the case for a gift economy
labor should be compensated or reciprocated
In Cape Town, South Africa, a man followed me and two young women friends downtown to demand money. I had made eye contact with him as I exited a store, but I didn’t have money to give to him. I was raised to be polite, and I have male privilege, so eye contact is usually not an invitation for the sexual harassment that femmes, women, and trans folks face. But after about three minutes of following us through the cobblestoned downtown streets, he started to call me a bitch, threaten to fight me, and put a curse on my family. He got in face, and scared all three of us, to be quite honest. That was one of those times where I learned that sometimes it might in fact be better not to make eye contact, particularly when one does not know the standards within a country.
In California, however, I am rarely followed or berated for not giving money. More specifically, Oakland folks who appear houseless are usually chill, whereas Berkeley folks who appear houseless are…something else. I understand the skepticism, however I do not understand how people can be so rude to each other. There are plenty of elders, veterans, and mentally ill folks on the street. But there are also those 23-year-old white men — with whom I’ve spoken — who are choosing another life. Not because they were forced out of the house for being queer or trans, but rather, they choose to be. And whether we can contribute or not, locking eyes with these fellow humans usually just means acknowledging their humanity, not guaranteeing that we can donate money or food.
I observe how people respond to strangers on the street when they ask for money. Local rules of the city, country, and the continent determine the specifics, but the basic “rule” is don’t make eye contact. People seem to think that if we don’t see that person, we don’t have to give them anything, and then we don’t have to feel bad. But one of the most common things I hear from folks — sometimes elders, sometimes my own age — is: “why are people always asking for money?” They’re not usually talking about people on the street anymore, though, they’re talking about their friends and family.
These people (our friends, family, and even ourselves) often do not like when strangers ask for money on the street — and that’s another necessary discussion for another day — but one would think that would shift when there is a personal connection, right? Well, anecdotal experience teaches me that most folks have an issue when we ask for money from friends and family. Sometimes they say it outloud and other times they talk about us behind our backs. “What’s Anthony need money for grad school, doesn’t he have a job?”
Whether it’s to support our social justice work, our writing, our music, our study abroad trips, or our gender reassignment surgery, questions always arise, and often in very shady ways. And questions are fair…if we plan on contributing. Yet, the questions most often come from critiques that are not rooted in constructive criticism. Folks like Kimberly Bryant, founder of the fantastic organization Black Girls Code, suggest monetizing our work. This is great constructive criticism in response to her honest question, one in which I complicated here.
We could talk about how we live in a different generation than our parents and grandparents did. We can specifically pinpoint baby boomers, a really shitty economy, and the need to diversify our income streams. We can talk about how folks may abuse the GoFundMe, YouCaring, or the Patreon model. We can even talk about how the definition of labor changes, or why everyone could benefit from a little bit of help (*ahem*). But I want to go deeper and discuss why “entitlement” gets thrown around when people start asking for support, particularly when it is monetary.
Let’s examine expectations of giving and reciprocity in labor.
The East Bay Meditation Center (EBMC) is a one-of-a-kind organization. EBMC runs on a system of “Gift Economics” that is centered around generosity, as defined by the illustrated above, and as detailed below.
- No prices, no fees
- Inclusive, voluntary giving
- Giving to support sustainability
- Giving in proportion to one’s ability
- Feedback loops
Using EBMC’s five principles of Gift Economics, I intend to let you know why we should not feel bad for asking for money and why we should consider giving more often.
No prices, no fees
EBMC models generosity through “teachings offered out of generosity, not in exchange for a fee,” ensuring that there are “no economic barriers.”
Many activists and organizers work fulltime jobs that are not related to their liberatory efforts. Sometimes they work a related job that does not pay them well enough to make ends meet under our white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy — a term coined by bell hooks to discuss the way that most of us are squashed under capitalism. And there is also a contingency of folks who claim to be either activists or organizers, but further neoliberal rhetoric through the state, the academy, or the non-profit industrial complex.
One way that many people, including the activists and organizers referenced, get their work out their is through public scholarship. Talks at universities or corporate events can make us money, but they are often inaccessible. Social media platforms are free. For some, the “no prices, no fees” policies can be wielded on social media to get more folks to hawk their book, but many just want to spread knowledge. Some Black scholars — Ruha Benjamin, Sandy Darity, and Kimberle Crenshaw — utilize Twitter as a way to make their scholarship widely accessible.
Social justice activists, organizers, scholar-activists, neighbors, cousins, aunties, and grandmas can all use and access Twitter without exchanging a fee, and this is one form of generosity.
Inclusive, voluntary giving
EBMC invites all to give voluntarily, creating an invitation to the community practice of generosity.
This is where the giving comes in. We, as a community, want to support each other in whatever way we can. I’m a Black queer man, researcher, writer, editor, and a budding organizer. In my 27 years of life: I’ve helped a lot of people, so I see no shame in asking for inclusive, voluntary giving. That does not mean anyone is obligated to contribute funds for my tweets or unpaid articles, but instead they we can practice generosity in a number of ways. By choice.
I am an expert of my own experience, as are you. This means that outside of our value to each other as fellow humans, we have a secondary value as folks who embody different experiences. And for me, I have invested my own time, money, and resources — as well as that of my family — in order to gain the knowledge I now have. This does not mean that anyone owes me, or anyone else, anything. We can rarely repay each other for our debts, we can merely pay it forward.
