of The Gift Economy
Many Voices discuss The Gift Economy
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Activism is derived from the word “action,” and an activist is one who literally
takes a creative and direct action to bring attention to an issue. Activism’s gift for
the world is to expose an issue or wrongdoing that will hopefully garner enough
public support to then, in turn, bring about a social and political change for the
betterment of all. The way I’ve personally been able to have hope in a world full of
such fear, injustice, and despair is through activism. Of course there are as many
kinds of activism as there are worthy and righteous causes. I ascribe to a form that
I like to call creative activism. By using artistic expressions in the forms of street
theatre, visual arts, dance, songs, and puppet shows and pageantry, the protest
message can be translated to a larger audience. This type of activism is based in
finding innovative ways to break down the gap between us (the protestors) and
them (all other people). Creative activism can be seen in terms of the gift economy
as an inspiring gift to both the movement itself by means of support and morale
and to the general public as education and entertainment.
A Creative Gift for a Better World
One such form of creative activism is called “radical cheerleading.” In radical
cheerleading there are no such things as “try-outs,” and no one person can be a
squad. In the spirit of teamwork, you must join in. To get into character, start
by imagining yourself in your cheerleading suit of choice (it doesn’t have to be
a short skirt-unless of course you want it to be!) and then picture yourself with
your squad unified against one common enemy.
Squad set, you bet!
Who let the bombs drop?
Bush bush bush
And who do we gotta stop?
Bush bush bush
And who funds Bin Laden?
Bush bush bush
Just like his daddy taught him
Bush bush bush
Who steals food from children?
Bush bush bush
In Iraq and Afganistan.
Bush bush bush
And who is a facist?
Bush bush bush
The worlds worst terrorist
Bush bush bush
Break it on down
Cops on the street yo
Threatening to beat you. Don’t let them hurt you
Get rid of W. but don’t just fight the symptoms tear down the system
Actualize solutions, global revolution!
(Cheer written by Valera Giarratano, Austin, Texas)
Of course, it’s impossible to capture the spirit of a cheer when written on paper,
however, the word “revolution”can sometimes arouse fear and bad connotations
whether read to oneself or screamed aloud. In the context of the cheer, we are not
advocating for a global revolution which takes up arms and instigates a world war.
Revolution in this cheer means getting to the root of the issue (hence the word
radical), acknowledging the problem, and then proposing proactive solutions for
global radical change. For example, Bush merely personifies the problem at hand but
really he is just a symptom of a much greater problem—the system itself—which
is based on patriarchal capitalism, exploitation, oppression and greed. It is equally
important to not only speak out against Bush and the system, but also to come
together to devise a united revolutionary plan of action. The result of such strate-
gies is a solution that can be actualized by providing an alternative model of what
a different system could and does look like. Conferences such as the International
Gift Economy Conference (Las Vegas, Nov 2004) allow us to be inspired to action
by the fact that we can gather together, learn from each other and be consoled and
unified in realizing that alternative systems to the patriarchal market economy
do, indeed, exist. This creating and sharing of our visions of a what a radically
different world looks like, is at its very essence creative activism.
What Connects Us?
We may all have different definitions of activism, but I think it is safe to assume
that what most often connects us is the tremendous energy, hope, passion, and
commitment that we share to create a more nurturing and just world. We may
not even describe ourselves as activists, that may be to some an isolating term.
We may feel more comfortable identifying as organizers, networkers, rebel rous-
ers, lecturers, academics, teachers, professors, healers, bodyworkers, therapists,
scientists, caregivers, builders, technicians, journalists, maids, maidens, mothers,
and/or crones. Whatever our title, what connects us is that we are all gift givers.
There is no way to either qualify or quantify our dedication, spirit, and love that
we put into our, more often than not, unpaid work of promoting radical positive
change. Our time and commitment to the cause, whether it be social, politi-
cal, environmental, and/or even spiritual, is not valued in the capitalist market
economy. That is why the work we do is a gift.
The Gift/Il Dono
Genevieve Vaughan (2004) sees activism as the defining of a problem and seeking
solutions to it, not just for ourselves but the universe at large. In her preface to
the article about the activist work of women in Argentina, she states:
The problem solving of activism can be understood as the satisfaction of a
social need, addressed with creativity and determination, individually and
in community with others. The actual solving of the problem is a unilateral
gift given by those who have dedicated themselves to doing it in spite of great
difficulties. It is a gift to society as a whole.... I would even say a gift to the
powers that be, because it has kept them from perpetrating yet another evil
upon the people. Social activism can be thought of in this way, as gift giv-
ing to society. That is, the gift of social change is the most necessary gift in
our times. It can have huge multiplier effects, by changing the system that
is causing the needs, and by spreading the example and the hope that this
can happen. (313)
I deeply connected with another article in the collected volume, Il Dono/The
Gift, called “The Gift Economy in My Life.” The author, Jutta Reid (Vaughan
2004: 301), narrates her whole entire life in relation to the gift economy. Until I
read this article, I did not have a truly good understanding of the gift economy.
