"The risk of this economic crisis is that people stay isolated, hunkered down and afraid," Collins says. "What’s different from the serious economic crises of the past is the much greater potential for fragmentation and isolation–because we’ve lived through a couple generations of ‘you are on your own’ economics. So the idea that we can trust any kind of shared response is broken."
That’s why in January 2009 the Institute for Policy Studies piloted Common Security Clubs to break through the isolation, and bring people together to learn, help one another increase their economic security, and ultimately take political action. The clubs are not an effort to turn away from government, in fact they are in part an effort to develop the skills and solidarity needed to advocate for a government that work for the common good.
"It’s a way to organize the vast, anxious, unconnected public," Collins says. "It’s really important to get people together, away from their isolation, and the sense that they should figure this out on their own. Learning together–people learn the economy is not a weathered even there, people caused this economic crisis, this could have been prevented. Now we have to get active to make sure this doesn’t happen again."
There are now over one hundred clubs, averaging fifteen to twenty people, across the nation–with clusters in Oregon, Washington, Michigan, Maine, Massachusetts, and North Carolina. Over 900 groups or individuals have requested the facilitator guide and other club materials but IPS doesn’t have the resources to track everyone. Some religious and community groups have used the materials to go in their own direction.
"It’s sort of taken off and has a life of it’s own," Collins says.
The clubs are all founded on three key principles: learning together, mutual aid, and social action. Every two weeks a round-up of good learning resources is circulated to participating clubs. It might include anything from agood Bill Moyers’ interviewor a Jonathan Schell piece in The Nation, to a story of a rent party with a band or an effort to weatherize one another’s homes to cut fuel costs, to ideas for political action. Members have helped one another network for jobs, strategize personal budgets, and find ways to be more frugal. They barter services–for example,swapping yard work for childcare or computer skills for language lessons. They have lobbied Congress on legislation to stop foreclosures, protect consumers, and rein in Wall Street.
"In a way it’s very simple, but at the same time it’s kind of radical," Collins says. "It’s basically people coming together, learning together [about this crisis],and mutual aid. And then people are much more eager and engaged to be part of social action–they see the limits of what they can do at the local level."
It’s that combination of radical simplicity that is so appealing. And as radical as it might seem first glance, it does have roots in our recent history. Certainly our ancestors, and immigrants, have relied on helping one another, building community, in order to lead productive, secure lives. Collins also speaks of the Depression, when people formed sewing circles, threw rent parties, started soup kitchens.
"Now, more people are disconnected," he says. "We don’t live near each other, the exurban community–there is a foreclosed house, next to a house where people are doubled, tripled up in it, next to another foreclosed house. People are at home watching TV. There used to be more connection between people–our mutual aid muscles are a little out of shape. We need to get them back in shape. It’s a necessary precondition for a healthy democracy."
One of the most appealing aspects of these clubs is that many are multi-generational. In fact, a special youth edition of the facilitator’s guide was developed drawing on the work of Tamara Draut. Collins notes that it is people beginning their careers–in their twenties and thirties–and people in their mid-fifties, who are "really getting clobbered" in this crisis. He describes the coming together of older and younger people in his own church-based club in Boston.
"Several women lived through the Depression," he says. "They have all kinds of skills that the younger people in our group are hungry for–how to preserve food, how to do canning, how to mend clothing, and prepare simple, low-cost meals that are healthful. They have all kinds of domestic arts skills that society stopped valuing. Our younger people are excited to learn from them."
Once the clubs develop trust as a group, and begin helping one another, it opens opportunities for political action and pressing for policy changes–whether fighting foreclosures in the neighborhood, advocating for a Consumer Financial Protection Agency, or beginning to take a new look at the global economy.
"You can’t really have a solidarity economy if you don’t have an experience of solidarity–meaning an injury to you really matters to me," Collins says. "Once people experience a sense of agency–a sense of power–around the economy, it will lend itself to greater global justice policies."
In this downsized age of "you’re on your own" inequality, where theeconomy and political power seem rigged for the wealthy and stacked against everyone else, this movement to declare that we will no longer accept isolation and the status quo–or a government that maintains it–is invaluable.
"In the end, it’s not really that complicated–it’s getting people together," Collins says. "And the most important thing is the sense that people feel of being held by a group–that they will not fall. There are people watching their back–people who are thinking about them every day. In our insecure society a lot of people are afraid of falling through the cracks and that no one will care."