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Resilience Circles: Consciousness-Raising Groups for Tough Economic Times

by Sarah Byrnes


October 20, 2011

Here in the U.S., our economic system is just not working for most Americans. The official unemployment rate is 9.1 percent, costs are rising, savings are diminishing, foreclosures are continuing.

Even worse, the future is likely to bring even more challenges. We're facing stronger impacts of climate change and peak oil, and the gambling Wall Street financiers who crashed the economy in 2008 have shown no signs of changing their ways. They continue to siphon wealth away from the real economy and into asset bubbles that only benefit the wealthy.

The silver lining is that many Americans are taking their economic security into their own hands. One response has been to form "Resilience Circles" or "Common Security Clubs," which are small groups of 10 to 20 people who gather for learning, mutual aid and social action.

A study from Duke University shows that unfortunately, Americans are more isolated than ever, with one in four having no one to talk to about their most important concerns. But people are increasingly discovering that the community, not the individual, is the essential unit of human survival, and Resilience Circles are a deliberate strategy to help reweave America's torn social fabric.

Using a free and open-source seven-session curriculum, groups learn together about the large economic trends which shape our individual stories -- such as debt and overconsumption -- and how together, we can build a new kind of economy that is more just, fair and ecologically sustainable.

Obviously, that's a big task. But groups start small. An essential first step is opening up and sharing our stories. Much like the "consciousness raising" groups of the women's movement, circles are a place to name and share experiences which are usually considered taboo.

Debbie Mytels, a Resilience Circle facilitator in Redwood City, California, explains this analogy: "Back in the '70s, we talked about 'the problem that has no name' that is, women's feelings of disempowerment and frustration. These feelings are remarkably similar to today's unnamed feelings of economic and civic disempowerment." Getting past the shame and getting real with each other, as many feminists can attest, turns out to be a hugely powerful personal experience.

Moreover, it's virtually impossible to face today's realities -- economic stagnation, climate change, and so on -- without the support of a group. Otherwise, we can become paralyzed, burned out and fearful.

Pat de la Fuente, a Circle facilitator in Morristown, New Jersey, explains that her group helps "ground" her social action. "I considered the consciousness raising groups the bedrock of the women's movement," she says. "We learned that 'the personal is political' and to 'think globally, act locally.' In our Circle we're trying to keep the focus on how the economic and ecological crises affect us personally, so that we can take definite steps -- even small ones -- to create positive social change."

One way that circles create positive change is by helping us see how much we can help each other. The exchanging of "gifts and needs" is a key activity at the heart of the curriculum, designed to help folks slowly stretch their "mutual aid muscles." Participants name things they can offer and share, from childcare to inexpensive recipe tips to guitar lessons to a 20-foot ladder. And, they name what they need, and open up to receiving gifts from one another.

Even more, Resilience Circles are inspiring and just plain fun. "Our economic support group for unemployed and underemployed people used to meet in the basement of the local library each week," says Connie Allen in South Paris, Maine. "The librarian was always asking us what we were laughing at. Our topic seemed so serious and heavy. But somehow we just always had a lot of fun when we met."

"People at first resist simply receiving -- they think they can't show up to a potluck empty-handed," says Jared Gardner in Portland, Oregon. "We tell them it's okay -- it's okay to receive if you need help. We say we're putting the 'luck' back into potluck."

It's going to take a lot of luck, and a lot of work, to fix this broken economy. But as times get tougher, our community connections will shine through as the essential glue that will help keep us afloat.

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Sarah Byrnes is the coordinator of the Resilience Circle Network at the Institute for Policy Studies. She has worked for economic justice with Americans for Financial Reform, Americans for Fairness in Lending, the Thomas Merton Center, and the Center of Concern, and she has degrees from Boston College and Harvard Divinity School. For free resources, tips, and connections to find or start a Resilience Circle, visit the Resilience Circle Network.

Also see "Stories Matter: How to Power Up Your Activism" by Thaler Pekar in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See "From Pom-Poms to Saving Women's Bodies" by Carol Downer in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.


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