What do Liberia, Oakland and Detroit Have in Common?

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By Mauricio L. Miller

I traveled to Liberia where I learned what should be obvious lessons about human resiliency.  Liberia went through a civil war and Ebola, leaving the economy and infrastructure destroyed.  But the people, more than the aid programs, were clearly working together to rebuild the economy.  As we drove off the main roads I could see people selling and buying from one another.  Some did fishing, some sold charcoal, some sold the used clothes left by foreign aid programs.  They created their own jobs and businesses — mini-economies of the people.

On one of those side roads we visited a busy lumber yard.  A man carrying a plank on his shoulder was putting it onto a truck.  Another man with a wheel barrow was bringing sawdust out for someone.  As we walked into the yard we saw a woman sitting on one pile of lumber and a man sitting on another pile.  To the left was a door with a red cross painted above it, maybe their pharmacy, and to our right people were cooking meals for the workers.  Another man was making doors near the saw that they used to cut the trees into sticks of lumber.  Someone in the United States who knew them got them the saw.  They also explained that every month someone they knew in the village up north would go to a spot with cell phone reception.  They would tell her how many trees they needed and then their contact would arrange for others to cut the trees and truck them to the yard.

It was all amazingly complex, but well-coordinated, so we asked who owned this business.  “No one” was the reply.  It seems that dozens of families came together, agreed who would do what, agreed on wages, and how you could move up from carrying lumber, the lowest paid, to carrying saw dust if you saved to get a wheel barrow.  They had formed an association of 132 families and voted for their own officers, paid taxes, etc.  We had visited other groups in Liberia who also formed associations and worked together creating jobs all over the country.  All of the groups we visited had lending circles they called “susu’s” that people used to collectively save.  It was a wonderful demonstration of mutuality and self-determination, much as African Americans after slavery built businesses, even entire black townships and the black colleges.

Whether it was after slavery, after Ebola, hurricanes, or any crisis, you clearly see people come together.  With no direction from government or programs, people always begin to rebuild their lives.  So the question is, why don’t we support growing those self-defined efforts, that mutuality, on the longer term? The rich go to golf courses to network and develop mutually beneficial relationships.  The poor used to meet at the barber shop or beauty salon.  But we no longer recognize the importance of these informal relationships.  We give more credence to professional helpers which then continues to break down the sense of community that built the Chinatowns and Black Townships.

In the tough neighborhoods where I grew up and later working with families in similar neighborhoods, I saw that ground up efforts were central to life and they grew the general economy.  Those efforts were often part of the informal cash economy – people cutting each other’s hair, fixing cars, giving rides or taking care of the kids.  In surveys by the Family Independence Initiative, FII, an average of 30% of family income came from cash transactions.  Some sold at the flea market or did side jobs. That income ensures that people don’t starve, but people also buy diapers and gas, thus paying sales tax that fills local and state coffers.  A study done by the research firm, Social Compact, showed that the unrecognized informal economy in Oakland, California in 2004 was $450 million dollars and it was $650 million in 2010 in Detroit.

I live in Oakland and when I wanted someone to fix our toilet I asked the man cleaning my yard.  He referred me to Javier for the repair — who later referred me to a cousin who trained his friends to redo my driveway — who then referred me to someone else to clean my house.  Years later Javier is taking exams to become a licensed plumber and the yard guy is now licensed to do home foundations.  It all started informally, by training each other on the job.  With no outside investment or benefits like we give the rich, they still created jobs, bought school books and paid more in taxes.  They are contributing to grow the economy.  They aren’t takers.

Now imagine if instead of all the government and philanthropic funds going to programs, just a portion went as investments into the associations in Liberia and the network of workers that fixed my house.  We could help those efforts grow so that Javier could have become a plumber years ago and the lumber yard run by Liberians could compete with the larger yards run by the better financed Lebanese minority there.

The mutuality is there, in Liberia, Oakland and Detroit.  Government, philanthropists and impact investors can begin a new trend of trusting families to grow their own solutions, own businesses.  But just giving cash, even as a universal basic income, does not overcome one of the greatest burdens families face — the racism, sexism and classism that portrays the parents as takers from society.  It is hard enough to raise teenagers, but to do it while you as a parent are discriminated against and portrayed as a charity case by the well-intended, makes raising kids much, much harder.  Families are earning their way.  They don’t want charity or to be treated as charity cases.

The rich feel they have earned the tax benefits and investments they get because of their role in the economy.  But low-income families also contribute to the economy.  Let’s make that initiative visible.  If we develop investment mechanisms such as those for the rich – angel investors, Fellowships, awards and preferred interest rates, we will make their efforts visible and begin to dis-spell the stereotypes that the 6 billion people living around poverty are takers from society.  We begin to attack the racism, sexism and classism that separates us and that leads to conflict. Restructuring our paternal helping system is a social justice issue.

About the author: 

Mauricio L. Miller, Founder of Oakland, CA, USA-based Family Independence Initiative (www.fii.org) is an American innovator and author of The Alternative (www.thealternativebook.org). In recognition of his unconventional approach to generating economic mobility among low income families, Mauricio was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship in 2012, was appointed by President Obama to the Council for Community Solutions, is an Ashoka Fellow, a Prime Mover Fellow, a Purpose Prize winner, and was honored by an invitation to President Clinton’s 1999 State of the Union address. Miller visited Citizens Independence Initiative (CII) in May 2018 as guest of  Rev. Torli Krua and Chris Yarwoe.

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