“It is hard to imagine facing the future without my gang of neighbors,” said Laura Dudley, a member of a common security club in the Detroit area. “The whole media culture is telling us to keep borrowing and consuming, that climate change is still under debate, and that the experts are back in control of the economy. They’re tell us: Don’t worry about a thing. Go back to sleep!”
The good news is a lot of people are refusing to go back to sleep. We know that the next 20 years will be very different than the last 20 years. But to sustain our spirits and activism, we need small groups of allies—affinity groups—to support one another and build real security.
An encouraging undercurrent of the current political moment is the hundreds of local groups that have formed to proactively face economic and ecological change. These include community-wide planning efforts like Transition Towns and small group approaches, such as Common Security Clubs—which are sometimes called “resilience groups” or “economic security circles.” In the process of social change, these are necessary and complementary strategies.
"I couldn’t face these changes alone. I need encouragement, reinforcement and the knowledge that someone is watching
Common security clubs are typically founded by people concerned about their economic security. These small groups of 10-25 adults are consciously breaking down the isolation and fear triggered by the 2008 economic meltdown. Clubs have strengthened communities and enabled participants to learn together, engage in mutual aid, and take social action.
Clubs act as ongoing study/action groups. They also provide concrete help to one another through support groups for the unemployed or “anxiously employed,” as well as food sharing, and time banks—which promote bartering and skill exchanges.
Transition Towns are often convened by people with an acute awareness of both climate change and peak oil. Organizers recognize the importance of proactive planning for the decline in fossil fuels and the need to reskill, engage in local food production, and create and support the businesses of the new economy.
Transition Towns and common security clubs share the common goal of helping participants recognize and respond to the realities of economic instability and ecological peril. They prepare participants to live in new economic and ecological realities and support one another to be agents of change, rather than passively waiting for others to fix the problem.
Sustained consciousness groups—or affinity groups—are essential tools for making social change last. There are inspiring lessons to be learned from the 1970s women’s movement about the vital role of consciousness raising and support groups. And many environmental groups have discovered the value of “low carbon diet” support groups and coaching to help people make consumption changes.
In Rob Hopkins's book, The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience, he describes the importance of “Home Groups” in forming Transition Towns. Home Groups are defined as “small, close groups in which people get to know each other well, with a shared intention, to offer a degree of support and mutual reinforcement which environmentalists rarely feel. These groups will allow people to share their excitement, their skills and resources and their energy for making practical change.”
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In essence, common security clubs are a form of Home Groups. The Common Security Club network has a new six-session curriculum for start-up clubs for participants to learn about economic and ecological change. The key takeaway is that our society cannot sustain the model of economic growth we’ve known our entire lives—based on reckless consumption, borrowing, financial speculation, and cheap, easy to get fossil fuels. In the group, members practice mutual aid and reciprocity, building strength to face future economic or ecological shocks together.
Religious congregations have taken the lead in encouraging the formation of these groups. In November, the Maine Council of Churches is sponsoring a workshop on “Building Resilient Congregations & Communities,” to encourage the spread of common security clubs in the state. In the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston, a number of common security clubs have played a critical role in launching the Jamaica Plain New Economy Transition group, including a series of educational events.
People are joining these movements with different initial motivations. Some show up to increase their economic security, while others are primarily concerned about responding to ecological realities. But both of these motivations lead through the same door—toward a more vibrant and sustainable new economy.
“I couldn’t face these changes alone,” said Dudley. “I need encouragement, reinforcement and the knowledge that someone is watching my back. With my gang, instead of fearing the future—I feel like we’re on an adventure together.”
Chuck Collins wrote this blog for YES! Magazine,
a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical solutions. Chuck is a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies where he directs the Program on Inequality and the Common Good. He is co-author, with Mary Wright, of The Moral Measure of the Economy.
What can local clubs do about a global financial meltdown? A lot, it turns out.
When the financial world hit full-blown crisis mode last fall, it seemed there was little for ordinary people to do but helplessly watch their savings and their jobs melt away, victims of risky speculation by a poorly regulated industry.
