Marketplace - 'The varieties of systems, institutions, procedures, social relations
and infrastructures where parties engage in exchange.'
One of the best kept secrets in the United States is the hidden wealth and value embedded in every community, even the ones considered to be “poor.” We treat struggling neighborhoods, and the people who live there, as one of our societies’ social ills that need to be fixed.
Some of the major contributors to this perspective are us; the foundations, nonprofits and members of the helping professions that insist on programmatic fixes, perpetuating the deep divide between those who live in these neighborhoods and those who do not, resulting in extreme social isolation that is the hallmark of poverty in the United States. We know this because we have been of this group, but we have also lived and worked in these communities and feel the pain of this mistaken approach.
Residents of these neighborhoods internalize the negative assessment and work hard to overcome not only economic poverty, but the poverty of shame, other-ness, social isolation and stigma. Is it no wonder that increasingly, these places tend not to trust our interventions. As Ms Joyce Williams, a resident leader in a struggling Boston neighborhood said the other day; "Look, we are not broken people looking for help, we are whole people with real lives who are looking for friends and partners so we can have more quality of life, just like anyone else. If you want that too, we can work together."
Based on years of daily engagement with amazing people who live in a wide range of poor communities, we believe that distressed communities need a different kind of partner: one who focuses on creating the spaces and opportunities to reveal, generate and exchange the hidden value and capacity that already exists in people and place, and to connect those people and places to mainstream economic life. We call these interventions the new community marketplace. We believe that the range of "value" that can be optimized in place is broader than that found in the marketplaces of mainstream capitalism. In a human-scale marketplace there is the opportunity to create deep exchange in real time that goes beyond even local goods and services - to things like advice and support, services and favors, a kind word when we need it, to an extra hand, the benefit of doubt when we make a mistake. These things are the currency of effective community life.
The Agora; Community Building as Marketplace
By a new kind of marketplace, we mean a much more robust environment of daily exchanges of VALUE with one another and with those who live outside of their community. These daily exchanges will not occur on a wide spread basis if the driving force is simply a moral imperative to be nice to your neighbor or the urge to help someone less fortunate than yourself. The driving force must be the age old energy source of give and get - or value: “If I give this, I will get this”
Community building work is too often seen as the step child of community organizing or in some cases, informal or low impact social services. But the big loss we have experienced with the decline of our local institutions and with globalization, internet technology, mobility etc is the loss of many our community "marketplaces" - those spaces and moments where organic exchange takes place, and the habits of engaging in exchange in public life are cultivated. We feel that community building needs to focus on helping communities build the new kinds of 21st century infrastructure for, and habits of... connectivity and exchange. People need the opportunities - the moments and rooms - to engage in real time/real place exchange in order to realize the power of their aggregate value as a community.
Agora - the word for the ancient Greek marketplace - means the "gathering place" and is the root of two Greek words that mean "I shop" and "I Speak." The ancient marketplace is the place to be and the place to be seen.
The community marketplaces of the 21st century will not look like the ancient Agora, but our primary community building effort should be to replicate as closely as we can the essence of the ancient marketplace; a robust expression of local social commerce.
At Trusted Space we have begun to explore this idea with some hyper local experiments with partners around the country. In short, we help create - literally - a new room in community that feels fun, welcoming and full of opportunity the minute a new person walks into this room. In our view there are any number of "rooms" that can serve this function. One example is the "Weekly Marketplace", a regular gathering place for residents to meet, greet, exchange and converse. We host this new room in the same place on a weekly basis so there is no doubt in any one's mind about when and where it is happening. We keep the gathering very short - no longer than 90 minutes, including the enjoying of a simple dinner together - and use the exact same flow of events every time.
The keystone moment of the Marketplace is a 15 minute device that supports those who attend in making all kinds of exchanges with one another. No one is pressured to make an exchange and many chose to observe and learn from those who are making exchanges so that they can participate the next week. In the process of engaging in real exchange, we are also getting each other's stories, mining each other's networks and exploring various ways to connect.
The words and processes used in this device emphasize that everyone brings value and can get value from one another. There is no hidden hierarchy holding up the room. The function of the device squares exactly with the definition of a marketplace - the space and moment and apparatus whereby people can engage in fair exchange.
One final note about these "rooms" we keep talking about: While we love to find cool available spaces to use for residents to gather we mostly use inexpensive spaces available in a community center or a library. We even have experience using a building lobby for over two years to host a weekly marketplace! For many more details on how we set up and operate these marketplaces, see some of our recent blog posts on the Q Campaign in Boston.
We want to leave you with a recent story of finding hidden value within one of these struggling communities. Our new friend and colleague, Jackie , began coming to the weekly marketplace after one of our teammates approached her at a busy intersection in the community one day. She is 25 years old and a very low income, African American single mom with a young child. The first night she walked in, she seemed tentative and ragged around the edges. When you approached her, she didn't make eye contact and her child was bouncing all over the place, both aspects making it hard to hold a conversation with her over dinner. When it came time for what we refer to as the "mini-marketplace", she chose to pass and not make a request. She continued to elect to pass for several more weeks, but she kept showing up and she loved wearing the free t-shirt she had received in return for the conversation on the street. By her fourth week, she started to participate fully in the mini-marketplace, making both offers and requests.
She was particularly excited when one time, a white middle aged woman who lived outside the community asked for advice on how to stay connected to her older, alcoholic sister. Jackie's hand shot up to offer some specific advice around how to send e-cards on a weekly basis across the internet and shared that this strategy had worked for her in a similar situation.
In only a matter of a few months - with no additional "social intervention" - Jackie exhibits a full sense of belonging at the marketplace, showing up early and staying late to help set up and break down the weekly marketplace. She actively works to bring new people into the marketplace, people that she does not know but simply meets on the streets or in a line waiting for free food handouts. Recently, she facilitated the time in the evening when the mini-marketplace is explained to newcomers and she is now part of the group of resident 'marketplace hosts"who are working together to keep the marketplace going week after week.
There are, of course, many "Jackies" and typically, to outside "helping groups" and without a "marketplace" where Jackie's talents and abilities can be revealed, Jackie represents a bundle of needs entitled: "formerly homeless single mom in need of help." But on a weekly basis, we can all see specific value that Jackie brings to her community. And so can she.
Trusted Space Partners is a team of experienced community developers and designers who are supporting collaborative community change initiatives all over the United States.