March 9, 2020
Action Letters, Introspection
040 The search for self-interest
“If it feels fishy, it is fishy.”
Mike Milliken, my boot camp coach
When you live in a Super Tuesday state like Maine, February is not only a month blessed with reflections on Black History. It’s a funnel through which to reflect on the decision-making skills of our fellow primary voters in states before us in line. (It’s also a chance to take in just how racist our current order of primaries are, but that’s a different letter.)
Once again, I find myself pondering existential questions of the electorate:
Why do people choose the candidates they do? Why would people vote for politicians that are closing their local farms and factories, dumping toxins into their communities, stealing their livelihood and giving it to a wealthy elite? Why would white women vote for a man that had so clearly sexually, physically and spiritually abused women for decades?
In the early ‘90s pundits zeroed in on “voting against one’s self-interest” to try to explain these dynamics. This explanation was pretty flimsy and condescending. People weren’t voting against their self-interests. We didn’t understand what their self-interests were—how they were set—and what might change them.
Today, we are faced with the question: How do you build a healthy democracy when people’s priorities seem to align with the very actions that are making our communities less safe, less free and less healthy? How have people’s priorities become so aligned with the destruction of their existence?
Or, on the more positive side: How might we find our way back to healthier self-interests?
In community organizing, self-interest has a particular definition. It’s not about the American ideal of an individual that is free to do whatever they want for themselves without regard for others.
Instead, it lies on the spectrum BETWEEN selfishness (interest in only one’s self) and selflessness (interest in only serving others).
One’s self-interest is about what is good BOTH for one’s self and one’s communities. The two are interconnected and not to be separated. It is the interest of me and us, united.
We build community change campaigns by providing a platform for people to see each other as individuals and as a community, and come to a mutual understanding of our shared self-interest that will help all of us.
Building shared self-interest takes relationships of trust that are built over time. Democracy lives in healthy, transparent, and trustworthy local communications.
We are living during a time where there are concerted, well-organized efforts to distort and manipulate people’s understanding of their self-interest for the greed and benefit of a few. The sad thing is, I’m not actually being hyperbolic or partisan. Just factual.
The DeVos family is a wonderful example. (Yes, of the Betsy DeVoses.) Decades before Betsy started increasing generational poverty rates in the U.S., her family had been using multi-level marketing tactics to strip wealth out of predominantly rural, white communities through their Amway scheme.
If you really want your blood to boil, check out the story of Amway, covered on the first season of “The Dream” podcast. Multi-level marketing does a few things:
- Identify with and prey on people’s feeling of isolation, insecurity, and desire to “fix themselves”, i.e. to improve their lives.
- Then, they ask people to pay exorbitant fees for “starter kits” or “selling packages” to buy into the Ponzi scheme.
- Sellers use their personal social networks of trust to sell products that will fix or improve their friends and family—and in theory, make the seller lots of money.
- These products are often (though not always) overpriced, specious or just pure B.S.
- What makes this a Ponzi scheme is that–since the products are subpar and unnecessary–that’s not what drives the value of the organization, let alone its profit. They make their money from sellers, lower down on the pyramid, buying kits and investing their own money—a.k.a. exploitation.
- The ultimate outcome is that those valuable bonds of trust between friends and family become degraded and broken. (Listening to people’s stories of having loved ones try to sell them DoTerra essential oils after they were diagnosed with seizures or cancer was deeply saddening.)
In the 80s, at the same time that Robert Novak and his cronies were trying to turn the Republican Party into “the white man’s party” and seeking to manipulate the voting patterns of millions for their own personal gain, a group of people in multi-level marketing circles were honing skills and tactics to rob poor and working-class people blind with their Ponzi schemes. And they are still at it: Amway’s annual revenue is around $8.8 billion a year.
When I first started Up With Community, there was still a little voice in my head saying that what I really wanted to do was make people better. I wanted to help people by giving them tools to solve their problems. I thought I knew the right things for people to think in order to be successful and happy.
That approach was on a path toward the same manipulations as multi-level marketing. That path is a distortion of self-interest that leads people to think they are lacking and that they need to be fixed or improved, and only someone else can do it for them. It’s that belief that undermines our democracy.
One day a few years ago, my mentor took me aside and shared: If you think you are here to fix people, all you will engage with are problems. This leads to a rotting, a sickening of the core of my work that prevents me from ever achieving my vision in the world.
From that chat, I came to understand the question I needed to focus on: “How do I help people identify and live into their healthiest self-interest?” Rather than: “How do I identify and fix their problems?”
If self-interest is a driver for something someone must own, attain or fix within themselves to be better, we are bringing people further away from knowledge and power.
If self-interest is a call to awaken to the deepest needs of our community, to call forth our self-awareness of what health and prosperity is, and to tune our own internal compass to love and shared power, then we are on a useful path.
I was blessed to witness Safiya Khalid’s run for City Council in Ward 1 in Lewiston last year.
Safiya broke ground as the first Somali-American and youngest person ever elected to our city council. She did it by sharing her belief in building our healthy self-interest here in Lewiston. She is working for who we are and can be if we support and work with each other. Check out this month’s Brass Tacks video with Councilor Khalid.
p.s. This month’s letter was quite hard to figure out how to land. Special high-fives and thanks to Cathy, Lauren, Ben and Max for their love and support.