! He’s the same man who asked homeless people in Seattle what they needed and posted for stuff for them. Then there are the people who post that they made too much dinner and would anyone like to come by and join them at their table! The stories are simply endless. For me, I’ve received so many things and graces! There was the sweethearted woman who came by and helped me weed my garden for 6 hours, just out of the kindness of her heart, and Janet Billenstein, who answered my post for help to transcribe this interview because I was overwhelmed with other work.

Linda Wolf and Teen Talking Circle participants - NHK filming

Linda Wolf and Teen Talking Circle participants – NHK filming

Last year, the members of BNB came to the rescue for me when I was approached by producers at NHK, Japan’s public television station, asking if I could put together a day-long Teen Talking Circle for a series on cell biology and teen emotions. I needed to form a group of about 16 teens who would be willing to speak honestly and intimately on camera. And I needed them fast! So, I posted a request on Buy Nothing Bainbridge. In hours, I had parents and teens responding, and within two weeks I not only had the group filled, but Liesl Clark offered her home for us to film in, and another BNB member offered home-baked breads and cookies. I also got posts from parents volunteering to help carpool the kids to and from the circle.

Masatoshi Kaneko, Director, Science & Environmental Program Department and youth from Bainbridge Island & Suquamish, WA.

Masatoshi Kaneko, Director, NHK and youth from Buy Nothing Bainbridge

So how does the Buy Nothing Project work? Simple. First off, it uses the free platform provided by Facebook Groups and the rules are simple: “Join your local community group, post anything you’d like to give away, lend, or share amongst neighbors. Ask for anything you’d like to receive for free or borrow. Be courteous. Don’t post anything to trade, barter or sell.” BNP is NOT about discontinuing to purchase goods from local businesses that depend and thrive on all of us continuing to buy stuff. We all still spend our money! It’s not about money, really, or as I said above, about stuff. At least 1/3 of everything offered on BNB is stuff home-made! If you’re interested in starting a group, just contact Liesl or Rebecca through the BNP WEBSITE. The following is my interview:

Liesl Clark and Rebecca Rockefeller

Liesl Clark and Rebecca Rockefeller

March 2014

Linda Wolf: Hi Liesl & Rebecca, let’s start by you describing what the Buy Nothing Project is about, and what motivated you to start it?

Liesl Clark: The Buy Nothing Project is about setting the scarcity model of our cash economy aside in favor of creatively and collaboratively sharing the abundance of the real wealth around us, and in us. We’re using social media to offer random acts of kindness to neighbors day-in and day-out. There’s no limit to what you can give or receive. It’s the services offered and off-beat requests that are perhaps the most touching, enabling people to give in the most precious personal ways. What motivated Rebecca and I to start this project comes from a lot of different seeds.

Rebecca Rockefeller: Yeah, we both have a deep desire to rethink our interactions with material lifecycles – the materials we all use and live with. We are presenting a different view of ownership and status that isn’t so hinged on personal possessions and defining wealth and ourselves by the things we own, by ourselves. The BNP stems from the work we have been doing for the past few years where we started looking at the plastic waste on our beaches and in our watersheds, and tracking where that waste comes from — which is not from people far away, but us. We are literally drowning in our own waste, and a lot of it is single-use products and silly consumer goods that are designed to be obsolete almost immediately, and that break down or next week will be new and improved. We are taught in our culture that we are defined by our stuff. That is crazy. It’s crazy from a waste perspective, from a social perspective, and none of these things have any lasting meaningful value. What’s really important is who we are, what sort of people we are.

Also, we wanted to change the model of community groups bartering or trading, to one of pure gifting because, the most important aspect of BNP is not the stuff, it’s the people. We wanted to give people a platform where they could to communicate – where they could tell tell stories about the things they were offering, and not just offering more stuff. We wanted to give people a place where they could offer their time, their services, their wisdom, their caring, themselves –A place where people could see that we all have so much wealth in common and we can just share it, communally and collectively. For example, if I need a new couch, I don’t need to get a brand new one from a store, I might see a post from someone in the community and discover someone’s aunt is giving one away – one that she has great stories about it. So, I’m not just getting a couch; I’m getting a couch with stories that suddenly make that couch more than just a couch, but one I can talk about! We’re sharing a new way of looking at stuff that allows us to build a new value system, where it becomes cooler to share stuff with a story, not just get brand new stuff and throw the old stuff in the dump.

