Creating Technology for Social Change

Thinking Collectively about the Solidarity Economy


Caroline Woolard is an artist, innovator and activist whose work focuses on alternative economics, particularly ones based on sharing and bartering. Her presentation at the Center for Civic Media focuses on some of the projects she’s helped start, including OurGoods and TradeSchool, and a larger framework, called “the solidarity economy” that ties these and other efforts together.

Caroline’s work focuses on three main themes:

  • promoting grassroots economic justice with SolidarityNYC
  • organizing creative bartering network with OurGoods
  • organizing a school that runs on barter: TradeSchool

Her path towards addressing these themes began in art school, designing public art that addressed public needs and provoked discussion. She disclaims the “jargon-y words” associated with her art projects and offers a real-language translation:

  • She designed public seating in New York City that attached to stop signs, and installed the seating at night. It became a part of public infrastructure in some cases – authorities would clean up graffiti on the seats but not remove them.
  • She installed large public seats during the Republican National Convention as an activist activity – they were very promptly removed.
  • At the height of the “See Something, Say Something” anti-terror campaign in NYC, she created a swing seat in the subways and invited people to sit on the swing and talk about social interactions and public spaces, a project she cites as an example of Critical Design.
  • She designed an analog form of Facebook, which encouraged participants to distribute the ephemera from their high school bedrooms throughout an actual high school as a form of institutional critique.
  • She works with a bunch of people to make dinners with foraged, surplus, and otherwise unsold food as an act of prefigurative politics.

Now Caroline seeks to create tools for mutual aid and shared power. Mutual aid is the voluntary reciprocal exchange of goods and services for mutual benefit, not haggling and bargaining for the lowest possible price. Anthropologically, bartering is more about mutual benefit than about achieving “optimal” economic returns. Shared power is about learning to take responsibility for ourselves, in groups.

Caroline want to change the focus from the “homo economicus” stereotype, where we’re all market actors pursuing nothing but our own self interest, to “homo solidarius” where we focus on humans as beings who work together in solidarity and mutual aid. She tells us that she’s starting by transforming herself, to be the change she wants to be, in the spirit of understanding before she begins designing tools for others, inspired by transformative organizing, which means organizing to change yourself, rather than just change the world around you.

Caroline began bartering because she wanted to make public art, art that has no clear market value, so she needed free rent. This led her to urban camping on a rooftop at NYU and spending a short time living in a tiny shed. In 2008, she worked with 30 friends on adapted a shared warehouse space, realizing that by pooling their resources, the community could do things they had never before imagined possible.

Living in a community space led Caroline to wonder why, in a place as dense as New York City, do people feel so isolated? Barter helped her address some of these issues of isolation. Caroline started bartering a utility work dress she designed, and in exchange received a personal website, photography, and other valuable services. She tells us that bartering helps us start to see strangers as mirrors, as well as dispel stereotypes of others.

OurGoodsCaroline started OurGoods with Carl Tashian, a developer of ZipCar, Rich Watson, Louis Ma, who has worked on design for the NY Times, and Jen Abrams, from the oldest womens’ and transgender theater space in the US. The system is designed as a barter network for the creative community. Caroline explains that there are more artists than lawyers, doctors or police officers, but there’s no funding for the arts. It’s declining, and even when it’s high, the market value for public art is low to non-existent. OurGoods helps make resources accessible to this community that would otherwise be unavailable.

The site is organized by project, not by goods. The idea is that people will know why you want the things you’re looking for — it’s not as transactional as Craigslist. Caroline explains that this structure allows us to be curious, take risks, produce beauty, and do other human things that don’t necessarily have market value.

A problem with OurGoods is that it’s on the internet, and users aren’t sure of how personalities and skills will work out in the real world. One on one barter is actually difficult, socially: it requires a context, trust, and so on. That problem was an inspiration for TradeSchool, a learning platform that runs on barter. The project is in its third year, open for 1-3 months a year in donated storefront space. Anyone can propose a class, and bring the necessary materials. There’s a strong focus on practical skills and experiential learning. Some of what’s taught is more intellectual – a class on Baudrillard – while some is more practical or rooted in craft.

One of the main principles of TradeSchool is that everyone involved engages in different types of work – the empowering and the less empowering. If you generate ideas, you also need to clean the dishes. People have been surprisingly willing to engage in this process, and very generous about bringing barter items: hand-woven shirts, art prints, cookies. She initially worried that people offering classes would be embarrassed about asking for goods to solve their personal needs, but people have been quite willing to do so.

