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Uncomfortable Essay #6: Money: Time to shift a paradigm

In some ways, this essay is the most difficult to commit to paper. It is most uncomfortable. But I feel it is something that needs to be laid on the table for conversation.

One of many axioms I grew up with was “money is the root of all evil”. I’m not sure why it was part of my learning. Perhaps it was because we had little, and it was foolish to get ideas about prosperity. Wanting money was almost a negative value. Sometimes I think that the entire Peace and Justice community has internalized the same lesson. But seeming near-antipathy towards money, and near-reverence for selfless volunteerism is not helpful to promote our short or long term success.

Examples of the problem abound.

Within days of publishing Uncomfortable Essay #5, a friend wrote in behalf of a mutual friend, an activist who was interested in developing a website. I referred the friend to someone whose business is websites, who is very reliable, and who I know has reasonable rates. The two made contact: the rates were too high. The effort, then, has become finding someone who would do the website for nothing: a volunteer. The friend of a friend is himself an addictive volunteer and activist, and (almost cause and effect) also chronically short of money to spend paying for necessary things like a website for his organization.

My friend and I conversed a bit about the dilemma of “starving artists”. My friend, also an artist, “agreed completely” with me: willing volunteers with talent are exploited. If you want to eat, look for work in fields other than Peace and Justice and the like. The Peace and Justice business seems restricted to people who have both the time to do the work required and the personal resources to not need monetary compensation. Paradoxically we thus seem to restrict opportunities for great numbers of younger people we need who love what we advocate, and would be very good at it for the long term, but cannot afford to be involved with us. Very simply, they need to eat.

Our recently concluded Peace Island Conference (September 2-3) provides a rather large example of the problem. (I use Peace Island as an illustration, not as a personal complaint. I was a willing volunteer with Peace Island.)

For all intents and purposes, seven volunteers put on the Peace Island Conference. All but one of us were retired. To pull off the conference we, very conservatively, collectively contributed over 2000 hours of unpaid labor over nearly two years, and that was just actual time at meetings, and didn’t count things like driving to and from the meetings, or individual work at home. As I write, December 7, 2008, at least one of the volunteers is still very actively engaged in finishing work on the DVDs which are the record of the conference. To “pay” we volunteers even minimum wage and minimal mileage for use of our cars, would have required us to greatly increase the budget…and tuition. In fact, we didn’t even reflect our ‘cost’ in our budget. It’s an invisible number.

We planned to pay our speakers, but the group of 23 outstanding speakers we engaged for the conference were aware, up front, that we couldn’t assure any of them any payment for their services, though they were the attraction for the conference – the reason people came. They were agreeing to donate their time, in effect.

After considerable debate, and more than a little angst, we decided to charge $50 tuition for the two day conference.

An e-mail received the week prior to the conference, from an activist who also registered and attended the conference, helps define our dilemma, and that of the movement generally: “I realize that Peace Island is a bargain given the many speakers, etc. but I personally cannot remember when [we] have paid $100 for us both to go to any event, conference, concert, etc. Of course, we don’t even go to the [neighborhood movie] theatre as much any more since they raised their rates from $1 to $1.50 on Tuesdays! With my primary involvement in a group that has no dues, never charges admission, and can’t even afford to belong to MAP [$50 annual dues] I had to gulp when you said [in an earlier e-mail] “because we are priced so low”. We are securely “middle class” and yet $50 is still a lot of money to us: I can’t imagine how high $50 must be to the many who are far less well off than we. I hope we will fill the seats…for free or with a free will donation…if there are empty seats near starting time. Above all, the speakers need to be heard.”

(NOTE: We were anything but rigid about filling the seats, Very few requested scholarships, and we accommodated them all.)

After we paid our bills for Peace Island, we reported that we had essentially broke even on a budget that ultimately came to over $30,000; we were able to pay our speakers small honorariums within our most optimistic budget, as we had hoped. We paid for the space we used; for printing, postage, refreshment, videography, transportation for speakers, etc. But our budget included no money whatsoever for any other “internal” personnel costs, as well as for the people who helped with registration, etc. and as a result missed all or part of the programs they had paid to experience.

The solution to the problem of money is easy: to acknowledge that we need it. But it is made more difficult in that our movements conservatism on the issue of money is apparently very deeply engrained. Further, our many organizations compete with each other for scarce resources (which will likely become even scarcer in these harsh times.)

We need to be willing to talk about the problem openly, and to consider some options along the lines expressed at the end of Essay #5, above. Otherwise our movement will reach an internal crisis point. To paraphrase a story told by Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) President Jim Harkness as part of his keynote at Peace Island about the aging of our nations farmers (“the average age [of today's farmers] is 55, and at this rate in 20 years there will be no more farmers”); in our case, in 20 years, all our reliable current volunteers will be, shall we say, unavailable. The outlook for recruiting a new generation of farmers is probably better than for creating a new generation of unpaid volunteers in our movement: at least farming offers the prospect of a livelihood, at least a garden and something to eat!

Failing to address this problem of money will defeat our very purpose, which is to advance public awareness and support of our goals. And young people, who we need to have involved, and who will be looking for work in increasingly large numbers during these grim economic times, will not be able to afford to spend time working with us, even if our advocacy is to help assure their own future. We should consider employing some of them for living wages.

We need to talk about this, openly and honestly, and propose alternatives to the status quo.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on December 8, 2008 2:02 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Uncomfortable Essay #5: The Curse of Cooperation?.

The next post in this blog is Uncomfortable Essay #7: "Overcoming the Fear of Success".

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