“Meet Us at the Legal Café!” “Interview with Chris Tittle, Director of Organizational Resilience at The Sustainable Economies Law Center” (SELC) by Willi Paul, PlanetShifter.com Magazine
“We want to live in cities filled with a diversity of microenterprises, urban farms, community markets, transportation-sharing, cohousing communities, shared housing options, cooperative enterprises, and a wide variety of economic solutions developed at the grassroots level.”
Shareable & SELC’s Policies for Shareable Cities has 32 specific policy recommendations that enable communities to remove barriers to sharing and realize the full benefits of the sharing economy in food, jobs, housing, and transportation. Click here for the PDF.
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What is community, Chris?
I like to think of community as both place and process. There are communities of place – geographically bounded communities where people share a common connection to a particular area and the experience of living there; there are also communities of passion based on a shared identity or set of values that extend across physical borders but are nevertheless bounded by something shared.
It’s important that we nurture both types of communities and that we are very clear about how we use terms like “community” in this type of work. Part of creating community resilience is extending decision-making and autonomy so people can define their own communities by what they have, rather than what they lack. And as a dynamic process, “community” is always being created or unraveled or adapting to change. Creating tools to strengthen community as both process and place is essential for resiliency.
What is resilience? How far does this idea extend in your life?
The concept of resilience is about learning from the natural world how to adapt and respond to change. In a time of so many converging transitions – in the regenerative capacity of the Earth, in the ways we meet our individual and collective needs, in how we relate to the larger web of life around us – how can we build our collective capacity to adjust and co-evolve in response to changing conditions around us? In the social and economic context, resilience is about creating more culturally appropriate and community-determined ways of meeting our needs, and re-embedding our economies in real human relationships. It’s also about distributing power and decision-making to the most appropriate scale so that people affected by decisions have the most say in what decisions are made.
At the personal level, I have a variety of practices that help me to stay grounded and balanced, like mindfulness meditation and Aikido. Having traveled quite a bit, living and learning from many different cultures from Japan to Nepal to Senegal to Spain, I have internalized a lot of different perspectives and cultural lenses. The capacity to continually learn, question my own assumptions about what works and what doesn’t, and develop practices that increase my personal and spiritual resilience has been invaluable. At the interpersonal level, I share my living space with a group of really supportive and creative people, and together we cook for each other, grow some fruits and vegetables, and share things through some cool online tools like couchsurfing, yerdle, and our local timebank – sharing these various things and responsibilities makes it possible for each one of us to live a richer life than if we needed to procure everything ourselves.
And at the systemic level, my work at the Sustainable Economies Law Center, as well as other projects in the community that I’m involved in, is enabling communities to meet their own individual and collective needs with the skills, knowledge, and passions that already exist close at hand. Ultimately, resilience is as psychological and cultural as it is physical – being able to hold different stories about the world and our place in it is as important as cultivating different ways of meeting our physical needs for housing, sustenance, and health.
What tools are you using to "build SELC’s internal resilience?"
As a small collectively-run organization, the health and wellbeing of each individual is in some ways a reflection of the health of the organization as a whole. So we’ve started an ongoing inquiry into how we as individuals can support each other and ourselves while contributing to the important work that SELC does as an organization. Part of this process is helping to create enabling structures that provide a balance of autonomy and accountability to each of us – for instance we use an organizational process called Holacracy that distributes decision-making throughout the organization, allows for self-organization within our different program areas, and uses overlapping circles of responsibility to keep everyone accountable to the organization as a whole. This creates clear ways to provide feedback to each other, rotate and distribute certain responsibilities throughout the organization, and keep an open and ongoing conversation going about where we are as an organization and where we’d like to go. And we just really enjoy working with each other!
Please tell us about SELC’s Community Currencies program. What models and heroes are in your vision?
The community currencies movement is going through an explosion of innovation and awareness right now. The way our current economy functions, most dollars spent in a community ultimately leak out of it as they go to out-of-town corporate headquarters. And because US Dollars are mostly created through debt, they also foster certain social values such as competition, scarcity, and anonymity. Community currencies, on the other hand, can be designed so they always circulate within a community, creating a multiplier effect for the local economy and giving local people a means of exchange when dollars are absent.
