I think OurGoods functioned as a multi-year project because I was able to gather a team of amazing people with skills and personalities that complimented each other. I knew that I needed at least three people to make the project: a grant-writer, a designer, and a computer engineer. When I got the $5,000 grant from The Field, I asked Louise Ma and Rich Watts if they wanted to work with me. While we were not friends, Louise, Rich, and I went to Cooper Union together, and I had seen how they worked in design classes. I knew that they were both generous, rigorous, and very talented.
November 21, 2008
It is VERY late, but perhaps you still have time to do this dress website? I will have a window installation in Providence on Dec 6– March 13 and will be bartering Utility Dresses in it. I will have images of the dress soon, but until then, can you make a single page that says the following:
FINAL DAYS!!! IT IS THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT!!! THANKS FOR YOUR LOYALTY. GETTING OUT OF BUSINESS!!! BARTERS ACCEPTED!!! BIG DISCOUNTS FOR LOCAL ARTISTS DESIGNERS CRAFTSPEOPLE!!! MAKE ME AN OFFER — I trade NEW UTILITY DRESS for ceramics, jewlery, painting, web design, and other artwork. SLIDING SCALE!!!
I accept locally grown vegetables, old photographs of RI/NY, window space in Manhattan, 50s-80s design patterns, haircuts, massage, dental work, shoe repair, yoga instruction, health consultation, hydroponic/indoor vegetable training, canning tutorials, secret recipes, conversational spanish tutoring, accounting help, liability law services, and many other skills... If you cannot barter, you can pay a penalty of $200 and take a dress. LAST DAY MARCH 13, 2009.
Then I just need you to create a form they fill out to make me an offer, or a button they click to contact me... also a Buy Now option would be good for those people who want to fork over the money. And, if you have time to respond conceptually, maybe instead of my GETTING OUT OF BUSINESS vernacular (which is really a call for the end of capitalism) I should just offer another approach (bartering) triumphantly from the outset...then the text should read:
INTRODUCING COMMUNITY CURRENCY, a fashion line which can ONLY BE EXCHANGED FOR LOCAL GOODS AND SERVICES. Utility Dresses by Caroline Woolard can be exchanged for: ceramics, jewelry, painting, web design, fabric, furniture, photo/video documentation, locally grown vegetables, old photographs of RI/NY, 50s-80s design patterns, haircuts, massage, dental work, ... etc.
What do you think?
When Jennifer Wright Cook, the Director of The Field put me in touch with Jen Abrams, who she said “had a similar idea to mine,” I was excited to collaborate with Jen, rather than thinking she was my competitor. I did not know Jen at all, but we seemed compatible. Plus, I was only 23 and Jen was 38, bringing over a decade of wisdom and experience from WOW Café Theater, the oldest all women and trans theater space in the United States, running on a gift system.
Before we started working together, Jen suggested that we write about a list of questions that she generated, based upon her experiences at WOW. Writing over email, we shared our strengths and weaknesses, to see if we would work well together.
“So I’m at WOW, and I’m sitting in the circle, and I for the first time raise my hand, and I say, ‘I need someone to design the lights for my show.’ This was terrifying for me for a couple of reasons, first of all because I’m not totally sure they’re going to do it right, and second of all because I’m not totally sure I’m a person who deserves that kind of help.”
—Jen Abrams, 2013
fig. 3-9 Business card for OurGoods.org, 2008, designed by Louise Ma and Rich Watts.
CAROLINE’S STRENGTHS / WEAKNESSESHave no unenumerated expectations of individuals: This is hard for me. I’m not sure that I KNOW everything I expect. I will keep thinking about it...this is what I can think of:
- Be RELIABLE: Show up, honor your word, etc.
- Be loyal. Give me credit and respect my work.
- Work hard!
- Hold me accountable. Work through problems with me. Address problems as they arise (this will be hard if we have short meetings and then represent the project publicly... working through the mission will help this. Perhaps we will agree through writing grants and testing our ideas in presentations/interviews with friends)Voice your own project-related strengths/interests/likes:
- Understanding personality types/needs-this facilitates project strategy/effect.
- One-on-One socializing/planning: I love meeting new people and have broad interests (weakness: I am TERRIBLE with names)
- Interests... Skills of my close friends: 5 Environmental Activists, 6 Public-Art/Project-Based Artists, 1 dancer/chef, 3 Architects, 1 Social Worker, 2 new media/web people, 3 graphic designers, 1 painter.
