Writings, cartoons, and videos, and resources from Janelle Orsi
for my fellow organizers as we nurture radical transformations
Writings, cartoons, and videos, and resources from Janelle Orsi
for my fellow organizers as we nurture radical transformations
This slideshow is like a quilt I’m stitching for the people I love: For the beautiful humans who apply their passion and energy toward organizing more just, equitable, and caring communities.
Each slide is a patch that, on its own, can perhaps bring you hope and warmth when you need it. I hope the collection of patches, explored from beginning to end, can start to give you a picture of a more nurturing world that can heal the wounds inflicted by our legal and economic systems.
You’ll find a colorful patchwork of media here, with many links to my writings, videos, TikToks, resources, and even cartoon legal documents. It’s often playful, even as I explore law, finance,
real estate, and other realms that take themselves far too seriously.
This is an evolving collection, and I have a long list of things to add in 2023, so please check back. Until April, I’m taking a 6 month sabbatical to backpack through Indonesia, Thailand, Kenya, Tanzania, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru. I expect my travels will further enliven my work, and I look forward to exploring all of this with you in years to come.
Defying logic and finding hope
Since 2007, I have co-organized and done legal work with worker collectives, mutual aid groups, Black and Indigenous land return projects, energy cooperatives, urban gardens, and community land trusts. These are groups and humans I love so much, and I feel they/we are my reason for being.
But we’re constantly stung by the cold sharpness of systems like law, finance, energy, and real estate. As a lawyer and co-organizer of Sustainable Economies Law Center, I worked to make friends with these systems, to reshape them to serve communities. But we struggled to make things work, and things became ever more complicated. I felt caught in a trap, a constrictor knot with tightening legal compliance, procedure, and paperwork wrapped around my life and psyche.
Now, I look around and see beautiful ways that people are finding each other and wiggling their way out of the trap. Patches of aliveness are emerging throughout our communities and becoming stitched together into something larger. They represent both ancient and new ways of living, working, and caring for each other. Many of these patches defy conventional economic logic and legal structures, and that’s what gives them power. It’s what gives me an irrepressible motivation to write, draw cartoons, and make videos, to ask: How can we nurture these patches of aliveness in parallel to, in spite of, and/or against the legal, finance, and real estate systems?
This slideshow links outward to days worth of readings, slideshows, and videos, many of which link to even more, spreading like a fractal. You can explore this in many ways. While Part 1 shares the framework that has shaped the entire collection, you may enjoy hopping around to different parts depending on your interests and intuition. The seven main parts are:
And please share, borrow, remix, and remake this content. I’d love for it to move, find its way into various formats, platforms, and communities. For example, if you resonate with any of the resources or messages, try creating versions in your own voice to share with your own community, with attribution however you deem appropriate.
Patches of Transformation
Patches of aliveness
Picture this: In your town or city, you could walk to places where collectives of people live, work, play, learn, rest, make things, tend to ecosystems, support refugees, and steward systems for water, food, energy, and more. The places might call themselves ecovillage, community sanctuary, resilience hub, or a variety of other names expressing: This is where we welcome each other, coming together to survive and thrive. Patches of aliveness!
Lately, when I ask people how they envision their future, I rarely hear the old “American dream” vision of climbing a career ladder, buying a landscaped house in the suburbs, and having 2.3 cars. Instead, people describe patches of aliveness that they want to create in community with others.
Now, there are so many emerging, it will soon be possible to walk from one to another all day. Soon, they will be so dense that they replace the destructive systems of production, consumption, work, real estate, and extraction that harm us.
Credit to both Mateo and STLT for the vision
Patterns of aliveness
All combined, groups are behaving more like living systems, enabling a society and worldview quite different from the dominant system.
Something is shifting. Sustainable Economies Law Center has given legal advice to more than 2,300 grassroots groups, cooperatives, and community-oriented enterprise. Over the years, I’ve witnessed a shift in both what our clients are doing and how they are doing it. It’s alive and powerful. In general, we see groups who are…
Each of these qualities makes it interesting to be their lawyer for such groups. But do we work FOR them? Or do we all work for and with EACH OTHER?
Creating a different form of order through self-managed adaption.
Nesting is part of the mutuality
Living in both ancient and new ways that our legal system hasn’t made space for, or that the law disrupts and harms!
Where the law meets its edge
Our legal system gets confused when such self-organizing, collaborative, and nurturing communities emerge in place of dominant systems for real estate, finance, energy, and employment. Our legal system tends to be a bully, forcing what it doesn’t understand into boxes that can be controlled.
But there’s hope and possibility at the edges where our our legal system and living systems clash and blur. There are fuzzy spaces around the edge of every law, and patches of aliveness can be found there. As the boundaries of the law blur, one worldview dissolves and makes way for another.
Graphic: Lorenz butterfly, representing infinite forms of organization that can emerge from complex systems, yet ordered by “strange attractors.”
Humor is essential
Certain concepts can no longer be taken seriously, because they are harmful. And they will only survive for as long as we continue to take them seriously. Laughter heals, and laughing at ourselves helps us let go of old ideas and habits. This is why I draw cartoons and make goofy videos. I have been unlearning concepts implanted in me by white-dominant and patriarchal culture. On top of that, I’m unlearning law school. I often use grey squares to represent business-as-usual and the dominant worldview system. And I use humor, cartoons, and surprise to poke holes and break up such harsh, linear, boxed-in ways of thinking.
A worldview shift changes EVERYTHING
The dominant system was built on a narrow worldview that serves specific purposes, like controlling and accumulating wealth. But it’s a set of beliefs and behaviors that only hang together and makes sense for as long as we are willing to cover our eyes to how things naturally work and thrive.
Something more expansive and beautiful has been there all along, in natural ecosystems, Indigenous cultures, and in the pull of our hearts and guts. Now, ecosystem science, neuroscience, and cellular biology confirm: We are part of interdependent, self-organizing, and nurturing living systems. We thrive by embracing and working with such systems.
Our legal system was founded on and reinforces the narrow worldview. How can we start to see this and work with it, so that we can move beyond it?
