Money in community: what to take into account?

What can we learn from the experiences of SOS Relief, Globe Aroma, Common Wallet and The Post Collective with sharing money?

Sharing money sounds cool. But it needs extra concern to make ‘solidarity’ rhyme with ‘community’. Philippine Hoegen (SOS Relief), Anna Rispoli (Common Wallet) and Elli Vassalou (Globe Aroma & The Post Collective) share their different experiences. “To avoid that the sharing of money turns into charity, you need to think about equity. How to be comrades in a collective struggle?” 

Every crisis creates its new practices. Only one month after covid had hit the art field in its heart, in April 2020, State of the Arts launched SOS Relief: a digital matching tool that facilitated person-to-person financial solidarity. It connected people with financial stability to people faced with precarity, for a one-time financial relief of 50, 100, 200 or 400 euro to cover basic costs. In the end, 250.000 euro was exchanged in this way. 

Brussels artistic organisation Globe Aroma, creating space, time and network to artists with a newcomer background, adopted the SOS Relief-tool to transform it into An Urgent Embrace: a similar tool but with a different set-up. People in the Globe Aroma community, not always having access to a bank account, could donate and receive money physically.

At that moment, Common Wallet had already existed for more than two years, since 2018. It started when Anna Rispoli and nine other artists and cultural workers in Brussels decided to merge all their daily expenses and sources of income on just one collective account. Common Wallet functions as a stronger base for their individual financial concerns, like cash flow and being able to pay the bills with an irregular income from artistic work. Once a week, they meet as a family and discuss their situation. 

Also The Post Collective meets every week as a kind of family. It is an autonomous platform of co-creation, co-learning and cultural activism created by and for refugees, asylum seekers, sans-papiers and accomplices. It introduces a range of artistic, cultural and employment opportunities, and provides a commoning environment for its members regardless of their legal status. One way of doing so is by its internal ‘poco solidarity fund’, to foresee financial support to individual members if they have urgent needs. 

Four different practices of sharing money, four different forms of community. Concluding that more redistribution automatically creates more community is far too easy, however. For such an easy correlation, money is a far too sensible subject, linked to deep feelings of shame, anxiety, inequality, power… How to take these potential blockings into account? What are the necessary conditions to deal with precarity together by sharing money or other resources? 

In SOS Relief it was a conscious decision to limit potential contact between givers and receivers? 

Philippine: “No, on the contrary. In the conception phase we talked a lot about community. As givers receive the bank account and the name of the receiver, and receivers get to know the giver’s name through the transfer, it’s not anonymous. SOS Relief did create contact between people, but that led to a different community than a group that sits down in the same space. It’s more like an infrastructure where one person knows another person that knows somebody else. There’s something interesting in that hybridity. Sociologist Rudi Laermans said that he appreciated SOS Relief because it created another sense of the personal, by the fact that you could bump into the person that you had given money to, or received from, in BUDA or Kaaitheater after the pandemic.” 

Elli: “At the same time, that’s exactly the reason why some people were intimidated to apply for SOS Relief. They felt too vulnerable for others to know that they don’t have enough money. There’s an aspect of shame. Next to that, there was a striking difference in how you define urgency or need. In the pool of SOS Relief, a few people were saying: I don’t make enough money to do my arts, I want to buy paint. In the Globe Aroma community people said: I don’t have money to eat. They were people struggling with thoughts of suicide.”

Anna: “This feeling of shame or exposure shows the full complexity. Money is not only a financial but also a very emotional thing. How to be exposed in your precarity? How to be exposed as a giver? Such feelings are so strong that they need to be considered in the question of anonymity and community building. But how to define ‘community’? Is it just to know each other? Is it to expand the possibility of interactions? To do things together?”

How would you describe the type of community in Common Wallet? 

Anna: “In the beginning we imagined Common Wallet as an experiment that would allow us to create a polyamorous relationship with money. That is, to subvert the monogamous relationship our society has with money: based on scarcity, anxiety and loneliness. How on another tone, could we learn to share love by sharing money? Of course, to do so we would have needed to change the function of money in order to make it a tool for creating kinship rather than loneliness. Now that with the participants we know each other quite well, money is no longer an anonymous agent. By having access to the same account, we become aware of many details of each other’s lives: medical expenses, trips, parties… Funny enough, money became a way to get closer, to share habits and patterns. Especially for those among us who are single or have no family, this establishes a new kind of intimacy with the others. This mutual exposure has allowed the group to share life by sharing money.”