- I love exploring the city, sourcing materials, digging up information, finding a way IN... I go to too many lectures/workshops/tours and cannot stop myself.
- I’m pretty even-tempered and try to be nice to as many people as possible.
- I feel best when I sense that the community respects me, values my integrity (my priority is to be acknowledged for hard work and intelligence by the group)Voice your own sensitivities / areas with a slow learning curve / motivations:
- I have a bad long-term memory and hate myself for forgetting what I’ve learned.
- I have a pride issue with being told how to do things unless I ask for it—I am working on this. Basically, I would rather volunteer than be told.
- I may take on more than I can actually manage—I hope to deal with this. I gave you my schedule, but we can go through this again to predict time crunches! For example, I’m about to go MIA from March 18-30.
- I need to learn how to delegate group tasks (perhaps less relevant here)
- I procrastinate and build things last minute—I HAVE to change this: this is less of a problem with OurGoods because I am managing it rather than building it!
- I HATE public speaking/dealing with groups. I’m trying to get better at it.
- I have a complicated relationship to authority and access—I want power, but I distrust it. I have a hard time working with people who love hierarchy.Know who you’re dealing with: my WORK: You can see my new work if I send it to you, but most of it is offline.Know who you’re dealing with: my CONTACTS: These people can tell you a lot about me:
- 2.Chris Kennedy, my friend/past co-worker
- 3.Natalie Jeremijenko, artist/past employer at NYU
- 4.Alexis Thompson, my current employer
- 5.Nancy Austin, my momKnow what you need and when you need it:
- We need the code person now!
- But we need to fundraise to pay this code person first.
- I think our “tactics of deployment” need to be discussed.
JEN’S STRENGTHS / WEAKNESSESI will strive to be:
- Reliable. When I say I’ll do something, I’ll do it.
- Competent. When I do something, I’ll do it right.
- Clear. If I’ve said I’ll do something and it turns out I can’t, I’ll tell you. If I have an expectation, I’ll articulate it. If I have a problem, I’ll talk about it.
- Honest. If I’m concerned about something, not sure of myself, or know I’m getting close to a discomfort area, I’ll let you know. If I’m bad at something, I’ll tell you. If I screw up, I’ll admit it.
- Supportive. When I appreciate what you’ve done, I’ll tell you so. If you are struggling with something, I’ll do my best to help.
- Receptive. If you have feedback, I’ll listen. My main expectation of a collaborative relationship is that both parties strive toward the above, value them, and work together to fulfill them.Some strengths I think will help:
- When I make a commitment, I keep it. Period.
- I’m extremely organized, good with schedules and accountability.
- I’m good at public speaking, good at articulating ideas verbally and on paper.
- I do really well with groups.
- I’m really good at offering positive feedback.
- I handle conflict pretty well.
- I’m a really good manager, good at working to deadline. I have a good sense of my own time and what I can and can’t realistically get done.My weaknesses (that I know of):
- When I make a commitment, I keep it. Period. This can make me inflexible, and it sometimes means I don’t know when to quit.
- I’m a control freak. I’ve been working hard on this for.....ever, actually. At this point I’m pretty good at noticing when I’m control-freaking, but I am definitely capable of lapsing. This comes up the most when there isn’t trust. I feel pretty good about our trust level at this point.
- I can get impatient. I’ll want to do things in the most efficient way, which sometimes causes me to miss stuff I’d have seen if we’d been more exploratory.
- I have an excellent long-term memory, which sometimes translates into holding onto stuff too long.
- I like to keep moving forward—can be resistant to going back over ground I feel we’ve covered already.
- Issues I/we should keep an eye on: - I have many more obligations than you do. My partner and I are about to buy a place together that will require a lot of fixing up. I’m working 20 hours a week at a job I can’t do other stuff at. And I’m trying to finish making an evening-length work. I work hard, smartly, and efficiently, but I don’t think I have as much time to work as you do.
- I tend toward the very practical. I’m more interested in the practical aspects of this than in the philosophical aspects, whereas I think you’re more interested in the philosophical aspects. That can be a good pairing as long as we both keep respecting both.
