We Are The Economy! Feminist Perspectives on Mutual Aid and Community Well-Being

Revolving credit circles, cooperative businesses, trade agreements, services… Women often lead these local efforts to strengthen communities that economists traditionally call “informal,” but why? Would becoming more “formal,” as some are now urging, improve mutual trust and security, or undermine it?

We gathered experts to dig in. In our latest Zoom of Our Own conversation, Dr. Caroline Shenaz Hossein, Associate Professor of Global Development and Political Science at the University of Toronto Scarborough, Founder of the Diverse Solidarity Economies (DiSE) Collective, elected board member to the International Association of Feminist Economics, and editorial board member to the U.N. Task Force for the Social and Solidarity Economy; Katonya Hart of the NAACP, the CARE Coalition, and NOW’s National Board; and Crystal Arnold, founder of Money-Morphosis, director of education at the Post Growth Institute and creator and host of the Money-Wise Women podcast — joined Rickey Gard Diamond, author of Screwnomics: How Our Economy Works Against Women and Real Ways to Make Lasting Change and the “Women Unscrewing Screwnomics” column at Ms. magazine, and founder of AEOO to discuss mutual aid and community well-being.

As some feminist epistemologists (Gilligan, Belenky et al.) have taught us, seeing and seeking connections seems to be women’s ways of knowing. Our economics is lived in real complex communities. Our goal is to model how women can talk together and learn together about traditionally male territory still new to most women.

Our Zoom of Own Series brings women (and men!) together to construct a fuller knowledge and set of values now omitted from the mainstream “free market.” Together, we’re flipping the script on a racist, sexist economy.

These are the resources for this conversation.

Formal vs Informal Economy

The formal economy represents all publicly visible jobs with specific working hours and regular wages. An assured and regular job is reported to the IRS and is subject to taxes. Economists call labor exchanges done for free at home, in cashless trade, or in cash only transactions, free of taxes, the informal economy. Women, especially mothers, are the majority of informal workers, unaccounted for, and unseen. They make far less money.

Today a new class of professional contract workers is emerging, often educated, but without job security or benefits. Economist Guy Standing has named them the “precariat,” a play on Marx’s term, the “proletariat.”

Mutual Aid vs Charity

Mutual aid describes when people come together to meet each other’s basic survival needs with a shared understanding that others won’t save us. Mutual aid projects enable people to take responsibility for caring for one another and changing political conditions, not by putting pressure on government officials, but by building new social relations. Most mutual aid projects are volunteer-based. By contrast, charity frames people in need as less worthy, as if poverty were the fault of the poor, not the result of systemic racism, sexism, ableism, land theft. and labor exploitation. Charity looks generous, but actually upholds the systems that keep the majority poor for the benefit of the few. (learn more at What is Mutual Aid? — Big Door Brigade )

The Commons

Traditional commons include pastures, forests, fisheries, or groundwater resources, but increasingly we see the term commons used for a broader set of domains, such as knowledge commons, digital commons, urban commons, health commons & cultural commons.

Solidarity Economy

Sometimes called Social and Solidarity Economy (SSE) this term refers to a wide range of economic activities that aim to prioritize social profitability instead of purely financial profits.

Post-growth economic thinkers see society operating better without the demand of constant economic growth, born of debt and its added interest that goes upward to the wealthiest. Post-growth ideas propose that widespread economic justice, social well-being, and ecological regeneration are only possible when money inherently circulates through our economy.

Kwanzaa is a week-long U.S. celebration that honors African heritage in African-American culture by celebrating seven values: Umoja/Unity; Kujichagulia/Self-Determination; Ujima/Shared Work & Responsibility; Ujamaa/Cooperative Economics; Nia/Purpose; Kuuma/Creativity; and Imani/Faith.

Books, articles, and videos

Time Magazine, Nov. 25, 2021: It’s Time for a New Progressive Era, with Informal Workers at the Center, by Darren Walker, Ford Foundation, and Sally Roever, Women in Informal Employment.

“A century ago, on the heels of another deadly pandemic, an estimated 10,000 coal workers in West Virginia banded together to march in protest against the cruelty and injustice they experienced working in the mines. It was America’s largest labor uprising and was unusual for that segregated time in uniting Black, white and immigrant workers behind one cause. The forces of business and government combined to crush their rebellion, but not the spirit behind it….

Take Back the Economy; An Ethical Guide for Transforming Our Communities. J.K. Gibson-Graham, Jenny Cameron, and Steven Healy. University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

Though this book was published here in the US, its authors are part of Western Sydney University’s Institute for Culture and Society. The Institute brings interdisciplinary research to questions reframing the economy, not as physics and inevitable, but as a human creation we can change, guided by ethics. The Institute’s scholars have achieved international recognition but are not widely well-known here in the U.S.

Kathy Feingold, AFL-CIO on International Labour Organization.

“In 2011, unions, domestic workers and allied organizations worked with employers and governments to pass the first global standards protecting domestic workers, and in 2019 the International Labor Conference approved the first international treaty to eliminate gender-based violence and harassment in the workplace.”

The Banker Ladies (2021), directed by Haitian-Canadian filmmaker, Esery Mondesir, open-access and hosted by Films for Action.

Podcast “Banker Ladies and the Social Economy, Frontiers of Commoning” by David Bollier.

Carolyn Shenaz Hossein 2020, “Racialized People, Women and Social Enterprises: Politicized economic solidarity.Feminist Economics.

Carolyn Shenaz Hossein 2019. “A Black Epistemology for the Social and Solidarity Economy: The Black Social Economy.” Review of Black Political Economy.

Carolyn Hossein & Christabell P.J, eds. Community Economies of the Global South. Oxford University Press, 2022.

Learn more about the Offers and Needs Market developed by the Post-Growth Institute.

Learn more about Money-Wise Women, Crystal Arnold’s podcast.

Learn more about Kwanzaa and its principles in this YouTube video.

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