For me, it took seeing someone else’s life through the perspective of the gift
economy to relate. Hopefully you will be able to do the same. I offer to you my
life as I equate it to the gift economy.
Radical cheerleading is what gifted me my voice and shaped my path of activism
over the last ten years. I happened upon radical cheerleading in January of 2007
in South Florida, when the initial bright idea was just being ignited. We started by
out by reclaiming the American icon of the “cheerleader” and radicalizing it to fit
our needs. We declared no try-outs and encouraged anyone that wanted to shake
it for the revolution to participate. We also welcomed everyone to write cheers
for whatever cause, action, or campaign that needed support and energy. Since
then literally hundreds of cheers have been written regarding everything from pro-
bike, pro-choice, anti-war and anti-globalization (to name only a few). It is easy
to look back and see the gifts that were given and received through the process.
Radical cheerleading gave the opportunity to be creative, dress up, coordinate
routines, work cooperatively and form a nurturing community, while at the same
time fostering an innovative way to speak truth to power. Radical cheerleading
continued to serve its traditional purpose of providing morale, enthusiasm, and
support but it took that role and elevated it to center stage instead of just the
sidelines. Radical cheerleading gave fun and animation to the protest and captured
the eye of the media allowing the protest message to be heard by the larger public.
Even with very limited access to resources, we were able to give strength and ex-
citement to many causes. I’m speaking in the past tense; when in reality, I should
be speaking in the present or future for that matter. Since its inception, radical
cheerleading has spread across the country, and now the world. Its unpredictable
course has created its own movement. This movement was facilitated by the fact
that radical cheerleading is based on the anarchist principle of autonomy. There is
no one that owns the idea of radical cheerleading. As radical cheerleading spread
and new squads were being formed, each new group of radical cheerleaders were
independent in defining how they would be both individually and as a team and
what issues stood out for them to cheer for and against. Today there are countless
squads all over the world that have either existed and or are still in existence. There
are also radical cheerleaders. like myself, that no longer practice cheerleading on a
regular basis but put on the non-uniform and gather together a squad when the
need for a cheer arises (which could be any moment!)
In terms of the gift economy, I’ve looked at radical cheerleading’s gifts to both
the movement and the greater public but it is also important to note the gifts
I’ve received personally over the years. The gifts are many but what stands out
for me the most is the radical community that I met through my extensive and
adventuresome travels as a radical cheerleader.
The Rhizome Collective
While traveling to conferences and gatherings, I met many likeminded people who
were also manifesting through art, puppetry, dance, and street theatre. Creativity
abounded and many of us started thinking about using our creativity to not only
protest what we were against but to demonstrate what we were for. We learned
from the Zapatistas that as important as it was to travel and be a part of the global
protests and mobilizations that it was equally important to foster something at
home. Needing a base of operation lead to the fall 2000 planting of the Rhizome
Collective in Austin, Texas. Over time and through many trial and errors, we
developed our dreams into a collective mission that unconsciously resembles the
gift economy. This mission agreed upon by the collective and articulated by Stacy
Pettigrew, a co-founder of the Rhizome, is as follows: “In our worldview, the
dominant values of competition, greed, and exploitation would be replaced with
cooperation, autonomy, and egalitarianism. We believe that all struggles against
oppression and for self-determination are connected, and that it is important to
construct viable alternatives while simultaneously fighting for social justice.” The
Rhizome, in name, refers to both a consensus run member based organization
as well as a 9400 sq. foot warehouse with an outside courtyard and gardens. The
space itself was gifted to the Rhizome Collective as not only a low income space
to live (a need for the people involved) but also as a place for various grassroots
activists and organizations to work out of (a need of the community). In addition,
the Rhizome is an educational resource center which provides for the needs of
the public. Classes are free or sliding scale and focus on creative arts and activism
as well as ongoing permaculture and environmentally sustainable projects. The
Rhizome Collective also receives endless gifts from outside the market economy
including but not limited to materials to build, seeds to plant, financial help,
land, and hundreds of thousands of volunteer labor hours. This vast network of
people who are involved in the Rhizome give meaning to the definition of the
word—rhizome: An expanding underground root system, sending up above ground
shoots to form a vast network which makes it very difficult to uproot.
