This month at The Social Change Agency we have been looking at the different people working on economic justice. The Brixton Pound (B£) is an amazing organisation helping to build this movement up. If you’ve ever been to Brixton market, you’ll have seen their jazzy vending machines where you can buy the sumptuous-looking currency and spend it in the local shops. I spoke to Charlie Waterhouse from This Aint RocknRoll, the people who designed the Brixton Pound, to see why it was created, what the impacts have been, and how to achieve something similar.
What was the motivation behind creating the Brixton Pound?
The Brixton Pound was born out of the Transition movement – how do we cope post peak oil, reduce our carbon footprint, do something about consumer and food miles. And while much has changed in the intervening years, some things remain as motivational today as they did at our birth.
Local currencies help support more resilient local economies, they encourage us to shop and trade within our own communities, and support more responsible supply chains.
And don’t forget, the Brixton Pound was the world’s first urban local currency – we’ll be ten years old next year – in 2009 there was a lot of motivation in the global financial crisis. It was one of those Emperor’s New Clothes moments, even as the government bent over backwards to bail out the very bankers who had stolen our money.
How do you think it can help towards tackling economic justice in the area?
Well on an intellectual level it absolutely does that. By encouraging money to circulate within the local area, by supporting small, independent businesses it is the antithesis of big multinational capital. Spend a pound in a chain store and the profit leaks straight out of the community into the pockets of faceless shareholders. Spend a Brixton Pound on the other hand, and there’s a far greater likelihood that someone else in your neighbourhood will benefit. You might even know them.
So the Brixton Pound puts us much closer to our money. It makes a clear statement that this is ‘our’ money. And if traditionally ignored corners of our society can begin to have agency over their financial situation then economic justice has got to be just that bit closer hasn’t it?
Even if everyone in Brixton was using Brixton Pounds we wouldn’t have global capitalism on its knees at our front door begging forgiveness, would we? And the effect that local currencies have is subject to much debate and derision in the alternative finance world. There are plenty of nay-saying doom mongers who would doubt the Brixton Pound’s ability to tackle economic injustice.
But here’s where I think things get really interesting, because the B£ is perhaps more powerful as an idea than it’s ever likely to be as an economic lever. And here’s why: once you’ve bought real stuff, from a real person, in a real shop, on a real high street, with money as unreal as the Brixton Pound… What else is possible beyond that? The Brixton Pound is a wonderful totem of possibility. With our cast of supporting characters, most notably David Bowie, we send out an idea to the world that another, better way is possible.
Of course, the Brixton Pound isn’t simply a local currency. We’ve started a local lottery which funds micro grants to community groups who’d normally get overlooked for funding, and we’ve opened a community café in the centre of Brixton. It’s a pay-what-you-can veggie and vegan space, where the (delicious) food saves ingredients from landfill. And if that sounds a little worthy, the reality is very different. It’s one of the few places in town with a genuine mix of Brixton old and new – a properly welcoming space.
How has it been received and shaped by the local community, and is it the same for people from different socioeconomic backgrounds?
Some people love the Brixton Pound, some people (I’m sure) think it’s a waste of time; some people volunteer to help us, others wouldn’t be seen dead eating saved-from-landfill food. And those people are from all walks of life – varied communities, different incomes, polar world views.
So I guess that’s how the community has shaped us. We have a wonderful time constantly meeting new people, experiencing new perspectives, dealing with new challenges. In a space that likes to talk about inclusivity and diversity we do a decent job of living the cliché.
Brixton does a very good job of welcoming new people, and as each fresh group lands here we fold them into the Brixton chaos. Lately of course all the talk is of gentrification, but we need to make sure that the youngsters buying new builds with deposits from the bank of mum and dad, or the tourists seeking out our food scene are ‘Brixtonified’, as countless people before them. That sounds a bit like a Soviet indoctrination process doesn’t it? Haha.
Do you see the Brixton Pound as a building a movement or joining an existing one? What role do you see hyper local initiatives playing in movement building or sparking new movements?
I think we’re building an existing one. Albeit a movement that doesn’t necessarily have a name, and certainly doesn’t have a common organisation.
I think we’re part of the environmental movement as much as we’re part of the search for financial alternatives; we’re about the grassroots as much as we are the big ideas. We’re incredibly local but our ideas could change the world.
The movement we’re part of is not dissimilar to the one the rats and voles and mice and shrews were part of when the dinosaurs were staring at the sky and wondering why the big fiery ball in the sky was getting bigger.
And that’s why being hyper local is incredibly important too. It’s a really quite punk thing. A DIY thing. An anarchist thing. If nobody else is going to lift a finger to help us, we’re going to do it ourselves.
And it’s that resilient spirit that will eventually cross-pollinate with the dozens, hundreds, thousands of others around the UK, around the world who are thinking similar thoughts, doing similar things.
What have been biggest obstacles to setting up and what advice would you give to others looking to do something similar?
Well for starters, at the risk of sounding like some sun-shrivelled motivational coach, the biggest obstacles are the best, because nobody got anywhere meaningful by having it easy.
Being constantly skint has been an obstacle from the start – but hey, when we get money, we give it away. When we make food, we don’t insist on it being paid for – we hardly help ourselves on that front. It does mean we often struggle to resource the things we want to do.
I think one of the things that helps is having an open mind, and not being afraid to fail. If we do something, and it flops, we learn from it. Probably don’t do it again. I know this sounds like stating-the-bleeding-obvious, but it’s true.
When we started a local currency we didn’t really know what we were doing. When we opened a shop we didn’t know what we were doing. When we opened a café we didn’t know what we were doing. But each time we did it. We did it badly, and we did it well. We sought help and we made friends. We realised we weren’t alone, that there were plenty of people who share this daft idea that it is worth trying to make the world a better place. And moreover, that doing things on a small, intimate scale can resonate way beyond the communities we work in.
And I guess that’s the advice I’d give to people: do something you don’t know how to do.