Can We Un-Skew Resource Distribution?

Including attention to power differences in systems for distributing money.

Posted Mar 27, 2019

In August 2019, at the end of one of the Nonviolent Global Liberation (NGL) retreats, the retreat team sat in the center of the circle and began to engage in a fully transparent process for distributing the money that people who participated contributed. I have now participated in such processes perhaps a dozen times. Each time I have experienced and witnessed new learning, new depth, new shifts.

I am writing this post as part of the digestion of what happened in August. I am focusing here specifically on understanding and integrating the experiences of people who were concerned about what happened. Besides the general desire to learn and grow in these practices, most of the people I heard expressing concerns have low income, come from low-income backgrounds, and/or are people of color. This tends to mean that there is something I am not seeing because of my position of privilege, making it particularly important to me to learn from feedback.

Source: OpenClipart-Vectors/Pixabay

On a recent Questioning Money call, in a conversation with Liz Okrent, one of the people who had these concerns, the penny finally dropped. I saw the connection between those concerns and what I had already written and thought about for years in the different and similar contexts of mediation and of setting up systems and processes for feedback. In all three contexts, the highest level of describing how the process works is that all the relevant needs are put on the table, and a solution emerges that everyone can embrace. In all three contexts, the presence of power differences, if not engaged with directly and well, will often recreate the structures of society that sustain the power differences. 

The most pointed way of saying it, and what I want to question in this piece, is this: If we aim for the vision of holding everyone’s needs fully and do so by inviting all parties to express their needs and hear each other’s needs, without something beyond that invitation, we end up with the needs of the powerful taking precedence. This is likely to happen in any situation, large or small, that aims to be based on needs. This “something" is elusive, in large part, because we are interdependent beings immersed in a field of collective history affecting us differently, with trauma woven into every interaction. 

I find it immensely painful to hold this truth, and still vitally significant to express it, even knowing that many people will take issue with what I am saying. I so want it to not be true; I so want it to be the case that we can all jump-start ourselves into the possible, imaginary future in which needs “count” and we all care about all of them. And we rarely have that ability. Instead, statistically (though not so for each individual, of course), the more access to resources we already have, the more likely we are to put our needs on the table, to have others’ needs and our impact on them be invisible to us, and to have less capacity to hear and take them in when they are expressed. Our perspectives, our needs, our comfort, and our ideas tend to dominate, both globally and in interpersonal contexts. The less access to resources we have, conversely, the more likely we are to be adaptable to circumstances, by necessity, and the more we know that the world is tilted in service to others and that we are less likely to be heard, and so we are less likely to put our needs on the table. Also, sadly, the more likely we are to have internalized shame and self-doubt that also prevent us from taking our place fully. 

Even the norms of speech of many processes replicate the norms of the dominant groups. For example, taking turns is a cultural norm, not a universally helpful way to manage process. Similarly, keeping emotions toned down, another norm in many public settings in the global north, reinforces the comfort of those whose norm it is, while creating extra stress for those who come from cultural contexts in which emotional expressions are more welcome. 

Who Benefits?

The net result is that, when we aim to distribute money among people who sit in different social locations and relationships to each other’s power, the money is likely to flow more towards those who already have more—unless much care and consciousness are brought into the mix. 

Source: thommas68 on Pixabay

The issue starts with what counts as need. Here’s an analogy that might help, based on a science experiment done with small children. After putting one hand in very warm water and the other in cold water for a few minutes, both hands are placed in a medium, room temperature. The hand that was in the warm water feels cold, and the one that was in the cold water feels warm, and they are both in the exact same temperature. 

Similarly, when we are used to a level of access to resources that allows for comforts that many do not experience, that is “normal” for us, and having less access would easily feel strenuous. Conversely, if we are used to hardship, that, too, feels “normal,” even if we don’t like it. And thus it is that when the question is put to all of us to consider what we need for sustainability, we already arrive at this exploration skewed. This is part of what continues to benefit the ones with more resources even when there is no intention to do so. 

The people who were raised and are habituated to having resources are used to that, and continuing their habits feels like “need.” At the same time, they tend to have more capacity to advocate for themselves. Conversely, people who were raised without resources, know how to stretch a dollar. They have a hard-earned capacity to sustain themselves on far less. And even to the extent that they are aware of a need, they feel less entitled to ask. 