- I need this to generate income for me and you don’t. If that looks like it’s not going to happen, I’ll have to ratchet my investment way down at some point (but I won’t abandon the project, and I’ll let you know in advance if/ when that time approaches).
Jennifer Wright Cook, Executive Director of The Field, 2020:
When I met you, I never imagined that you’d become one of those people that stick in my head and my heart. We meet so many people in our lives. Some folks say an “average” person meets 10,000 people. Someone else said it’s more like 490. Whatever the number, how many people actually stick in you? I met you in 2008 when our work intersected. One day you said I was a “connector.” It meant so much to me. I hadn’t thought of myself that way. It felt like you saw me, the me beyond the me that worked with you. The me beyond the me that I thought made me me. That’s something that you do. You see people. You see them beyond their borders and boundaries. You look at them. You slow down and listen. You ask. You laugh BIG. You taught me so much. You came in talking about barter and collaboration, public objects and facilitating actions, accountability and expectations. I felt lost. I was so drawn to your belief and optimism but it was unfamiliar to me. I needed to move faster, I needed to draw lines in the sand, I needed to be the boss, to make decisions quickly, to get it done. I was in the thick of the non-profit NYC arts sector, as a white, cisgendered, able-bodied woman with economic privilege. You showed me an inside-out, upside-down world. You didn’t shove, or holler, you just lived and wondered. “We Are No Longer Strangers” is the title of the small book we wrote at the end of our official work time with you in 2010. That poetic title came from you, in an email you wrote to me about your work, our work together. It’s beautiful because it declares our present state from inside our past. Dear you, you stick in my head and heart.
In Jen Abrams' words:
I came to this process, as Caroline mentioned, through Jennifer Wright Cook’s matchmaking. That by itself had to do with Jennifer seeing an alignment of how Caroline and I moved in the world. I think you can’t underestimate the power of relationships to catalyze something like OurGoods.
In some ways I was a mismatch—fifteen years older than Rich, Caroline, and Louise and ten years older than Carl, in a very different phase of my life, and a performing artist rather than a visual artist. There were GenX/Millennial communication and cultural differences, and the social expectations in the visual art world are very different from those in the performing arts world. I had so much more experience, but the rest of the team had so much more time and energy, and they shared language and expecta- tions that I didn’t understand.
Part of what made it work was true care for each other as people. If our only focus had been the project, we wouldn’t have made it 6 months. I wanted to be around Caroline’s profound optimism and vision of a different world, Rich’s sense of humor and intense commitment, Louise’s sense of hilarity and magic, Carl’s ability to see every situation positively. It was a real leap of faith—I barely knew Caroline, and Rich, Louise, and Carl were total strangers. I think it’s really important to listen closely to your body when choosing collaborators. The phrase is “trust your gut” for a reason, but it’s not just your gut. Your whole body knows who you can work with and who you can’t, and it will tell you if you listen.
The Challenge: Since the 2008 market crash, cultural producers have struggled to come to terms with the new economic landscape.
— Caroline Woolard and Jen Abrams, from Rockefeller Foundation’s New York City Cultural Innovation Fund Grant Application, 2011
Because I was older and more experienced, I had to find a delicate balance between surrender and insistence. Ninety percent of the time, I needed to yield to the group—even if we were going down a path I’d gone down before unsuccessfully. There are things a person can’t know without doing them themselves, and linear progress wasn’t our goal. OurGoods had to be about developing everyone on the team’s capacity, and sometimes that meant winding up in a cul-de-sac I’d visited ten years ago. Learning to name that as a success was important for me.
Ten percent of the time, it was important for me to insist on something. I wish I had clear criteria for when to yield and when to insist, but I don’t. I know I got it wrong sometimes. For instance, I insisted that we use the word “barter,” and build one-to-one reciprocity into the system. At the time, I didn’t think people would trust a gift economy. I felt they needed to know what was in it for them. I think I was wrong. Other times I think I got it right—for instance, when it came to structuring certain things so that they could be understood by funders, even if it wasn’t the very best way for us to do it, and when it came to thinking about sustainability and burn-out.
If politics is something that helps people think about the way power is organized, and the way they live it in their lives, then OurGoods is a political project.
