Tag Archives: food co-op

Unpopular Opinion: Freelancers’ Rhetorical Inconsistency between Paying and Getting Paid for Services

Contently’s “The Freelancer” published an article by Yael Grauer today entitled 5 Free Alternatives to Must-Have Freelance Tools. Being relatively new to freelance writing, I read it with great interest, and appreciated Grauer’s helpful breakdown of the pros and cons of various software options. But the underlying conceit of the article (money-saving tips!) is a familiar one, and when contrasted with another common refrain among freelancers (F-you; pay me!), it left me with a nagging feeling that there’s a growing cognitive dissonance that we should address.

While advocating that “freelancing isn’t free,” freelancers as a group persist in searching for free alternatives to the tools critical to doing business. This is characteristic of a prevailing, individualistic attitude among freelancers when it comes to compensation: we’re all looking out for number one and are encouraging each other to do so. This individualism is borne out of necessity. After all, we are our best (and often only) advocates as self-employed individuals. But it can lead to a perpetuation of the very inequitable economic system we’re so often fighting.

After all, many of our would-be employers share our mindset: How can I save money and increase my profit margin? No wonder every freelancer has a story (or five hundred) about dismal rates on offer. If we expect to be paid fairly for our services, we should also be willing to pay others fairly for their services. When we seek out free alternatives, we encourage a system that undervalues labor in the pursuit of cheaper consumer products. By imposing one set of standards on ourselves and a diametrically opposed set of standards on others, we simply transfer the exploitation.

When we advocate for decent compensation for our freelance services, and at the same time look for ways to avoid paying for services and products that allow us to run our businesses, we’re living a double-standard. Don’t get me wrong–human beings are not required to have coherent worldviews. We are, all of us, ideological hypocrites in some way or another. But if we, as a loose collection of workers, are trying to create a better working environment, we should consider economic consequences beyond those that affect us personally. We can’t just argue against our own exploitation.

Our rhetoric, which reflects our aspirations as a class of freelance workers, must extend its horizon if we intend to change the world for the better. If our goal is to make working conditions more equitable, then we might have to re-frame some of our personal spending decisions to reflect that worldview. It’s all connected, after all. Raising our prices raises the operating costs of the businesses we contract with, and on and on it turns.

In the same way that I have to stop myself from grumbling about the $4 difference in price between Trader Joe’s peanut butter and that of my local co-op’s, I have to remind myself that the services and software needed to succeed in freelancing are worth the investment. In the case of the peanut butter, I remind myself that Trader Joe’s has low prices in part because they source products from suppliers who exploit their workers, while the co-op’s peanut butter is produced by a workers cooperative. We have to make concessions somewhere, whether it be in our own lives or those of others. Someone always pays.

It’s obvious why our decisions about what software and peanut butter to buy are made on the individual scale. Many (most?) freelancers can’t afford to not seek out free or cheaper alternatives to the tools they need to do business. (Yes, I consider peanut butter an essential part of my operation.) My argument that freelancers should consider walking back our predilection for touting the virtues of free services butts up against the stark realities of America’s growing economic underclass, not to mention discrimination based on race, gender, sexuality, disability, and all marginalized identities.

I get that consumer decisions are often made completely within the context of an individual’s personal economy. Many short term issues cannot afford the luxury of long-term considerations. As participants, willing or not, in capitalism, we are all of us looking for ways to maximize our profits, but we often do so at the expense of even less-fortunate people. When we look for ways around paying, we are usually bringing more advertising into the world, becoming products ourselves, or exploiting the labor of other people. One way to break this cycle is to take a look at how we value labor and commit to providing fair compensation for it.

To take it back to The Freelancer article, it takes time and talent to code software and maintain it. If we can afford to do so, we should be willing to pay for that. At the very least, our conversations about what it costs to run our individual businesses should take into consideration that the advocacy we’re engaged in on behalf of ourselves is often just as applicable to many of the people whose labor contributes to the products and services we’d prefer to get on the cheap.

Now, companies have different business models and various revenue strategies. That much is apparent from The Freelancer article, as many of the software products Grauer reviews have a sliding scale pricing structure. And I’m not saying large tech companies couldn’t stand to lower their prices, break news to investors that they might have to wait another year to remodel their fourth vacation home, and come up with business models that don’t exploit workers or overcharge consumers. Instead, I’m suggesting that, whenever it’s economically feasible, we consider the real cost of labor when we make decisions about what a service or product is worth. And that we acknowledge the ways in which our prevailing mantras (F-you-pay-me, and I-want-to-save-money) are at odds with one another.

