Are you living a prosperous life? Do you consider yourself a success? As the economy continues to struggle, many of us have reexamined our vision of what success looks like. We realize the American Dream is not lost, but it is changing. As homesteaders, we are well on our way to changing with it. And we are in the unique position of being able to help our communities flourish in this new American Dream as well.
The commonly agreed-upon idea of success is divisive. It builds false walls between us by encouraging competition rather than cooperation. It wants us to believe in the lie that there is a limited amount of success so we must, not only get what we want, but prevent others from getting what they want. The truth is, there is enough for all of us. Not only that, but as the prosperity of our community increases, ours does as well. In order to fully understand how this works we have to seriously think about what success is.
Economic success does not need to be at odds with physical, mental, and spiritual principles of prosperity. If I am successful at my job at the expense of my loved ones, I don’t consider that a success. If I make a lot of money at a job I find meaningless, I am not living the good life. If I have everything I need and want but am oblivious to, or worse, contributing to, the suffering of my neighbors, I am not prosperous. Four things are required to be successful and prosperous. First, personal relationships must take priority over possessions. Second, you must have meaningful work that you feel passionate about. Third, you must have access to opportunities. And fourth, you must participate in a vibrant, thriving community.
As homesteaders, we have created a life that is personally satisfying. Unfortunately, many in our communities feel trapped in a life that is difficult and unsatisfying. We model an alternative simply by living our life on our terms, according to our values. But there are other, more tangible, things we can do to help those in our communities create and live out their own definition of success.
You can call it the creative, the sharing, or the solidarity economy. Whatever you call it, it accomplishes all four of the requirements for success. It focuses on developing personal relationships over accumulating possessions. It values work, both yours and the work of others. It allows for limitless opportunities, and the means to act on them. And a vibrant, thriving community is the natural result.
The first and most important thing we can do is get to know the people in our community. It is easy to interact in the same small group you feel comfortable in but that is not nearly as fulfilling as having a wide, diverse group of friends. Remember, the goal is to help your community flourish and prosper. A community is only as prosperous as its least successful member. Many of the following ideas will start out as something you do with your immediate neighbors but if you are consistent about spreading the word and being welcoming, more and more of the community will become involved.
Lend and Borrow; Trade and Barter
Lending and borrowing is something we all do naturally. If a neighbor needs something and we have it, it is easy to share. Trading and bartering is a little more difficult at first but it is an easily learned skill and usually appreciated by both parties. The trick is not to become more willing to share what you have, but to start thinking of it as an economic choice. When you realize that you are making a conscious decision to lend, trade, or barter instead of buy, you become that much more self-sufficient. And you help your neighbors to do the same.
This is an expansion of the lending and trading principle. Tools, toys, gardening equipment, expensive kitchenware, and even vehicles can be time-shared. A group can pool money to make the initial purchase and charge a nominal usage fee to be used for maintenance. This can be as relaxed or as structured as your community feels comfortable with. TIME Magazine has called collective consumption one of the ten ideas that will change the world. Be a part of it!
Support Local Businesses
We hear about the importance of supporting local businesses all the time and, in theory, we agree. Sometimes it just seems so much more convenient to shop at Walmart where we can get everything on our list at one place. This is short-term thinking. In order to build a prosperous community, we need a long-range vision. Local businesses are owned and operated by people you know or need to know. They put everything they have into their business—financial resources, time, energy, and talent. You are not going to find a better skill set, better customer service, or a like-minded friend in the cashier at a supercenter. You may pay a little more, but you are always getting a better deal.
Research done by Puget Sound Sage has estimated a decrease of $13 million in economic output and a cost of approximately $14 million in lost wages in communities when a Walmart Supercenter opens its doors. Economic impact aside, when a supercenter puts local businesses out of business, the civic backbone of the community is weakened and there is the absence of strong leadership. We need to shop at locally-owned businesses and advertise those businesses both in and outside of our community.