HappyChallah.VikiWalaskay                  august-22-2011-1424.janawalker[1]                  Dress.SandraFortierVisnack[1]

Much of where BNP comes from was influenced by Charles Eisenstein’s writings and the idea of sacred economics that gained attention during the Occupy Movement and that whole ground swell of thinking about sustainability. We’re asking the questions, who are we, who do we want to be, how do we want to live on this planet, and what do we think is important? BNP is part of that reappraisal.

Linda: Liesl, how does this connect to your work in Nepal?

Liesl: Well, all of the above matters to me, of course, as well. Plus, for me I’ve spent a lot of time witnessing the social commons in practice in places that are really remote. My husband, children, and I go to Nepal yearly to do archeological work and film making. We visit remote villages 13,000 feet above sea level where there is no “shop” in the village, so people have to share – they have to care about each other. We’re engaged in researching the question, who were the first people to settle in these last places on Earth? Among these last places are these high altitude regions. We’re questioning, were they pushed there or pulled there because of some reason? Probably both, but all we can look at is the archeological evidence, and what we have been able to uncover in these hill cliff caves are human remains that date back 3,000 years. What we’re looking for in the DNA of these remains and evidence of early adaptation is, did this happen over a long amount of time or not? How does this relate to a gift economy? Well, if these people were pushed up into these high altitude areas, if they migrated due to religious reasons for example, what kind of social system did they have and do they have now that keeps them sustainable? The remains we are unearthing show that the population was very healthy – and the people who live in these villages today are very healthy. The question is how are they doing it? How are they able to sustain themselves at the topmost ceiling of what human beings can survive? What we’re observing is that they take care of their each other. They are communal. They have built into their communities systems that work communally. What we asked ourselves is can this type of communal system, or something similar, work where here, back home, where we live? Can we create systems that sustain us in healthy ways? It is a very important question for us at this time.

Linda: You did a beautiful juxtaposition about this in your recent BNP short video, which I would love everyone reading this to see. Click here…

Children in Nepal with books from Buy Nothing Bainbridge founder, Leisl Clark

Children in Nepal with books from Buy Nothing Bainbridge founder, Leisl Clark

Liesl: The BNP works without using cash. It makes you think and be creative in how you are going to achieve your goals, and get your needs met, through your own community (BN group). We are about, as Rebecca said, connecting people. We’re about showing that true wealth is the strength of our connections. We believe that the more tangled the network of connecting gets, the stronger it gets. We’ve seen this in our work in the Himalayas. Interdependence, trusting and having everything be of equal value means everyone profits. Everyone profits from giving where no money is involved. What we have been co-creating is the purest gifting economy I have seen [in this country.] You not only need to give but you need to ask for what you want.

Linda Wolf and Myra Zocher

Linda Wolf and Myra Zocher with her homemade breads and cookies for our filming

Rebecca: We’re not saying, don’t buy anything anywhere – we’re not asking people not to buy from their local stores. We’re saying that in this one group, nothing is for sale. It is focused on giving. Giving in our local communities. Where we live, where we need help in the middle of the night, our home communities. Really lovely things start to happen when we are connected this way. This is about building different kinds of connections. And seeing this is the true wealth.

Linda: What you’re doing is shifting the stigma around shame; the shame of not having or looking good because you don’t have xyz – you’re shifting a lot of stigmas. To put ourselves out there and ask for something shows that we don’t have everything…it’s vulnerable!   You’re shifting this to have it be one of our strengths.

Rebecca: We’re so used to judging each other and ourselves by what we own and what we don’t own. We’re saying, that is not what makes us who we are! We are trying to encourage giving no matter what the gift is and to get out of holding onto stuff. As we said earlier, we’re drowning in our stuff.We are trained to hold onto stuff as if it defines us – what about human kindness and generosity?

drowning

drowning

Liesl: Every single person on this planet needs human kindness and generosity and that is what is at the heart of this project. What we have discovered is that people haven’t really been given the opportunity to simply give without expecting something in return or receive without giving something in return. The BNP is simply an alternative experience of giving where there is no unequal power differential.

images
Love is all there is!

Linda: What are some of the surprises that have been the offshoots of the BNP?

