Interdependence in Ecological and Economic Systems

July 30, 2014

This CEO letter was originally published in the Summer 2014 RSF Quarterly.

Dear Friends,

The word economy comes from the Greek oikonomia, meaning household management. When thinking of our economy, now on a global scale, how should we define that household? Our current financial system (a subset of economic life) favors a narrow view focusing on the individual and more specifically, the individual with resources. But if we open our perspective, we can see that view expand—the household is our homes, our communities, and the planet that houses us all.

Indigenous wisdom has always been ahead of the dominant paradigm in this regard. Indigenous knowledge evolved from observation of and participation with the natural world. This wisdom holds that humankind meets needs by working with nature and honoring the earth and its systems. This approach recognizes something that has been lost in our economic life—the idea that all is interrelated. People and planet. Earth and economy. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t make sense to have a zero sum game in which some win (at the expense of others) and the rest lose.

Here is an example of the opposite: We recently made a grant to The Pollination Project, which makes $1,000 seed grants to individual change-makers. Grants to for-profit ventures are made as zero-interest pay-it-forward loans. Recipients are expected to pay loans back in 24 months, and payment is received in the form of a new loan to another qualified Pollination Project applicant, chosen by the original borrower. This pay-it-forward model is a practical example of working with money in a way that honors interdependence, community, and trust and that values mutual benefit—when one wins, so can all.

Interdependence and community are inherent to how we approach finance at RSF. We have a vested stake in the success of all our stakeholders and we recognize that success for all of us is contingent upon regenerating and preserving the earth’s ecosystems. Financing organizations that are a part of the regenerative cycle is also a part of regenerating the economy that holds the human being as the center. This is one more reflection of what it means to transform the way the world works with money.

All my best,

Don Shaffer

President & CEO

Gift Finance in the Ecological Age – Part I

June 5, 2014

This article was originally published in the Spring 2014 RSF Quarterly.

Charles Eisenstein Headshotby Charles Eisenstein

Ever since the statistic we call GDP was invented in the 1930s, economists and politicians have used it as a proxy for the public good. It seems reasonable: the more goods and services being bought, the more everyone has—more cars, bigger houses, more music, and more conveniences. As GDP rises, life gets richer and richer.

In this context, ethical investing is more or less congruent with conventional investing. A high return means that your capital has successfully contributed to the expansion of the economy. You have contributed to the production of more salable goods and services. Fundamentally, this is the logic underlying neo-liberal economic policies: governments should do what they can to further the efficient functioning of markets, so that capital is free to flow toward the highest return. It is also the reasoning behind Gordon Gecko’s famous maxim, “Greed is good.”

Today this ideology is crumbling. Of course, some profitable investments also benefit society and the planet. But in general, the growth of GDP—and the source of profits— is coming from the depletion of the biosphere, the commoditization of “developing” societies, fracking, stripmining, deforestation, and more subtly, the conversion of the gift relationships that form communities into monetary transactional relationships.

Moreover, as even these sources of profit dry up, the highest returns are to be found not in creating new wealth, but in stripping it from the productive economy through financialization. The last six years have seen huge profits in transferring wealth from the middle class, homeowners, nations, and manufacturers through debt-pressure and the financialization of assets.

In the past, socially responsible investors could have it both ways: they could avoid the most obviously harmful investments, and still earn a decent rate of return. That is becoming impossible, for two reasons. First, as the prevailing rate of return on capital stagnates or falls, the economic system as a whole comes under increasing pressure to exploit whatever profit opportunities remain, even if they come at grievous human and environmental cost. So for example, as supplies of safely obtainable oil and gas dwindle, we are pushed toward fracking and off-shore drilling. Another example can be found in the downward pressure on wages and environmental standards.

Secondly, socially responsible investors themselves are awakening to the interconnection of all things. They now see the delusion of cordoning off some subset of investments and pretending that they don’t contribute to an overall economic system that is inherently destructive. For example, maybe you vow not to invest in fossil-fuel energy companies, or in any company that is clearcutting and stripmining in South America. OK then, how about the banks that finance these activities? How about the manufacturers that use the stripmined minerals? That would include the entire tech sector. You might stay away from companies that employ sweatshop labor abroad or minimum-wage labor at home – but what about companies that contract with these companies? Ultimately, it is nearly impossible to make profits without participating in a system of social injustice and ecocide.