If money equals love, that implies that people should know each other beforehand? That you only can share money in a closed community? 

Anna: “In the beginning we didn’t know each other all of us. Some of us already had been working together on notions like fairness and redistribution, others joined by invitation. That made the group quite mixed. But before starting the experiment, we came together as a group to get to know each other a bit more.”

How was it for Globe Aroma? Did An Urgent Embrace build a stronger community, or was anonymity more important? 

Elli: “First people from Globe Aroma applied to the open call of SOS Relief, but as SOS Relief got really big, they sometimes had to wait for three months or more. So we decided to replicate the tool to create a smaller pot that could be filled more urgently within our own community. Even if you didn’t know all people in person, you knew the precarity of their position and the values of the community they belong to. Somehow the physical space of Globe Aroma, even if it was closed, concentrated the concerned people’s energy and thoughts. In deep covid times, An Urgent Embrace functioned as a bonding promise: ’together we will survive this, even if we are not sharing our common space, we give a promise for the future’. We had a system with letters for people without a bank account. Givers would bring envelopes with money, adding notes or small gifts in it. It made our anonymous number system more personal and heartwarming. Sometimes people would cross each other in the corridor. Having that short interaction was really important, especially for people struggling with heavy depressions. It gave them hope.”

In such a sharing community, some give and some receive. Does this imbalance affect the community feeling?   

Elli: “Coming from a precarious European background in Greece, I have been a giver and a receiver of solidarity in many moments in my life. But when you’re in the position of being paperless and not having civil rights, it’s very difficult to be able to be a giver and to get out of this imbalance. Even if you want to, it’s almost impossible to accomplish. Because the system doesn’t allow you to have resources. And it’s extremely frustrating to be perceived as a receiver all the time. So, in Globe Aroma, anonymity was very useful for people not to be exposed in this way.” 

Is it even possible to create a community non-anonymously, if the social and financial differences between participants are so big?

Philippine: “Probably not in a long-term relational community like Common Wallet. But the community that SOS Relief created is a different type. It was a one-time thing. It created a kind of loose, semi-anonymous community in which money began to circulate. Maybe community is not the right word here, but it’s also not the opposite. SOS Relief visualised that such a loose network exists, while it was not so apparent before.”

Elli: “What is important in situations with extreme differences is that you search for other resources to share than only money. Because limiting solidarity to money can easily be perceived as charity. To create more equity, you also need to find loopholes in the system for people that have no access to employment, because some don’t even have an orange card, a work permit. So then you need larger networks of solidarity, but many institutions are hesitant. For instance, many are happy to present work of The Post Collective, but when they realise that they have to find alternative ways to pay people, they make the members of the collective feel awkward. Many times, we have heard: ‘this is illegal, you’re escaping taxes’. People must understand that this is the situation that people live in. Their existence is illegalized, it is not a choice. What we need are institutions that understand what it means to support artists in these difficult situations. Solidarity is also that.” 

We often use the term ‘solidarity’, but what is it exactly? 

Anna: “In general, I prefer not to use the term ‘solidarity’ in the projects I am involved in, because I always have the feeling that this term refers to someone who is in solidarity with someone else asymmetrically, from a protected zone. For me, we should be comrades in a kind of struggle to gain together the power to self-manage our lives, recognising that the violence that some people suffer in one way or another also intoxicates our lives. So, at the very least, there should be an ambition to work together to achieve the same goal. Another premise is a peer-to-peer relationship between the participants: everyone should be able to contribute to a common project, even if differences and asymmetries are present. This requires radical trust in the group. And there should be a logic of self-management, where everyone owns and masters the project, albeit with different skills. Sometimes, however, solidarity is applied to projects that do not start from this premise, to situations where the empowerment of participants is not possible. One only tries to compensate for a kind of asymmetry.”

Elli: “But isn’t solidarity just that: being equal to the other, but in relationship? ‘I’m missing a foot and you’re missing an eye and let’s walk together’? Otherwise, it is charity.”