This understanding helps sharpen the depth and intensity of the context of Liz’s question, which was a poignant entryway into the dilemma: “How to be in integrity with ourselves, and also to encourage others to do the same kind of inventory [of needs and resources]? How to be comfortable with accepting less when we’re in an active situation where we’re witnessing people go without.”

Finitude and Scarcity

We live in a world of finite resources. The old image of growing the pie so there’s more for the poor without there being less for the rich is simply an illusion. It’s exceedingly difficult to integrate this reality into the legacy of the Western branch of patriarchy with its built-in hubris about subduing and controlling nature for the benefit of humans or, more recently, its banking on endless economic growth as a way to solve all problems.

Gustavo Di Nucci/CC0 Public Domain
Source: Gustavo Di Nucci/CC0 Public Domain

Part of why it’s so challenging, I imagine, is because so often we conflate finitude with scarcity, and thus fear, instinctively, that acknowledging limits will mean condemning us to endless war. As I see it, however, finitude is a fact of life, while scarcity is a relationship. By making, together, all the decisions about how to distribute the available resources to the existing needs, scarcity is sidestepped, and finitude then tends to result in creativity, mourning losses together, or both. 

However, with the level of separation and powerlessness that are built into all patriarchal cultures (which is almost the entire world), it’s next to impossible for many to step into the shared holding of the puzzle. Instead, each person is alone, immersed within their coping strategies in response to the implicit, and likely unconscious, anxiety about scarcity. 

We need to come together much more if we are going to increase our capacity to hold, together, a complex situation of limited resources that cannot possibly address all the known needs. How to do that is something we will need to re-discover, re-invent, re-create, because many of us have lost it generations ago.

This calls for systems based on mechanisms, processes, and agreements with this orientation built into them, so the shift doesn’t depend only on individual will. This is one way in which I believe mutual influencing—the naturally occurring co-adaptation to needs and perspectives of others towards a shared outcome—can happen more reliably and move toward including an un-skewed version of everyone’s needs. 

This is also the reason for including attention to power differences in system building and in any process that is based on putting needs at the center. 

Experimenting: Naming, Mourning, and Stretching

I want to continue to learn how we can collectively create conditions that support people to stretch productively so that the needs, perspectives, ideas, and concerns of the less powerful are also included in the outcome. When it comes to distribution of resources, the obstacles are huge. At the same time, creating “rules” that overcome the obstacles runs the risk that the actual shared holding will not advance even if some outcomes, superficially, are more redistributive than they might have been. I don’t want to settle for either maintaining the open flow of a needs-based process and continuing to reinforce skewed outcomes or creating rigidities that will delay or prevent the flow so as to redirect resources toward people who have been systemically excluded from access to them. Liz’s question remains potent: What, if anything, can we do so that such redistribution would happen through voluntary and full engagement? 

Given that we don’t know, there is no way around a willingness to experiment even if we get it “wrong.” That, in itself, is a small exit from the patriarchal world of obedience, towards restoring the ability every unharmed child has to make stuff up, play, and try things out. 

Within the context of needs-based money distribution processes, are there specific mechanisms that can be added so that this implicit skewing can be undone, without interfering with the depth of mutual influencing and togetherness that the process rests on? Conversely, is there really ever full mutual influencing and togetherness while this implicit skewing is present, particularly when this is visible to those against whom the process is skewed and not to those who benefit from it?

As I was beginning to feel overwhelmed and a wave of grief in the face of the enormity of the issue, Liz pointed the way. Instead of figuring out what to do, togetherness is better supported, she said, by “naming and mourning. Because the trick is that you can’t really un-skew it. But you can … begin to unravel or reveal what is really happening—individually and systemically.” Liz reminded me that naming and acknowledging, as specifically as we can, all of the impacts of collective history that affect what we are doing (that we are aware of) can help create more space for everyone. Liz’s framing pulled me along, opening up my own imagination, and I remembered the many other, similar contexts, in which I or others name phenomena, mourn them with people, and then invite all of us to stretch in the direction of what we want to see in the world. 