It’s entirely possible that these competing arguments aren’t actually in direct opposition. They’re happening on different scales, after all, one personal and the other systemic. My concern is that the individual decisions we make add up; together they have the power to either perpetuate economic inequality or help to remedy it. Because wanting free services while expecting to be paid well for our own is unsustainable. Something’s gotta give. When those of us who are able to make the choice to spend more money for a service that was ethically produced, that tips the scales in the right direction. A direction that benefits our campaign to communicate the true worth of freelance work.

So in addition to providing helpful resources about how freelancers can save money, and encouraging us to advocate for fair compensation, perhaps some of our collective energy could be turned toward interrupting and reordering the exploitative system that our thrifty individual economic decisions perpetuate. Unions and co-ops are both useful dismantling tools; our everyday rhetoric around personal economies can shift to align with our valuation of equitable compensation to find common ground with and encompass the workers we rely on for quality products–digital or physical.



Filed under Contemporary, Sweeping Generalizations

A Case for Applied Anthropology: Let’s Get Personal

In honor of the first National Anthropology Day, I’m going to jump on the bandwagon and write something anthro-related. Or rather, type something anthro-related that I scribbled down in a tiny notebook nearly 2 years ago. 

Imagine, if you will, that it is spring 2013. I’m headed back from the first of a two-day conference of California Cooperatives. I’m neck-deep in a sustained effort to start a community-owned grocery store. I’ve just landed a dream job working with and for people two generations ahead of me at a local non-profit.

My days of suffering through thankless customer service jobs are over. I’m high on collective action. I’m still livid about my graduate school experiences & failures. All these feeling coalesced in a frenzy of brain-waves. The following are the thoughts I rushed to get on paper every which-way as I metroed back from the church basement in Los Angeles where the conference had holed up, ravenous for the life I was experiencing as well as a proper dinner.
Applied anthropology gets a bad rap. Partly for fair reasons, but I’m here to talk about things we don’t think of when those who have the luxury of working the ivory tower use the term pejoratively.

Full disclosure: I am making this case partly as a way to defend the work I do as a natural and positive way to use my academic training.

I consider the work I do to be applied anthropology. Not this blog, which is armchair anth to a fault, but my real-world work. I have the great fortune of being involved in the following projects:

  • At a local history museum, I’m collecting and curating personal memories as part of a virtual exhibit of community stories. Last year, I re-wrote a docent training manual to make room for those groups discursively erased from dominant historical narratives.
  • I am contributing to the start-up phase of a food co-op.
  • I’m working for a non-profit that creates a support network enabling people to stay in their communities of choice as they age.
One of these projects pays me, but I spend arguably more time on the volunteer projects. All of them are local and community-oriented to some degree. And in everything I do for them, I apply my anthropological lens. My training informs my work.

I use the tools and perspectives of cultural and linguistic anthropology to navigate all of this work. I don’t consider this “selling out,” and while it may be an impure form, I do not see it as a bad thing that I’m using the knowledge I and others (have) produce(d) to do very real things. To effect the type of social change we anthros always seem to be advocating for.

I suppose that makes me an activist anthro–another pejorative term. I’m working with folks to address and solve the social problems that anthropologists are so good at identifying. There may well be harm in this endeavor, but there is also a great deal of good.

For example, I use linguistic anthropology for good, not evil. Yes, I’m referring to marketing, but this is marketing for a better future! I haven’t sold out to a corporation, here (unless you count the food co-op). I’m taking the collective will of the people and packaging it for even more people. “Selling” folks on the very ideas they helped to create.

But that’s not what people mean when they snark at those of us who aren’t masochistic enough to be in a PhD program. I admit that I don’t have the temperament to hack it. I’m not into feeling overwhelmed and mentally inferior. I’d much rather be fulfilled, using my skills to engage with my local community and make it a better place.


Collective production of paper mache’ floats trafficking in mixed metaphors totally makes the world a better place.


All of these are reasons why I like the CCC’s better than the AAA’s. There’s a commitment to putting theory into practice. Turning idealism into action and ideology into reality at a grassroots level. Joining pragmatism with idealism to forge unstoppable forces for good in the world!

Besides, if we sequester ourselves in the ivory tower, if we don’t retain ownership of the knowledge we’ve produced, it has a higher risk of being co-opted and used for evil, rather than the good we intend. There’s nothing shameful in seeing something through, in applying theory to practice.

What’s the point of research if it doesn’t have real-world implications? And who are we if we don’t see the value in implementing those implications of our research?

Instead, let’s embrace the practical applications of our research. Let’s retain ownership–sharing the burden, to be sure, with those who have the experience and power to implement our ideas. Not just handing it off, but sticking around to be active participants. Taking action!

In the two years since this breathless tirade against academia for poo-poo-ing applied anthropology, I’ve mellowed a bit. My involvement in the museum and the co-op has lessened, and my work in the non-profit world, while still rewarding, is definitely work. I’m not quite as bitter about my negative experiences in graduate school, and instead enjoy gazing through nostalgia-tinted glasses at the wonderful undergraduate experiences that drew me to anthropology in the first place.