But that doesn’t mean you should withdraw from the system and bury your money under the apple tree. That won’t help anyone. The point is not to avoid the taint of complicity, but rather to align money with values. What we need is a shift in how “investment” is conceived.

Click here for Part II

Charles Eisenstein is a speaker and writer focusing on themes of human culture and identity. He is the author of several books, most recently Sacred Economics and The More Beautiful World our Hearts Know is Possible. His background includes a degree in mathematics and philosophy from Yale, a decade in Taiwan as a translator, and stints as a college instructor, a yoga teacher, and a construction worker. He currently writes and speaks full-time. He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and four children.

A Culture of Gifting

May 22, 2014

Originally published in the San Francisco Waldorf School Alumni Newsletter

There are three indications of real generosity:

To remain steadfast without resisting,

To praise without the emotion of generosity,

And, to give before being asked.

—Maaruf Karkhi

John Bloom by Katie Teague copyby John Bloom

There is no community without gift and gifting. The acts themselves may not be visible, they may not have names, they may elude materiality, and yet, and yet, we depend on them for our very existence as givers and receivers. Warmth, recognition, love, care, and sometimes money—these are the bearers of our deepest feelings, longings and needs. Wait, did I miss something? What is money doing in that list? On one hand, money is the necessary evil everyone needs and no one likes to talk about. On the other, money is the emblem of modern mysteries, meaningful through circulation, in movement that defines our relationships, our values, our needs and priorities—that is our economic self.

But not all money is the same. A dollar bill can be differentiated not in how it looks, but in how it is used. You need only ask yourself how you experience the money and the transaction when: a) you need to buy something; b) when someone asks you to lend it to them; c) and when you decide to make a gift or someone asks you for one. It is this last that is the hardest to grasp because we are so wired to be consumers, to engage in the exchange of commodities and services. We are conditioned to think of these transactions as the primary drivers of economic life. They are definitely connected to the generation of wealth—no question about it. Virtually every economics textbook would confirm this. But the fundamental assumption in this view is the primacy of self-interest, which is a myth, highly problematic, and one of the key reasons we are where we are in our economy today, regardless of how you might feel about it.

My reflection on the Karkhi quote is that it epitomizes a sense of service to others, and further that we are part of, and not greater than, the community of relationships in which we are embedded. I would propose that if we are going to rid ourselves of the myth of self-interest and the social damage that seems to accompany it, and move instead into a recognition of our real interdependence, then our greatest leverage point for change is through gift and gifting. That is gifting understood as coming from our capacity to recognize the importance of others’ destiny paths both for us and the world at large. That is a lot to say in short form. But, it names the essence of gift and gifting. It names why and how we actually support each other’s success. It names how lasting value is created through the continual passage and transformation of a gift. Here is a personal example. I had wonderful teachers and parents growing up. They took good care of me, provided form and discipline and support even for mistakes. I received these as gifts, continued to work on them and on myself, to discover my own gifts, so that I could put those gifts, such as they are, in service to others. This is no thing, nothing, that could be bought or loaned. In some ways, a gift of money works in the same way. For example, a gift goes to build a building, many children are educated in it over the years, many of them will change the world. Was the gift the bricks and mortar, or was the gift what the building makes possible into the future. Well, the gift purchased the construction—that is to say it was transformed into purchase—but the value of the gift actually lives on long after the purchase. Such is one mystery of money.

There is no community without gift, and without community there is no economic life. We actually depend upon each other, whether it is those who make the clothes we wear, the car we drive, or the school we choose. And others are depending upon us to contribute our capacities. While we may “earn a living” through those capacities, what we earn does not constitute a life. Rather it is what we care about and value that bring meaning to life. Money is but one thread in this story; hopefully as we use it in alignment with our values, it becomes meaningful through what it makes possible. Gift, despite what the textbooks might say, whether in the form of love or money, is the first grace in economic life. In its purest form it is a liberator of human inspiration and capacity. And gifting bears the future for community life, it is the key to regeneration, to education, to wellbeing and sustainability.

John Bloom is Senior Director of Organizational Culture at RSF Social Finance.

30 Years of RSF Social Finance

April 7, 2014


RSF_30th_purpleWe are thrilled to kick off our 30th anniversary celebration this month with the latest RSF Quarterly, which reflects on RSF’s transformation since 1984. Read insights from John Bloom, RSF’s Senior Director of Organizational Culture, on what it means to be inspired by the work of Rudolf Steiner and how we remain committed to transformation. Guest essayist and author Charles Eisenstein expounds on investing in the ecological age and how such investment could be rethought of as gift. RSF community members share how they’ve transformed the way they work with money. Also, take a look at how we have grown over the last 30 years in a History of RSF timeline.