Monetary resilience may be one of the most essential aspects of economic resilience in the coming years, and has the potential to re-localize our economies in very direct ways. SELC is working to identify and remove various legal barriers to communities creating their own means of exchange, and providing legal advice and research on best practices for managing and governing currency projects so they foster values such as cooperation, democratic control, and mutual aid.
I’ve been inspired by models from all over the world that have sprung up in response to very context-specific needs: the Swiss WIR, for example, developed during the Great Depression as a way for businesses to continue exchanging between themselves when the national money supply dramatically dried up. It has been functioning since then, and serves as a counter-balance to the normal national currency – businesses use it more when the national currency is scarce, and use it less when national currency is abundant. I’ve also learned from pioneering electronic local currencies like the Bristol Pound in England, where the mayor recently announced that he is taking 100% of his salary in the local currency. There are also hundreds of timebanks popping up around the world, which are mutual aid systems based on the radical idea that everyone’s time is worth the same, whether you are teaching someone guitar or offering legal advice.
A really exciting project that we are collaborating on now is exploring how multiple currencies might fit together into a “monetary ecology” within a particular community. The central idea is that different currencies can be designed to meet specific needs within a community, thus creating multiple ways for meeting people’s personal and collective needs.
OK, I'll bite! Tell us about the "neo-liberal market paradigm" and your current alternatives?
Neo-liberalism, as a political and economic project, is both a process of restructuring entire societies around the duopoly of “the market” and “the state,” and a singular way of viewing the world. What is important to say is that this social organizing system is surprisingly new in the world and has arisen out of very specific cultural and historical contexts – namely modern Western civilization. The “Market Society” involves a process of turning living processes and beings into abstract commodities - or as the influential political economist Karl Polanyi said back in 1944, “disembedding economic activity from community.” A commodity is something with no inherent value of its own, something which only has exchange value - meaning it has value only in a market context.
The global market, as a way of viewing the world, also has a very specific internal value system – markets prioritize and thus promote efficiency, homogenization, and competition for scarce resources over other values like resilience, diversity, and cooperation. The spread of this worldview is destroying any sense of place or autonomy in cultures that don’t historically prioritize those same values (which is most of the world beyond the industrialized West). The result has been a massive concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, an explosion of global poverty and social inequality, and the very rapid erosion of bio-cultural diversity around the world.
What I’d like to suggest is that something very different is simultaneously happening around the world, seemingly in small isolated ways but increasingly in solidarity and harmony with one another - another story is unfolding right where this dominant system and story is collapsing. New economies are taking shape in myriad ways, and are often exploring new forms of ownership or stewardship of our common wealth (such as community land trusts that hold land in communal ownership), and new interpersonal relationships based on sharing and co-producing the things we need (such as worker owned businesses where those that create the value also make the decisions). These are both radical and commonplace ideas - radical in the way that they challenge the dominant economic paradigm, yet commonplace in that they are unfolding in neighborhoods and favelas and inner-cities and farm communities around the world by normal people. Worker cooperatives, land trusts, urban agriculture, community currencies, and local investing are all re-embedding economic relationships in the larger social fabric of our communities and bioregions, re-humanizing the economy if you will.
The growth of timebanking and other online sharing platforms are part of a movement to re-create non-market spaces and ways to meet needs outside of the so-called formal economy. I’m particularly inspired by movements, many from the Global South, like La Via Campesina, the Zapatistas, the Transition Movement, and Idle No More that are both articulating and creating alternative visions of what it means to live well, to exist as part of a larger community of life. Right here in Oakland, this is taking similar forms of self-help and mutual aid, such as community-based alternatives to the police and prison system, and the growing food justice movement that is reclaiming vacant land to grow organic and culturally appropriate food for people that lack access to nutrition and economic opportunity.
Are you a supporter of “anything Occupy?”
I think one of the lasting impacts of the global Occupy movement has been a new narrative of the possibility of change. Occupy mini-communities around the world have demonstrated the power of people coming together to not just demand change, but live it and create it in real time. This has helped shatter the really disempowering narrative that “there is no alternative” to the status quo. I was living in the UK when Occupy Wall Street first emerged and quickly got involved in Occupy London, one of the more thriving Occupy camps. Since then, I’ve contributed to one example of the ongoing evolution of the original Occupy model, called Occupy the Farm here in the SF Bay Area. OTF has moved beyond just occupying physical and political space to actually meeting real local needs through the power of collective direct action - in this case re-claiming historic farmland in an urban space and creating a thriving organic farm and community space.
