This photo actually is of a bunch of school mothers from my son's school, and they hold a secret. To grassroots change. The decisions they make around they way they value information, help each other out and the thriving alternative economy they use, are a metaphor for relevance for many companies. (The fact that they are also lawyers, a professor, a couple of business owners and a school foundation chair is also interesting, but incidental.)
Nine years ago I started a little fire at my son’s private school. Not an actual fire, but in some ways it might as well have been. The fire I started was a Facebook Group that only parents could join. To give, sell, swap books and uniforms; find lost property (and sons); share advice about day-to-day school survival by enlisting the help of experienced parents, who already knew the ropes. Membership of the group now has more than half the school parents - mostly mothers, and it is a reliable place to get any kind of parent advice without being judged and where all kinds of school related things are given away or sold.
The lessons I learned from this little Facebook group have been incredibly instructive for building business communities and the world we now find ourselves in.
While I started this group out of frustration (that seems so distant now), I could easily have simply complained about the problem and moved on. While I was frustrated with not being able to easily source second-hand uniforms and books, the truth is that what I really wanted was to change attitudes to second-hand – and create more of a provenance mentality around passing on clothes and books instead of it being something 'poor people' did.
The importance of this provenance was to normalise and equalise the cohort as well as to create awareness of the value in the resources we were wasting if we simply disposed of them. (By creating value in the resource, you flip elitism on its head.)
And it turns out that is what we achieved. We not only achieved 'second-hand is ok', but it's now so ok that many parents would be wondering what I am even banging on about.
These days of course, having societal goals like these are table-stakes and the idea would be mapped out as a clear company or school goal. It is important to keep goals strong and methodolgy agile, acknowledging and driving from the position of our power as citizens, not just as a cog in a potentially out of date social construct.
Creating frameworks like these is like putting up a lattice for beans in your garden. With the right food, water and sunlight it will grow. If beans don't grow this time, maybe you move the pot or call in a better gardener, but at least you are learning. The important thing is giving it a go. Especially when it costs you very little, engages stakeholders you would never get to otherwise, and potentially creates some excellent change.
Well-run community groups create a set of rails – a kind of permission – to get away from the other norms of an environment and speak to the underbelly. In this school group case, it is a place that is framed by helping each other - and that creates an equaliser among wo/men in a place where social status would otherwise be the framework and somewhat bizarrely prevent people from helping each other.
The surprising thing about social status is that it can be exhausting for people who are defined by it. And that’s a problem when you are unable to simply cross check when the bus leaves for school excursion or if anyone has seen your kid's socks. People do want to help each other, and be the creators of better communication and their own environment.
We lit a grassroots fire because the way things were done around here was excluding a better option, and our little fire also grew to be that option. The sheer size of the side economy fire we lit and built was surprising. Thousands of dollars’ worth of books and uniforms are now traded or given away every year among the group. While there is no question it costs the school revenue, it has also taught the school to be a better second-hand providore, has saved parents who can’t afford it a load of money, and equally importantly - saved countless uniforms and books from landfill.
The standout for me is that we created a new culture - provenance in second-hand – a value system for second-hand things, taking away the stigma of any kind from buying and using second-hand. We undermined the elitism of new and created value in getting your hands on some popular boy’s clothes or books. We created a conversation around value and a respect for resources.
This ‘everyman’ pic at the top is clearly of a bunch of white middle aged Mums. (I assure you that's just a coincidence!) It is also a couple of lawyers, a professor, a couple of business owners and a school foundation chair. These are the kind of people every school has in their lane. Schools of the future need to work out how to access Carer skills beyond the obvious traditional ways of simply talking at them, when society is changing faster than traditional school frameworks can keep up.
Teaching institutions in need of currency can no longer simply tell Carers how it's going to be, especially when so many Carers know better frameworks, ideas and work in the real - not theoretical - worlds. The academic struggle for relevance is real, and junior and high schools have access to a pool of Carer talent that they simply need to work out how to harness.
This is also an interesting metaphor for companies / employees.