On February 25, you’re invited to Tilda’s Kitchen to take part in the ninth and final open forum that will help determine the shape of the Kingston Community Fund, an initiative led by the Good Work Institute that aims to help democratize the distribution of wealth in these parts. Initial funding for the fund will be provided by the Novo Foundation, once the project is designed by the community, and organizers want your input on how the money should best be used to help us all.
Sounds a bit shocking? Too good to be true? Understandable. Mainstream culture has most of us thoroughly traumatized around the whole subject of money. Despite the best efforts of nursery school teachers everywhere, competition infests our culture at almost every level—politics, business and recreation are so infused with the belief that there have to be winners and losers that it’s a rare kid who can make it to adulthood with a firm faith in sharing. Evolutionary biology, influenced by Darwin, says it’s all about survival of the fittest. Politicians emit vast clouds of hot air insulting other politicians, corporate leaders ruthlessly seek the competitive edge, and sports competitions all too easily descend into brawls, even at kids’ events—and the concept of winning or losing is so embedded it’s hard to blame individuals for feeling as though that’s all there is. Much of what’s written in the history books focuses on who killed who and when, why is pretty much taken for granted.
It’s a narrow view. Even Adam Smith, the 18th century Scottish economist often quoted by capitalists cheerleading for competition as the highest form of human behavior, had plenty to say about empathy and mutual respect—they just don’t quote those parts as much. Lately, scholars have been increasingly pointing out that it’s leading to awful outcomes and may not, in fact, be the only choice. “Economics teaching, research and policymaking needs to let go of its obsession with self-interest and competition and get to grips with cooperation and other-regarding behavior,” writes Dr Tim Thornton, Senior Research Fellow at the Boston University Economics in Context Initiative and Director of the global School of Political Economy based in Melbourne, Australia. “It can do this by utilizing more recent theory and evidence to keep the analysis closer to real world applications. Introducing students to the limitations of markets, and the psychological and social complexities of economic decision-making, represent an important start.”
Sharing Has Vital African Roots
But there’s no need to rely only on “recent theory” in this journey. Across Africa, through centuries, another tradition has held on: Ubuntu, the concept summed up by Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowe as “I am what I am because of who we all are,” an idea that would feel familiar to indigenous folk in many places. It’s closely related to harambee, a Kenyan word that translates to “all pull together” (and the name of a fantastic Kingston organization that will hold its 6th annual Black History Month Gala this April.)
In the financial world, ubuntu and harambee find practical expression in osurus, local collectives found in Sierra Leone and other places in which all community members contribute to form a larger fund, which everyone then gets to take turns using to achieve their goals, then repays.
In Kingston, the Community Fund’s procedures are still being worked out. From the series of community forums that have been taking place since fall 2022, Good Work Institute organizers are drawing ideas and the people who will help put those ideas into action.
“This project isn’t, you know, ‘hey, we’re gonna solve every single problem of inequity’” says Héléne Lesterlin, a worker trustee with the Good Work Institute who’s helping make the concept a reality. “But it is about creating another example where people come together to design something differently, to make something that from the ground up is based on values of sharing, of collaboration and cooperation and community benefits…The big question is, how do you decide where money goes? There are all different ways to design for that, and we’re not coming into this project with a decision on that. We see our role as being to facilitate a decision being made by community members.”
So come on out to Tilda’s Kitchen on Saturday, February 25 from 11-1 pm, and have your say on how this might best work for all of us. English/Espanol translation will be included. “The next phase will be to gather together the people who are most interested in helping design the project,” says Lesterlin. “We want that group to be diverse and representative of the community. That group will work together over six months to design a pilot fund, going through different activities together. They’ll get to know each other, they’ll build trust, they’ll get training in different things like conflict resilience, democratic decision making, ways to engage the community in decision making. By the end of the six months, they’ll have created the design for a fund.”
Will it be a grant fund? A revolving loan fund akin to an osuru? No one knows yet. “We’re at the beginning,” says Lesterlin. “What we’ve been looking at right now is systems and principles that facilitate people coming together to make decisions to benefit the whole community.”