This is why people ask. A closed mouth don’t get fed, and unless one asks for voluntary donations, it is rare that we will pay them for their intellectual, physical, spiritual, or emotional labor.
Giving to support sustainability
EBMC is in the practice of inspiring generosity. By participating in gift economics, they are cordially inviting us “to give to meet the needs of the Center and the teachers.”
None of us can do it alone, and while monetizing our labor is often a possibility, getting there is a difficult one. How do we monetize social justice education in person or online without privatizing and undermining the whole reason we began doing it? How do women monetize emotional labor when for years we, as a society, have taken advantage of it so much that we now expect it?
Rather than shaming someone for needing help, we want to contribute to sustainability. As the cliche goes, we want to teach someone how to fish rather than giving them a fish. This often confuses folks, because then they wonder: “why just give them money then?” And the answer is not complicated. Sometimes people need a little bit of help. We’re discouraged from asking for help, but hashtags like #DisabilityCrowdFund and #TransCrowdFund are necessary in a society where we undervalue and literally kill both disabled folks and transgender folks.
In order for individuals to survive, they often need help with material needs like rent, food, or even children’s clothes. Sustainability is important.
Giving in proportion to one’s ability
Practicing generosity means that “those with greater capacity (money, time, skills) are invited to give more,” according to EBMC.
Folks who practice a religious or spiritual belief know that a portion (often a percentage) of their income should go to giving back, or paying it forward. those who do not practice any of these beliefs still know that it makes sense that with greater capacities can potentially give more. We have to consider that this definition of capacity includes money, time, and skills.
A practical example was this spring, as I visited graduate schools on the East Coast. A queer man of color introduced me to another queer man of color, who in turn let me stay with him. We did not know each other, but his capacity was a spare room that he let me sleep in for two nights and a ride to the airport. In return, as a broke undergrad, I sent him what money I could afford because of the service he offered. He gave generously, with no expectation of a “return on investment,” and he received generously with what little I could give him.
When we consider our abilities, we must think outside the box. This is not always monetary, but sometimes a reciprocal exchange. When I asked for help for graduate school applications, I asked for two forms. The first was monetary — applications are expensive — and the second was a combination of skill and time. I asked if anyone would be willing to read and edit my statement of purpose, and many people volunteered, despite the fact that I could not pay. This is rooted in a reciprocal friendship, wherein we trade all the time without even realizing it. Much of the time, people want to help, we just have to present the opportunity. And those who do not want to help can just keep on keeping on.
Reflecting generosity is when “information is shared about when the needs of the Center are met, in the case of EBMC.
This is the exact model of a GoFundMe, a YouCaring, and a Patreon. The person in need sets a goal, details why they need the funds, and the website does the work of letting us know when they have achieved said goal. The feedback loop is important, otherwise even more questions about the validity of a request are raised. And these questions are completely understandable, given that some people have “gotten over” on, however we must also consider to whom we are giving. Should we be donating $5, $25, or $100 if we do not trust the person to whom we are giving? And if we are not willing to give $5 — when we have the means — to a friend or family member in need, are they truly someone who should be in our circle?
Ultimately, the feedback loop is not just useful for those who give, but those receiving as well. As touched upon, labor is often seen as one thing and one thing only under capitalism. Going to work for eight hours a day is how we think of labor. We do not always consider the extra work that parents — and usually women — do after they get off work. Nor do we think about sexual, emotional, intellectual, and sometimes even physical labor. If historically marginalized folks are going to be called slurs behind our backs and to our faces, we might as well get paid for it.
We have to really consider when we are giving our labor away for free, and if we resent the person to whom we give it. If so, maybe it’s time to start charging for our labor or demanding that something of equal or greater value is exchanged.
The consequences exist (whether we ask for money or not)
As Feminista Jones writes, outspoken women receive violent threats of doxing, death, and rape. She writes:
In a society where women are taught how to avoid rape more than men are taught to not rape, I don’t receive much support or advice beyond “go private”, “block them” or “log off.” — Feminista Jones
So yes, we can reference studies that discuss the benefits of giving, but I’d encourage us all to think about times within our own lives where we were in need and did not receive it. Or where we were undervalued, underpaid, and still had to go to work every day. Ultimately, if someone does not care about our wellbeing, do we owe them any form of labor? I would argue no, but that does not change the fact that our real world circumstances often dictate what we can and cannot decide to do. We cannot escape capitalism any more than we can try to hide to run from bigotry. Yet, if a mediocre white male professor with tenure can make six figures a year and you’re having a similar impact through your art, activism, or anything else, why shouldn’t we also advocate for compensation?
We must constantly remember that asking for any kind help is looked down upon, due to bootstrap mentalities tied in with narratives of “well I did not have any help.” This applies to financial assistance, government assistance, mental health assistance, YOU NAME IT.
Ask for the help that you need, because our detractors won’t stop either way.
Ask for the help that you need, the worst that can happen is that someone who does not recognize your labor calls you a moocher and someone who does recognize your labor contributes $1, and every $1 counts. And finally, remember, no one was offering to pay me for my writing, tweets, advice, art, or acting until I started to ask — and in some cases: demand. Now go out and get that coin.