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What Would a Beloved Economy Look Like?
A few months ago, a reader messaged me (or flagged me??) on the Discord, with a link to a newly released book. This is very Culture Study, they said, or something approximating that vibe. Sometimes you look at a book, and what it’s trying to argue about how things could be, maybe are already starting to be, and you know: this is Culture Study, which is another way, I think, of saying: this book challenges us to think more about how we can care more for each other, even and especially for people whose life experience is not our own.
The book starts with a shared premise: the way we work isn’t working. It’s not working for the salaried office worker, who works more and more hours; it’s not working for the hourly worker, who doesn’t have enough hours or enough workplace protections. It’s not working for families, it’s not working for single people, it’s not working for younger people or older people. We’re burnt out; we’re mired in debt; we’re too exhausted for the formation of actual community; our bodies and our connections with others are slowly breaking down — all for an economic model that is also slowly poisoning our world, making it gradually less inhabitable for each generation to come.
There are a handful of people who’ve found some sort of balance in their jobs, and they’re held up as proof that if you just read enough productivity books, just look hard enough, just have enough certifications and a good manager and a solid union, that you, too, can find the perfect job.
If you don’t, you’re just not, well, working hard enough. But that’s a fairy tale, meant to keep workers internalizing the idea that the problem is them, not the way work and the economy it fuels has been allowed to grow and operate. There is nothing inevitable about how we work now; anyone who tells you as much is scared of losing what scant privileges this current way affords them or suffers from an acute lack of imagination. Just because we can survive this current way of working (and, to be clear, not everyone does) doesn’t mean we’re thriving — not even close.
So what’s the alternative? In their new book, the culmination of six years of research, Jess Rimington and Joanna L. Cea imagine a different economy, one that treats individuals and the world as beloved. And they do so in the most straightforward of ways: by looking to examples of that model of work already in practice.
In the interview below, Joanna and Jess spell out some of what that looks like, but I also invite you to check out the book itself — it’d be an excellent gift for anyone with the will to imagine a different way forward — as well as the podcast that accompanies it.
You can find out much, much more about the Beloved Economies project here.
AHP: I love that you note how many people in your lives immediately respond to the idea of an economy that feels like love as if you’d, like, suggested that we should, I dunno, teach zebras to dance, or eat chairs for breakfast. How has the idea become so totally alien? (And the idea of a hostile economy so normalized!)
Joanna: It’s true! We have all become so accustomed to the fact that the economy feels, well, rather brutal. Many of us think it just has to be that way.
In this book, we call the kind of extractive capitalism that is dominant across and affecting so much of the globe the loveless economy. Visionary cultural critic and prolific Black feminist scholar bell hooks coined the term lovelessness to reflect the spiritual hunger and lack of true loving that is experienced and practiced across different dimensions of US society. “I awakened from my trance state,” she wrote in All About Love, “and was stunned to find the world I was living in, the world of the present, was no longer a world open to love. And I noticed that all around me I heard testimony that lovelessness had become the order of the day.” In her writings, bell hooks points to the ways in which the underlying principles of our current economy are incompatible with an ethic of love.
So many of us are spending most of our waking hours on work that fails to compensate us with the resources or assurance that we will be taken care of in our hour of need and also fails to engage us as the complex, insightful, soulful beings that we all are. Many of us have grown accustomed to a kind of precarious tightrope walk between options that all fall short in serving the health and well-being of ourselves, our families, and our communities.
Jess: During the research, we became acutely attuned to how participating in the current economy, day in and day out, doesn’t feel like love. And, yes, our friends and family, at first, thought this insight was rather strange. Why would it feel like love? Why would you feel love from the economy?
What we asked each other was “But why shouldn’t we?” Why shouldn’t we have an economy that makes us feel valued and cared for? Makes us feel safe. Seen. Inspired.
These questions arose because of a dear collaborator, Dr. Virgil A. Wood, a pastor, educator, and someone who has been working for economic justice and transformation for more than seven decades. Dr. Wood challenged us: “Who says we can’t have and don’t deserve a beloved economy? ….” And beyond.