Bikes Across Borders
Bikes Across Borders (BAB) is one of the organizations that took root in the early
days of the Rhizome Collective. I mention BAB in particular because it serves as
a prime example of the gift economy. A small group of us created Bikes Across
Borders as a way to recycle the excess of capitalism. We started a bike shop inside
the Rhizome where all the bikes had been either been found in the trash or gifted
to us. We wound up with such a large number of bicycles that we realized that
we needed to develop a program to fix them up and give them away. There was
already a grassroots organization in Austin that was providing for the bike needs
of the city so we looked elsewhere, this time south of the border. BAB became
aquainted with a women led organization on the Mexico side of the border called
the Committee for Border Workers (the CFO). They worked tirelessly to educate
workers of their rights and fight for better conditions in the U.S. owned assembly
plants (las maquiladores.) The CFO had put the word out that one of their needs
was bicycles so they could have more autonomy in their daily transportation, thus
an alliance between BAB and the CFO was forged. On our first organized trip
to the border a group of BAB radical clowns rode their bikes from Austin to the
border where we met up with them with over 80 bicycles. On this day, even after
all our our experiences of protesting global trade organizations, we truly began
to understand the consequences of “free trade.” To bring the trailer full of bikes
across the border we were told by government officials that we would have to pay
a heavy tax that none of us on either side of the border could afford. In response
and as advised by Julia, the director of the CFO, we spent all day riding each
bike across the border one by one. It became apparent that NAFTA (the North
American Free Trade Agreement) was created for big corporate businesses not for
small grassroots organizations and everyday working people like ourselves. For the
next two years we made a number of trips to the border not only providing bicycles
and bike tools but also creative activism in the form of circus acts, puppet shows,
visual arts and radical cheerleading. What we found is that through providing
conscious entertainment we were breaking down both cultural and communication
barriers. For-give me if I sound like we were doing all the giving. The CFO also
used creative activism to share their message with us. They demonstrated how to
use Theatre of the Oppressed as a fun and innovational organizing tool. But most
importantly the Committee of Border Workers gave to us the gift of trust, which
allowed us access to their homes and most personal experiences.
We were moved by their tireless passion for justice and inspired upon our return
to take action. We brought their stories to life by translating them into various
forms of creative activism. These puppet shows, comic strips, radical cheers and
slide shows were used to educate people in the states about the struggles endured
by the CFO and how to be in solidarity with them. Through this process, our
project evolved to not be charity, but instead an organization based on solidarity
and mutual aid. Mutual aid is not an exchange of a tit for a tat. Mutual aid is an
example of gift giving. None of us on either side of the border were consciously
counting gifts. It’s only now through reflection that I understand that what we
were sharing was much deeper than the exchange of money and material posses-
sions. What we experienced was giving for the simple sake of giving, not for the
sake of getting something in return. That in itself is radical.
Burn-out and How to Cope
As activists we often times give so much of ourselves that our vital flame inside us
begins to be snuffed out. Burn-out is quite common in activism but very rarely
discussed. We sometimes have very high expectations and become easily disap-
pointed in ourselves and in others. There is always so much to do! How can we as
one individual person be everywhere all at once? How can we keep up the same
energy and passion we once had? How can we balance the amounts of gifts we
give with the gifts we need to sustain ourselves? I, honestly, ask these questions
for myself but feel that others can probably relate. We must remind ourselves and
friends that “gift giving is not self-sacrificing” (Vaughan 1977).
In our creative endeavors to establish more radical models to live by, we must
at the ground level establish better ways to communicate and support each other.
We should also allow each other to take time to nurture ourselves without passing
judgment for not living up to prior expectations. Taking a reflective break allows
us time to self critique and redirect our activist work down new and innovative
paths. By giving to ourselves, we can better be able to serve and give to others.
To avoid a complete burn-out, I have slowed my pace to a more sustainable
speed. In this reflective phase, I’m trying to learn to say “no” when appropriate
and take time for myself without guilt. For many years I lived off adrenaline.
Now I’m taking the time to learn to be healthy by studying herbal medicine and
bodywork. This healing time is balanced by working from home on two separate
projects that document, archive and preserve inspiration stories. I’m co-directing
the WINGS, Women’s International News Gathering Service, archival project and
also co-editing a book on radical cheerleading. The sharing of these herstories is
a true gift for both present and future generations.
