For years I've provided my skills & expertise to pretty much anyone who is willing to pay.
I haven't had to like my clients or what they want me to produce for them. In a great many cases when I've been working for other commercial businesses I haven't had to deal with the final recipient of my labour at all, or even known who they were.
That's the way the world of business works - things often done at a comfortably safe distance with various layers of bureaucracy in place to avoid 'complications'.
Anything for a comfortable life - nothing wrong with that, right? It's the situation most people who are lucky enough to be consistently employed experience on a daily basis. We're quite adept at finding ways of justifying our involvement (or lack of it) in the world so long as we can still access the lifestyle we want.
Money is effectively the fuel for our immediate physical survival, and beyond this our lifestyle.
We obviously can't eat this abstract resource, but it does buy the food we gorge on daily, often to excess. Don't worry about anything that goes to waste - heck, we can afford it and it's only food, right? Another example of the distance most of us in developed economies have had the luxury of enjoying when it comes to consuming just about everything - we pull stuff off a supermarket shelf or web store and consume freely without the worry of how it came to be there or who might have actually made it. We hope & trust that there are sufficient safe-guards in place to prevent serious harm both in production or consumption, but for the most part each of us just doesn't know, or care particularly.
I think in fact a good percentage of us really accept that sustainability & ethical practices are not the primary concerns of the majority of businesses today - profit is.
This is what has recently been really hitting home to me lately, particularly in these uncertain economic times when folk are struggling much harder to either forge or preserve their life-styles.
I have to admit for me it's always been an uncomfortable state of affairs, not knowing for whom or even why I'm working hard. We see so much that seems harmful & wasteful in the world - people suffering for want of food & water, caught up in cycles of deprivation while others are able to freely consume & waste. Many of us see this reality, even feel bad about it, yet are unable or even afraid to stand up & challenge the status-quo. It's not viable to say 'no' to your line manager when you don't like the business practices of one of the retail outlets your factory makes jam for. And that survey your company has just completed for a foreign client was collecting some dubious information in your opinion, but it's not your place to ask questions, right?
We're talking some smart, head-strong people here. You know who you are.
That distance, sometimes referred to as alienation or a feeling of disconnection, is a reflection of our sense of 'modernity' (the conditions in which we find ourselves living in the here & now). I think most of us feel it to a greater or lesser degree, and I believe it's this that feeds directly into a collective sense of individual helplessness to challenge those things that seem not quite right, & ultimately apathy beyond our most immediate comforts in life. But that nagging sense persists. Is this all I am in the world - here to service other people without question, for a quiet life? But what can I do? That flavour of angst.
That's where I've been anyway. I'm sure it's not the case for everyone, but it's not one of those things that people in everyday life usually end up talking about together so it's tricky to gauge how widespread it is.
Now, I know, I could just donate to charity, play the lottery or do a sponsored walk or run. That way I can target who I help and either just pass on the money or demonstrate that commitment via activity & raising awareness for the cause. It's kind of a 'carbon off-setting' approach. We already donate to several, but the main problem I have with this approach is that in my mind it acts more as a safety valve for problems the system throws up (i.e. the poor, dispossessed, & challenged individuals in society - there might any of us go if circumstances prevail) - there is never enough money raised to sustain the good work the charity organisations provide, and much of it fails to address the real underlying causes of the problems anyway. It's the 'sticking plaster' analogy.
Over the past year or so I've been lucky enough to get to know a few individuals for whom these are no longer acceptable criteria for living & working. These people are out there, probably just down the road from where you live but you just don't know them yet. They see the sense in re-thinking the way we approach ideas about business, investment in people and sustainable practices, and have the gumption & drive to actually get it working.
Marsha Smith (@secretkitchlady on twitter) is one of these people, living just a few streets away from us in Sneinton, Nottingham for years before we even knew of her.
Marsha has taken a simple idea, collective eating, and formed a sustainable & ethical model for launching it into the local community in the form of a Family Cafe - where diners pay what they can or contribute in some other way for the food they eat (maybe by helping wash or tidy up). It doesn't matter how down on your luck you are, you can still get a good meal, so long as you do give what you can. Oh, did I mention that the food is genuinely good, nutritious, and...wait for it....made largely from still in-date stock that our supermarkets would otherwise be simply throwing away. While the first Family Cafe at The Old School Hall in Sneinton has received sponsorship & funding from business & the local council to get it off the ground, after only a week Marsha is already projecting that the kitchen could already essentially sustain itself at least in terms of provision of food stocks, based on the donations given.
But this isn't just a soup kitchen for those down on their luck, it's also a good place to meet up with like-minded people and chew over ideas with your meal. Encouraging people from different walks of life to come together over a meal creates all kinds of possibilities that we haven't begun to realise fully, being such a new venture. At it's core though it's a place with an ethos that makes sense - provide for all regardless of wealth or ability, waste nothing, encourage community & contribution by all regardless of wealth or ability via a communal eating experience. I think for me it's this thought & problem solving mentality that Marsha's put into the community eating project that makes it more than just a 'sticking plaster'. She's identified several major contradictory issues in our system (food poverty, massive food wastage, dwindling social interactivity around meal-times) and connected the dots to offer up a solution in the here & now.
At the same time she's developed a rich network of local independent producers of food & other resources in order to begin to address options for boosting the local economy. She's got all those levels of thought going on with her ideas, not just stopping at 'is it profitable'. That's why I decided to get behind Family Cafe, helping out with graphics, ferrying stuff around in the car and helping to get the place cleaned up & organised. It's a small part really, but with the growing army of people Marsha has already inspired that's not a problem. I've looked at it not in terms of giving up time to help out in a charitable way, but rather working toward an idea and a place that I want in my life - in this way I feel far more invested and wanting to invest. And that's the real difference for me between just carrying on with my disconnected life and getting positively engaged with the world again. Small steps, carefully but confidently taken in what seems to me to be the right direction.
It makes sense, so I'm doing it.
Contact Marsha: firstname.lastname@example.org
Find out more at www.thesecretkitchencafe.com