In down economy, JP residents form teams

August 27, 2009
By

David Taber

New initiative positions self as national model for troubled times

If anyone is looking for a neighborhood where aspirations to mutual aid and barter, community building and political education and advocacy might have some traction, they could do worse than Jamaica Plain.

A new initiative being undertaken with support from the JP-based New England branch of the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS)—a left-leaning national think tank—is looking to bottle those ideas and export them across the US as a response to the ongoing recession.

The notion is to form what it is calling Common Security Clubs (CSCs)—groups of about 20 people who meet on a regular basis to support each other through hard times, learn about what is happening with the economy and potentially do organizing and advocacy work.

JP residents who are participating in the first pilot group say the biggest impact on their lives has been the organization of bartering and timeshare programs. One club member, Alta McDonald, said she exchanged a home-cooked meal for a PowerPoint tutorial.

IPS also sponsors the local JP Forum, an ongoing lecture series hosted at the Unitarian Universalist Church on the corner of Eliot and Centre streets

The first “guinea pig” CSC group started eight months ago in JP, said CSC initiative organizer Andrée Zaleska. It utilized a five-week curriculum—developed by IPS and the Cambridge-based Grass Roots Policy Project to explore topics like: “Bubble economics, phantom wealth and other dimensions of the economic crisis,” and “the ecological context of the economic meltdown,” as well as “recogniz[ing] community wealth and assets as fundamental to our security,” according to a 135-page facilitators guide developed for the initiative.

“We have been sleepwalking for a couple of generations ecologically and economically,” Chuck Collins, head of the IPS New England office, told the Gazette.

One goal of the CSC initiative, he said, is to encourage people to educate themselves about what has happened to the economy.

The facilitator’s guide does not pull any punches in the analysis it presents. “First, we believe that the financial crisis will worsen in the coming year and our personal economic security and that of millions of our neighbors will further erode…Because of the depth of our economic and ecological challenges, we don’t believe it is possible to return to the familiar model of economic growth and recovery.”

Despite dire predictions and complex economics lessons, Zaleska said, the first group has so far functioned on a fairly nuts-and-bolts level. “It’s more of an aid group and a support group” for people who are feeling the pinch, she said.

JP resident Catherine Baker told the Gazette she used the group to help her start a small business—a “decluttering and organizing service” called A Room Of One’s Own.

After the group got through it’s five initial sessions, “We began documenting our needs and the things we could offer,” for mutual aid and barter, Baker said.

“I offered to help deal with organizational challenges and clutter,” And the four people she was able to help gave her extra experience, references and an opportunity to take photographs of her work, she said.

McDonald, who is 75, said she appreciates that the club is a “very social group. There are people in their 30s and up, living a variety of lifestyles. We have a potluck dinner before every meeting. I appreciate the fellowship in that kind of thing.”

“I am a senior citizen interested in getting together with other people [who are trying] to cope with the downturn,” she said. “I lost some money in the market. For me, it was to see if there were ways I could live better on less.”

McDonald said there are members of the group interested in doing advocacy around things like state and federal budget issues and funding for public schools, but, “After working as a social worker for 50 years, I tend not to get excited about social actions.”

She said she personally found the group’s support helpful during a brief scare when she thought she was going to lose a small stipend she earns working at an after school program in the South End. “We were able to get Americorps funding. It’s not a lot of money, but it takes the edge off the situation,” she said.

Collins said he sees getting those types of social patterns entrenched as the first step in the new type of recovery the CSC initiative envisions. “All these people who are isolated economy-wise aren’t going to be interested in advocacy until their personal needs are addressed,” he said.

“People were a little more interdependent back a couple of generations. The thing that is exciting to me is the concept of preparing. If people are isolated and afraid they are susceptible to demagoguery… and scapegoating,” he said.

Alexa Bradely of the Grass Roots Policy Project said it is early yet to tell if the CSC model will take off nationally, “Hopefully the network will grow larger…The scale is unclear yet…but a national network of people focused on our political and political economic life would really make us way more secure,” she said.

Zaleska said that, in addition to the pilot group, two more CSC groups are likely to start in the coming months, and one has started in West Roxbury. Nationally, she said, groups are forming or have formed in San Diego; Edmonds, Wash.; Richmond, Va.; Portland, Ore.; Northampton, Mass.; Albany, N.Y.; and New York City.

There are “many others that we’ve lost touch with, including a whole network of Midwestern Episcopalians who had the model presented to them as part of a church-leadership training workshop,” she said in an e-mail.

Paragraphs 14 and 15 were justaposed in the print version of this article, giving the false impression that Katherine Baker described herself as a senior citizen. That statement should have been attributed to Alta McDonald.