First, let’s explore what makes up these worldviews.
The dominant system clings to a worldview with these elements:
Patches of aliveness thrive in a worldview with these elements:
View of reality is separation: The universe is made
up of things that can be defined, separated, and sold.
View of reality is interconnectedness: Things cannot be truly defined outside of their web of relationships.
Human nature: Selfish and violent.
Human nature: Caring and loving.
What’s “in charge:” The rational/conceptual mind. Cutting ourselves off from our guts and hearts.
What’s in charge: Our physical and emotional pull toward connection and nurturance.
How society organizes: Hierarchically, using physical and emotional violence to dominate over people and living things, with wealth and power accumulating unequally.
How things organize: We self-organize creatively, playfully, fractally. With a few guides and safeguards, wealth and power spread and root naturally and intuitively.
Response to crisis: Build fortresses around ourselves
and try to control things.
Response to crisis: Gently coordinate support and nourishment so they flow toward many and especially toward those who need them the most.
Predominant force: Domination and extraction.
Predominant force: Love and nurturance. Life wants more life. It’s the glue that holds everything together.
Let’s explore the above elements in the rainbow of slides below.
Are we separate or interconnected?
There is something we are born knowing, but which our dominant culture and legal system try to make us forget: We are inseparable parts of larger organisms. It was mostly obviously true before our birth, but never stopped being true after: Everything we need for our survival comes from much larger systems that we are part of. Our health and the health of those systems are interwoven. We are the sum of our relationships.
When we are most fully experiencing our connection to others, human generosity flows as easily as our blood delivers oxygen to our cells. Caring for each other is not an act of sacrifice or charity; it is simply what we each do as we fulfill our purpose as part of larger organisms.
Meanwhile, our legal system uses countless tools to sever our relationships and make us feel like separate, atomized individuals. Contracts assign individual property and rights, then force us to engage in adversarial contests to protect them. We prosecute individuals, rather than address the systemic conditions that lead to harm. Tools of separation abound in our legal system and they are disrupting the nurturance that flows from our relational nature.
Dissolving the borders and binaries
Such definitions and false binaries give us a map to patterns of domination, extraction, and colonization. We cannot escape this system until we begin to blur the artificial lines, to complicate the definitions of even fundamental things like “person,” “land,” and “energy,” and to re-weave a web of relationships outside of the maps drawn for us by the dominant system. This is a massive, but liberating, project. It requires that we shift from a worldview of separation to a worldview of interdependence.
Our legal system uses rituals to create artificial definitions, boundaries, and borders that break apart the web of life. Almost everything in the law starts with definitions. Statutes and contracts begin with glossaries to define and reify Things. Even the U.S. Constitution speaks of Things with a capital T. In law school, we learn to analyze and argue that something either is or isn’t a Thing. Now, we’re held captive by an overwhelming and complex body of law, with a Thing called lawyers acting as gatekeepers, and punishment to non-lawyers who dare to engage in this hard-to-define Thing called “practicing law.”
Throughout the law, there are false binaries that gaslight us by obscuring realities that are far more complex, nuanced, and diverse. Any time the law attempts to define something that isn’t actually definable, we should be wary. A poignant example: Defining “white” as a race to exclude and exploit all who were not white.
After 15 years as a lawyer, I’ve learned something important: The more complex a law is, the more likely it is that the law has a core design flaw. The complexity derives from layers of patches added to a law to cover its core problems. The patches come in the form of exceptions, exemptions, tests, thresholds, and various rules aimed at preventing exploitation, closing loopholes, or quelling outcry about the law’s disparate impacts. I now see the complexity of retirement savings law is evidence of a broken foundation that cannot be patched with even clever legislation. Congress, the Department of Labor, and the IRS add layers of complexity and new interpretations to retirement savings law quite often, demonstrating a constant struggle to fix something that is broken.
The emperor has no clothes.
Did you know lawyers and judges in the UK and its colonies still often wear curly white and blonde wigs? It’s a status symbol designed to gain respect and deference. Where else do quirky rituals appear in our legal system and signal us to give unearned deference? EVERYWHERE! Start to look for them and you find them:
These are all relics of a worldview that reduces the world to a set of things that can be defined, owned, and controlled. Laughter can help break the spell and start to take away the power and violence of such “things” and their rituals.
2 min TikTok on how the law uses rituals to make us believe in things that aren’t things.
At our core, are we: brutish…
anthropology, and even our gut instincts can tell us a very different story: That humans are social and loving, and that our natural inclination is to take care of each other and other living things. Violent and destructive behavior is not evidence of core brutishness; it’s evidence that trauma and wounds of separation are disrupting our caring inclinations, or that we just make human mistakes.
With this understanding, we’d design a very different legal system! Instead of controlling people by force, we’d create countless spaces for healing and collective nurturance. Our most fundamental “law” or commitment to each other might be to keep showing up and working together in such spaces. I’m in awe of people like Abby Abinanti, Chief Judge of the Yurok Tribe, who stand up to harmful systems of incarceration and create such healing spaces. Judge Abby describes the Yurok court staff as a circle of “aunties and uncles” who show empathy and understanding for ancestral and ongoing wounds, offer support instead of punishment, and trust in the potential for everyone to heal and thrive as integral members of the community.
1-min TikTok on how a misperception of human nature is the core of our broken legal system.
A misunderstanding of human nature formed the basis our current legal system. The view that humans are “nasty and brutish” led to a system where we solve problems by controlling people. But neuroscience,
Are we rational machines or complex organisms?
Our legal system is also founded on misperception of who we are and how we think. Our conceptual and rational minds are only one piece of who we are and what we do. Recent decades have revealed countless ways that our hearts, guts, feelings, and other senses and intuitions shape our experience and behaviors. We’ve learned how trauma can reshape our bodies and experience of life. We’ve learned how implicit bias acts at a subconscious level and inflicts harm in countless ways. From attachment theory, we’ve learned of the critical role of our human relationships in shaping our behaviors. Evolutionary biology has helped us understand our deep programming. Microbiology has shown how each human is an organism made up of trillions of other organisms, and neuroscience continually reveals the infinite complexity of what shapes our lives.
