At times when Ryan and I feel stuck or unsure of what path to take, we try to reflect on natural systems and patterns to give us insight and perspective. We are taking lessons from how mycelium, through its connectedness, builds healthier ecosystems by shifting resources from those with excess to those that require support. We are training ourselves to flow and adapt to change like water  filling in empty spaces. Most recently, to guide us as we move forward - we tried to figure out a natural analogy for our work and its connection to others. This analogy is imperfect and highly simplified - with time and more learning will likely evolve, so bear with us as we explore this together.
We are starting to see ourselves as organisms at the edge (fringe) of a long-standing forest (traditional financial system) – one that has been developed over a long period of time with structures and dynamics that have been reinforced over centuries. But, it’s important to note that just because the ecosystem of that forest exists, does not mean it is healthy. This forest has evolved focused on a hierarchy – placing the importance of some over the balance of all. Looking around the edge of the forest, other organisms are also creating and reacting to the environment around them – innately we know that organisms can flourish by working together. As organisms in conversation with the each other and the environment, we are not creating from a vacuum, but rather we are evolving elements of the existing ecosystem. And what we collectively choose to take or leave behind from the long-standing flora is important: we seek to build using existing financial tools and structures in new ways by reconfiguring them to prioritize humanity.
Community Credit Lab’s first lending program pilots launched over the last few months have drawn from several existing approaches: trust-based underwriting that is utilized with lending circles, no-interest lending concept seen in informal lending that happens between friends and family, and the flexibility and patience in repayment seen in revenue-based lending models or equity investments. What is being taken and tested from each of these models is intentionally emergent and reactive to feedback from community members and our partners.
People sometimes ask us if we would ever consider using “insert specific financial product here.” These are often products or models like revenue-based or income-sharing loans/structures, lending circles, alternative payday loans, convertible notes…the list goes on. We generally reply by saying – each of these financial products and tools are just that - tools. Any lending product can be used to support people effectively or can be punitive and extractive. It is how we orient the design that matters. What we choose to take or leave behind is important.
Recently, we’ve seen how income sharing agreements, initially created to offer a flexible way for students to pay for higher education, have been shown to charge higher rates to majors with less earnings potential – majors that are predominately chosen by women and people of color. Alternatively, we are also seeing models of how lending circles – a model that has existed in communities for centuries – can be formalized to help people build credit history. Because we seek to be part of a collective that changes the financial system to prioritize humanity, two simple and initial questions we ask on a weekly basis are:
Who are we designing for?
Which elements of tools that exist can be reconfigured (or created) to support them?
It is hard to avoid wedding ourselves to one tool or model that can scale, but it will never be just one tool, product or model that is the solution. We know that it will require many organizations championing change to create an abundance of financial products that are oriented around the challenges people face in order to tip the scales towards creating shifts and actions across the broader forest (system). People have different challenges and different needs – the tools that are created to meet these needs will be many in number, will need to be flexible, and most importantly, will need to prioritize humanity first and foremost.
As I think about the systemic change Community Credit Lab desires to see, I try to remember the advice of author, educator and producer, Tananarive Due in her note to author and social change facilitator, adrienne maree brown:
“Life and true change are bigger than all of us…the journey is the work, the work is the journey.”
We are not the first and we will not be the last ones to work on shifting to a more equitable financial system. But, it is important to remember that the work is never lost. All of us around the fringe working towards equity are constantly drawing from existing models and what we build will be further iterated. To change the orientation of our financial system will take time and will require us to remain in conversation. If we are collectively building on existing tools and models with deliberate intention to prioritize humanity – this shift will happen.