The WIC Lesson
[Author's note: My first GEO essay, Returning to the Essence of Neighborhood, told of growing up in a big family in a small NH town that was rich with community currency. This is the second of a three part series on the subject of community currencies.]
From 1980 to 1990, I worked for the federally funded Women, Infants & Children’s Program (WIC) in New Hampshire. NH was late to the party, being the 49th state to offer this free nutrition education and health screening program to income eligible women and children. Our merry band would travel to rural towns to provide services that included highly valued, prescriptive food vouchers. More essentially, however, we were “The WIC Ladies” who inquired and cared about the lives of our neighbors. The legal jargon of the time was the label of WIC recipient. We preferred the word participant, as in active, versus passive, involvement.
It was a privilege to hold beautiful children and listen to the intriguing stories of how mothers navigated the money dependent system with only scant cash resources. The belief that money was wealth was far worse than the inadequate incomes; it was an erected social barrier to their abundant dreams. The WIC vouchers extended meals, but it was the non-monetary exchange of information from sisterhood and mothering peers that fed all of us. We recognized our cover was this federal program, but the actual transaction was the exchange of wisdom, clothing, recipes, mutual support, and more. WIC was a master class for me in my formative 20s. Those teachings enhanced my guiding principles for humanity.
One day we received a call from Planned Parenthood asking if an outreach worker could accompany us to a clinic. She did, setting up a table in the corner with a small sign offering information. A few women responded, enough to justify outreach to more clinics. A short time later an intern from Women for Higher Education rang to ask if she could attend. She did, placing a small sign on a little table near, but not intruding upon, the clinic setup. A few mothers ventured her way. This started a buzz with the Visiting Nurse who called the college nursing department and asked about student availability to promote well child visits and hey, maybe teach first aid for parents and babysitters! A staffer from the domestic violence prevention program appeared, bringing her friend, an educator who taught smoking cessation classes. We called a local child care cooperative that had openings where someone else gave info about spots at a community garden. Our ensemble grew itself. We did not have a conscious plan, no prescribed, mandated goals or objectives. It happened naturally.
The clinics grew. They were comprised of an inner circle of health screening and nutrition counselling stations encircled by an outer rim of fun people opening paths to a broader variety of life enhancing resources. This lovely ensemble of cool folks turned the clinics into festivals. Most importantly, mothers whose life priorities ranked way higher than learning about the importance of Vitamin A in their diets--such as needing heat, employment, higher education and personal safety-- were choosing to ask for and receive encouragement to take risks. They were giving and receiving information and stuff (clothing, baby car seats, transportation, recipes, encouragement) to each other. This predated Time Exchanges and it wasn’t barter. It was pure community currency.
In WIC, I witnessed how the violence and shame of poverty was edged away by the reframing and reclaiming of human gifts of kindness, sharing and reciprocity. Amazingly, the origin of that change began by with one semantic switch, from recipient to participant. Not a victim, not less than, but equal to and in charge of one’s choices. The mantle of participant vibrated wildly and contagiously. It served to illuminate the demeaning hierarchy of class separation in gentle ways. Didn’t every parent want her child to succeed in life? To be loved? This framed the essential question of how and why money had been empowered to isolate people from each other.
Today there are compelling echos drawing social, environmental and spiritual movements into shared fields of understanding and activism. Rather than restricting ourselves to the formula of differently colored threads creating small patches for local blankets, what if we allowed the murmuration of every form of the giving and sharing economies to quilt the planet? Simplicity returns when we let go of tired systems thinking from the head and flow back into regenerative ecosystems remembered in the heart. The flow of nature combined with the flow of community currency is a holy, dynamic alliance.
In this tumultuous time of reflecting on our values for the planet, our neighbors and ourselves, is it worth considering a revaluation of the financial and perceived power models that have dominated our beliefs? Can we imagine an ecological realignment in which the ever regenerating community currency is restored and exchanged freely, generously and evenly?
Next month: The Tortola Years.
Linda Hogan (2016). Community Currency Classroom: The WIC Lesson. Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO). https://geo.coop/story/community-currency-classroom