Does the key to climate salvation lie in community builders?

In finding financially sustainable ways to continue impact work, are we pushed to capitalise and monetise to the point that relationships ultimately and inevitably will become transactional too?

Photos: Andy Paradise. Participatory installation at Royal Albert Hall opening up conversations around social issues with the public

I've been on a social entrepreneurship journey, finding ways to sustainably continue the work that I do. A little bit of context on what I do: I founded INSEP (International Network For Socially Engaged Practitioners) back in 2017 to bring together socially engaged artists to share resources, learning and support one another in the participatory and community driven work that we do. As an artist myself finding my way in this practice during my early years, I needed peers I could learn from and with. I had many questions and no answers yet this practice is difficult because we have to work with vulnerability. There were ethical considerations around boundaries to ensure the safety of participants when creating a space for human connection yet needing to find ways to protect and safeguard the vulnerabilities that arise. INSEP came together and I started creating and facilitating conversations with other practitioners around the world on these topics.

As the conversations continued and I listened to the struggles of many practitioners, I realised that financial sustainability of our work was a common and consistent struggle. The work we do: designing and creating situations/events/experiences for awareness raising and community engagement work, project managing, facilitating, fundraising, community organising, social media publicity and communications— all that in a corporate setting amounts to at least five different full time roles. Yet on top of all these work, we have to hustle and juggle another full time or several part time jobs to pay our bills. Burnout becomes inevitable.

We do this work not because it’s just a side passion project. We do it because there is a need. There is a need for more connected communities, more support for one another, more spaces for human connection, more awareness on environmental issues — because people are lonely, anxious, worried in a climate crisis, in isolating cities. It becomes instinctive for us to extend care in situations like this but to do it properly, it becomes too much unpaid work that we have to absorb the cost of. If you are rich and can work on this full time, great. If you don’t have money, have to work to pay your bills and fulfil family responsibilities, trying to find time to meet the demands of such community building work is almost impossible. Either you or your family feels the crunch of it or you end up having to pause the work.

After several bouts of burnout, I realised I had to find a financially sustainable way of continuing this work. Then the big question: who would pay for such capacity building work — facilitating conversations and learning, connecting people, increasing individuals’ social capital and indirectly, increasing accessible resources? Who would pay for the work of supporting on the ground community builders who are struggling? Who would pay for a neighbourhood community builder?

The current conversations circulate around finding volunteers to give their time, energy and effort. This thinking is problematic on several points. One, the work to properly organise, build communities and facilitate local care and support are not recognised and seen as proper work or profession. If we don’t expect bankers to work for free, why would we expect community organisers with their years of experience, expertise, skill sets and know hows to volunteer all that? Why isn’t this a properly recognised profession? Ah right. This work doesn’t bring in much monetary value. Two, it’s a privilege to be able to volunteer. You can afford to do this when you are retired and have time to spare. You can do this when you don’t have additional care responsibilities outside of your working hours. You can afford to do this if you earn enough and don’t have to juggle several jobs to make ends meet.

The thing about business is that you don’t target a market that doesn’t have market value. What makes it so difficult to monetise community building work is that these relationships are not transactional. It’s built upon a culture of gift. The culture of giving without expecting anything in return has become increasingly rare in a largely transactional world. Capitalism needs a price tag to see the value of an action. The act of giving — cooking someone a meal, organising an event to bring the local community together, building a community garden — they have much value in ways that they contribute to collective well-being. But giving without expecting anything in return doesn’t incentivize people because this is the culture we’ve built — to always expect a gain in return of what we give. Consciously or not, we’ve developed a culture in which much are for sale. Our time, our energy, our attention, our care… If there isn’t a potential benefit, short term or long run, we are unlikely to invest in it. (Eg. Corporate Social Responsibility is often a publicity game. It’s seldom about altruism; more about tax benefits or potential sales from a good looking corporate image that some photos with marginalised communities would bring the company. Everything is calculated down to the potential monetary gain.)

