Alternate Approaches

Mending America’s Torn Social Fabric

In a new network of ‘Common Security Clubs,’ activists are stitching together a challenge to Tea-Bagger rage — and the staggering inequality that breeds it.

By Sam Pizzigati

In closely knit communities, people care about each other and help each other, too. But healthy “social fabrics,” as the expression goes, can tear. Inequality can tear them. The wider the income gaps between us, the less we share in common, the less we care about those around us.

Over time, in a deeply unequal society, we come to feel almost totally on our own — and unprotected. Our society becomes a place where people don’t help each. They fear each other.

This past summer, many Americans saw that fear — in TV footage of angry protestors at congressional “town hall” meetings — and wondered whether our horribly divided society is sliding toward a future where hateful demagogues are essentially calling the shots.

But small bands of other Americans weren’t wondering and worrying. They were busily building an infrastructure for an alternate future. The building block for this infrastructure: the “Common Security Club.”

This Common Security Club organizing, after spending the last nine months pilot-testing and fine-tuning mobilizing materials and strategies, is now ratcheting up to a new and higher level of activity..

Local Common Security Clubs have already started up in over four dozen communities. The clubs typically bring from 15 to 20 people together for face-to-face sessions where they can grapple with their personal financial stresses, learn more about why our economy isn’t working, and explore what people can do, through mutual aid and shared action, to increase our economic security.

“It’s important we learn together,” says Chuck Collins, the director of the Institute for Policy Studies Program on Inequality and the Common Good and an organizer of the Common Security Club network. “We ceded too much power to the experts — and now it’s time for us to think for ourselves.”

Common Security Clubs are drawing participants from a variety of sources. Some have formed out of church congregations or union locals, others from neighborhoods.

To help all these groups get up and running, a small national staff, assembled by the Institute for Policy Studies and the Massachusetts-based Grassroots Policy Project, has prepared a facilitator’s manual and made all sorts of other resource materials available.

What are the clubs doing? Their efforts vary.

In the spirit of mutual aid, clubs are helping people deal with immediate personal crises — like foreclosures. They’re also raising issues around long-term family financial planning, through a club network partnership with Vicki Robin and Monique Tilford, co-authors of Your Money or Your Life, a widely respected program that helps people rethink how they relate to money matters.

These mutual-aid activities, says club organizer Andrée Collier Zaleska, are helping create “tremendous energy for local and community responses.”

But the clubs take that energy further.

“We can’t ignore,” says Zaleska, “how larger economic policy failures wrecked the economy — and the need for ordinary citizens to weigh in on the direction of future economic policy.”

Local Common Security Clubs are starting to do that weighing in. They’re campaigning, for instance, to beat back the Wall Street blitz against the proposed national Consumer Financial Protection Agency.

The club network currently extends from Massachusetts, where the first club formed in Boston, to Washington State, and the press is just beginning to take notice. Organizers see a steady expansion ahead. Want to learn more — and maybe start a Common Security Club within your neighborhood or organization? The Common Security Club Web site covers all the basics.

The current recession, club organizers note, will eventually fade. But the economic ground beneath us has shifted. We can’t return, they note, to the cheap energy and unlimited fossil fuels that used to “grow” our economy — and we don’t want to return to the “bubble” economics that grew our vast inequalities of income and wealth and triggered last fall’s crash.

“We need to prepare ourselves and our communities,” sums up organizer Chuck Collins, “for more fundamental changes and a new economic model.”

Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the online weekly on excess and inequality.

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