Meanwhile, our legal system is is stuck believing that “rational thinking” and “reasonable men” are the deciders and shapers of our world. In law school, we are urged to suppress our feelings and apply a narrow form of logic to solving problems. This approach perpetuates trauma.
How might we design a legal system that solves problems by seeking to understand and embrace the fullness of our humanity? Far from being a “soft” approach, I believe it is the only way we can address the economic and ecological crises that threaten our world.
We are addicted, and we can recover.
Economic and legal systems are not the only things shaping the distribution of wealth and power in our society. They’re also shaped by our nervous systems, fear responses, emotional and social patterns, and much more. Almost no one escapes addiction in today’s world. The harms, oppressions, and traumas inflicted by our culture of domination give us pain, grief, anger, and fear. We seek comfort. If we’re lucky, we find comfort in the support friends, family, our community. But more often, we find temporary relief in ways that scramble our reward-based learning systems. Fleeting rewards obscure adverse consequences. If we seek comfort in sugar or alcohol, we eventually find ourselves powerless in the face of disintegrating health and lives. Other addictions are leaving us powerless in the face of disintegrating communities and ecosystems:
Gaining status and climbing ladders of power can give us a jolt of satisfaction. For a moment, we feel better off and more in control of things. But at some level, it also makes us feel ill when we reinforce social structures of superiority, supremacies, domination, and oppression.
When we accumulate money, land, and other assets, each acquisition brings a jolt of gratification. We feel safer, provided for, in control, special. But many people never feel satisfied and the adverse consequences are killing us. Individual accumulation deprives others of nourishment and destroys the collective stewardship of wealth and ecosystems, essential to global survival.
What is the shape of our collective thriving?
In my experience, fixed hierarchies rarely, if ever, support the thriving of a group or project. Command and control of some people by other people invariably reproduces systems of oppression. It also suppresses a vital source of energy for transformative work: each person’s intrinsic drive toward nurturance and our playful and diverse ways of solving problems.
I’ve been lucky to be part of many groups and projects that came together organically, with people listening to their hearts and to each other, making responsive decisions, resolving problems as they arose, and naming and addressing oppressive patterns when they emerged. Sustainable Economies Law Center took shape without a fixed hierarchy, as have several groups we’ve had the honor of working with. For a long time, it felt like magic to me, because it was so different from the workplaces and institutions of the dominant culture. But now I see that self-organizing systems are all around us, in natural ecosystems, Indigenous communities, and even the cells in our bodies. They can teach us so much about designing legal and economic systems! Without fixed hierarchies, they create the own kind of order and take infinite shapes.
1-min TikTok on what we can learn from the “laws” of nature.
Far less control, but if you look closely, things create their own order.
And self-organizing systems are far from structureless.
Add Octopus Agreement here?
How will we thrive in a world of crisis?
If we understand ourselves as interconnected, embedded in living systems, essentially loving and caring, and capable of self-organizing wildly diverse solutions, then our responses to crises will generate patches of aliveness and connection. Resources will flow naturally to where they are needed.
But if we understand ourselves as separate, responsible for ourselves, and competing in a system of winners and losers, then we’ll respond to crises by becoming fractured from each other, fortressed, and protective of property.
Thus, our worldviews will shape everything about the flow of resources and the viability of solutions in a world where crisis is the norm. Legal systems will play a pivotal role. The current system revolves around the creation and protection of individual property rights. We need a system that centers the rights of all humans and other living things to survive and thrive.
I expect – and am learning to accept – that every year ahead will present us with ever greater challenges: Ever larger ecological disasters, system collapses, devastating losses, and shortages of the essentials: water, living soil, food, shelter, safety, and more.
Individual “rights” based approaches sound nice, but often obscure what is essentially a property based system of exclusion and domination
What’s more powerful: Domination or nurturance?
Without realizing it, we so often reproduce patterns of domination in the name of “justice.” For a long time, I envisioned my work as akin to building a machine with many interlocking parts. I imagined that we would engineer contracts and entities to form cooperative workplaces, housing, solar projects, and farms, then engineer financial tools and institutions to pump money to them, then fashion public policies to support all of it. Sustainable Economies Law Center works on many parts of this, so I felt hopeful, and I could envision it coming together like a tight machine to redistribute wealth and power to all.
But this way of thinking no longer makes sense in my body, heart, or mind. At a gut level, I could feel a churning sense that such systems were boxing us in, dependent on high levels of control and predictability, and harming the soft animals of our bodies. And, at an empirical level, I was observing that 15 years of work hadn’t led to this system taking hold and spreading.
Now, I imagine my work differently. My experiences and learnings have taught me that living systems and communities have natural instincts to organize, heal, and nurture the thriving of life all around us. Another way of saying this:
I believe that love is more powerful than anything.
My work, then, is not to engineer redistributive systems. My work is to engage the law to both create conditions for and remove the barriers to the natural flow of love, care, and nurturance. For the most part, our legal system disrupts the flow of love. I want to change this more than anything.
It can be simple.
Ok, shifting from one worldview to another is not a simple move. In fact, it turns things on their head, disintegrates concepts we held tightly, scrambles the institutions we’ve built our lives on and around, and leaves a lot of uncertainty.
Beyond that, everything becomes much simpler! Imagine a bare patch of dirt. If untrampled, it will eventually become home to plants and critters, without any help from humans. Life grows itself, when we get out of the way.
I believe the same is true of humans and communities. We self-organize and grow ourselves in infinitely diverse ways. I reflect back on many “solutions” I’ve worked on as part of cooperative and solidarity economy movements, and I see that our legal and financial concepts, tools, and structures got in the way, disrupting emergent aliveness. Now I see potential to restore balance, to let living systems take shape, and gently nurture them. It means reimagining and recreating our relationships to things like money, law, property, and energy, learning to work with the flow of aliveness, not against it.