We would like to thank all of our clients, partners, and friends who have been a part of reaching this exciting milestone as a leader in the growing field of social finance. Keep an eye out for more 30th celebration news, here, on the Reimagine Money blog.

To download an electronic copy of the Quarterly, click here.

Seed Fund Grantee Highlight: Sustainable Economies Law Center

February 25, 2014

by Alex Haber

Building the next economy will take work in many sectors. RSF focuses on work with investors, donors, and entrepreneurs to build the direct, transparent relationships necessary to make economic renewal a reality. But as all these groups move their money and conduct their business with deep values, ossified legal structures will have to adapt and become more flexible to meet the needs of new economic relationships.

Sustainable Economies Law Center 1RSF Seed Fund grantee, Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC), works precisely at this intersection. SELC provides essential legal tools – education, research, advice, and advocacy – to support a transition to local, resilient economies. It focuses in many areas, including cooperatives, community-owned enterprises, co-housing, urban agriculture, barter, and local currencies.

Last year, SELC received a grant from the Seed Fund to support a new project that helps farmers interested in sustaining and growing their businesses through community-based or crowd-sourced financing methods. These methods allow local, small-scale investors to become financial stakeholders in an enterprise, and allow enterprises to seek capital from friends, family, and community members instead of high net-worth individuals or banks. With RSF’s funding, SELC was able to run an outreach campaign and application process for this new service to assess interest among farmers, and the response was very strong.

South Central Farmers 1One of the most promising candidates was the South Central Farmers’ Cooperative (SCF), a worker-owned farm in California’s Central Valley. The coop grew around South Central Farm, a former fourteen-acre urban farm in South Central Los Angeles. After ten years of cultivating the land and building the community around it, the farmers were evicted in 2004 when the plot was slated for development. This eviction led to significant protests and civil disobedience, as well as an Academy Award nominated documentary, The Garden.

Since then, the South Central Farmers have been cultivating land in the Central Valley, and are currently looking to expand and help start other worker-owned farms. In order to do this, and to avoid the threat of eviction, SCF is looking to form a non-profit organization that could purchase land it could lease to worker-owned agricultural cooperatives, and to finance these land purchases through a public offering, so small investors, potentially from all over the state, could invest in these farms.

South Central Farmers 3

SELC and SCF hope to continue working together on this project as it evolves, and SELC is looking for funding to continue the work and develop a how-to guide for other farms interested in community-based and crowd-sourced funding.

Click here to learn more about how you can get involved with the Seed Fund to support great organizations like Sustainable Economies Law Center.

Alex Haber is Program Manager of Philanthropic Services

Heart’s Guidance: An Economic Imagination, Part II

January 21, 2014

Click here for Part I

by John Bloom

As an organ, the human heart plays leading role in maintaining human life forces. And, it works in a fully integrated system. It is an arbiter between the intense circulatory exchange in the fine capillaries at the extremities and need for constant vortical movement as the blood moves through the heart’s chambers. Blood, exhausted after delivering its nutrients along the way to the periphery, returns to the heart-lung center to be revitalized—a systolic, diastolic rhythm of constant exchange. There is no part of the human organism that is not permeated through circulation, and just about any stoppage in that circulation has significant health consequences. I am certainly not the first to use the circulation of blood as simile for the circulation of money. This is an illuminating but partial picture. Circulation is meaningless without the management capacities of the heart, its sensitivity to our inner and outer-facing nerve-sense system, and the forces of our metabolic system. Simply put, the heart embodies interdependence, serves as guide and guardian, harmonizer for human life, and thus supports our capacities to think and act. This complete and unalterable interdependence has much to tell us about economic life.

How the heart models service is in stark contrast to dominance of self-interest, a concept intractably nestled in the modern evolution of economic thinking. Self-interest as currently fostered and practiced has become debased from the moral, and I would say religious, framework that says that it is in your self-interest to be interested in and help others. As economic experience has become ever-more embedded in the materialism and consumerism of the marketplace, interest in the other has converted into competitive fear of the other. Money is the measure of man; thus, I am better the more I can extract from the system for myself. This is a powerfully destructive thought.