The growing circle of people we engaged with as part of this investigation share a conviction that transforming how we work can be a pathway to economies that work far better for all of us.
You frame your book around the experiences of people whose “success feels beloved.” What does that look like and feel like? How does it reverberate through workplaces but also through families and communities? What are the marked differences between it and what you call “business as usual?”
Jess: Over the course of this research journey, we learned from and with many groups who were achieving what you’re talking about — a kind of success that feels beloved to those involved. The success included outcomes prioritized by business as usual, such as better quality products and services, lower levels of attrition, increased competency, reduced costs, and financial success. But what the people in these groups emphasized most strongly were things like: a greater sense of connection and belonging; feelings of peace, well-being, and confidence in their work; a newfound sense of purpose and satisfaction; and even feelings of happiness and hope. Over time, we started saying that these groups were finding what felt like an antidote to what isn’t working about work — aka, what isn’t working with, what we call in the book: business as usual.
Building on the work of scholars before us, we define “business as usual” as ways of work oriented toward the maximization of profit and growth at all costs that shut down or narrow information that offers any differing goals or strategies from that maximization or growth.
We have come to see the ways of work that support this singular goal — the business-as-usual ways of work — as harmful. The same forces that drive the economic system to consolidate wealth in the hands of a few, and lead many of us to be exhausted and broke, also play a role in making many of us feel like these current ways of work are inevitable.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Business as usual is the result of specific choices people have made over centuries, and continue to make today. The beloved economies research has been a seven-year endeavor to find, and walk alongside, teams and groups who are already working in ways that are a bold departure from this — and who are experiencing meaningful success. We wanted to understand: was anyone out there escaping what isn’t working about work?
I think a lot of people might be reading this (or start reading your book) and think: yes, this sounds great in theory, totally on board, now show me how it goes from theoretical to practical in this economy. But that’s exactly what your book does. You share a lot of different types of stories in the book, and I think it’s important for readers here to understand both the breadth of them and why you selected them, but also: what about their stories, and the way they told them to you, sticks with you?
Joanna: A story that has really impacted me is the story of RUNWAY, a financial innovation firm. What sticks with me is the incredibly bold and imaginative vision that started RUNWAY — and then seeing over time how their work has sparked broader change in the field of early-stage investment. The way the RUNWAY “family” operates has essentially given inspiration, and permission, to others to also heed their own yearnings for financial systems that actually embody care, humanity, and grace.
Since its founding, RUNWAY turned heads across the early-stage investment field with its commitment to reimagining a “friends and family” approach to capital investment, rooted in love for Black entrepreneurs and communities. In business as usual, investment in early-stage companies tends to be focused on preventing financial risks to the investor by requiring enterprises to run through a harrowing gauntlet of applications, pitch sessions, and capacity-proving steps. Only if they measure up to the bar set by investors do they have a chance of receiving financial partnership. RUNWAY has completely reimagined the investment experience so that it strengthens early-stage companies and makes the entire experience emotionally supportive, and even joyful, for the founders and teams involved. In the process, RUNWAY’s community of investors and entrepreneurs has innovated new investment approaches and products.
Placing decision-making power in the hands of its community of entrepreneurs is one part of RUNWAY’s larger mission of boldly rewriting the rules of how investment happens. For example, in the early months of the pandemic, the RUNWAY team turned to their community of entrepreneurs to determine how the firm could best leverage funds to support their businesses. The Universal Basic Income program that emerged had a powerful impact: 100% of RUNWAY’s business partners are still operating after more than two years of pandemic life. The entrepreneurs supported by RUNWAY’s groundbreaking UBI program were able to keep their businesses running and make meaningful contributions to their communities with, for instance, free masks, immunity-boosting food and drinks for healthcare workers, and strengthened safety protocols for their employees and vendors.
As founder Jessica Norwood explains, RUNWAY does far more than write checks; their investment is about “people really showing up for you, being there for you in a deep way, around the success of your business and your life.”
You start the book in a way I don’t think I’ve ever seen before: a list of 60 people who directly and indirectly informed, shaped, or otherwise contributed to the final form of the book. It feels different from a traditional acknowledgments section, though. Can you explain your thinking a bit more on why you wanted to start the book this way, and the sort of temperature it sets for what’s to come?