My Journey and Sources
These past few years, I’ve made a concerted effort to revisit my life and work through a lens that sees humans as essentially loving, interdependent, and capable of self-organizing infinite strategies to care for each other and all living things.
It’s wildly different from the dominant Western worldview I’ve been steeped in!
Below, I share a bit of my story and sources of inspiration.
After patching together this slide collection in October, 2022, I’m now leaving to backpack through Indonesia, Thailand, Kenya, Tanzania, Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador until April of 2023. My hope is to further widen my eyes, to become more open, and to love and embrace the world of possibilities that exist beyond Western-dominant culture.
Where I and these writings come from
These writing come from a recent epoch of my life. Here’s the abridged story of 5 epochs that led me here:
1979-2013: People are mean to each other! I’m grateful I grew up with financial stability, race privilege, safe neighborhoods, and a loving family. But early experiences left me chronically unsettled: I was bullied at school and surrounded by homophobia, my mom struggled with her mental health and alcoholism, and, I was shaken by violence in the broader world. Like when I was 10, people matter-of-factly told me of the bombing of Hiroshima, and I had no way to process the shock.
2014-2005: Can people be good to each other? As a closeted queer 14-year-old, seeing footage of the Stonewall Riots gave me hope and comfort — to see how people courageously and collectively take stands against meanness. I thought: “that’s me!” I became a social and racial justice activist in college, and studied anthropology so I could learn about how people can be good to each other. My early jobs were, in theory, about caring for people — in group homes, shelters, schools, and youth centers. But seeing how badly our systems treat people, I went to law school to become an advocate for teenagers. Then, experiences in dependency, delinquency, and other youth law work taught me: We will not create a more compassionate world in these systems.
2006-2008: We can share and cooperate! Exposure to worker cooperatives, community gardens, and cooperative housing helped me see how people can be good to each other. I became a lawyer focused on helping people share and cooperate. I co-wrote a practical and legal guide to sharing, The Sharing Solution. But I began to see a problem…
My story, continued…
2009-2019: Wait, laws and lawyers disrupt sharing and cooperation! We can fix that! This led me to co-found Sustainable Economies Law Center, write Practicing Law in the Sharing Economy, and start cartooning, as a way to communicate complexity and visualize solutions. At the Law Center, we advised 2000+ clients, crafted legal tools, and re-wrote laws. I was optimistic that we could adapt policies, contracts, corporations, property, financial instruments, and other tools of the legal system – including lawyers themselves – to smooth the path to a more sharing and caring world. But, again, there was a problem…
2020-2022: We can’t use this legal system to transform things! But life has given us more powerful tools for healing and transformation! How do we reconcile these? I’ve spent time learning about biology, ecosystems, trauma healing, neuroscience, indigenous cultures, and various wisdom traditions, and I’ve learned: At its foundation, our legal system is designed in opposition to the nurturing, caring, and healing nature of life and humans. These writings are about that recognition, what living systems can teach us about thriving, and how we can reckon the two: life and the legal system. I’ve be grappling with the immensity of problems we face, and, at the same time, feel a kind of hope and clarity I’ve never felt before. I feel deeply moved to share all of this.
Lineage of inspiration and learning
I’m not much of an academic, but I’m a doer, collaborator, and listener. I’ve spent most of my adult life doing projects of all kinds with groups of people, and that’s where I do most of my learning. My calendar has always been a dense and colorful patchwork of meetings, activities, and events – teaching music to teenagers, deliberating with my coworkers, showing up to protest police violence, meeting to plan projects, and so much more.
In between all these activities, I would try to keep up with writings of social justice leaders, to study the law, and generate the kind of intellectual “work product” I thought was expected of me as a lawyer and leader. Lawyers are trained to write with precision and cite precedent for each claim them make, and scholars are taught to bibliographize. But whenever I’ve sought to conform my writing to such expectations, it has required me to cut off more natural ways of expressing what I’ve learned through the richness of my day-to-day experience of working with others.
I’m not going to precisely reference everyone who has influenced me, because I’ve been shaped by a vast lineage of those who have learned, taught, and shared their inspiration. But I will do my best to share who and what has shaped me and to give credit where due, sometimes in the slides, sometimes in the notes below.
Sources of “WHOA”
“Ah ha” moments and other feelings of “WHOA” are what compel me to write and create. From recent years, here are some of my favorite sources of such inspiration, with some added references below the slides:
People I’ve had the honor of working with lately, who blow my mind on a regular basis: Tiny Gray-Garcia of POOR Magazine, Corrina Gould of Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, Chief Caleen Sisk of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, Noni Session and Ojan Mobedshahi of East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative, and Crystal Huang and hannah bouscher-gage of People Power Solar Cooperative.
Coworkers at Sustainable Economies Law Center who collectively shape the emergence of our work and keep me in a perpetual state of gratitude and awe: Chris Tittle, Dorian Payán, Alejandra Cruz, Tia Taruc-Myers, Christine Hernandez, Ricardo Nuñez, Hope Williams, Tobias Damm-Luhr, Erika Sato, Itzel Nuño, Mwende Hinojosa, Gregory Jackson, Jay Cumberland, Elizabeth Burnett, Cameron Rhudy, and Sue Bennett.
People I love to have conversations with, because they say such insightful things: Miliaku Nwabueze, Robin Crane, David Bollier, Gopal Dayaneni, Ismail Ali, Iris Starr, and Mohit Mookim.
People whose writing I could read over and over again: adrienne marie brown, Rupa Marya, Astra Taylor, Robin Wall Kimmerer,
David Bollier & Silke Helfrich, Jeremy Lent, David Graeber, Nathan Schneider, Pema Chodron, Brene Brown, Sonya Renee Taylor, Margaret Wheatley, Lewis Hyde, and Audre Lorde.