Trade SchoolThe idea of TradeSchool is now spreading, with instances in India, Mexico, Europe, Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. These schools use the software TradeSchool New York has developed but the individual schools are founded by working groups that govern and manage their own institutions.

Caroline explains that she and her group are well aware that communities can end up with communication patterns that aren’t inclusive. The group behind OurGoods and TradeSchool trains themselves in “anti-oppression communications”, and forms of facilitation that emphasize participation. Their working methods are inspired by the theory of “Participatory Rural Appraisal”, particularly as articulated by Christopher Robbins. The theory proposes that there’s a range of participation from manipulation, to informing, consulting, placating, partnering, delegating and ultimately fully participating.

Engaging in this process means that they ask themselves:

  • Does your project involve the community, or are ‘collaborators’ just free labor for your ideas?
  • Do you spend more time documenting your project than experiencing it? They’ve toned down the photograph-taking in favor of the actual experience and ensure that participants who are photographed understand why the documentation is taking place.
  • Do you talk about a community based project more than you participate in it?

Caroline’s work on these projects is inspired by the idea of the Solidarity Economy, an idea she identifies as coming out of the Global South and the global justice movement. The solidarity economy, she tells us, can work across domains from creation, to production, to exchange and transfer, to consumption and use, to allocation of surplus. However, much of this activity takes place in isolated pockets. She wants to connect them up, and make them more visible.

She offers a thirty second explanation of Solidarity Economics that begins, “you don’t need to wait for the revolution or the apocalypse. You can build solidarity economies in pockets now. ” In particular, Occupy Wall Street has helped shift the conversation from “homo economicus” towards “homo solidaritus” and encouraged people to work together and cooperate.

Caroline shows an image of an iceberg: Most activity actually isn’t waged labor in the formal market economy – that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In fact much activity takes place within families, is unwaged domestic work, is part of the gift economy, or is sharing within friendship networks.

We might think of this multilayered economy as a cake, which she shows using an image from Hazel Henderson. Only the top slice of the cake represents the wage-based economy most of us think about. The layers below, which represent public goods, gifts and barter, friendship and the “love economy” and resources that come from nature, support that most visible top layer.

Caroline tells us that solidarity economics is very prevalent in the Global South, and gift economies have been around forever. But he term emerged in US activist circles in the 1980s as people rose up to reject neoliberalism.”As Marcos Arruda of the Brazilian Solidarity Economy Network stated at the World Social Forum in 2004, “a solidarity economy does not arise from thinkers or ideas; it is the outcome of the concrete historical struggle of the human being to live and to develop him/herself as an individual and a collective.”

Solidarity NYC

While she sees government support for solidarity economies in places like Venezuela, Italy, Peru, and Spain, there’s less visibility for Solidarity Economics in the US. Her project Solidarity NYC is mapping the solidarity economy in NYC on a relatively small scale, in part to help expand participation and visibility.


A question and answer follows her presentation.

Q: Does Boston have much in terms of solidarity economy?
A: Boston has many collective and cooperative houses, a large time trading circle, and food coops, even if many of them aren’t using the language of “solidarity economy” to describe their work. There’s a challenge to build a meta-layer to track and map the collective economy of Boston or of NYC, as many of the individuals involved are busy just running the individual projects.

Q (Rahul Bhargava): As you think about this, what’s your model for having an impact? Are you demonstrating cultural capital and the rate of interchange you’v created? How do you signal its importance to politicians?

A: We’re working on strategy now. We work to support, connect, and promote. A lot of the members have a big impact on their sector, e.g. sustainability. We may create a rating of how democratic, how horizontal each group on the map is. After Occupy Wall Street, they’re dealing with huge numbers of volunteers, but we need to grow beyond just teach-ins.

Q (Sasha Costanza-Chock): Given that many of these projects have been done by low income communities forever, how do you ensure it’s not an extractive process? Is there a danger that you generate increased visibility but the capital accrues to you as you insert the symbols and ideas into the cultural economy?

