That “Hyper-Local” Buy Nothing Group You Love is Controlled by a Wealthy White Woman in Washington State and is Reinforcing Systemic Racism and Segregation

Kai Haskins
17 min readSep 30, 2018

It’s been a tumultuous week in the Buy Nothing Jamaica Plain Facebook Group. I’ve been following the situation pretty closely, and have written up my notes below.

Also — because this is getting viewed a fair amount and I’ve been contacted by some local press outlets, I want to clarify a couple of things:

First: I mainly intended the audience for this piece to be people who live in Jamaica Plain and were already involved. This post started as a note on my phone that I sent to folks via Facebook message so that those not as glued to their phones as me could know what was going on. As the situation unfolded, and I wrote more updates, people suggested I post it here. The article title reads like clickbait because, well — frankly this story is pretty nuts, somebody suggested this title, and I liked it. However, the central issues involved here are race, class, and segregation — and my voice is definitely not one that we need to hear from on those. I’m happy to have this piece be used as a reference from a narrative standpoint if that’s helpful, but any outreach or analysis in other media should definitely have the voices of the POC who spoke up over the weekend at the forefront. If any reporters are interested, I’m happy to do my best to connect you with those people.

Second: If you’re reading this & are part of a different Buy Nothing group, I’d like to note — I do not personally think that the founders of this project intended it to have the racist and classist consequences that it has had. However, when confronted with very valid questions about the inherent racism and classism in key aspects of the project: they provided no decent answers, silenced key members of our community, and attempted to press on anyways. Only after days of public outcry spreading to other BN groups across Boston did they finally address some these concerns. I would encourage you to interrogate the issues raised here, and press your admin team to provide answers to these questions if they have not done so already.

I’m not advocating a worldwide takedown of the Buy Nothing Project, nor am I trying to smear Liesl Clark, or any other of the Regional/International Admins. I’m just offering an account of what happened in our group.

For the sake of posterity, I think it’s also worth offering this West Seattle forum account of a similar debacle playing out in Seattle in 2014. Shout out to Maggie & other folks in JP for sharing: https://westseattleblog.com/forums-2/topic/west-seattle-buy-nothing-contorversy/

The Buy Nothing Jamaica Plain, MA group, with nearly 5000 members, was (from what I understand) one of the project’s largest and most active pages.

Earlier this week, regional & international admins for The Buy Nothing Project pushed the group to “Sprout,” which meant breaking up the large group & turning it into smaller, “hyper local” groups. This is part of the overall mission of the Buy Nothing Project and is meant to occur when groups reach a certain size. As we neared the 5,000 member mark, apparently it was getting to be that time.

Lots of people in BNJP had concerns though, most prominently that this would heavily divide the neighborhood across race & class lines. These concerns were advocated for by the team of Local Admins, and raised by numerous folks in the group under the post announcing the Sprout.

However, when discourse happened in the group, some regional admins deleted comments they disagreed with, including some from local admins. Liesl Clark, the founder of the Buy Nothing Project also got upset and accused a BNJP member of calling her a Nazi. According to a Local Admin, “spelling nazi” was joked about, however instead of addressing that concern one-on-one, Liesl posted a long thread in the Regional BN Group talking about how “saddened” she was by JP’s behavior.

These things led all four of our lovely Local Admins to resign from the group in protest.

Around this time, a new group started which is growing by hundreds of members daily, run by local JP people. It’s called Jamaica Plain’s Gift Economy Page — but there’s a vote currently active on what to change the name to. Find and join that group here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/173271113519810/

For whatever reason, at least one of the international admins even tried to join the new local group, but was pretty quickly removed.

Management of BNJP is being handled by the regional admins now, although there is one new local admin as well name Kwamé. Regional admins have also removed some if not all of the former local admins from the group. Upon taking control, they liberally deleted posts, turned off comments on posts, and dodged all questions related to racism & classism.

Around 4 o’clock Saturday afternoon, a regional admin from Sharon, MA named Ann introduced herself along with a blurry photo of a cat & offered to answer questions. Fiona asked three excellent ones to get things rolling, and admins provided astoundingly unsatisfactory answers in a separate “Q&A Document,” which I believe the majority of members were unable to find, anyway. Ann received numerous requests to respond to comments in their original location for the sake of ease and transparency.