Please evaluate your Legal Cafe program?
The Resilient Communities Legal Cafe is a pay-it-forward legal clinic and community-building space that we’ve been running nearly every week since February in Berkeley and Oakland, and have already provided support to well over 120 organizations and individuals working for community resilience. In addition to the pay-it-forward legal assistance, we often host themed conversations and teach-ins on legal topics such as starting a worker co-op or housing co-op, legal barriers to urban farming, participating in a lending circle, or forming a community energy project.
We’ve recently expanded these “cafes” to Richmond and are still very much cultivating relationships with other organizations that can help connect us with people who could benefit from these services. We realize this can be a slow process of building trust and co-creating with communities so that what we provide is culturally relevant and truly inclusive, rather than a bunch of outsiders coming in to “save the day.” We are pretty excited about the direction of the Legal Cafe and our vision is that they can be replicated in communities around the country by local groups wanting to meet the legal needs of the resilience movement.
Can SELC promote an alternative law practice -- given that most folks seem to be trapped in the capitalist one?
One of the areas that we are increasingly focused on is breaking down barriers to who can enter the legal profession. Currently in the US, 88 percent of lawyers are white, 70 percent are men, and 75 percent are over the age of 40 – this obviously does not reflect our society very well. Similarly, the average law school graduate leaves school with over $100,000 in debt. This debt burden forces new lawyers to find high paying corporate jobs, which reinforces the capitalist approach to law practice. But California happens to be one of only a handful of states with an alternative path to becoming a lawyer without going to law school, commonly known as a legal apprenticeship. This part-time, experiential process is open to nearly anyone and offers practical, community-based training at nearly no cost. We are actively working to raise awareness about this path and create resources to support apprentices and mentoring attorneys, particularly in communities that have traditionally lacked access to legal education and services. Knowledge is power, so empowering more people from traditionally marginalized communities with legal knowledge could really transform who the law is practiced for and by. Four of our staff, including myself, are on the legal apprentice path and we are keeping a blog about the process at www.LikeLincoln.org.
How is SELC funded and who are your partners?
SELC has partnered with over 40 different organizations working on different aspects of community resilience and new economics – from co-hosting workshops on food justice to co-authoring our policy recommendations on shareable cities to collectively working on advocacy initiatives that remove legal barriers to urban agriculture or worker cooperatives. We also have an active and growing community of volunteer attorneys and legal professionals that work with us to run our Resilient Communities Legal Cafe and outreach to different communities that they are part of.
At the moment, we are largely funded by small progressive family foundations and individual donors. We are actively working to diversify our funding sources, both through more grassroots fundraising efforts to get more people invested in this work, and by developing creative ways to generate revenue without limiting accessibility to our work. Some examples we are exploring include membership models that extend a wider sense of ownership in our organization into the community. We also barter for things like office space, and are part of some local currencies like Bay Bucks and the Bay Area Community Exchange. If you, dear reader, are interested in supporting our work, I’d love to speak with you!
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Chris’ Bio - A recent transplant to Oakland, CA, Chris is passionate about exploring life-sustaining alternatives to the neo-liberal market paradigm. In his role as Director of Organizational Resilience, he is working to build SELC’s internal resilience and bring principles of social and economic justice into SELC’s funding strategy. Among his many other roles, he is contributing to SELC’s Community Currencies program and working directly in the community on issues such as access to land and local food sovereignty.
Chris recently completed an MA in Economics for Transition at Schumacher College, an international whole-person learning center near Totnes, UK. While in the UK, he was active in Occupy London’s Energy, Equity and Environment working group, and helped guide a community exploration of Totnes’ monetary ecology with Transition Town Totnes. His dissertation focused on alternatives to market-based ‘development’ in the context of climate change adaptation in the Global South. Chris has previously worked as an ecological educator, outdoor guide, and environmental journalist, earning his BA in Non-Western History and Poverty Studies from Washington and Lee University. His writing can be found on Shareable.net, MNN.com, and his blog at oaktreegarden.wordpress.com. He can usually be found on his bike, in his garden, in the hills, or fermenting tiny lifeforms in his kitchen.
Chris Tittle, Director of Organizational Resilience
The Sustainable Economies Law Center
chris at theselc.org