Building Relationships: Community Tools and Producing at Home

By Joe Mancini, Simple Living Guide, September 2001

For over 18 years, The Working Centre has attempted to contrast large-scale bureaucratized work with what we call small, local, personal work. The former is a seductive drain on communities with its philosophy of short-term thinking, de-skilling and Dilbert-like motivational techniques. Local economies are left with a legacy of environmental destruction, waste and top heavy thinking. The more we are dependent as wage earners on large corporations the more our households are dependent on the mass produced commodities they produce. In contrast, daily work that seeks to limit the reach of the “globalized market” in our everyday lives, that fosters creative and useful unemployment while pursuing productive activities, is a recipe for creating communities and neighbourhoods that matter.

In our work we have sought to provide ideas that support small production and help these projects develop stability. We call the first of these projects Community Tools - community-inspired projects and undertakings that assist people to live full and productive lives with less income. The second of these projects is complimentary in that it identifies and supports individuals relearning the skills of local production.

Community Tools

Community Tools are projects designed to put productive tools into the hands of people. They have the added benefit of a co-operative and neighbourhood structure so that individuals do not have to work in isolation. An economy that is gentle on the environment needs ways for people to produce things for themselves. Communities can benefit from developing facilities where individuals have access to tools in order to support local producing and trading. It is possible to build decentralized and diversified structures that trust in the ability of individuals to freely produce for themselves and others when they have access to tools.

Community Tools seek to make daily living more affordable and cooperative. Workers and volunteers who are involved in the organization’s everyday activity usually control the service, product or project. The essential ingredient is that the services are provided cheaply and in an accessible way. The projects often have access to tools as their main goal. Organizations are able to solicit money for purchasing tools for pottery, carpentry, cooking, leatherwork, sewing, gardening, computers, etc.

The skill is to devise ways to ensure the tools are freely available to a wide range of people. Four local examples are the computers and phones available at The Working Centre, the bicycle tools at Recycle Cycles, the pottery equipment at Cambridge Active Self-Help (CASH) and the bartering infrastructure for green dollars developed by BarterWorks.

Finding a location for the tools is not as difficult as it sounds. Creative ways of finding space include cooperative arrangements with organizations that have extra space. Such organizations do not have to charge a market rate for rent, because the resulting use and exposure of their own organization will more than justify the use of the space.

Cities that spend $65 million to build city halls can find some cash to purchase downtown buildings and lease them out in a way that covers their maintenance expenses. Service clubs can do the same, such as the project of the Kitchener Conestoga Rotary Club to purchase a building to be used by non-profit organizations.

Habitat for Humanity has a community tools approach. The organization receives donations for land and materials and uses volunteers to build houses for people. The families add sweat labour and are able to move in with an affordable low mortgage payment.

The same strategy applies to land for community gardens. It is not hard to conceive of projects where the land is purchased by a community land trust and developed for community gardens. Municipalities can play a supporting role by encouraging such developments and sponsoring model gardens within the city limits at various sites within neighbourhoods. Potential members of the community gardens could do the initial preparation work.

The production of food is an example of a lost skill where most people have little knowledge of how food is grown or how it arrives on the grocery store shelf. Small and diversified projects like community shared agriculture, organic growers associations, ecological farmers associations, community gardens, people who produce food in their backyards and front yards are changing this reality. The production of fresh and vital food is the work of many people including those who search out large and small plots, those who grow food in containers and those who convert rooftops into gardens and greenhouses. The production of food should not be left to the dwindling numbers of farmers who find themselves marginalized by low prices and high debt and addicted to pesticide sprays.

The growing of food in and around urban areas is the stuff that binds neighbourhoods and people together. The projects in all their diversity that grow the food are the community tools. And they need to be supported, encouraged, and developed.

Access to Tools

Over the last ten years, a great deal of Working Centre energy has been directed towards building Community Tools projects. We have defined our work as putting productive tools into projects which continually change and evolve. The projects have grown to include self-directed computer training, public access computers, community voice mail, the food and facilities made available at St. John’s Kitchen, the St. John’s Kitchen Garden community, the Queens Greens Garden and 30 Kitchen gardens, sewing machines, bolts of fabric and craft workshop space, the nurturing of BarterWorks,, the assisting of Recycle Cycles with a new home and long-term stability, a library that focuses on the skills of local production, and expanded community meeting space.

These projects are designed to help groups and individuals work together to provide concrete things that people can use. Volunteers contribute in substantial ways at each project. Co-operation grows along with mutual aid, and trust, when people work together to make their community a more friendly and helpful place.

Home Producing

The experience of long-term unemployment, the inability to work full-time or the search for meaningful work can mean that consumerist spending is either unattainable or irrelevant. The Working Centre has attempted to assist people to uncover the productive capacities that are part of the household economy. That simply means recovering the ability to produce what we have become used to paying for.

Like all binges, the consumer economy binge reminds us of the pleasure of doing without. It only takes imagination to learn how to enjoy living away from the store. Fewer jobs, more time at home means more time to learn the skills of producing for yourself.

Instead of chauffeuring yourself to work in your car in order to produce something, you can stay home and do the same. The Canadian Automobile Association estimates that the average annual cost of owning and operating an automobile is $7,000. It starts by questioning how many hours of work it takes just to pay to operate one or two cars.

Packaging represents more than a pretty box. It usually signifies a value-added manufacturing process that has merely converted some raw materials into a more expensive item. The home producer can easily get access to either the raw material or an appropriate substitute and craft the item whether it is from food, wood, clay, glass, paper, steel, etc. It is at this point that the importance of community tools takes shape. When the proper tools are available and others are willing to teach their use, then amazing new possibilities start to emerge.

The home or community gardener can devise multiple ways of producing food, compost and seeds. The starting point is finding plots of land that can be converted to productive use. The combination of raised beds with the continuous addition of compost creates a soil bursting with nutrition and potential. The techniques of permaculture, organic gardening and extending the seasons can be learned through study and practical trial and error. This learning grows over a five to ten year period as knowledge of how things grow takes root and appropriate structures and tools are designed and adapted. Raised beds, compost areas, seedling starters, cold frames and moveable small hoop greenhouses are meshed with self-seeding and perennial greens, vegetables and fruits that establish themselves.

Savings come from wise use of resources. Every bike trip saves wear and tear on the car. Living without a car saves tens of thousands of dollars over the years. Gardening produces food and the waste can be converted to compost that saves on fertilizers. Preserving food means that you are paying yourself for your labour rather than giving it away. Learning to eat fresh grown or stored vegetables is healthy and avoids food manufacturing and preservatives. Finding a piece of junk and reconditioning it often results in major savings plus the satisfaction of a job well done. Turning a room of a house into an office or workshop doubles the productive capacity of your living space and means you can save on rent or commuting.

The excesses of our overdeveloped society cannot continue ecologically or financially. When people have less work and more time, it only makes sense to remember and apply the thrift skills. It is surely not advisable to continue patterns that will result in personal debts when income no longer exceeds expenses.

Community tools and home producing are two ways to ensure full and cooperative living within the changing rules of work. The old economy is obviously changing. In its place people can create an economy of sufficiency. Wolfgang Sachs calls this "the connection between the elegance of simplicity and elegance of living". When people have time to think, create, and give of themselves, then the potential for building sufficiency through community tools and living simply grows exponentially. This is a good time to take the time and explore the opportunities that exist.

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