I’ve been banned from the Archived group, but Ayla and Jessie from JP were kind enough to send me screenshots & a PDF of the Q&A with the founder of the group in which they responded to Fiona’s questions. I believe the first four questions answered in this document were posed a day or two prior by a JP resident named Rebecca.

Shortly after this, the Director of Operations for BN regional, Shelley, joined the group. She was also quickly asked directly to address the segregation issue with “hyper locality.” She also pretty exclusively responded to white people.

Update as of 7:00pm Saturday: Ann made a new post with a stock photo of a bunch of white hands & kitchy rings, and said she hopes that the new group & the BN group can exist with different missions in duality. Ann has not to my knowledge addressed the concerns of the majority of the people in the group. Many members demanded the Regional admins leave and relinquish control of the group, while others advocated simply leaving BNJP and joining the new group.

According to Kwamé, following these posts, the regional / international admins mostly receded from the group & left him to clean up the mess. That said, Ann stuck around at least for some of Saturday night to respond to several questions from white people unrelated to the issues of racism, classism, and segregation.

Update as of 11pm Saturday: Ann “addressed” the racism / classism / segregation issue by 1) asking for more specific input from members (uhhh, it’s all over the page) and 2) claiming conversations with the former four local admins did not offer any specific insights. It is my understanding that this is bountifully untrue.

Update as of 1am Sunday: Ann pointed out that in the event of a Sprout, this group would be archived anyway. People in JP pressed that if this is the case, why not just hand over control to the people it means so much to? After all, this group had become a really important part of this community over the past three years, and people wanted to maintain a record of all of the amazing things that had happened here. Fiona created an ISO Post for favorite BNJP threads to save screenshots of in the event the group was deleted all together.

Ann claimed that it is technically “impossible” to transfer the ownership of a group. Several folks pointed out that this is just untrue. It is absolutely possible to transfer ownership of a Facebook group.

Members raised the points that people of color have been surviving capitalism for years by sharing and being kind, and it was offensive for these wealthy white women to claim to have “discovered” gifting. One member explained the practice of “Columbusing,” claiming ownership of something that has existed for years. Support poured in for these posts, with members tagging admins en masse in search of a decent response.

In response, Regional Admins mostly feigned ignorance & played the victim. The all-white Regional admin team also engaged almost exclusively with the white members of BNJP, while ignoring direct questions on their posts from people of color.

Update as of 11am Sunday: at least one person of color has been banned from the group for voicing their concerns & bringing up issues of white fragility by posting this article: https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/a-sociologist-examines-the-white-fragility-that-prevents-white-americans-from-confronting-racism.

These are ostensibly the exact answers that regional admins were asking for answers too.

Other members raised further examples and concerns of white saviorism inherent in the BN materials and responses, and pointed to this blindingly white video about the founding of the BN Project video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vYXNQyMpDjE

*as an edit I’d like to note that my housemate Maggie looked into the beginning of the video which features some vague footage of Leisl and her husband excavating skeletons in the Himalayas. Maggie did some Googling and found that this was an exhibition signed off on by the Nepalese government, which was not clear to a lot of people watching the video the first time around.

Admins continued to delete posts from POC explaining how racist & colonialist it is to claim to have “discovered” gifting in a Himalayan community and then forcing neighborhoods they aren’t part of to segregate by arbitrary boundaries. Admins remained astonishingly quiet.

Update as of 3:30pm Sunday: Buy Nothing Jamaica Plain has been archived by someone named Rachel, and many of the posts referenced above have been deleted. The contents of the group are still viewable to those who weren’t removed, but nothing else can be posted or commented on. This below poll was one of the last things to be posted prior to the archival of the group.

Shortly after this, we began noticing Sprout groups appearing, which — dear neighbor — I urge you not to join.

*Edit: These groups are no longer visible.

Update as of 5:00pm Sunday: this is the message I get when trying to view the archived group. I’m unsure if that means the group was deleted entirely, or if I was just banned.

*Update: I was banned. The group remains viewable to those not removed.

I received a message Sunday evening from someone in the Cambridge, BN group. This Medium piece had been posted there and quickly deleted, and then later a Local Admin posted the following statement from Liesl (originally from the Regional Admin group).