— Caroline Woolard, 2010
When Rich, Louise, and Jen agreed to take on the project, at $1k each for a year, I was thrilled. Jen and I made a pretty amazing team, working 2–4 days a week for many years. I think we were self-aware enough to sense that this would be possible when we first met and talked over our strengths and weaknesses. Jen Abrams taught me how to do public speaking, budgeting, accounting, hiring, and hone my professionalism in the nonprofit and performing arts worlds. I think I brought research and storytelling skills, commitment to high-quality design, passion and charisma, and the endless energy of my twenties to the project. Jen became my main collaborator from 2008–2014.
fig. 3-10 User experience wireframes and web sketches for OurGoods.org made by Louise Ma and Rich Watts in 2009.
The difference between a simple website, for example, an art portfolio, and a peer-to-peer Web 2.0 website like OurGoods.org is that OurGoods.org enables peer-to-peer communication. This means that each person must have a unique account, be able to log in, and have conversations with other users. To make the user experience fluid, designers, developers, and user experience experts need to create user experience maps, wire frames, and front and back end designs such as these.
fig. 3-11 OurGoods.org alpha (original) website, 2008, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artists.
The dominant economy values the outputs of our production (completed artworks) far less than it values the inputs to our production (rehearsal space, materials, skill, time, energy). OurGoods sidesteps this persistent imbalance by helping cultural producers exchange directly with each other, creating an alternate economy based on shared values.
— Caroline Woolard and Jen Abrams, from Rockefeller Foundation’s New York City Cultural Innovation Fund Grant Application, 2011
fig. 3-12 Wireframes, 2010, dimensions variable, OurGoods.org. Courtesy of the artists.
fig. 3-13 OurGoods.org alpha version of the website, screenshot, 2009, dimensions variable.
fig. 3-14 OurGoods.org front end home page, beta version, 2011, designed by Louise Ma and Rich Watts, developed by Carl Tashian.
It took a long time to find Carl Tashian, the computer engineer, but we did, and he was a perfect fit because he wanted to work on collaborative projects that mattered. In Carl Tashian’s words:
OurGoods was a special project for me because of the quality of the collaboration. I had moved to New York a year earlier, hardly knowing anyone, and I learned through working with Caroline, Jen, Rich, and Louise that this kind of collaboration was really what I had come to the city for: people who cared as much as I did about building something great.
We gelled as a team really quickly. The five of us did not always agree on everything, so we learned to have productive conflicts. Our time together was very productive in general. There was a level of trust and commitment, mutual respect, and role clarity that made it possible for us to organize ourselves and get a lot done. OurGoods came to life quickly this way. We’d have these bursts of flowy productivity where we’d work late into the night at Rich’s studio or Jen’s apartment. We always ate well—whether it was good Chinese takeout, coffee and pie from around the corner, or something delicious that Jen cooked up. We laughed a lot, listened to music, and just jammed for hours. It’s hard to ask for anything more than that in a creative endeavor.
The five of us did not always agree on everything, so we learned to have productive conflicts.
“More and more we’re coming back to the importance of community building that’s face to face. So in the same way that we meet around this table and we hold each other accountable based on mutual relationships of trust, we do a lot of in person events as a compliment to the software. It’s not a replacement, it’s an addition.”
— Caroline Woolard, 2014
You can see, in our second application for $25,000 from The Field, in 2009, that Jen had already taught me to write in a more “professional” nonprofit grant-ese vernacular.*
Sample Successful Grant Application - Caroline Woolard - 2009 - age 25 - OurGoods_ERPA.pdf
In 2011, we applied for even more money for OurGoods. We applied for $100,000 from the Rockefeller Foundation’s New York City Cultural Innovation Fund, and we got it! It came at precisely the right moment, as the five of us had met the night before and had decided that, without funding, we could not continue to give 2–3 days a week to the project as volunteers. Here is what Jen and I wrote, and the actual budget that we used, going forward.*
OVERVIEW AND STORY
ORGANIZATIONAL BIO OurGoods is an online barter network for artists. As the 2008 financial crisis hit, OurGoods’ co-founders asked two questions: 1) How can we facilitate a stronger, more sustainable network of cultural producers? 2) How can we value cultural abundance in an economy driven by scarcity? OurGoods was born in response to these questions.