It is fascinating to me to consider that the heart is naturally moral. It does not deny one part of the body over another unless it needs to allocate healing resources for an interim period. It does not judge, it simply recognizes need and responds. It seeks sufficiency, and its actions are all guided by the impulse to restore balance—all for the purposes of circulation and meeting the needs of the whole throughout a very diverse organic system. Many natural systems are like this. Nature is moral, but somehow we have allowed the anti-social power of money to corrupt this moral element in human nature. It doesn’t feel right. Just as self-interest gives the lie to how truly interdependent we are, money supports the illusion of independence and serves as a measure of fittest in the Darwinian notion of survival. If the money was won through competition, what was lost along the way? These are not propositions of the heart. They are propositions of the head; rationalizations for historical patterns, and cynically, justifications for essentially immoral behavior in the financial marketplace. The heart does not speculate, it anticipates and regulates, not as an exercise in control, but rather in service to the whole.

So what is capital, and how does it serve in the heart imagination? One could say that capital is the materialization of spirit, spirit brought into matter through economic activity. This may seem a stretch, but consider the following. Economic life evolves from the work it takes to transform natural resources into practical goods. Of course, the transformation is not magical, rather it is often hard won through trial and error, through the application of physical and mental creative powers. The invention and evolution of the plow, or any machine for that matter, demonstrates the additive, transformative power of applied consciousness across generations and geography. A second development is how these powers are harnessed and organized for efficiency and production through the further application of intelligence. This applied intelligence in combination with the production of goods and services is what gives rise to capital.* Capital is to the economic realm what intelligence is to the individual. Since intelligence is not material, that is, it has no physical substance, it is by its nature non-objective. Its value appears as practical activity in the world. Capital is spiritual, while its value, its measure, derives from its application at a specific time and place.

The role of capital in the heart economy is like that of oxygen to the human heart. Oxygen is carried through the blood even as that stream is also collecting the carbon dioxide waste, which it returns to the world through breath. This self-regenerative system is the key to the imagination of a heart-centered economy.

I offer this imagination as a starting point for changing how we think about and live our economic life through our daily transactions. Can we see that we are part of a great circulation? Can we see that we are part of both the destruction and regeneration of natural systems, and that in our economic world we are never separate from each other, from wealth or poverty of resources, even though we have been conditioned to think that way? If, in our own body system, we were to establish “political” boundaries and protect them as we do, we would die an instant death. Boundaries are important, just as cell membranes are important. They are permeable; they protect, and contain, but in the end it is the circulation that is the most vital. And it is the workings of human heart, the servant of the circulatory system that demonstrates the wisdom we need to transform money, the financial system, and economic life. Not only by, but also from the heart we can learn how the world can support our lives as we work consciously to support others’.

* This essay is inspired by Rudolf Steiner’s insights into economics. In his 1922 lecture cycle, now published under the title Rethinking Economics: Lectures and Seminars on World Economics, he goes into great depth on how these two essential capacities, labor and intelligence, create value.

John Bloom is Senior Director of Organizational Culture at RSF Social Finance.

Heart’s Guidance: An Economic Imagination, Part I

January 16, 2014

by John Bloom

The mind thinks it loves; the heart loves before the thought.

In our current stage of materialist economy, we are entranced with capital and disconnected from our hearts. This discord is a result of the inherent nature of capital, so centered as it is in the head, as the origin of the word indicates. In the visible world discord looks like a widening gap between wealth and poverty, and in the inner world like a disintegration of beliefs, values, and behavioral decisions. Make no mistake, we need capital in one form or another, and we need those who work with capital to be in the world in a way that values each human being and supports the regeneration of nature. This inner integrity might then begin to heal social and ecological wounds.

So, how might the imagination of economic life change from where we currently are— dependence on growth that is heading toward the demise of nature and increased suffering—to one that is instead life affirming and regenerative? The purpose of this essay is to focus on a guiding framework for systemic change. Real change never happens without a guiding imagination.

Let’s start with the basics. As I remember, the things that I needed to know or commit to memory, I learned by heart—a poem, a lifeline phone number, a lover’s birthday. I suspect this is true for others as well, though ever-present reference technology has helped us grow lazy about such matters. Long before textbooks, encyclopedias, and wikipedias, the heart is what we had by way of stored knowledge, even while it was the head’s task to process that knowledge. Thus, consciousness has been as much if not more a product of the heart than of the head, though modern industrial culture has come to prize intellect over character. We have learned how to perceive and transform nature, while also learning from each other in order to survive as individuals and in communities.

