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Buy Nothing, gain everything: Austinites leaned on local gift economies during the winter storm
(Lisa Buenaventura Rice)

Lisa Buenaventura Rice, a member of a South Austin Buy Nothing Facebook group, set up a charging station outside her home last week for neighbors without power.

Like most of the residents in her East Austin neighborhood, Charlotte Colis lost power and cell service last week as a result of a historic winter storm. When she arrived at her dad's place on Tuesday evening, she had access to both for the first time in two days and used it to check Facebook, where she found a flood of activity.

Colis is a co-administrator of the private Buy Nothing East Riverside-Oltorf/Montopolis group, one of 60 hyperlocal groups active in the Austin area. She quickly began responding to dozens of requests from Facebook users who wanted to join and reading posts from existing members, who had offered hot showers, phone charging, rides and food to people in need. "It was absolutely one of the best, most heartwarming things I've ever seen," she told Austonia.

The Buy Nothing Project began as a social experiment on Bainbridge Island, near Seattle, in 2013. Friends Rebecca Rockefeller and Liesl Clark wanted to create a hyper-local gift economy, where neighbors could post about items or services they had to offer or needed themselves. Market economy activities—buying and selling, trading and bartering—were off limits. Since then, the project has spread to at least 25 countries and includes more than a million members.

Linzy Foster, who lives in the Dawson neighborhood in South Austin, joined her local Buy Nothing group three years ago. Her first interaction was to request help with a clogged drain. Another member offered to lend her an unclogging tool. "I went and got it off her front porch," she said, and watched a short YouTube video about how to use it. "I think that was when I was hooked."

Now Foster is an admin and has witnessed firsthand how the group has helped others feel a similar sense of self-sufficiency and community connection. Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, she noticed a shift as members grew more intentional about helping others who were struggling due to job loss or other pressures, whether by setting up a weekly food drive or offering to pick up items and deliver them. "Honestly there are a lot of days where I want to get off of Facebook," she said. "But Buy Nothing has honestly been the bright light for me."

The Buy Nothing light has perhaps never shined brighter than during the statewide super crisis last week. Lisa Buenaventura Rice, a member of the Buy Nothing Bouldin/Travis Heights/St. Edward's/Dawson Facebook group, set up a charging station outside her home, which mostly had power last week, and offered it up to fellow members. She also made a fire, put out chairs and blankets and set up hot drinks and ginger snaps.

Another member, Becky Bullard, facilitated the distribution of over 300 donated diapers to six families in need. Chris Chiarchiaro shared a photo of a drawing she had made with an ink pen she was gifted through the group. "Keeping sane in these times with arts and crafts," she wrote last Tuesday.

In Foster's eyes, this is the fundamental purpose of Buy Nothing groups. "We should be able to fulfill all needs within our community from our little community," she said.

It is also core to the Buy Nothing mission. Project co-founder Clark was first exposed to the workings of a gift economy while working on archeological projects in the Himalayas, where residents were far from market economies and instead relied on each other for their basic needs. "That really was a life lesson for me in seeing how you're really only as good as your weakest member, in a sense, in village life," she said.

Seeing the Buy Nothing philosophy take off has been exciting, she said. But ultimately, the goal is that such groups will become obsolete because their members will communicate directly—rather than over social media.

During last week's crisis, Clark heard from admins of Austin Buy Nothing groups, who were able to lean on relationships forged online despite not having access to the internet because of power outages or internet service interruptions. "That just makes me so happy and feels like, 'Okay, mission accomplished,'" she said.


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