MISSION STATEMENT OurGoods is a barter network for creative people. Our barter community offers a sustainable model for cultural production by making it possible for artists to create an entire project outside of the cash economy. We address artists’ immediate needs by connecting individuals who can help each other, and we address artists’ long-term needs by helping them create a support network based on mutual respect.
OVERVIEW AND STORY Please describe the proposed project/process. What challenge is this project addressing? What would be the impact of this project and who would benefit from this impact? How will this project contribute to New York City?:
The Challenge: Since the 2008 market crash, cultural producers have struggled to come to terms with the new economic landscape.
A wide range of foundation leaders, technical assistance peers, and other artists see OurGoods as an elegant and essential answer to a longstanding problem. The dominant economy values the outputs of our production (completed artworks) far less than it values than the inputs to our production (rehearsal space, materials, skill, time, energy). OurGoods sidesteps this persistent imbalance by helping cultural producers exchange directly with each other, creating an alternate economy based on shared values.
Because support for projects is based on relationships and common goals, rather than on scarcity or the aesthetics of gatekeepers, work that is difficult to fund traditionally can thrive.
As individual skills, spaces, and items for barter are aggregated on OurGoods, we will be able to see where we need to build capacity in our community, individually and as a network. We will research existing opportunities for users to build their skills, and seek out experts within and outside of our community to offer skill-building workshops to our users.
INNOVATION The Resource Sharing Landscape: Resource sharing has exploded in recent years, driven by new technology and the growth of social media, and by the economic crisis. Though this trend is growing, it is not yet adequately serving independent artists. Existing barter and recycling sites (e.g. Freecycle, Craigslist, SwapTree, Scoodi) focus on manufactured objects and allow users to operate anonymously, without trust. Existing mutual aid systems like time banking (e.g. TINY, Time|Bank) are not widely used by our peers, in part because our peers do not con- sider all hours as equal for every task. Most sites ignore skill-sharing entirely, and no sites are built exclusively to connect the creative community in non-cash working relationships.
Our Organization: The five co-founders of OurGoods have formed a powerful R&D team, working towards this site for the past two years. Carl Tashian and Jen Abrams joined the group with years of experience in resource sharing communities, and the other three co-founders (Caroline Woolard, Rich Watts, and Louise Ma) have spent the past two years implementing Trade School, (a project of OurGoods, described in the “Communication” section).
When money mediates transactions, the value is finite. When we barter, we get the value of the object/service and we form relationships while engaging with the creative landscape. These relationships connect artists to new professional opportunities, form the basis of friendships that support artists’ lives as well as their art, and help us respond to changing conditions within our community. These relationships intertwine to create a network that allows artists to make their work regardless of the economic climate.
Barter creates value, but it also causes us to rethink our relationship to value in a market economy. The market sets prices/renumeration for cultural production that bear little resemblance to the value artists put on each others’ work, or to the value derived by their audience. By allowing users to self-value skills and objects, we create a new model for valuing cultural production and for legitimizing the work of artists outside institutions and art markets. Within this alternative economy, we can increase cultural dialogue and create an environment of abundance and community.
RISKS Describe any potential risks associated with this project and how you would mitigate them:
The two main risks to this project are not reaching a critical mass of active users, and not being able to sustain the project after CIF funding.
BUDGET If you receive a smaller amount than requested, what would your contingency plan be?:
OurGoods is a project of passion for all five co-founders. We have committed many thousands of volunteer hours to this project, and will continue to volunteer our time to make OurGoods successful. Our staff is currently mostly unpaid.
The scale of the project we have proposed assumes that we can begin to pay ourselves modestly for our work. If we are given less than we have requested, we will adjust the scale to reflect that reality. Our usership will grow more slowly, features will be added less frequently, and the overall output and quality of the site will be reduced.
We believe our team has the skills and experience required to make OurGoods a successful stand-alone organization. However, if it serves our mission, we would be open to being absorbed into a larger organization.
Although this budget includes part-time salaries for OurGoods co-founders, it does so at a rate significantly below what we would earn for the same in another organization. $8k of the in-kind income reflects home office expenses donated by the co-founders to the project. The remainder reflects the difference between the market value of the work of OurGoods co-founders and what they will be paid. Payment goes up in Year 2, so in-kind goes down.