Books that changed me
The following five books have had a profound impact on me. They’ve helped me understand how Indigenous cultures, emerging biology, ecosystem science, and neuroscience, and spiritual traditions like Taoism and Buddhism all point to a shared understanding that no one exists or can be defined as separate from their web of relationships. They help my brain grasp what my heart and gut already know: We are interdependent. I return to these books again and again to reinforce the transformation of my own worldview and to apply it to everything I do in law, finance, real estate, and more. My gratitude to these authors overflows. I hope everyone reads these books and applies the transformative insights to their world and work.
Part 3: Let’s Get Money
Out Of The Way
← Seriously though: If you want that, it’s yours.
I’d rather not dignify the subject of finance by starting with it, but our habitual ways of thinking about money block us from clearly seeing the vast realm of possibilities for a thriving world. The pursuit of money has kept us from seeing how dangerous it is to financialize land and water. It keeps us from seeing, for example, how silly it would be for me to turn the below image into an NFT and convince you that you could “own” it. So let’s get money out of the way.
Money keeps us from thinking clearly about other topics I’ll explore, like land, energy, and law.
How do we get money
to where it needs to go?
Too many brilliant minds are expending precious energy on the question of: How do we get money to land trusts, worker cooperatives, BIPOC-led enterprise, and other projects in the solidarity economy? I spent the last 12 years learning about finance, and the laws related to lending, investing, retirement savings, and currencies, all in the name of channeling money toward justice and equity.
Now, I’m seeing how much we disrupt the natural flow of money when we try to engineer financial channels that mimic those of the larger financial system. What if, instead, we pay attention to the natural laws of how money moves, learn to work with that system? Here’s a 3-min story about those laws: Finance Law 101
If it strikes you as idealistic to move away from controlled financial structures to more emergent relational ones, then I recommend you watch the next 3 videos to find similar conclusions through the lens of law and anti-oppression.
Unraveling Everything I Thought About Finance
For years, I worked with others at Sustainable Economies Law Center to find ways for everyday people to invest in community enterprises. We wrote laws to legalize crowd-financing, helped cooperatives make securities offerings, and helped people self-direct their retirement investments locally. All of this offered less harmful alternatives to a very harmful financial system.
But why settle for doing less harm? It’s still harm. I started a more earnest search for how money could repair harm. In this cartoon talk, I share what unfolded, as I realized the harmful nature of retirement savings vehicles, then investment, then the benign-sounding concept of “saving” money. Lastly, I found out that the concept of retirement scares people and no longer makes sense: Unraveling Everything I Thought About Finance (17 mins) And here’s an article where I share this unfolding: 5 Unsafe Assumptions about Retirement and Savings (2000 words)
Retirement Plans Are Deadly Traps
In 2019, I co-founded a project called The Next Egg to help people make socially beneficial investments using their IRAs and 401(k)s. Now I see that such IRAs and 401(k)s are structurally flawed, to the point where there is no point in trying to create “good” ones. In 5 Unsafe Assumptions about Retirement and Savings, I unpack several faulty assumptions on which the project was based.
For anyone still thinking that a 401(k), 403(b), or IRA could be “hacked” to advance social justice, I’m sorry to put this so bluntly: No. It can’t.
This piece unpacks the legal and structural flaws with such plans:
Retirement Plans are Deadly Traps (5500 words)
I recommend reading the above instead of the Rethinking Retirement Savings piece I co-wrote for Harvard Law Review Forum. The Harvard Law piece has a very mild tone and ends on too hopeful a note about reforming such plans.
Someone asked me: Do you have to use the word “deadly?” I know people would prefer that I make them less uncomfortable. But there is probably no comfortable way to explain that the harm we are causing with retirement plans is costing people their lives.
The Nightmare Machine of Money “Justice”
Finance law is a policing system, and this is no metaphor. Imagine you want to create a community-oriented fund, take investments, then lend the money to small-scale enterprise. If you do not comply with applicable laws (securities, investment company, and finance lender laws), you could be deemed a criminal. If you have enough resources and technical support to comply, then you will start behaving like and become an aid to the police.
Financial regulation is a system of control, forcing the handlers of money to demonstrate that they have sufficient control – i.e. coercion power – over people and things. It’s time to blow the whistle on all of this, including my own work.
The Nightmare Machine of Money “Justice” (22 min cartoon)
Unleash the Solutions: Finding Justice in Finance
People who watched the last two videos described feeling “shocked” and “devastated,” and yet “grateful.” If the solutions we previously believed in are, in fact, perpetuating harm and oppression, now what? And if the law, by design, is going to keep us from creating community financial alternatives, what do we do instead? Here’s a forest talk where I begin to address this: Unleash the Solutions: Finding Justice in Finance (14 mins)
In this video, I introduce the concept of “alegal” activity, meaning unrelated to the concerns of the law. The edges of the law are always soft. There are rarely hard lines delineating what is or isn’t regulated or taxed. It’s through these grey spaces that we discover that our legal system’s disruption and harm of living systems can only go so far. When we identify “alegal” ways of moving money, we also rediscover what it looks like to rely on living systems of care and sustenance, where the solutions are self-organized and infinitely diverse.
Fund democracy / democratize funds
This Legal Toolkit on Funding Economic Democracy (63 pages) is the culmination of work at Sustainable Economies Law Center to get resources to participatory organizations, like cooperatives and worker-directed nonprofits. Widespread misunderstanding of the law has kept money from moving, so this Toolkit helps set the record straight on foundation law, endowment law, charitable purposes, and more.
But it’s not just about getting funding to democracy. It’s about getting democracy to funding. Wherever pools of wealth have disproportionately accumulated in the hands of few, we need to unleash that wealth into communities of people everywhere who will deliberate and participate in getting that money to the work that will build resilience in the face of intersecting global crises. We need to get the money out of foundations and into democratic and deeply participatory organizations.
What else about finance?
Here are several other recent writings and videos on finance:
When I return from sabbatical in April, 2023, I’ll work with others to build a collection of resources at RedistributionLaw.org. That will include two works already in progress:
Also, here’s a recent podcast interview with Douglas Rushkoff, which includes some fun conversation about finance
Part 4: Energy Isn’t a Thing. It’s Everything.