In addition to supporting local businesses, we also need to meet and value the experts in our area who do not operate a commercial business. Many people have to go to a job that they hate but after-hours they have work that they love doing. Seek them out for advice, new ideas, and help. By valuing the work they find meaning in, you are supporting them and helping them place even more value in the work they love. Will they eventually quit the job they hate to do the work they love full-time? Who knows? Will being sought out for their expertise get them excited and feeling like a valued member of the community? Of course—and that is what we are going for.
Timebanking is an alternative to a strictly monetary economic system. It bases its value on units of time rather than an exchange of goods or cash. It is similar to trading and bartering except you are paying with your time. Every participating member is alloted a certain number of hours. Every hour is of equal value. When someone provides a product or a service to someone else they receive a credit to their account. The recipient gets a debit. The amount of hours charged is the actual number of hours it took to create the product or provide the service. It is not based on market value. Timebanks offer equal opportunity to get what you need, to participate in providing services and products to your community, and it places importance on types of work that have traditionally been devalued such as child or elder care, food preparation, and manual labor.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention have identified six ways community gardens improve physical- and mental-health benefits to those participating:
- eating healthy fruits and vegetables
- engage in physical activity and skill-building
- beautify vacant lots
- revitalize communities
- revive and beautify public parks
- decrease violence in some neighborhoods and strengthen social connections
Everyone has the right to eat fresh and nutritious food but not everyone has the space, time, equipment, or knowledge to grow their own produce. A community garden solves this problem while giving people the opportunity to meet and work together on a regular basis for the common good.
There is a lot of information online about how to start and manage a community garden. You can also contact your local extension office.
Much like a community garden, a community kitchen is a place where the workload is shared and advice is freely given. To those who have never preserved foods, it seems like a dangerous and daunting task. Canning food next to someone who has been doing it successfully for years makes you feel like you probably won’t give the gift of botulism to friends and family. Likewise, preparing for a school or church bake-sale or hosting a holiday cookie-swap is a breeze when you are working with others.
Community kitchens are a great place to learn about new techniques and ingredients. Local chefs are usually excited about promoting their restaurant by hosting a cooking class or series. The foodies in your area will love to share what they know about the newest ingredients on the food scene.
Community centers are often willing to rent out their kitchen facilities for a small fee. Local churches do the same, often waiving the fee for a community-sponsored event.
Whether your children attend public, private, or are homeschooled, education is important for future success. Every parent—as well as everyone in the extended family—is good at something. Encourage the family members of each child attending to lead a workshop on something they are interested in and create a rotating list of classes. Make sure classes are held when the maximum number of families can participate.
Locally-owned businesses are great places for educational field trips. You will build stronger connections with your neighbors and their children. You will not only learn where your community experts are but you will learn things you never thought you needed to know—but are glad you do!
Children aren’t the only ones who benefit from learning something new. The OHSU Department of Neurology has reported two new findings about the adult brain. First, the brain continues to develop and grow your entire life. Second, outside stimuli is mainly responsible for the growth and development of the adult brain. In order to improve brain function, OHSU suggests three things. First, socialize with your old friends and make new friends. Second, experience new things. Your brain builds new pathways every time you learn something new. Third, excel skills you already have and develop new ones.
Once again, take advantage of the experts and enthusiasts in your community. You never know what you might gain. Years ago, I took a knitting class with some women in my neighborhood. Although I haven’t graduated from a basic scarf, I am still close friends with many of the women I met in that class.
We have been led to believe success is a cutthroat business. The truth is, there is an alternative. We can meet and care for our neighbors. We can start working together. We can cheer each other on and celebrate everyone’s successes. We can learn to live with less and share what we have. We can make people more important than things. We can make it easier for everyone to meet their basic needs and live in a dignified manner. We can understand there is no greater success than living life one your terms. Every choice we make about how we live our lives contributes or detracts from the success of our individual and community lives. Let’s make good ones.