Anna: “I would say: ‘without a foot and without an eye, we run faster’. Not ‘together we can survive’, but ‘together we are stronger’.” 

When is it charity? 

Elli: “Charity is when the relation is one-sided: somebody has a lot and can give, while someone else never had or was given the chance to gain, so they are condemned to take. Charity is not a solution to violent asymmetries, but a way of perpetuating them.” 

Philippine: “I agree: the moment the asymmetry is very stark and even structural, it leans more to charity than to solidarity. But how do we define that asymmetry? If we do that purely on a financial basis, we’re selling ourselves short. In SOS Relief, for instance, a lot of the givers were people with a contract working in an institution, while many of the receivers might have been independent artists. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they were asymmetrical. You could also say that museums can’t exist without artists making work. We must be careful to understand asymmetry only financially. Money is just one of the factors.”

Elli: “Yes, it’s also about emotional resources. Even trauma related minoritarian knowledge can become a resource. One example is ‘Espace Fxmme’: a platform for the women of Globe Aroma to rethink, redesign and create a safer space for themselves, and for the whole community. They don’t have to be protected, they are protecting the space, by being given the resource of time to think and to build their vision of safety. They were supported to support the community. So indeed, it’s not only about money. In fact, these discussions about money are really Western European for me. Solidarity projects in Greece, for instance, have nothing to do with money. Simply because there is none. They exchange goods, services or knowledge. Or take Turkey nowadays: you go to the supermarket and you don’t know how much things will cost, because prices are getting higher every day. For many people in the world, money is a bit of an abstract notion.” 

Would it be possible to make people think more collectively about money and other resources, as ‘ours’ instead of ‘mine’? Is the pot in Common Wallet perceived as ‘our money’? 

Anna: “Yes, you could say so. The more you practice ‘our money’, the more it becomes true. But when you’re together in a bar, it becomes difficult to ‘invite’ others, as the money of your friends comes from the same account. So it’s our money and no one’s money at the same time. But when I buy you a present with ‘our money’, does it get less valuable? For sure sharing changes the economy of gift. The true complexity is: how can we detach from judging what happens with our money? It’s definitely possible, but it takes a while. Because in the West we identify with private property: we think we are what we own, what we earn. It takes a lot of time and practice to start seeing it differently, it’s a bit like practicing yoga. It’s like stretching your muscles of generosity, tolerance and detachment.”

Can you still think of other conditions to create a stronger sense of community by sharing resources? 

Anna: “So far, we have only been talking about internal energies in a group. But one very strong element to make and reinforce a community is an external enemy. It works perfectly. Maybe during covid we gave to SOS Relief because of our disagreement with the way the government was dealing with the situation? Very often the strongest community building is against something. I’m not suggesting that we need an enemy, but we shouldn’t ignore how it acts as a strong motivation. It can be a strong glue.” 

Philippine: “It’s interesting that you said that it’s a question of practicing. But I guess it’s also about creating conditions that make it possible?”

Elli: “With An Urgent Embrace we did this, and it worked really fast. But it’s not something we can do again and again. It’s not a sustainable system. And even if you work together over a long period and support each other in every possible aspect of life, like we do in The Post Collective, I cannot do anything for someone to get papers. Often you feel powerless. Where to find the resources to surpass these moments, to fight again, to find strength in community and not to be defeated? A lot of people in The Post Collective and in Globe Aroma feel defeated a lot of times. There is no energy anymore for that radical trust, somehow. Because if you stop trusting yourself, you stop trusting the universe. How can we create structures to get through these moments? How to create a functional utopia and to sustain it? Honestly, I don’t know.” 

How does the internal solidarity fund in The Post Collective function? 

Elli: “Yes, every time we are making money – is it by a lecture or by getting funding – we put 10% of it in a bank account that is now in my name, because we still cannot have a shared one. Whenever someone brings up a specific need in our weekly meetings, we discuss what we can cover and people can get support from our internal “poco solidarity fund”. We have already paid for dental care, rent, groceries… Whatever is needed. We are talking about small amounts of money, however. Now we have 600 euro in that account. The maximum we ever had was 1,200 euro. The real difference must be made by changing the conditions in which we have to work. Building a community by sharing and redistributing resources sounds evident but it remains very dependent on external circumstances.” 

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