Update as of 9am Monday: I’m not going to post all 35 of the screenshots I was sent of this comments section, but I saw many of the same concerns, frustrations and suggestions that were raised in BNJP raised there. From these comments, it doesn’t look like admins are deleting posts, however I have yet to see a meaningful response to the concerns of the community. I have numerous screenshots saved of folks pointing out that racism has not simply been historically systemic, but is still occurring. Others from people calling for the disassociation of BN from the Cambridge group, and still more from people asking her to apologize and hand over the BNJP group to local people. As happened in BNJP, people are sharing the reasons having a larger group has helped them, and one or two advocating for the possibility of Sprouts as well as the maintenance of a larger page (whether or not it’s associated with BN).

If you’re taking feedback now, Liesl — my suggestion would be to start by apologizing to the people of color and Local Admins in BNJP who literally spent their entire weekends fighting to get this message across to you.

Update as of 3:30pm Monday:

Apparently news of this clash has reached other BN groups around the city of Boston, and at least one has proactively created an independent group. I don’t want to write the names here as I would hate to inadvertently undermine any of the work that’s being done by Local Admins, but you have the support of JP! Our independent group has already grown to 2100 people in under a week.

Update as of 9:00pm: Monday: Regional Buy Nothing Operations Manager Shelley unarchived and then re-archived the group this evening to post the following non-apology. Shout out to Tina and others for sharing the text with me.

“Hi BNJP: It has been a tough few days and overwhelming to try to keep up with all the threads in this group. The reason this group was archived was because it’s a chance for us to read and listen, during a cooling off period, giving time to review the comments, a chance to listen to different perspectives without the need to respond immediately. We are talking with many of you who have reached out. We are working on ideas to address the concerns here and hence are looking at developing our organization to include options that work best for communities with unique qualities. As we move forward, let’s communicate respectfully, work to develop constructive solutions and build more open and inclusive communities. This group will remain archived until further notice.

In the meantime there is a local giving group for all of JP that everyone can join. You can find it here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/173271113519810/

From the recent discussion about splitting the 4700 member BNJP group into smaller “sprouts” has surfaced community issues relating to racial diversity, inclusion and socio-economic disparities. Some have gone so far as to suggest that the Buy Nothing Project supports “structural racism.” We do not. It’s been painful to see how social media can negatively impact relationships and communities if people use the platform to spread disinformation and treat others disrespectfully. Our principles spell out that members will be inclusive and civil at our core. We value honesty and integrity in all our interactions. We value the personal connections made, stories and experiences shared and trust built between people. Some of you who have reached out to us believe the BNProject should address community issues. We are not organized or qualified to solve these kinds of issues. There are other forums better suited for those discussions. That doesn’t mean that we can’t look at what we are doing and think about if there are ways that what we are doing can also break down divides, or if there are allowances we can make within different locations that will help equalize.

To be clear, the Buy Nothing Project was established around a simple concept: provide people with a way to give and receive, share, lend, and express gratitude through a network of hyper local community-based gift economies in which the true wealth created is the web of connections formed between people who are real-life neighbors. When a group is first established we have no way of knowing how accepted it will become in a community and how large it will grow. We make an effort to communicate clearly in the Rules and Guidelines that it may become necessary to sprout a group into smaller ones if they become too large or unmanageable. We do this based on input from the local BNProject community. This is the process we call “sprouting”.

The reasoning behind keeping groups small is: Distance makes it difficult for people to connect with, share with and form day-to-day supportive relationships with other community members. As groups become larger so the workload increases on our volunteer admins. We have also found that large groups contribute to anonymity. The recent proposal to sprout BNJP caused some members considerable concern. Clearly our outreach and communication could have been done better as it was typed under stressful circumstances. We remain open to working with communities worldwide to break down divides and incorporate changes that support initiatives to address systemic issues.

