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Business as Unusual

Updated: Oct 18, 2023

It was November 2014, and we had just learned that a St. Louis grand jury had decided not to indict the police officer who shot Michael Brown. People gathered in a conference room to vent their frustration and pain. Someone, at the end of their endurance, said “we can’t go on, business as usual.”

I’ve asked myself periodically since, when systems are producing vividly negative results – what does it really look like to not re-enact business as usual? What do we continue to honor, either because it is peripheral to the problem (library material return dates) or because it is too central to abandon wholesale (the rule of law)? What does it mean to make durable change, as opposed to putting up brief resistance?

Lately I’ve been reading about the mass death of coral reefs off the shore of Florida, which made me cry even though I’ve never seen coral reefs. I also interrupted my efforts to write this by watching trailers of the Barbie movie on YouTube. Clearly I don’t have it figured out.

This much, however, always feels like movement towards an answer – the Gandhian notion of constructive program. Instead of asking if you’re in or out, constructive program emphasizes building new systems parallel to existing ones. There is flow between business-as-usual and these new ways of being – the mutual aid networks may distribute coffee that wasn’t shade grown – but the intention is to practice non-extractive ways of living. We learn by doing, so if and when opportunity arises, we’re ready.

As an example, I recently helped out with a pilot of some new training material with a self managed organization/network (Greaterthan) where I’m an “explorer”. My role was peripheral – providing feedback, mostly - but I gave it careful attention, because I value my connection to that group. At the end, members in that project had an opportunity to divide the budget allocation for the initiative between participants - what they call the Happy Money Story. Each member comes with a proposal, listens, and decides together how everyone gets paid. I didn’t have decision-making power, but I was invited to share what would make me happy, weighing all the ways value manifests for me. I told them I realized I wanted some token amount of money, because I wanted my role in that group to be more than volunteer. The hundred dollars I invoiced at the end of the process filled me with more feelings of belonging and joy than contracts on an order of magnitude larger.

This feels to me like good practice in a radically different way of allocating resources, and I’m wondering where else it fits. Where do your organizations feel like they are building constructive program? As always, I’m eager to be inspired by your examples, and be alongside you in the process!

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