Gift Circles

A number of things came together that got me to attend an evening gathering of the Fairfax Gift Circle. I had noticed emails about them for months and although I felt curious, I didn’t feel any compelling drive to go. Maybe because I used to work evenings, and I have been jealously guarding my evening since being laid off last December. As my unemployment wears on and my financial situation continues to wear me down, I have become more and more interested in alternative ways to get my needs met. The usual system of working for money and then paying for what I need, be it services or goods, is a less and less viable avenue for me. This is true for increasing numbers of people in the current economic climate.

I have always been a fan of garage sales, thrift stores, and the like. They have helped me to stretch my dollars and I like the adrenaline rush of a good find at a good bargain. Now I have fewer and fewer dollars to stretch. My response has been to get into my best Pollyanna cheer-leader outfit and make a list of ways to make this whole thing an adventure. To this end I turned my backyard, front yard, and side yard into a vegetable garden, put up a clothes line, traded volunteer work for classes I wanted to take, and I am practicing consumer abstinence, to name a few.

I also began to look closer at posts from a certain Yahoo group called the San Geronimo Valley Community Group, or SGVC. According to the moderator, it is a mini local, Craig’s list. Using their site over the last year or so, I have borrowed a portable crib for when my daughter came to visit from Germany, loaned some gloves out to someone to complete a costume they were putting together for a parade, gave away a bassinette, and got a free Ikea highchair when my daughter and her family moved back from Germany. As my financial situation has become more challenging, I have found myself eagerly looking for posts from the SGVC. I have had several things in mind that I wanted and knew I wasn’t going to get them at Best Buy or Target. One thing was a bike, a sewing machine for one of my daughters, and a computer, either a laptop or desktop.

I hit the jackpot over the 4th of July weekend. Posted on the SGVC was a yard sale that day and the next. They were selling a bike for $15 and a sewing machine for $25. Even those amounts were outside my budget, but since it was only a block away, I decided to look anyway. It turned out that she was more interested in these things finding a good home, than making money. The bike had dust ground into its gears at Burning Man, so it ultimate condition was sketchy. She gave me the bike and I bought the sewing machine for my daughter. When I went back to get the sewing machine, I noticed she also had a desk top computer. When I asked her nervously how much, she just gave it to me. It works. I am in heaven.

I was high as a kite. I felt I had won the yard sale lottery! Still intoxicated on these successes, when I saw the notice again for a gift circle, I decided to go. I would write about the experience. Hell, I am not finding any work in my field, why not play around a little with other interests I have? I had heard the notion of gift economies before and had a vague idea that they were based on, well, giving. But I didn’t really understand quite how they worked.

Here is a definition of a gift economy from Nation Master Encyclopedia.

A gift economy is an economic system in which goods and services are given without any explicit agreement for immediate or future quid pro quo. Typically, a gift economy occurs in a culture or subculture that emphasizes social or intangible rewards for generosity: karma, honor, loyalty or other forms of gratitude. In some cases, simultaneous or recurring giving serves to circulate and redistribute valuables within a community. This can be considered a form of reciprocal altruism. Sometimes there is an implicit expectation of the return of comparable goods or services, political support, or the gift being later passed on to a third party. However, in what is considered to be in the true spirit of gift economics, many times giving is done without any expectation of reciprocity. Some examples would be:

  • Sharing of food in a hunter-gatherer society, where sharing is a safeguard against failure of any individual’s daily foraging.
  • The Pacific Northwest Native American potlatch ritual, where leaders give away large amounts of goods to their followers, strengthening group relations. By sacrificing accumulated wealth, a leader gained a position of honor.
  • Southeast Asia Theravada Buddhist Feasts of Merit, so similar to above that the About paragraph could apply; except that such feasts involve many sponsors of all types, and continue to this day mainly before and after Rainy Seasons rather than chiefly in winter.[1]
  • Offerings to a deity, spirit, intercessionary saint or similar entities.
  • A “favor network” within a company.
  • A family, in which each generation pays for the education of the next: this is an example where the gift creates an implicit obligation to give a gift to a third party, rather than to the giver.
  • Religious tithing.
  • Charitable giving or philanthropy.
  • Open source development and other forms of commons-based peer production.

A gift economy is sometimes referred to as a “sharing economy,” although many economists reserve the term “sharing” for the use of a single resource by more than one consumer, such as a common, a public library, or a shared car. It is also sometimes referred to as a “gift culture.”

Some have suggested that variations on a gift economy may be the key to breaking the cycle of poverty.