With respect, Shelley, Ann, Liesl, and Rebecca”

Update as of 8am Tuesday: The following message has been posted by Liesl both in the BNJP group, as well as in response to questions in the BN Cambridge Group:

“Hello BNJP: It’s been hard to find words these past couple of days to address you directly, as I know there has been so much pain within your community. Some of you may see this message as overdue: and for that I’m truly sorry. I agree that it is important for all of us, and white people in particular, to talk about racism without becoming defensive. I clearly have been and I’m learning from my own fragility. If we can’t talk about it, civilly, we cannot learn. I am learning from my mistakes. In an effort to address some of the recent articles that have now been written, labeling the project as being racist and uninclusive, I want to say that I hear and understand these concerns. Let me share who I am, how the project started, and try to answer some of the questions that have been repeated in many places. Elements of this project started in Nepal, where we have worked with the government of Nepal and local communities on an archaeological and population genetics project that asks the question of who the first people were to inhabit the highest communities on Earth, how they adapted to the altitude to live there long-term and why. My children, husband and I have lived there over the years and have learned deeply from communities that live far from the conveniences of cars, running water, and central heating. These communities have true gift economies, where each community member, no matter their socio-economic status, has the potential to have as much social capital as the next. I was intrigued by this way of thinking and wanted to see if it might work here in the US, and now worldwide.

I am sincerely sorry that the original intentions of the Buy Nothing Project have in any way impacted anyone negatively here. That was never our intention. I also understand that intentions and impact are very different and that we have impacted your community. The BNProject was designed to be a micro-local gift economy. We ask this of every BNProject group that is part our grassroots network. I understand that it can feel like an arbitrary decision, and what we have found is that when BN groups get over a certain size it is difficult to manage at the local level and the group itself loses some of what the intention behind the group is. Namely, that we get to know our most local neighbors, that we start conversations and know who to turn to in an emergency.

What we have found from 100’s of sprouts, is that there is an adjustment phase that ultimately leads to a closer community. We have asked our communities to “give where you live.” It has been one of the fundamental tenets of the 5-year project. Every admin and every member of any of the hundreds of BN groups agree to this when they join. It is in the information provided to new members at the time they join. This is not about segregation, though I do hear that is the impact and how it feels, and we are prepared to pivot, talking closely with all of the Buy Nothing admins worldwide. We understand that the demographics of many communities are a direct result of structural racism in our country. We pledge to work toward dismantling the systems that perpetuate de facto segregation while continuing to build community across difference. As a result, I am currently working with Buy Nothing admins worldwide to re-examine our sprouting practices while remaining committed to what is wonderful about our micro-local philosophy: sharing creatively and getting to know our most local neighbors, starting conversations in person, and knowing who to turn to in an emergency.

I must share that I am learning and see clearly how a photo taken by a friend of her children’s hands could be offensive to some, and I am sorry for that. I do not want to continue in this direction. I have a very clear sense that you are an amazing community, I have spent lots of time there and know that your community is filled with kind, wonderful, and inspirational community-minded people. People with whom, under other circumstances, I would be gathering around the fire pit, sharing a meal, or a fascinating conversation with. I am, like you all, a person of deep values, and a desire to do my part to support the world to be a better place. I have a family whom I love. I am not interested in power, though I appreciate that it feels like outsiders are coming in and stirring your soup pot, without your permission. That wasn’t my intention when we started this private Facebook group, or the intention of this project, and I understand that is how it feels to you. Right now we are actively talking with our groups and our international volunteer admin network to address the questions that have been raised and formulate a mindful action plan.

We are happy to remove The Buy Nothing project from this group and allow you all here to carry on taking this group in whatever direction best serves this community. In order to do this we have to have at least one person step forward who is willing to admin this group. Please contact Cheryl Baker if you are interested and she will put everyone in a chat to discuss. We are also happy to set up a new JP Buy Nothing group, or groups, with input from volunteers and locals on the best geographic footprint for any future group. The following page on our website has a form that anyone can fill out for starting a new group.”

Because this article how now been viewed over 7,000 times, presumably by more folks than just in JP — I think I would be remiss not to include some educational links here. If you read this, and you’re feeling unclear on why people in this community were so upset, I’d like to suggest you consider reading any or all of the following articles:

From Jenn Jackson: White People Must Invest in Anti-Racism

From Katy Waldman (the post which got Payal kicked out of BNJP): A Sociologist Examines the “White Fragility” That Prevents White Americans from Confronting Racism

From Everyday Feminism: No, We Won’t Calm Down — Tone Policing Is Just Another Way to Protect Privilege

From the Boston Globe: Boston. Racism. Image. Reality.

*Also again, I’m a white person talking about racism and segregation so if anything I wrote here conflicts with what you understand to be true please let me know and I will edit the post accordingly. I’ll keep updates coming!

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