Liesl: So many. We have lending libraries stored at certain people’s homes with party supplies so if you need 200 wine glasses for a wedding you don’t need to go out and purchase them! We have tool libraries, and people get together at a local pub for “Books and Beer,” and there’s a group of people who call themselves Crochet Madness, and there’s the group that goes mushroom foraging together. We have a bike share program, and lately we have flags at the ferry terminal which indicate to people who need rides to different parts of the Island – the North End, or South End, etc – that someone is going that way. We have round robin helpers who each take a day to get everyone together to clean one person’s house, or make a community dinner, and then switch around. There are people offering their professional services for free, or just companionship. Once we saw a post for someone who was working on a deadline and needed a coffee, and someone responded that they’d be there right away with a latte. People are asking and receiving all kinds of things, and non-things! And what comes out of it is that we are valuing each other, not the things.

Linda: In someway BN is readdressing this idea of loneliness. The fact that you can go to a restaurant and post from your cell phone that you’d love company and then have someone respond that they’d love to join you. That’s pretty wonderful.

Rebecca: I see people who didn’t know each other before Buy Nothing Bainbridge now know each other and are spending time together in the same environments where they were before, but didn’t ever connect. It took this online connection to connect them!  In our society everything is seen as a commodity — there is a price on everything. Money makes it possible to have this surgically clean transaction between people. A gift economy fosters connection. It’s messy. Not always perfect. But, it’s human to human connection. And that matters. It is kind of revolutionary here, but as Liesl is seeing so clearly in her work in the Himalayas it is ancient. In my way of thinking, we are not going back to the old ways, we are bringing the old ways forward.

Linda: How are children involved in the BNP? Your daughter, Cleo and son, Finn, and your children, Rebecca, are all involved, aren’t they? Finn and Cleo, since you’re right here, can I ask  you some questions? How does BNP affect you? I know you’ve gone on various rides to give things away or pick things up and have even posted your own things to share.

Finn: It feels really good to see pictures of other kids who have received my things.

Cleo Athans Clark & Leisl Clark

Cleo Athans Clark & Leisl Clark

Cleo: I go into my room and I see I have too many things, and it feels yucky. I freak out just because I have way too much stuff. There are some things that I don’t want that I give to BNB and stuff I don’t feel is good enough, which I give to Goodwill.

Linda: What do you mean by yucky?

Cleo: I just get this feeling inside like I just want to get rid of all this stuff. I am wondering why I got it in the first place.

Linda: Wow, we adults think that giving stuff to kids will make them happy. I can see by what you say we need to rethink this a lot. Have you met new friends through this Project?

Cleo: Yes. We had a clothing swap here and a girl came that I played with. Her mom was there. We played dress up and make believe.

Linda: Liesl, Rebecca, what are some of the downsides of this Project? The times when you think, I just want to quit, I just can’t stand it any more?

Rebecca: The thing for me is most people are used to participating in models where they are marginalized, where they are being taken advantage of, and sometimes someone questions our motives or says unpleasant things online to us, and it hurts. The other thing that is painful is when people really do think its all about the stuff and get mad at us because they want to join a group they see as having better or more stuff instead of belonging to their own community. They don’t want to join their local group because they think it isn’t as valuable. That makes me feel sad. There have been disgruntled members, which is painful.

Liesl: It’s hard on some of the administrators, but we’ve gotten used to it. It can be frustrating to know that you are offering something which at its core is about joy, compassion, connection, and community and is really building strength of relationship to self and others, and then to have it inevitably misunderstood by some people.

Linda: One of the concerns I heard expressed almost six months ago is that when a group gets so big that dozens of people respond to an offer, it can get embarrassing. Even for me, if I see something I’d love, but I see that someone much more in need is asking for it, I simply can’t put my name out there to be in the running. So, in many ways, it is another example of how compassion is engendered in this community.

Liesl: Also, a common thing is realizing that if you post that you want something and get it and you’ve been posting all week long and received all week long, you still have to drive all over the island and get it! It teaches us that we have to decide how important is that “thing” to me, because even though it’s free, I still have to put out the energy and time to go get it!

Rebecca: Even with all the frustrations, this process of changing our value system is so completely worth it.

Linda: Thanks for doing this interview with me.

Muuuhhhh and hugs to Lilly Schneider for editing and posting, and thanks again to Janet Billenstein for answering my post on BNB and doing the transcribing.

For more about the National Geographic films by Liesl Clark, see this link.
For more about Trash Backwards, see this link.

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