Jess: It felt critically important to us to start the book in this way because it’s not just that the research behind this book was collaborative. It is also that the content development for the book itself was collaborative. Members of the co-learning community reviewed multiple drafts; they contributed additional nuance and quotes to the analyses in the chapters about the seven practices; several co-authored the vignettes that feature their work; almost everyone wrote their own introduction — how they are introduced when readers first meet them. We wanted to make it clear from the start that this book was, yes, primarily authored by two people, but that a truly co-creative effort went into shaping what readers find on its pages.
Joanna: And, you might not notice at first, but the credits page (right when you open the book) and also the acknowledgments section (at the back) break out of a business-as-usual format. In these sections, we wanted to lift up the profound contributions of our research collaborators and teammates, who each played critical roles in advancing the overall argument and detailed content of what became the final book.
I often write or talk about how ineffectual it is for people to think that their company will save them from the structural problems affecting us all. Put differently, no amount of “good” workplace policy can fix climate change, and the war on reproductive rights, and remedy the effects of systemic racism, etc. etc. etc. That’s a pretty standard anti-neoliberalism posture. But your work supposes otherwise. Can you connect some of the dots here, re: how organizational changes can affect system change?
Jess: We want to be really clear that we’re not suggesting the entire burden of change is at the individual level. Change — systemic change — needs to happen at every level. What we found in our research is that there is an under-utilized lever of change. And that is at the level of the workplace, at the level of teams and groups.
Because the research went on for multiple years, something really important became apparent: there was a ripple effect from the micro to the macro. As people changed their ways of work, the individuals involved experienced permanent shifts in their own work. They brought these different, breakout ways of work to future teams they were a part of.
Also, we saw entire enterprises transform from the inside out. Such as an architecture and planning firm shifting to shared governance and shared financial returns over time –reimagining how they structure their enterprise.
And, we saw teams and companies actually create broader shifts in their industries or across a whole geographic area. Such as RUNWAY sparking shifts across the banking and institutional investment industry after seeing the exceptional impact of the firm. Or, in another case, a community organization’s economic revitalization approach sparked shifts among companies, and even municipal government agencies across two counties.
In other words, by transforming how they worked, groups experienced ripple effects that ultimately influenced policy; and many had effects that led to structural shifts in their own enterprises or beyond.
The way we work can change the economy. This doesn’t mean it’s the only way to affect change in the economy. But we believe it should not be overlooked.
What’s the bad faith argument against your book? And what’s your good faith counter to it?
Joanna: Well, you could say that one bad-faith argument would be: It doesn’t matter what we do in our teams and groups; the economy and its operating is determined by policy and by huge structural forces beyond our control.
How we counter that is first and foremost by pointing out that we absolutely recognize that policy is a key determinant of how the economy operates, what is possible, what is allowed. And we absolutely recognize structural forces at play – including forces that make some of us have less latitude than others, because of our identities or life experiences or for a host of reasons – when it comes to agency to reimagine and repair how we work.
However, what our research has shown us is that, across the board, all of us tend to have more latitude than we think we do. And then when teams of people intentionally reimagine and re-make how we work together, that doing so is a powerful force for change. It creates precedent and examples that shift practice in sectors, in geographies, and can even change what gets on the table as potential policy and then enacted as policy. We are not saying: forget policy advocacy or the political process or labor organizing or other forms of community organizing. To the contrary. We are saying: all of these levers are vital. And there is a lever that is under-recognized, and underutilized: the lever of teams intentionally reimagining and re-building how they work.
We need to pull every lever we got. This isn’t any claim about a silver bullet. This is: hey, there is a powerful lever on the table here, for all of us, that’s being hugely under tapped. Don’t let them fool you into thinking you’re more trapped than you are. We actually can reimagine and re-build how we work, and that this is profoundly worth doing. When we do this on our teams, our collective effort becomes a force for change. Beyond what we can even imagine at the start.
This book is a call to action for us all to realize, and step into, that power.