How do we begin to name and mourn this pervasive phenomenon that is such a major obstacle to the shift we want to create, without giving in to it, and how do we support stretching toward what we want to create without forcing a change that exceeds willingness and capacity? And how do we minimize the risk of reinforcing trauma and separation as we experiment? (Based on the conversation with Liz, and further exchanges in writing, I now see that even the act of naming will tend to reinforce separation, when the categories we have for this naming, without which the phenomena can’t be made visible, are themselves created by separation. I now want to remember to name and mourn that, too.) 

In the context of money, stretching of this kind is complicated by the fact that even though some people may have more ease in asking, very few of us actually have ease in asking for what we need, especially materially, and especially when resources are limited. 

Engaging with Shame

The reason for this difficulty in asking is that everything related to money and material needs is filtered through the lens of earning, deserving, merit, and fairness—all concepts deeply rooted in patriarchal scarcity and separation. For any of us to choose to put ourselves in the process and choose to take or accept money presupposes that we have convinced ourselves that we deserve to be part of it. This difficulty is across the board. I have met few if any people who have never had shame about money, whether about having it or about not having it.

One of my errors in how I had engaged with the distribution of money is that I invited people into a process that, in order to fully succeed, rests on our collective capacity to exit patriarchal norms, without any preparation for it and without shared ownership of the process and its design by all involved. Though others on the team agreed to it, I brought in the process we used, developed in other contexts with different people (largely through experiments I initiated in other retreats, which, in recent years, have been influenced heavily by conversations with Dominic Barter about processes developed by him and others, mainly in Brazil). I also made the decision for others whether or not they would be part of the process instead of working out the criteria systemically and then inviting others to discern for themselves. Twice now, this latter has resulted in pain for some people who were not invited, and confusion for others who were. So many questions are still open, and the pain created in these experiments is raw and unfamiliar, which makes it look, sometimes, like it’s “worse” than the horrors of current distribution systems. Would this have been different if more of those participating had helped to shape the process and there was more of a shared sense of ownership of it? And how might we, systemically, create sufficient support for shame not to run the show? 

I am not done learning. This is all work in progress. In the online NGL community, a group of us has been grappling with creating resource flow instead of exchange, and we’ve already started taking steps to integrate some of the learning I’m grappling with here. Just having a “we” that is experimenting instead of an “I” is a powerful shift for me personally. It also is part of the overall aim for co-creation that NGL rests on. Having an open way for anyone in the community to participate in designing the system means more possibility for shared ownership, more creativity and capacity, and more power overall within the system. (As I see it, unlike what we have been told, power is not finite; it grows as more ways for embodying and expressing power become available.) 

And then there is what we have done, which also feels significant. We invite anyone to step into the process by naming their sustainability needs. We have been giving people guidance on how to walk their way through deciding when to step in instead of deciding for them. We are beginning to look at what to do at the retreats that will support people to self-select with progressively more accuracy over time in terms of who is part of the process. 

The shame doesn’t end with just choosing to enter the process. Which is why I was so excited when the conversation with Liz turned into thinking about how to complement the self-selection with other preparation activities. I brought that conversation back to the resource flow team within NGL, and we are beginning to look at what we can do during retreats to increase all of our capacity to dialogue about money beyond the shame built into our exchange-based habits. I anticipate coming back here and sharing the results in future posts. Finding our way to engage despite and through shame is a fast-track towards liberation for all of us.

As Liz reminded me, the key to movement is continuing to engage, experiment, and focus on what would support our growing capacity to know what we need, to ask when possible, and to be willing to receive it even if we didn’t ask. To that, I add: Given the immense challenge that this area of human life presents, it seems vital to me to affirm and celebrate experiments that go counter to the mainstream norms, even when the results are mixed, so that there will be enough collective energy to keep experimenting.

In addition, the process of capacity-building requires accompaniment. We can’t do this alone. At this moment, I am excited to share work in progress and to invite you into the depth of the process. Specifically, in comments, I hope some of you will propose questions that can be included ahead of the process to support everyone in being more present, open, willing, and able to engage despite the conditioning of patriarchy and despite the ways that structured power differences interfere with the flow of resources. My burning hope, as always, is that together we can find more of our collective capacity to co-create a piece of a future that can, once again, sustain us and all life.