I used to think of energy as a thing. And, along with all things, I wanted us to democratize it. Imagine: Cooperatively-owned solar and wind projects everywhere. Below, I share a series of jolts that showed me this is a very limited vision of “energy democracy.” It took time to recognize the obvious: our profit-oriented energy system is designed to extinguish democracy.
But that doesn’t leave us powerless! I had to get beyond my narrow view of energy as joules and watts we produce, sell, buy, and use up. More broadly, energy animates all things in the universe. When we ask the broader question of what we need to animate our lives, the work of energy democracy becomes a much broader field in which the ingenuity of our communities can combine to create infinite answers.
Purple squirrels are real. Now what?
Fields of Energy Democracy
Imagine playing a soccer game on a field the size of a postage stamp. Not much can happen, right? That’s similar to the spaces that we have to participate in shaping our energy system. Profit-oriented companies dominate the field, and relegate communities to tiny corner of influence. We have no room to move.
It took me a long time to realize how limited we are. Meanwhile I worked with others to create community-owned solar projects, optimistic that communities could have a chance to build, own, and democratically control energy projects everywhere.
This video is a story of how I came to understand our field of energy democracy to be impossibly small, and where I believe we still have room to move: Fields of Energy Democracy (17 minutes)
Energy justice = land transformation
If we let ourselves grasp that our dominant energy systems are collapsing, we’d change everything about how we live. More than anything, people would become far more cooperative, both with other people and with all living systems. And cooperation will be impossible until we restore stable and reciprocally caring relationships with each other and with land.
In Land Return as Energy Justice (15 mins), I share how I woke up from a weird dream, in which I spent 8 years struggling in tangled web of regulatory and financial aspects of renewable energy, only to realize: It could be much simpler. Now, I feel the most important work is to cultivate deeply participatory organizations and return land to loving stewardship, especially by Black, Indigenous, and other frontline communities.
It may be impossible to stop the cascading and compounding global crises, but we do have power to weave a more resilient web of connections that can better protect and nourish all of us.
I recognized that a fixation on electrical power, while still important, had distracted me from the more pertinent and underlying question: How do we meet our needs? Every one of our needs is met because of energy, because of forces of motion, cause, and effect. Energy propels EVERYTHING. Life on earth IS energy and it is sustained by energy, through cycles, reciprocity. Our greatest source of energy is to understand, work with, and be part of living energy systems. The saddest thing has been to realize that our primary relationship to energy is, instead, killing living systems.
What else about energy?
My relationship to the subject of energy reminds me of romantic comedy movies where the characters drive each other nuts, yet find themselves irresistible drawn to each other. I would love to run far far away from this subject of energy, because it is the most complex and alienating of all the subject areas I work in, particularly because of the technical knowledge that must be layered onto the regulatory aspects. Yet, I also have a strong sense that if we figure out energy, then will have figured out …. EVERYTHING!
And for fun, here’s a 2-minute cartoon on how I continually have my mind blown by the concept of energy.
In Essential Connections for Energy Democracy (16 pages), I reflect on many twists and turns in Sustainable Economies Law Center’s work on energy democracy from 2013 to 2022. At several points, we believed we had hit upon solutions, only to repeatedly find ourselves back to the drawing board.
In 2023, I’m excited to continue evolving this work with the brilliant folks at People Power Solar Cooperative. This slideshow shows some of the recent twists our energy work has taken. Many more to come!
Part 5: Land Is The Thing
By that, I mean: I believe that land is the most important thing to put our money, energy, time, resources, creativity, deliberation, care and passion toward right now.
But it brings up a threshold question: What IS land? As a real estate lawyer working for land justice, I was shocked to realize I couldn’t answer that question. Try for yourself to define land! Is it a patch of dirt? Does it include soil that builds up or erodes away? Does it include the water that falls on, flows through, percolates below, and evaporates from the “land?” Does it include the plants that come and go, the animals and humans who both care for and are sustained by it?
As with many things, land is not a thing. Attempts to do define it fail, and yet we have a legal system and set of real estate professions that try. The result is the violent severing of life-giving relationships. If “land” is a dynamic set of interdependent living relationships, then we cannot box it up and sell it without violence.
Where does that leave us? How do we repair the harms of violence and begin to nurture the web of relationships that land is and wants to be?
2 min TikTok on rituals we use to pretend that land is a thing. Rituals obscure the underlying violence.
Bonds of love v. bonds of law
The Forbidden Eroticism of Real Estate (1000 words)
Our dominant culture does not recognize and protect the deep bonds of love that people have with land, places, homes, and neighborhoods. In this piece, I share some personal stories about how I’ve come to feel the incredible potential of affection to nurture us all in the face of global threats. My mom had a deep affection for plants, particularly the ones she planted and nurtured herself. She had boundless energy to labor for hours in the garden. That’s the same energy that drives many Indigenous peoples to carefully and affectionately tend the plants, animals, and soils that are felt – quite literally – as family. To me, it’s proof that, while impossible to measure with scientific instruments or in dollars, love is more powerful than anything. Imagine a legal system that works with love, not against it.
Awkward Moments in Radical Real Estate Law
“Awkward moments” is a light and playful way to express something both deeply beautiful and disturbing: Land is a web of mutually nurturing relationships, and the law violently severs such relationships. Once I saw this, I couldn’t unsee it. It has shaken my identity as a lawyer (more on that below) and left me with more questions than answers.
A Roundhouse is Not a Gazebo: Awkward Moments in Radical Real Estate Law (Article published by The Law & Political Economy Project)
I co-wrote this piece with coworkers from the Radical Real Estate Law School, and we each share stories about how law and our legal training often clash awkwardly – or even violently – with the liberatory visions and lifeways of Indigenous and Black-led groups we work with. We call them our “clients,” even when it’s clear that we are the ones learning the most from the relationship. Our clients often encourage us to lay down our legal tools, step into their world, and see what they see. For me, it has meant letting a different worldview be the starting point for my work. It changes everything.