SAMPLE 2011 Rockefeller actual submission (1).pdf
* NOTE: We also applied for funding from the CUE Foundation and from Creative Capital, among many other applications, but those applications did not advance very far. I began to understand that there is a real difference between a service organization and an art project, and that OurGoods.org was a nonprofit in the eyes of funders.
From this moment on, Jen and I worked in-person, at her house, around two days a week, and we worked remotely as things came in, throughout the week. We made the following kinds of agreements with Rich, Louise, and Carl:
June 12, 2011
Rockefeller expects three major site updates in the next 12 months. We have $16k for each of you to make that happen.
1. What we're envisioning is three 10-day coding caves: one now, one in December and one next March/April. The $16k covers those three sessions (plus some travel money). Can you tell us: Are those three coding cave sessions doable for you guys? When would you know? Is Louise’s concurrent availability important and if so, Louise, are you available?
2. If they are doable, when could the first one happen? What can you envision getting accomplished in the first session? In the second?
Looking forward to hearing from you—we’re incredibly excited to suddenly have all this momentum!
While, in 2011, OurGoods had more money that we could have imagined a year earlier, it was not enough funding to keep the best computer engineers around. By the end of 2012, Carl had many offers for web development jobs, and they all paid so much more than OurGoods. He eventually took one, and we took years trying to find developers who could work at the same level that he had. We learned that we would have to pay a developer to rewrite much of the code that Carl had written, to update it, which meant that we were spending money to maintain the site. We had not realized that you could spend money without adding functionality to the site. We learned a lot about the expectations that developers have about creating the smallest “feature” possible and that we really had to pair down our expectations of the site in order to save money.
As individual skills, spaces, and items for barter are aggregated on OurGoods, we will be able to see where we need to build capacity in our community, individually and as a network.
— Caroline Woolard and Jen Abrams, from Rockefeller Foundation’s New York City Cultural Innovation Fund Grant Application, 2011
By 2014, Rich Watts had started his own company and could not focus on OurGoods, and Louise Ma and I were both deeply involved in other work. By 2016, we decided to shut down the software.
June 17, 2016
Beloved OurGoods team,
It’s time to shut down our software. Caroline sent me this article by Christina Xu called Every Project Deserves a Good Death (2015) a while ago, and I found it to be quite profound. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
Caroline and I have had a bunch of conversations, all of which lead to this: It’s time to shut down our software. So we wanted you to see the letter we are sending to our members next week before it went out. We also wanted to tell you that we are going to work on some kind of documentation of the project that will live at www.ourgoods.org, so that the project will not just disappear.
I wanted to tell you (and I’m sure Caroline will concur), that the five of us changed my life. OurGoods as a project changed my life, but before OurGoods was OurGoods, it was the five of us, holed up for an uncountable number of hours, hammering out visions and relationships, and what is life if not that. I’ll be forever grateful to you all, and you will always be my family, regardless of how much distance and time might grow between any of us in particular.
Together (and with so much love),
In December of 2009, Rich, Louise, and I decided to run an experiment “on the side” of our work with OurGoods. Jen and Carl did not have time to take on another project. Then, something unusual happened. This “experiment on the side” ended up being far more popular than OurGoods, lasting ten years, being replicated in many countries, and involving over 20,000 people—all without any funding.
Rich had been invited to do something in a storefront space, and he opened up the opportunity to Louise and I. We decided to run a learning-space on a barter. We called it “trade school,” with the “trade” being about exchange, but also, about “trades,” or, vocational education. The one-to-one barter network OurGoods.org led us to start TradeSchool.coop, a self-organized learning platform that ran on a barter system from 2009–2019: http://tradeschool.coop/story.
This “experiment on the side” ended up being far more popular
It started as a month-long storefront space with classes during nights and weekends, but it ended up being a long term project. I think it worked because the idea solved three primary issues we were having at OurGoods. We felt that one-on-one barters were difficult for artists, designers, and craftspeople because they were: (1) open-ended, online negotiations between two people about what is a “fair” exchange, (2) requiring that both people show up in person, and (3) no clear time or location to meet. At TradeSchool, students agreed to bring whatever the teacher requested, if half of the students did not show up, the teacher would still receive something in exchange, and we hosted a beautiful space where strangers could meet.
fig. 3-15 TradeSchool user experience.