Organizations can also experience a burn-out. For the sake of sustaining the
group it’s imperative to have periodic assessments of what has worked and what
hasn’t over the long term. In Bikes Across Borders we realized that we did not have
the same resources and time to do what we had done before. So after many years
of intermittent travel and taking bikes and puppet shows to many parts of the
U.S., Canada, Mexico, and Cuba, the members of Bikes Across Borders redirected
their focus to be more locally based teaching bike maintenance, puppetry and arts
in the public schools. BAB continues to send bikes to Cuba and Mexico through
the more established connections of the Pastors for Peace biannual caravans. In
our group’s check in, what we recognized as a consistently positive aspect of our
organization was our adherence to the principles of solidarity and mutual aid.
Through cross cultural networking, we are presently able to provide housing at
the Rhizome Collective for creative activists from four different countries.
By looking back over the last ten years of my life through the lens of the gift
economy, I am able to honor the many gifts that l have been blessed. I am also
able to recognize the gifts and experiences I shared, not as wasted time, but as time
that was and still is validated in the gift economy. I say “wasted time” because that
is what much of my family and old friends, indoctrinated by the capitalist system,
thought I was doing. The question was always, “When are you going to get a job
and stop all that protesting?” My answer now is that creative activism is my life’s
work and everything else is lagniappe.* I think it’s important to recognize my first
world white privilege in this equation. I was never forced to have to get a job
and financially take care of anyone else but myself. I was able to commit myself
wholeheartedly to my activism, because I was being supported by my community
and the Rhizome Collective. Not having to pay high rents was a true gift. I did
work an occasional freelance job, but it is true that I don’t have much, monetarily
speaking, to show from most of my adult life. However the gifts I do have are the
skills and community that I acquired from my years of volunteer work. I now
am lucky enough to work a job in the market economy that I like and even have
enough time left over for my activist projects and sometimes for myself.
Once I was able to see the gift economy in my own life, I began to see it everywhere.
For some, maybe we just knew and called it by some other name. It’s more than
likely something we have been practicing in some form or fashion all of our lives,
especially if we have been socialized as women. By beginning to see activism as a
gift, we are more able to equate value with the work we do for either low or no
pay. Society at large doesn’t honor our work so we have to take it upon ourselves
to acknowledge each other. When we feel validated we live more meaningful and
inspired lives. However, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and let the system get us
down. To counteract this feeling we should start by recognizing our many gifts
within and then gather strength by reaching out to those friends that live by a
respectful, nurturing, and compassionate worldview. Really the gift economy is
simple: our work is to establish a radically different world that puts at its center
the needs of the people and the planet before money. It seems easy; however, we
must overcome thousands of years of indoctrination. It is our job as creative activ-
ists to break the curse of this outdated patriarchal consciousness and to generate
creative ideas of how to “actualize solutions for a global revolution!”
To come full circle, I would like to end with an adapted version of one of the
first radical cheers ever written. Since radical cheerleading was designed to speak
to whatever issue is at hand, I thought it would be an appropriate gift to present
a radical cheer to lend support, morale, and validation to the gift economy.
Squad set... you bet!
I don’t want to work no more.
What did you say? I said
The capitalist system doesn’t work no more.
That’s what I said, now say,
The gift economy is what came before
What did I say? I said
The gift economy is what came before.
Yes that’s what we say, now
Stomp dissolve the state, let’s liberate
Patriarchy go to hell
Another woman to rebel!
Organize and raise some hell
Create something radical—REBEL!
(original cheer by Aimee and Cara Jennings, Florida, December 2006,
adapted by Firecracker)
*Creole dialect for extra or unexpected gift or benefit.
Brackin “Firecracker” Camp grew up in a small town in Mississippi and came of age
in New Orelans, Louisiana. She has an extensive background in protesting, network-
ing, traveling, interviewing, researching, radical cheerleading, circus performing,
parading, bike riding, and organizing events/conferences throughout the U.S. and in
various other countries. To support herself in the market economy, Brackin presently
works as a personal care attendant/body worker as well as a puppeteer in the Austin
public schools. In addition, Brackin is a board member of the Rhizome Collective and
a member of the committee to free the Angola 3.
Vaughan, G., ed. 2004. Il Dono/The Gift: A Feminist Analysis. Athanor: Semiotica, Filosofia,
Arte, Letteratura 15 (8). Roma: Meltemi Editore.