Legal Tools for Land Return
Legal Tools for Land Return (3500 words)
I wrote this for the people who are feeling animated toward repair, healing, and return of land to Indigenous and Black people. I also wrote it for myself. As a land justice lawyer, I have tinkered with the “nuts and bolts” of real estate for 15 years, and I’ve found them increasingly hard to stomach. Now, I’m attuning to ways law and legal tools have disrupted the flow of inspiration that motivates land return.
I’m searching for the balance. How can mindful use of “nuts and bolts” also anchor liberatory movements? In this piece I’ll share the legal tools that I find helpful, along with thoughts on how to use and relate to them.
I explore questions: 1) How can we ease the violence of property ownership and soften its hard boundaries? 2) How can we shepherd the ownership into the hands of people who will steward it? and 3) What legal tools can support long-term healing and repair?
Seeds of Land Return
Seeds of Land Return (19 slides) is a library of unique legal documents to help liberate land from the exploitative market and return it to communities of loving stewards. Sustainable Economies Law Center has supported emerging land stewardship organizations, and people constantly ask us to create legal toolkits and templates. Yet, I’ve seen so many legal tools disrupt the spirit of love and healing that is essential to the work of land return.
Land return is sacred work. But it’s hard to do this work without engaging the same legal system that has ravaged human relationships with land. I grappled with this in the above essay, Legal Tools for Land Return. Seeds of Land Return is my effort to find a way forward in work that is both sacred and unavoidably violent. I guide readers to understand 3 sets of legal tools and then offer 16 simple documents or “seeds,” many of them slideshows with graphics. The seeds are designed to keep both the mind and heart engaged. They avoid the clutter of typical legal documents, which so often breed confusion and distrust. They provide the basic legal blueprint for land return, while leaving space for people to grow and shape relationships rooted in their values. And here’s a 30-minute video tour of the resource.
Can legal documents protect land kinship?
Can we imagine using legal documents to protect and restore relationships of love and kinship with land? This feels like an absurd question! What role do legal documents play in love? The above Kinship Conservation Easement is meant to ease the sharp boundaries of private property and restore webs of kinship around land. It’s a draft and experiment, navigating the
muddled intersection of the conventional legal system and the more caring world we’re working to create. It’s a legally-enforceable document that simultaneously works to subvert the rational logic and infuse love into our legal enforcement systems.
One goal is to shift away from the “reasonable man” standard of legal interpretation toward that of a nurturing parent. Any judge called upon to interpret and enforce the easement will be prompted to first contemplate the ways we are inseparable parts of interdependent webs of life. The words and images in the document are also meant to invoke feelings of affection and connection, without which the meaning and purpose of the document cannot be fully understood. The warm spirit of the document aims to nurture the seed of collaboration that brought parties to create such an agreement, with the goal that they can work together to fulfill the purpose and not turn to court systems to solve problems.
Planning from aliveness in our cities
There are many things I cannot fathom. How have the cells in my body kept themselves organized and nourished all these years? How have redwood forests emerged and generated stable ecosystems for thousands of years? In general, how does such aliveness just ...happen, without blueprints and bosses? Without fancy organizational charts and hierarchies, like that of Oakland’s Planning & Building Department, pictured below?
If life emerges and flourishes without plans, how do we apply this insight to our organizations and cities? Self-organization is powerful and effective, and we desperately need to tap the brilliance of everyone in our communities to face the crises that are unfolding.
This piece tells the story about how groups came together to explore creating a bottom-up planning system in the City of Oakland. In the end, Oakland remains caught in business-as-usual, but our collective efforts offer glimmers of possibility.
Where it can all begin: Three Gatherings
Oakland General Plan 2021: A Space Odyssey (21 slide cartoon story)
While the above is a work of speculative fiction, it’s somehow one of the most realistic pictures I’ve painted in my own mind. When the City of Oakland announced it would be updating its General Plan for the first time in 20 years, I let my imagination run wild. What could bring us together, in hundreds of small groups around the city, to start listening to each other, caring about each other, letting our neighbors’ dreams merge with our dreams, solving problems together, and actively shaping our neighborhoods?
I drew inspiration from rites of passage in cultures around the world, where communities come together to celebrate and nurture families of newborns, youth who are coming of age, and elders. In this story, city planning in Oakland comes to center around such celebrations, called The Three Gatherings.
Writing this story gave me a sense of peace and possibility. People have asked me how I imagine us organizing society without things like retirement savings, centralized energy systems, and industrial food systems. To all of this, in my head, I answer: The Three Gatherings. If we can start spending time together, in the spirit of nurturance and joy, I believe that so much is possible.
What else about land?
Meanwhile, here are a few other recent works:
Land law and policy became the core focus in my work with the 2020 launch of the Radical Real Estate Law School, where coworkers and I have been learning, teaching, and practicing ways to reshape personal and legal relationships with land. When I return to this work after April 2023, I hope to write much more about policy issues that are pivotal to this work, particularly related to property taxes, public regulation of “affordable” housing, city planning processes, and more. Curtailing the speculative market and banning land grabs will be critical. But if wealthy speculators, elite planners, and unaccountable bureaucrats will no longer decide the shape of our land relationships, then who will and how? I began exploring this with a draft Land Liberation Act, and I’m certain this will be a rich exploration in years to come.
Part 6: Law
& the Legal Profession
Years ago, I drew these cartoons about how the legal profession has failed and how we need to decommodify the law. Over the years, the Sustainable Economies Law Center has chipped away at this problem, practicing many ways to make law and legal work open and accessible. We’ve supported people to become lawyers without going to law school. We modeled and encouraged others to form non-hierarchical legal practices. We designed our legal advice clinics (aka “legal cafes”) to be as down-to-earth and accessible as possible, and the American Bar Association even gave us an award for our innovation in expanding access to legal services.
However, these strategies haven’t made a dent in the problem, and I no longer believe we can fix the profession. As the following articles and presentations show, I feel it’s time to challenge the legitimacy of the profession, and urgently give law back to the people. I call upon lawyers to take bigger leaps – to radically re-think both what work we do and how we do it – as a path to restoring healing connections for ourselves and the world we are an interdependent part of.