As we evolved, our relationships were practical as well as spiritual; that is to say that trust catalyzed community action, whether the trust was a result of blood connection or common cause. Each individual discovers and develops her or his own capacities or gifts. And, it is when those capacities begin to serve both self and others that the glimmerings of economic life emerge. Fast forward and you get the industrialized version of economic efficiencies in the division of labor. When I am contributing my capacities and in return receiving what I need back from the community, I feel engaged, recognized, and valued—supported both materially and through a sense of fulfillment. While this is a somewhat simplistic framing, I believe this feeling is one desired not only by me, but also by a significant number of individuals open to reflecting on the nature of vocation and economic life.

What I am describing is a heart-centered economy, one motivated by continuous circulation, connection, caring, and cognizant of each person’s dignity and destiny. And most important, an economy in which the rediscovery of trust becomes the vital element supporting the circulation and regeneration of resources as common, co-produced wealth, including but certainly not limited to money. After all, money emerged primarily as an economic convenience, as a portable way to store value. By agreement its value was established through the exchange of goods and services. It was a means. But, as money has become more a valued commodity in and of itself, it has been disconnected from its purpose of accounting for economic flow, disconnected from real needs and human activity. In this sense, the more money is valued as an accumulated object attached to an individual, the more anti-social it becomes. In contrast, economics is deeply social as we are fully dependent upon one another’s capacities to meet our material needs.

Click here for Part II

John Bloom is Senior Director of Organizational Culture at RSF Social Finance.

Economics for the Seventh Generation – Part II

November 1, 2013

This essay was originally published in the Fall 2013 RSF Quarterly

Click here for Part I

Winona LaDuke by Winona LaDuke

We did a study on the White Earth Reservation in 2008 where we interviewed about 200 households, and asked people where they shopped, when they did. We found that our community spent around eight million dollars a year on food purchases for households and tribal programs.  Seven million of those dollars went off reservation to companies like Walmart, Food Service of America, and Sysco. On top of that, the money we spent on reservation was largely sucked up by convenience stores, where we purchased really cool stuff like pop, chips, microwavable pizzas, and baked goods.

So, what are the consequences of this?

First, we end up with a hole in our economy, the size of seven million dollars. This is a drain, well, actually a hemorrhage to be honest. The figure represents about a quarter of a tribal economy.  Add to that the fact that we do the same thing with energy, representing another quarter of our economy exported, and furthermore a health services budget, which is, frankly, fed on dietary related illnesses (one-third of the Indian Health Service client population has diabetes). The hemorrhage grows. This situation means that we don’t have the local value multiplier effect, and we have little to no control over capital or the circulation of money in our community. The circumstances become worse as prices rise for the food we have to bring in. After all, that food has to move on average 1500 miles from farmer to table, and requires a whole bunch of oil from fertilizer additives to packaging.  This results in more and more food insecurity, energy insecurity, and health insecurity.  And, more climate change—maybe a quarter of the climate change is associated with unsustainable agriculture.

So, what is the solution?

This is the happy part. It turns out that our ancestors and my father had it right. My father used to say to me, “Winona, I don’t want to hear your philosophy, if you can’t grow corn.”  Now that’s an interesting thing to say to your child.   Well, I thought about it, and thought about it some more. And then, I decided to grow corn. Along the way, I became an economist who wanted to look at the systems that support sovereignty and self-determination, namely our economic system.

This is how it is playing out. Take my house for example. We’re an extended family of ten or so people at various times. This is a two deer, one pig, 100 hundred fish, ten duck household.  This is complemented by 300 pounds of wild rice and corn, 200 pounds of potatoes, berries, maple syrup, squash, and a lot of canned goods.  We grow, harvest, and trade this.  I don’t grow potatoes because I know someone who grows them way better than I do. And, I don’t mess with chickens because the Amish are good at that.

Now, this means a lot of hard work. But, it also means I can keep my waistline somewhere I might be able to find it, on a good day.  It turns out, these foods are roughly twice as high in protein, and two to three times more nutritious than anything you can get at the store. This has, in short, immense positive health implications.