A: There are some things that don’t belong on the map. And we need to be vocal about how collaborative consumption is not the solidarity economy. There’s a scale and we want to push people towards being more democratic. In terms of making things visible and the global south, people in Brazil have said that they were powerful specifically because they were visible. If they were invisible and spread across separate groups all over the place, they never would have had the power they had. They have an alternative currency that flows only through intentional community houses, and the government pays in to it. I’ve seen a lot of people try to make visible the barter transactions and try to expose the dollar value and the trades made. On OurGoods, we never show that stuff or share that data; it’s always between the two people involved.

Q: How do we plan for 100 years from now?

A: We have to take things on today, deal with the ways we’re socialized to compete and consume. Can you imagine an antiracist world? Let’s work towards it. We have to work with people in the groups we’re in.

Q: (Andrew Whitacre): Is there a practical size that a solidarity economy can reach where it doesn’t function as well? And, can it work transnationally or is it limited to a smaller geography?

A: Occupy Wall Street is dealing with this. Consensus process is really slow. Decisionmaking can get really complicated. It depends on the domain: if a housing community gets bigger than 100 people, it tends to split. Hopefully we can scale these things globally. There’s an intentional housing community called Ganas in Staten Island that pools money and is growing rapidly. When they hit house 10, they decided to scale back because of the way people were relating to each other. A disclaimer here: I went to Art School, I’m interested in working and living in this kind of community, hopefully there are people around me who can help answer these questions.

Q: (Jeff Warren) You mentioned your initial impetus was housing. The rule of thumb is it’s best to spend about 30% of your income on housing, but in a place like New York, you can spend close to 100% of your income on housing. As an artist it can be difficult. You can barter for a night or two, but a house is something you want to have taken care of permanently. Do you see a gulf between the ability to barter for individual services and large things like residency? And can these things be widespread outside of spare time?

A: That’s why I’m so impressed by this community Ganas in Staten Island. We can’t imagine how to escape the money economy. Barter can’t meet all of our needs. But the more we build collaborative infrastructure, the more it can become the way you support yourself. Ganas wasn’t motivated by profit, but by the desire to create a community.

Jeff: What if Kickstarter ran a series of residency shacks across the country, where you could chip in to give an artist a place to stay?

Q (Sasha Costanza-Chock): As soon as you start scaling sharing economies, you run into the state. The state does all this stuff to support formal market-based economies, and you eventually do need to push the state to realign the incentive mechanisms, or at the very least not outright ban certain forms of shared infrastructure. I’d love to hear more about what types of policies we need to push in order to scale up a solidarity economy.

Matt: For example, San Francisco just declared themselves a sharing city, and VCs invested in shared resource startups like AirBnB are pushing the city to change policies to allow these sorts of startups a competitive advantage (no 14% hotel tax).

A: Janelle Orsi is a lawyer who is ‘a sharing lawyer’ who’s also written a book around legal strategies and practices for further developing a sharing economy. But we need to push to ensure that these new forms of startup are actually based on a sharing economies and helps low income people, and isn’t just renting your automatic screwdriver to your neighbor rather than lending it.

Q: (Henry Holztman): How do we deal with the questions welfare economies wrestle with: from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs. Someone who’s physically unable to wash dishes – can they still live in the housing coop?

A: There are many different ways to talk about this kind of practice: solidarity economy, gift economy, barter, but the point is to build up practices beyond ‘money or free.’ We do want people to be obligated to each other.

Q (Eric Osiawkan): This is something that’s very much practiced in Africa, in parts of Ghana. The question is how to relate differential value – what if I need a car and I have a shoe? How do we deal with these big differences in value?

A: Value is subjective. People need to get over the idea that whatever they pay in the market, or are paid, is what it’s actually worth. For example, I get paid a lot for design, and you don’t get paid a lot for childcare. But that’s not ‘natural.’ It’s a conversation. Maybe somethings are more valuable – how long it takes, how much training it requires, how much you enjoy it – even thinking about different metrics for value will help

Q (Ethan Zuckerman): Do we have to buy the whole theory of solidarity economics, or is it okay to be an occasional participant in the projects you’re starting?

A: These projects are designed to allow lightweight participation and lead to deeper involvement. Trade school is the most popular arm, and exposes people to the word ‘solidarity’ who otherwise wouldn’t be – for instance, a TradeSchool held at a venture capital incubator is likely to be quite political. It’s designed to get issues in front of audiences who otherwise might not engage with them.

This post was written with Ethan Zuckerman and Sasha Costanza-Chock.