Article: From Dominance Lawyering to Nurturance Lawyering (3400 words)
In this piece, I explore both the origins of the profession and the origins of many lawyers’ suffering, showing how everyone is harmed.
Excerpt: “The legal profession offers the world a unique and valuable lens into human suffering and oppression. [...] For years, I wondered: When did things go so wrong with the profession? That question led me back in time, further and further. Finally, I grasped that the root of the problem is inseparable from the profession. The profession emerged to support coerced and violent theft of communal land and wealth; there is no separating the profession from the violence at its roots. [...]
If care and repair are the free-flowing result of our sense of connection, then separation is the weapon that formal law uses to enable domination and cause harm. A misperception of ourselves as separate from others is our core wound, and the legal profession deepens it and pours salt on it. Law severs up human activity into shoulds and shouldn’ts, rights and duties, and bare minimums that stifle imagination. The rules disrupt our intuitive ways of deciding our actions for ourselves, in dialog with our families, communities, and ecosystems. Law thus separates people’s minds from their gut and heart intuitions. Law tells us that we are separate from each other, acting in self-interest and in competition, either right or wrong, a winner or loser. Law and legal documents normalize self-interested behavior by assuming we are trying to cheat each other, and writing rules and procedures to regulate it. The legal profession separates the people from the law and separates lawyers from the rest of society, uplifting lawyers to a privileged status. The harm of that separation becomes hard to see, as lawyers suppress their pain, and suppress the wisdom and moral compass that our emotions give to us.”
Bringing connection and healing to legal work
Nurturance Lawyering: How to bring connection and healing to our work in challenging times (30 minute cartoon talk)
Wake up, lawyers! What can we learn from the fact that lawyers up to 4 times more likely than the general population to suffer from mental health and substance abuse issues? How do law and legal work cut us off from our feelings? In a society and legal system founded on separation and dominance, how can we foster connection and nurturance for ourselves and for the communities we care about?
In this talk, I share my personal journeys in the law, with addiction, depression, and chronic health challenges, and how I drew upon emerging wisdom about what can bring us back to connection and nurturance.
What’s ethical in the law?
Legal Ethics in an Interdependent World (40 minute cartoon talk)
Law Practice Structure and Fees (20 minute cartoon talk) Advocating that hierarchy and profit extraction should be removed from the practice of law entirely, and that lawyers’ monopoly on the practice of law be removed.
If violence is at the root of the legal profession and its origins, then what is ethical in the practice of law? In these presentations, I try to figure out what “ethical” even means, explore how the profession’s ethical rules are an awkward fit for the liberatory world that is emerging, and offer practical tips on working as a lawyer in a deeply harmful profession.
Land, lawyers, and white supremacy
The legal profession is a white supremacist institution. What can we do about it? (30 min cartoon talk)
Law and the legal profession are obsessed with drawing awkward borders and boundaries, turning people and places into definable “Things” to facilitate ownership and exploitation. The construction of whiteness, of property rights in land, and of “practice of law” all require violent or deceptive drawing of boundaries around otherwise soft, fluid, living systems. Upon understanding this, we can begin to blur boundaries and restore healing connections.
What I learned in octopus school
For a long time, I sought to put legal tools in the hands of the people,
particularly by teaching everyday people to do what lawyers do. Now, having
seen the alienation and violence that can be inflicted by many legal tools, I’ve
sought guidance on how we can bring ease, kindness, inclusion, and collaboration
into this work. Often, this means rejecting the tools of the legal system, and
instead choosing relational tools. Conventional contracts often assume – and
then reinforce – sharp boundaries between people. Contracts put us in
postures of defense and protection, then ultimately rely on court systems
and policing to reinforce these boundaries.
I sought guidance from nature, and found deep inspiration after learning
about octopuses. In the above slideshow, I share what I learned about octopuses, and then offer a 5-part process that people can use when making agreements. The core of the agreement is the commitment by parties to continually learn and adapt together.
Governance is alive! Life is governance!
Sometimes my head explodes when I try to define governance. EVERYTHING that happens in life is the result of a decision, whether conscious or not, whether by humans or not. The governance of living systems is self-organizing, adaptive, and deeply participatory, with “decisions” made with every act by every actor in the system. By contrast, the structures of corporate and state governance – with Boards, meeting procedures, voting – forcefully narrow what gets decided and what happens. There are many rituals to give weight to decisions and power to the deciders, to obscure the vast realm of participatory possibilities.
Many organizations begin as loose collectives of people working together, functioning like living organisms. Then they ask lawyers to help them adopt structures recognizable under the law. I’ve formed many nonprofit or cooperative corporations.
But I’ve seen the corporate rules and rituals scramble people’s moral compasses and disrupt what really mattered – the people, their purpose, their relationships, their loving ways of working together. In 2014, I was already letting my mind be blown by more expansive understandings of governance, but I retained optimism that we could adapt corporate structures to support solidarity (see my older Governance is Life presentation). In 2018, cartoon Bylaws I helped create for East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative show the degree to which I sought to stretch the structures. In 2022, I’m still stretching. Here’s a new approach, plus 15-minute video tour to accompany it.
And bonus material: On rethinking the concept of “Conflict of Interest” (3-page handout accompanied by a 4-min video)
What else about law and legal professionals?
Once I started to revisit my own legal training and profession through the lens of a more expansive and alive worldview, many things started to feel silly….and also violent. Humor feels essential to this task, to help us loosen up and let go of structures that are harming us. I started a TikTok called LawForYourLife, and a second TikTok with my coworkers from the Radical Real Estate Law School, because I find the snappy and zany format of TikTok to be a useful way to communicate about the problems of the legal system. Here are several other recent videos:
It will be a massive endeavor to revisit our whole legal system, law school curriculum, and profession through this critical lens. Everyone will need to be part of this effort. More to come in 2023!
Also, here’s a handout from a discussion I hosted on nurturance lawyering and whether we should abolish lawyers
Remaking Our Lives & Laws
Check back in April 2023!