This research was done after the fact, so I went without any preconceived notions of what to expect. I arrived around 7pm, when the gift circle was supposed to begin and the optional dinner was supposed to be winding down. But we were on Fairfax time and dinner was just starting. The meeting was being held in a downtown storefront, the site of other alternative ventures in recent years. It looked more like a living room than a store front, without the couches and chairs. Ten to twelve blue back-jacks formed a circle on the Persian rug doubling as a picnic blanket. It turned out that people took turns cooking and this week the designated cooks brought zucchini soup with curry, salad, and un-yeasted spelt bread. I had already eaten. People were expected to donate for the meal, $3-5. Someone offered to pay for my meal, but I came full, so passed on the offer, but felt the spirit of generosity in that moment and a slight pang of embarrassment that I ate before because I was trying to save money. There was a mix of ages, but mostly twenty/thirty some things. I and another gentleman across from me, with long gray hair, even longer than my own, were the elders of the group, and another older man came in after the meal looking like he might have come from a corporate meeting. I half expecting that everyone would be second and third generation hippies that Fairfax is famous for. One young man, with his short hair, sturdy body size, and baseball cap on straight and not sideways, looked downright Middle America. I found this encouraging and when he opened his mouth, his gentle manner was heartwarming.

After going around with names and our favorite person in history, we did a whirlwind meditation and were instructed to open our heart chakras, and think of a need or two and what gift we had to offer this evening. I would have liked to slow down the meditation process, but I loved whom our imaginations brought into the room. It was the likes of Beethoven, Jesus, Einstein, Mother Theresa, Merlin, Cleopatra, Dalai Lama, and others. Merlin was my favorite person. Then we started the process of going around and saying our needs and gifts. The gentle young man with the baseball cap needed someone to take over the room he had been renting. He had a lot of computer parts to gift to whom ever wanted some. The next man, thirty something, with medium length brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, expressed his difficulty with identify any needs, yet alone asking to have them met. He said he was basically self-sufficient.

This led to an interesting discussion on the taboo, especially for men, to express needs. One of the facilitators, Alpha, brought up the illusion of self-sufficiency that our economic system perpetuates. Just because you earn the money and buy something, does not make you self-sufficient, it just removes, or hides you from the reality of whom you rely on. I commented on how our consumer culture keeps us isolated and discourages community. These two factors make us better consumers, because we look to things to satisfy needs than cannot be met with things. Needs like relationship, community, being active and connected in the web of life. We can never get enough of what we don’t need, which is just fine with those who livelihood is solely based on consumerism.

Through this discussion he was able to locate and express a need; which was to have someone review a scholarly article he had written before sending it in for publication. I volunteered. So it went around the group. From a PhD assistant professor needing someone to review an article, to the woman next to him offering love potions (there were a few takers on that one). In this small group, most of the needs I expressed were met by someone in the group and some that I didn’t know I wanted. Like the tarot reading I am scheduling next week with the gentleman who came in wearing corporate clothes. Who woulda thought? On my list was; starting a compost pile, learning to change the oil in my car, and bodywork. I am going to visit the older gentleman for a lesson in composting and according to him, changing the oil in the kind of car I have is not practical unless I have my own car rack. I have only to schedule the bodywork.

It would have been helpful to have read the definition I looked up later because I realized I was a little confused about the process. Gifting doesn’t mean trading or bartering and I still had those concepts attached to it. I ended up offering more things than I really had time to do, thinking I was going to match up needs and gifts. In other words, if someone offered to meet a need I expressed, I thought I had to have something to offer in return. I offered general things, like sewing, knitting, and counseling. Someone took me up on sewing and I may end up making clothes for puppets, well, just to make clothes for puppets. Next week I think I will have the hang of it. What gifts can I offer this week purely as gifts, as give-a-ways?

I don’t know if this kind of thing is practical on a large scale, or at what size it breaks down, but right now it seems to be a manageable size. I do agree with the statement I read from the website: “Some have suggested that variations on a gift economy may be the key to breaking the cycle of poverty.” I know it is helping to keep me out of poverty and it has the capacity to help many do the same. We can get blinded to the fact that our consumer system is only one of many economic models. During these challenging times, and perhaps as a way to keep us out of repeating the behaviors that got us into these challenging times in the first place, looking to other systems to replace or interface with, is vitally important. The SGVC is one example of a gift economy system; the type of gifting circle developed by Alpha and others at the Hub center in Fairfax is another.

They do more than help us navigate these times. They challenge us to change our basic attitudes about getting our needs met and living together in community. Can you image an economic system based on generosity rather than greed, or one based on faith rather than fear, and on creativity and abundance rather than scarcity? It is time to start imaging it, because imagination comes before creation. Imagine it is possible and then look for opportunities to create it, or join in where you recognize it happening.

This is what some of the folks from Tuesday night have done. Their gift circle is about 7-8 months old and they have been honing the form of it over time. After everyone expressed their needs and gifts, people reported on how the week had been in terms of the gift exchange and closed with expressing gratitude. It was a nice way to end the formal part of the evening. After there was an exchange of phone numbers and emails. If you would like to see a video of Alpha talking about gifting circles go to They have started another group in Berkeley.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Gift circle resources « Opencollaboration's Blog

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