Now apply that to 9,000 tribal members hanging around White Earth, and you’ve got a bustling local economy, if you work it right. Our plan is to grow as much traditional food as our ancestors grew. Over the past ten years, we’ve worked to restore Anishinaabe agriculture growing 800 year old varieties of squash, northern corn varieties (hominy or flint corn, with twice the protein and half the calories of market corn) and doing so, this year and next year, increasingly with horse power. Yes, horse power.

We sell these goods locally to create a multiplier, and then sell surplus to people who value Native food. This is what we are working on at Native Harvest.

What I know is that we are good at localized agriculture. While the paradigm of a “war on poverty” is creating a labor force focused on training and retraining my community for jobs which do not exist, or linking us to a dysfunctional economic system, we are intent upon shoring up that which we know can last for another thousand years: a self-reliant economic system that does not require massive inputs of fossil fuels, because, we all know that fossil fuels belong in the ground, not in our food system, and not in our air.

So, what is the value of this?

Well start with this, it’s intangible. Health is awesome. It’s also awesome to grow a squash that’s been around for 800 years or so, or some corn that might last in a time of climate change, because it’s not a mono crop, it’s short of stalk, and drought and frost resistant.  Not bad, those ancestors. Then, think about how we are restoring some things which are sacred, and hopefully keeping them from getting genetically altered (like our battles to protect wild rice and corn, our mother grain).   We’re building some sense of economic stability for the future, while we get some control over our health, food, and energy systems—these are all interrelated.

Food sovereignty is an affirmation of who we are as Indigenous peoples and one of the most sure-footed ways to restore our relationship with the world around us.

In this millennium, our people are told that we have a choice between two paths—one that is well worn but scorched, or one that is green. Our community is choosing the green path. That is the work of restoring Indigenous ways of living and land-based economics for the seventh generation. What will your community choose?

Winona LaDuke is an internationally acclaimed author, orator and activist. A graduate of Harvard and Antioch Universities with advanced degrees in rural economic development, LaDuke has devoted her life to protecting the lands and life ways of Native communities. In 1994, Time magazine named her one of America’s fifty most promising leaders under forty years of age, and in 1997 she was named Ms. Magazine Woman of the Year. She is Founding Director of the White Earth Land Recovery Project and Executive Director of Honor the Earth.

Economics for the Seventh Generation – Part I

October 30, 2013

This essay was originally published in the Fall 2013 RSF Quarterly

Winona LaDuke by Winona LaDuke

“Seems like people don’t want to stick around another thousand years.”    —Mike Wiggins, Tribal Chairman of the Bad River Band of Anishinaabe, on the proposed GTAC taconite mine, which will impact the watershed of the Bad River.

Let’s say that is not true.  Let’s say that we are people who want to live in a way that restores our relationship with Mother Earth. We want to live in small, medium, and large communities, with a low fossil fuel impact on the world.

Ji misawaabandaaming, or how we envision our future, is a worldview of positive thinking.  It’s an Anishinaabe worldview, coming from a place and a cultural way of life that has been here, on the same land, for 10,000 years.  To transform modern society into one based on survival, not conquest, we need to make some changes.  We need to actualize an economic and social transformation. Restoring an economics, which makes sense for upcoming generations, needs to be a priority. In our community, we think of this as economics for the seventh generation.

In our teachings we have some clear direction: our intention is Minobimaatisiiwin, a spiritual, mental, physical and emotional happiness—sort of an Anishinaabe version of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index.  Within our cultural teachings lie these Indigenous Economic Principles: intergenerational thinking and equity (thinking for the seventh generation); inter- and intra-species equity (respect); and valuing those spiritual and intangible facets of the natural world and cultural practice (not all values and things can be monetized).

After I graduated from college in 1981, I returned to my own community, the White Earth Indian Reservation in Minnesota (the reservation on which the federal government recognizes I am a Native person), and began a journey of working towards building this restorative economics.

Our work at the White Earth Land Recovery Project and Native Harvest begins from a cultural premise. We need to restore our relationship to place (we now hold 1400 acres of land as a land trust) and we need to determine what an economy looks like which is Indigenous.  Our focus has been in the traditional economy, that which involves extensive subsistence agriculture and falls outside the definition of market economies. Food is at the center of this system.

Food Sovereignty

“I don’t think we can call ourselves sovereign if we can’t feed ourselves.” This is what Paul “Sugarbear” Smith told me a few years ago when I went to visit him in Oneida Territory, Wisconsin.  I think he’s got something here and it’s worth looking into.