There is peace. There is still action. The museum endures. The co-op is open, now, thanks to the efforts of many talented people. There is still a case for applied anthropology.


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Filed under Contemporary, Sweeping Generalizations

Lost is Found: taken with the streets

Last night I missed an opportunity to photograph a bike light, blinking red in the middle of the dark street. It was the same type of safety device Flaming Bike had attached to the seat of my pants before literally carting me off on a grand tour of Lake Merritt that quiet night in Oakland. After our apple pie supper, chased with an apple galette dessert. I was thrilled to be her cargo that night. Grateful for the beacon attached to my rear that signaled our safe passage.

The lonely beacon wasn’t the first lost object I had come across that day. Hours before, a discarded draft of a thank you note had been in my walking path. It’s simplicity was touching. I hope the author remembered their words; wrote & sent it for real.

Forgotten thanks, or discarded draft?

Forgotten thanks, or discarded draft?

Not many steps later, a cyclist in serious spandex cased the gutter, riding slowly up and down the half-block, looking left and right, against traffic, clearly missing something. He stopped astride his mount, bent to retrieve a glove, shoved it down his shirt for safekeeping. Then carried on.

The day before, on a walk to the food Co-op, I passed a seemingly abandoned lot, gated and threatening electrocution for the unidentified, absent owner’s safekeeping. Upon closer inspection, I saw defiant plantings of vibrant succulents strewn about. The land had been reclaimed, I imagined, by its neighbors. Given life, if temporarily.

Resistance Gardening

Resistance Gardening

Documenting lost objects is not a new idea, but it intrigues me still. I look forward to sharing future findings as part of a series, “Lost is Found.”

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Filed under Art of all Kinds, Contemporary, Lost is Found

Scattered Thoughts on Ethical Consumerism: Doing Something

A friend of mine recently remarked that living in America is an exercise in trying not to oppress people. By virtue of living here, we are all complicit in the oppression of others (and the changing, if not degradation, of environments) by participating in supply chains. Things are easy and cheap here. There are complex structures of industries that provide us with the things and food we consume on a daily basis. As an American, it’s easy to be unaware of the harm participating in these supply chains does to other people. But once you find out, you wonder what you can do. My friend and I discussed this, and ultimately concluded that (for now) it’s unfortunately a matter of picking and choosing those “causes” that are most important to you, because trying to live completely ethically in America is impossible. Integrity costs a lot of money and time.

I thought of this conversation, and conversations I’ve had with other friends and fellow students and professors over the years about the flow of commodities and the people and companies involved in their production and consumption. And what can be done to improve the system, the lived realities, of the people who are oppressed by these enormous systems. It’s overwhelming. By not buying mass-produced textiles, for example, you are at once not supporting an unethical (in this paradigm) industry and taking livelihood from the oppressed workers producing those textiles. There is talk of NGOs combatting poor working conditions and methods of production, but their power is limited. Much as our power as consumers is limited. Although at that micro-level, you can at least do little things.

There is talk of living “off the grid.” Of growing one’s own food. Of producing one’s own clothing. Of “closed-cycle” establishments. People who walk or bike everywhere. I’m beginning to get involved in a local food co-op, and am becoming exposed to many related communities such as the farmer’s markets, folks who barter services with one another, urban farmers and produce swaps, free-trade enthusiasts, and [insert vaguely hippy-dippy notion here]. It’s beautiful, but at the same time, again overwhelming. So many people trying to do good. Trying to be good. Not buying things in plastic packagings, using bicycle blenders, doing what most of us Americans would consider extreme things in order to live their ethics in practice. After attending some talks and meetings, one gets the sense that you can never do enough. That you will never be as good as these bourgeois hippies.

When thinking about all of this, my tendency is toward defeatism. It’s impossible to change it all; it’s too big, and changing my own practices is hard in and of itself, so why bother? But this time, I’m choosing the productive route. I’m choosing to start small. Do something. To not feel as if those people already involved in lessening their oppressive impact on the world through their eating and buying or DIY decisions are judging my practices. Even if they are. Someone will always be doing it “better” than you, especially if you are critical enough to recognize these problematic consumer structures in the first place. You will turn your critical gaze inward and chastise yourself for not doing more. You will think others think the same of you. But they are worried about their own practices and how that contributes to or lessens their integrity. So it’s better to do something and forget about what others may think of what you’re doing. Because we all have to start somewhere in these grand projects of world benefit. Because we’re all concerned with the larger picture, and we’re all trying to change it for the better–and that goal is a common one amongst those of us who realize we as Americans participate in systems of oppressive production and consumption.

The personal is political. We have to start somewhere.

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Filed under Contemporary