This is the second in a series of Changemaker Profiles, which introduces the work of changemakers I know and admire, and offers insights into their approaches to communication and change work.
Neal Gorenflo is the co-founder and publisher of Shareable Magazine, a nonprofit online magazine about sharing. A former market researcher, stock analyst, and Fortune 500 strategist, Neal is co-editor of the anthology Share or Die: Voices of The Get Lost Generation in the Age of Crisis.
1. Tell us about the work you are involved with:
I’m the co-founder of Shareable, a nonprofit with a mission to turbocharge the sharing movement. We have two main activities, online publishing and community organizing, though our organizing work is in a pilot phase.
Through our online magazine, we hope to heighten awareness of saner alternatives to the global market economy and the social and environmental damage it creates. Shareable witnesses a movement of movements, each with the goal to democratize and even dematerialize the economy.
These movements include cooperatives, the commons, collaborative consumption, coworking, open source software, participatory budgeting, the commons, public banking, open government, and more. We publish stories about these movements from a personal perspective where possible. And we offer the largest collection of sharing how-tos on the web. In this way, Shareable is as much a lifestyle magazine as it is about the big picture.
We hope to challenge the prevailing culture narrative in Western market societies that the path to the good life is based on individualism, competition and shopping. We argue that the good life is more likely to be achieved through community, collaboration and sharing.
I’m inspired by Saul Alinsky’s observation that the mainstream media makes the ordinary person feel like a small failure within a bigger failure. We hope to offer the opposite experience, that people start to feel like a success within a bigger success when they see practical alternatives in their personal lives and society.
2. What motivated you to be doing this work?
After decades of personal exploration and failed life experiments, I eventually realized I could not become the type of person I wanted to be, have the type of relationships I needed, nor could I realize my creative potential in a market society. The psychologically toxic value system of consumer culture, the competitive social relationships, and the inequality in every major institution were incredibly disempowering. If I boiled all this down to one thing that motivated me, it’s that I felt an unbearable loneliness.
Of course, I also realized that this wasn’t just my situation, that many others were in the same boat. This lead to the conclusion that the only path out was a collective path. I couldn’t get the life or world I wanted alone. It simply was not something that an individual could do. I need to find ‘the others’ as the saying goes, and get to work. It sounds obvious, but it wasn’t an obvious conclusion for me at when I started.
Later, I realized that a movement that acted at the systemic level was necessary. This was much more than I originally bargained for, but the evidence was just overwhelming that a big systemic change was necessary.
Another important motivation was that I didn’t want to participate anymore in destroying people, communities, and the environment. And there was almost no way in America to do that without making an exodus from the status quo, which I’m finding is really hard to do completely, though my life experiments in sharing have led to an incredible boost in my quality of life. I don’t feel so alone any more.
3. What is the most rewarding aspect of your work?
Working with people, and seeing what happens when they make a big change. What’s exciting about this movement is that a new sharing-based reality can be experienced in microcosm at the small group level, and when people get a taste of that, they want more. This can lead to much bigger personal changes and a commitment to help others. As an advocate, I frequently tell people not take my word about the value of sharing, to give sharing an earnest try and come to their own conclusions.
4. What do you feel is your biggest communication challenge?
The biggest challenge is communicating about sharing in a way that’s broadly accessible. There’s a lot of cultural baggage that gets in the way. In American, there’s a skepticism about the value and practicality of sharing. We’ve been conditioned by trillions of dollars of advertising, our dysfunctional political culture, and our life in winner-take-all organizations to look only after our own individual interests. This conditioning can be mistaken for human nature, that that’s just the way we are. That fundamental belief is hard to challenge as on the surface there’s evidence for it.
My view, shared by many others, is that there’s something deeper at work, that it’s the institutions around us that shape our behavior, and that if we want different behavior, different lives and opportunities, we have to change our institutions or create new ones.
One the most important institutions to change is culture – the set of values, unquestioned assumptions, and stories that shape how we see and act in the world. We have some success at Shareable in telling stories that upend unquestioned assumptions about the way the world works. For instance, one of our most popular stories of all time is about how to travel without money, and have better experiences because you’re traveling without money.
5. How do you handle a situation when you find yourself in conflict with someone about your work or ideas?
I read Michel Bauwens’ answer to this question, and I couldn’t put it any better. That said, doing what he advocates is difficult. As he said, integrating conflicting perspectives is a social process and attention to process is critical. Herein lies the difficulty. We’re not taught how to make decision together democratically. Our most important institutions, from education to business to our healthcare systems, are driven by top-down decision making. This is why we just published a guide about how to make effective decisions together. There’s a well-justified pre-occupation with process in the guide. For the decision to work in practice, it’s important that everyone feels that they were treated fairly in the process whether the decision went ‘their way’ or not.
6. What’s your best piece of advice for change-makers and activists?
There’s one piece of advice that trumps all. There’s no substitute for total commitment. Unfortunately, I don’t think you can’t manufacture commitment. You have to feel it in your bones. It’s my experience that total commitment only comes from some serious failures and persistent reflection.
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