I worked with Cooper Union graduates (Rich Watts and Louise Ma at first, and also, later on, Christhian Diaz and Aimee Lutkin), as well as generous and rigorous artist and computer engineer Or Zubalsky, and the incredible systems-thinker and curator Rachel Vera Steinberg. I have written about this work at length in a book I edited called TRADE SCHOOL: 2009–2019.
As majority Cooper graduates, we connected the cost of tuition to the education a student receives. I like to say that there is a “pedagogy of payment” that must be explored in the economies and administrative structures of schools, accredited or not. Through TradeSchool.coop, I learned from great educators and helped groups open similar self-organized schools to understand the open-source software and the principles of self-organization that we were using in New York and adapt it according to their contexts in thirty cities internationally, from Athens to Pietermaritzburg, Glasgow, and Quito. My excitement for education has to do as much with economic justice and self-governance as it has to do with pedagogy; for me, they are inseparable.
While OurGoods.org and TradeSchool.coop ran for many years, we eventually closed both projects due to a lack of market-rate funding for the top-notch computer engineers who are required to keep the software up-to-date. We simply could not raise enough money through grant funding to pay computer engineers, and we did not establish a nonprofit board with people who would regularly give us money to sustain the software and the administrative work required to make the barter network run online and in person.
Here is some writing I did in 2015 (published in the book TRADE SCHOOL: 2009–2019) which I hope helps people think through the implications of starting an online platform.
SO YOU WANT TO START AN ONLINE PLATFORMBy Caroline Woolard, 2015Dear founder,I’m glad to hear about your idea for an online platform. Congratulations! I’m sure we both agree that a diversity of opinions is a good thing, and that platforms should benefit their participants, as participation is what makes an online platform valuable. What follows are a few questions that I wish someone had asked me when I started four multi-year projects.I am sharing these four questions, along with bits of advice, because I hope that you will succeed in contributing toward the cooperative culture we want to see. To live in a democratic society, we all need more experiences of democracy at work, in school, and at home. Thank you for helping push the cooperative movement forward.You will notice that a lot of what follows also speaks to founders of non-profit organizations or social impact businesses. I am writing this especially for young, educationally-privileged people who have big ideas but are newcomers to the neighborhood they live in. This reflects my own experience as a college graduate, waking up to working class histories in New York City while trying to build cooperative software and resource-sharing projects.It took me a while to learn outside my immediate group of friends, to reach beyond the academy and beyond the Internet to learn.
1. CAN YOU MAKE A PLATFORM FOR AN EXISTING CO-OP?
In a culture that values ideas over practices, it might be hard to see the existing cooperatives around you. But, I promise you, there are many systems of mutual aid and cooperation nearby. These “platforms” are systems of self-determination and survival are often created by people who have been systematically denied resources through institutionalized racism, sexism, and classism (read about redlining if you don’t know what that is). The credit unions, land trusts, worker-owned businesses, rotating lending clubs (susus), community gardens, and freedom schools in your neighborhood may not have great web- sites, but they are incredible cooperative platforms that you can learn from and with.
These initiatives are often not lifestyle choices made by educationally privileged people, and will therefore not be written up in The New York Times, but they are robust and powerful community networks with organizers who might be interested in adding an online platform to their work. Here is an often-overlooked challenge: try to join and add to existing cooperative platforms, rather than building your own from scratch. The result will likely last longer as it will be informed by the deep wisdom of existing cooperative community norms, roles, and rules. Perhaps we need something like the Center for Urban Pedagogy for cooperative software—an organization that matches grassroots groups with developers to build software that is driven by community need.
2. WHO WILL BUILD THE COOPERATIVE PLATFORM?
Let’s say that organizers at your local credit union, land trust, cooperative developer, community garden, or freedom school are interested in building an online cooperative platform to add to their ongoing work. Or, they confirm your hunch that the cooperative platform you want to build is necessary. How will you form a team that can make this software come to life?
I have found that innovation occurs most readily in small teams with shared goals but different skill sets. Big groups, on the other hand, are good for education and organizing work, and for refining existing platforms. But to innovate, I like to work in core teams of three to six people, as this allows for deep relationships, shared memory, and relatively fast decision-making, since each person can speak for ten to twenty minutes per hour in meetings. The collective Temporary Services says that every person you add to the group doubles the amount of time it takes to make a decision. So, I say: build a small group of rigorous, generous experts whose past work demonstrates that they are aligned with the cooperative platform you want to make. Ask the larger group to consent to the expertise of your small team, and ensure that your small team will make room for feedback from the big group along the way.