What is food sovereignty? The ability to feed your people. Let’s say that.  This could be through your own growing and harvesting, or this could be through trade, if you’re happy with it and it’s working out for you.  This is where we need to be, but certainly aren’t there now.

Let’s review how we got to our current situation.

When the Europeans came to America, they had no land, and brought very little food with them. The incidence of scurvy, diphtheria, and a whole litany of diseases, many of them linked to malnutrition, was overwhelming.  We fed them, and taught them how to eat, here on this land, omaa akiing. For the record, Native people gave the world some big food.  Corn and potatoes, for instance, make up a huge percentage of world food calories and nutrition, and represent immense value per acre. Not bad. We were good at this stuff.  As an example, we Anishinaabe were the northern most corn growers in the world, pushing corn about a hundred miles north of Winnipeg, and our agro-biodiversity abounded. Overall, Indigenous peoples developed some 8000 varieties of corn, not to mention everything from pumpkins to chocolate.  All pretty cool stuff.

Fast-forward post-colonialism and we are now a terribly dependent people, or peoples.  By and large, we have ceased to farm our own foods and lands, all part of a logical consequence of theft, genocide, allotment, boarding schools, land alienation, and the lack of access to basic capital for even small-scale farming. We are net importers of food, and it’s costly. And even some of our largest tribal food enterprises like the Navajo Agricultural Products, Inc. and Gila River, produce food, not for Navajos, but for markets elsewhere. Thousands of acres of our tribal lands are leased out to non-Indian producers who ship across the world.  And, in the meantime, we’re not looking good.

Click here for Part II

Winona LaDuke is an internationally acclaimed author, orator and activist. A graduate of Harvard and Antioch Universities with advanced degrees in rural economic development, LaDuke has devoted her life to protecting the lands and life ways of Native communities. In 1994, Time magazine named her one of America’s fifty most promising leaders under forty years of age, and in 1997 she was named Ms. Magazine Woman of the Year. She is Founding Director of the White Earth Land Recovery Project and Executive Director of Honor the Earth.

Off-the-Grid Investing: Perspectives and Voices of a Transforming Financial System

September 6, 2013

Don-ShafferOriginally published in Green Money Journal

by Don Shaffer

When you are looking for the new or emergent, you usually have to look off-the-grid. In many ways as RSF Social Finance has grown, we too have had to go off-the-grid to develop our unique approach to finance.

In 1984, a school burned down in New Hampshire. RSF organized a group of investors to rebuild it. Since then, we have made over $275 million in direct loans to social enterprises. Our track record has been excellent, with just 2 percent in cumulative loan losses over 29 years, and a 100 percent repayment rate to investors.

The key: bringing investors and borrowers closer together. We have found that if the individual investors who are providing capital and the social entrepreneurs who are borrowing capital can be more visible to each other – if they can understand each others’ needs and intentions, and sustain a personal connection whenever possible – then risk decreases and fulfillment increases.

Participants in a transaction become participants in a relationship. We believe this is nothing less than the antidote to modern finance, and can be applied on a substantial scale. It is the opposite of high frequency trading.

Specifically, four years ago RSF adopted a new approach to loan pricing for our $100 million flagship senior-debt fund. Each quarter, we convene representatives from our staff, our investors, and our borrowers to decide what annualized return rate investors will receive the following quarter, and what interest rate borrowers will pay – a radical form of transparency.

We call it community-based pricing. The response from participants has been overwhelmingly positive – and our interest rate, referred to as RSF Prime, has been very stable. We are now off-the-grid of the global financial interest rate system and no longer directly affected by the vagaries of Wall Street.

But of course the vast majority of all 401(k) programs, pension funds, and endowments are tethered to Wall Street, so it is naïve to believe we are fully off-the-grid.

This circumstance leads to questions many of us in the social finance field think about:

  • What is it going to take for the number of socially and environmentally-focused investors to grow substantially?
  • Can it happen fast enough for those of us who acknowledge the urgency of climate change and natural resource depletion?
  • Are there enough sound investment opportunities for investors who want to go off-the-grid?
  • How will we address the perennial issues of risk, return, and liquidity when there are so few established intermediaries in which to place funds?
  • What are the long-term implications for those of us who anticipate needing funds for retirement and who want to embrace off-the-grid investing?

Click here to read the full story

Don Shaffer is President & CEO at RSF Social Finance


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