But in the midst of the meltdown, people throughout the U.S. were joining with their neighbors to weather the economic crisis. Last winter, more than 50 Common Security Clubs formed in communities around the country: a mini-movement of people coming together in religious congregations, community centers, and union halls to help each other understand and cope with the the collapsing economy. The clubs soon moved past the goal of simply weathering the crisis and began to work toward reforms—both nationally and in their communities—that would prevent a repeat of the devastation.
Responding to the flood of fear and isolation in the immediate aftermath of the collapse, organizers used the free facilitator’s guide developed by the Common Security Club network to design mutual aid exchanges, educational events, and even worship services as a response to financial instability.
The clubs’ original goals were to learn together about the causes of the economic crisis, to build networks of mutual support within communities, and to engage in social action to press for changes in economic policy in order to prevent future economic meltdowns. Six months later, club members are reporting a number of other benefits, as well.
We can’t underestimate the value of breaking down the isolation and shame that many of us feel facing this economic upheaval alone. Even though there has been a widely shared experience of economic meltdown, many people still blame themselves for circumstances beyond their control. By educating ourselves about the root causes of the crisis, clubs are able to devote time to developing productive solutions rather than self-blame.
Recent news coverage about the crisis includes rosy predictions that the economy is rebounding. One member of a Common Security Club described her club as a “reality support group” because members unflinchingly look at the real signs of the times. Unemployment is still climbing, people are losing their houses, poverty is deepening. The economic meltdown wasn’t just the result of a few bad actors, but of a deeper system failure. The experts, politicians and media all failed to keep a critical eye on the economy. For many members of Common Security Clubs, this is one of the reasons it is important that we learn together. We ceded too much power to the experts—and now it is time for us to think for ourselves. What is real in the economy? What is real wealth and what is phantom wealth? We don’t need to be experts to begin to trust our common sense judgment about what will be good for the economy.
After two generations of “you are on your own” economics, it is really hard for people to ask for and receive help from their neighbors. We understand charity, but genuine reciprocity is harder. This is less true in some communities of color and among new immigrants that depend on strong mutual support networks to survive. But for many communities and congregations, we need practice in mutual aid. One lesson is to start small with bartering exchanges, unemployment support groups, and “get out of debt” pacts.
Common security clubs have helped members network about jobs, strategize personal budgets, and find ways to be more frugal. Several clubs have done “weatherization barn-raisings,” helping one another insulate their homes for the winter in order to save hundreds of dollars in fuel costs. Some have bartered for services among themselves, swapping yard work for childcare or computer skills for language lessons.
Once people start looking at things they can do together, there is tremendous energy for local and community responses. Yet we can’t ignore that larger economic policy failures actually wrecked the economy, or that now is the time for ordinary citizens to weigh in on the direction of future policy. How can we ensure
that stimulus funds will reach our communities and create good jobs?
How can we push back against the powerful Wall Street interests that
are limiting health care or trying to undermine basic financial oversight?
Clubs have recently lobbied Congress to pass legislation to stop foreclosures, protect consumers, and rein in the unregulated financial operators on Wall Street. They have transitioned from offering support to taking action.
For clubs that have been together for several months, there are wonderful benefits. People are able to share financial information and challenges at a deeper and more useful level. The group develops a shared understanding of the economic system that informs social action.
These clubs have been a place where we hold each other as we face change together. It is a place where we both take responsibility for our own complicity in the economic crisis —perhaps with blind trust in experts or borrowing beyond our means. But these clubs are also a foundation for increased social action to press for a solidarity economy that works for everyone.
Today, they seem more relevant than ever. Two million more people lost their jobs this year. While politicians and pundits fixate on the stock market’s rebound as a sign of recovery, ordinary folks—who know first-hand how vulnerable we still are—are recognizing the urgent need to come together at a local level to take care of one another.
Chuck Collins wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Chuck is a member of a common security club in Boston, Mass and has helped coordinate a network of clubs. He's also a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive multi-issue think tank. To learn more about Common Security Clubs, visit www.commonsecurityclub.org. A different version of this article appeared in Sojourners.