Now, build your team! Find people who are better than you in their area of expertise. At the very least, you will need: 1) a Project Manager to help with scheduling events, facilitating meetings, and tracking budgets; 2) a Communications Pro to craft a clear message and recruit people to try out the platform as it develops; 3) a Designer (or two) to make the front end beautiful, 4) a Developer (or two) to develop the software and annotate it so that other people can add to it in the future; and 5) Advisors—one per area of expertise above, as well as more who have strong connections to the community you aim to work with. Meet with your core team on a weekly, if not daily basis, and with your advisors on a monthly or quarterly basis.
You are likely the Communications Pro or the Project Manager, since you are reading this letter. Find advisors who are retired, or far older than you, and who have seen the field change and are widely respected for their work. Learn about programming languages— which languages (Ruby, Python, etc.) have active development communities, and which languages are most likely to be interoperable with future cooperative platforms. Find developers who have worked on social justice projects in the past. If you are a non-profit with limited funds, watch out for developers who want to get paid market rate, as developers and project managers (like you) should believe in the project equally and should take an equal pay cut. Watch out for developers who say they can build the site quickly in a week or two, during a public “hackathon” or “sprint,” because if they do that, the site will be a sketch, not capable of growing. The site needs to be built well, annotated well, and be understandable to future developers.
3. HOW MUCH TIME AND MONEY DO YOU HAVE?
As you build your team, be honest with yourself about your existing priorities, and the likelihood that your life will change in the coming months or in a year or two. To gauge our availability to work on TradeSchool.coop, we did an exercise where each core member wrote a list of their top life priorities, including family, friends, health, volunteer projects, art, hobbies, and day jobs. This allowed us to be more honest with ourselves and each other about the amount of time we had to work on our project, which parts of our life were unknown, and also our reasons for doing the project.
Plan for turnover by having clear systems of documentation and open conversations about how to bring in people who might join the core team when someone has to leave. Be sure that the Developer(s) code in teams, or that an Advisor looks over the code, so that it is intelligible to your other Developers. Be sure that the Project Manager and Communications Pro share leadership and responsibility, crafting a clear process for new people to join the core team, moving from roles of assistance to core membership in months. After a year of organizing TradeSchool.coop, I wrote a manual to make sure our systems were clear. Ask yourself: do you want to get it done, or do you want to get it done your way? This is the question that Jen Abrams, a co-founder of OurGoods.org, brought to us from a decade at the collectively run performance space WOW Café Theater.
4. WHAT IF YOU RAN EVENTS AND HIRED A COMMUNITY ORGANIZER INSTEAD OF BUILDING SOFTWARE?
Last of all, consider the possibility that you could make a greater impact on cooperative culture and resource-sharing in your community by hosting events rather than building a new cooperative platform online. Software does not run itself; it must be maintained and upgraded by developers who can easily make tons of money working on non-cooperative platforms.
Remember that people won’t take the time to learn a new app unless they need it daily. Remember that people are used to Facebook, Google, Twitter, and sites that have legions of developers working around the clock. Remember that hire number three at Airbnb was a lobbyist. If you are starting out, build the smallest feature and do not add to it. It will be hard enough to maintain and upgrade that small feature.
Be honest about your ability to put in long hours and to raise the funds to sustain the development and constant upgrading of online networks for years. Until we have cooperative investment platforms for cooperative ventures, you will have to look for philanthropic support or venture capital that might alter your mission and that will rarely sustain the initiative for years.
If you can’t raise $300,000 a year for a core team of five, don’t build a demo site that barely works or buggy software that won’t last—organize great events and build community! You can use existing online platforms that your members already know. You can use your funds to pay a community organizer instead. Not only will you sustain the livelihood of a wonderful person, but the knowledge built in the community won’t return a 404 Server Error when someone needs help next year.
In cooperation,Caroline Woolard
fig. 3-16 The TradeSchool.coop open source code, which was written and maintained by artist, musician, and developer Or Zubalsky from 2010–2019, enabled the website to be adapted to local Trade School chapters, including chapters in thirty cities internationally.