This mindset makes the argument for abstract and intangible benefits like art, connectedness, culture a difficult one. How could I justify the value of it? What does your X amount of sponsorship translate to? Is it even possible to quantify it?

When continuing such mindsets and way of life, we risk losing the intangibles that are perhaps the most valuable to our collective wellbeing.

On the flip side, there needs a certain level of privilege in financial stability to be able to give fully without expecting the work to be paid for. In other words, circumstances prevent us from dedicating to impact work full time if we don’t have an additional source of income or wealth because we won’t be able to sustain ourselves. We’ve created a world in which the poor (in terms of accessible resources, highly valued skills, social capital, wealth etc) has to put in a lot of time and effort to be able to afford to live. Not everyone has the privilege of achieving their maximum potential. Some are sinply busy staying alive.

Back to my work at INSEP. Over the past months, I went through several rounds of design thinking to figure out a feasible business model canvas. I’ve had ideas from creating an app to creating programs and services. And then I paused. What if by monetising my network I end up reducing these connections to transactional relationships? Tech provides greater efficiency and productivity to scale the business and serve more people, but on a surface and functional level. As human labour becomes more expensive due to rising living costs, many businesses are finding ways to leverage on technology to replace human work with machines to cut costs and increase their competitiveness. However, relationships cannot be automated. They take time, patience, curiosity, understanding and care. This is perhaps why care and relationship building work are often underpaid or expected to be voluntary.

But people need to be able to afford living while giving.

In a world and environment that constantly pushes us to innovate, monetise and exploit, giving is an act of resistance against this dominant culture. Giving without expecting returns is a statement against the cultures of capitalism that has brought us an ecological crisis almost impossible to reverse. Exploitation to maximise profits and serve human needs have been the dominant cultural narrative taken for granted. Balance is essential to our ecosystem but we've tipped that balance. Tackling this problem isn't an accounting game — buying carbon credits to offset produced pollution for the feel good factor. It would require a fundamental shift in the ways we act on our agency to create change, motivated by civic responsibility to ensure an inhabitable planet for future generations to come.

Our mindset of scarcity drives competition and exploitation. Capitalism drives innovation but also inevitably creates a world in which we try to monetise and capitalise everything because there are finite resources and we have reached the peak of growth. "Back to normal" potentially means destabilising our climate and pushing us past the point of no return. Our dominant narratives need changing if we want our ecosystems to heal. Perhaps the culture of giving towards a benefit larger than yourself is the key to supporting bottom up efforts and citizens led change. Capacity building work needs to be supported so that on the ground change makers and community builders can sustainably continue their work in shifting cultures and narratives. Bottom up movements will be one of the keys to humanity's chance at survival as the masses would be activated locally through solidarity, care and support. Personal transformation would build up to become social transformation and eventually a paradigm shift.

We are humans with agency and choice. If a bad standard is the norm, we don't have to continue the toxicity. Each and every one of us has agency and choice to do better and lift our sector to a higher standard that serves the ecosystem. If we are not taking action, it's unlikely because of a lack of autonomy. It's a lack of courage.

Find that youthful flame within you. We need more idealistic passion to bring forth change. Don't stop imagining what's possible.

Art by Fié Neo

Podcast episodes to listen and find inspiration:

Environmental Emergency, Internet and futures with IAM: https://anchor.fm/onionstalk/episodes/Environmental-Emergency--Internet-and-Futures-with-IAM-changemakers-ej9nnt

Redefining activism: Local connection and community care: https://anchor.fm/onionstalk/episodes/Redefining-activism-Local-connection-and-community-care-changemakers-ekn4ju

Human connection and communities through filmmaking with Andrea Zimmerman: https://anchor.fm/onionstalk/episodes/Human-connection-and-communities-through-filmmaking-with-Andrea-Zimmerman-changemakers-ej800d

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fié neo

Fié Neo is an interdisciplinary artist and intersectional thinker. Instagram @feeyeh_neo | Podcast: OnionsTalk