Working with a National Movement

For my group story with Kelly Hagen, we used three components for the first time: a main text piece, a video sidebar and a text sidebar (it was our faculty editor’s suggestion to split the text sidebar off from the main text piece, a few days before deadline.) Kelly and I worked hard on this story, and I feel like this may have been the biggest discrepancy between the amount of reporting my teammate and I put into a project and the final outcome: in retrospect, I think text probably wasn’t the right area to explore this story. With a little refocus, we could have made an excellent KBIA or KOMU story out of this. The story connected to a national trend, but I feel like we missed an opportunity to localize the story with the Free Skool, maybe a much more interesting subject.

The main text piece was a learning experience for Kelly and I in terms of focus and perspective. We’d adopted (relatively late in) the risky and slightly experimental tack of using a Goodwill employee as an “audience stand-in” which the faculty felt didn’t work, and which, in retrospect, I don’t think did either. Maybe it could have worked with a little more time.

A week or so after Kelly and I finished our story, this one ran in Vox Magazine. So clearly the interest is there. I maintain that counterculture movements are a rich subject for journalism, especially in a part of the country that doesn’t see them much and for whom they’re a novelty (I remember being asked, shortly after I moved here, “What’s a vegan?”)

I think I could have turned out a better story on the subject, and I think I did, with a story I did on Food Not Bombs for a day-turn in one of my last newsroom shifts. Although this experiment wasn’t successful (and that might be because of the medium – I was proud of what Kelly and I managed to do with the video, which was event-based and would have made an excellent day-turn story), I’m still dedicated to pursuing stories within these channels while I’m in Columbia.

Columbia Movement embraces a Free Lifestyle

Davis Dunavin and Kelly Hagen

Karla Gough isn’t convinced you can get anything for free. Cheap, maybe, but not free.

The manager of Columbia’s Goodwill spends her “very busy” days behind the cash register, on the sales floor or in the unloading dock, sifting through items donated and deciding how much they’re worth.

She takes donations from individuals and businesses – up to 300 per day. They’re things people don’t want anymore, from clothes to furniture to household items and knick-knacks, and, as in Goodwill stores across the country, they sell at unusually low prices. Gough grew up in an environment where charity was important, but every penny counted. She’s never heard of people who would just share things freely without paying or expecting payment.

But according to community organizer Richard Schulte, an MU graduate who builds collectives in Cleveland, a nationwide movement is encouraging people to substitute consumer buying habits with free economics: a community-based sharing of goods. Some adherents describe themselves as freegan.

Freegan practices including sharing of goods, dumpster-diving, free stores and schools and squatting in abandoned buildings. Free economics encourages obtaining anything from food and household goods to entertainment, education and skills without using money. In Columbia, events and activities like the Really Really Free Market, which gives away the kind of goods that might cost a few dollars at Goodwill for free, and the Free School, which provides free education and skills training, have given a local shape to the movement.

Karla Gough blanks at the term “freegan.” Gough says all kinds of people come to Goodwill, from two-year-olds to the elderly. And though she’s used to dealing with people strapped for cash and looking for bargains, she’s never heard of a movement that would do away with buying and selling altogether.

“Yeah, that must be a younger generation thing,” she says. “I mean, I’ve never gotten anything for free before.”

A free lifestyle is news to many, like Gough, who grew up having to pay for everything. For many Americans struggling with debt or unemployment, these practices are becoming a more appealing alternative every day, according to those at the forefront of the movement, like Schulte.

“Columbia is filled with a lot of free-spirited people,” he says, “people interested in living alternatively.” But he adds that people in larger cities have a longer history of supporting free and community-based economics.

“It’s on people’s radar here more than 5 years ago,” Schulte says. “For being a midwestern college town, majority white, I think Columbia has a fairly diverse group of people – orientation, ethnicity, and perspective. I think there are enough people who have compatible perspectives who are curious that they’ll check it out.”

Back at Goodwill, Gough has been hearing about the Really Really Free Market, but doesn’t know how it would work.

It’s only the second of its kind in Columbia but it’s part of a phenomenon of people attempting to craft lifestyles without money. She considers how it would impact the Columbia community and access to donated goods.

“I think it’s awesome if the free stuff is going to the right people,” she says.

“But my main concern would be, ‘How’s anybody going to know who’s getting the free stuff? Who’s picking up these boxes full of stuff?’ I mean, how do you know if it’s going to people who need it the most?”

At the Really Really Free Market, anyone who wants the free stuff is getting the free stuff, no matter if they need it or not, according to Angie Galik, who organized Columbia’s Really Really Free Market in April with her partner, Sam Bullington.

Galik sees the event as a demonstration of community trust, generosity and “the goodness of human nature.” No bartering is necessary. It’s not a swap meet, she says.

The selection of merchandise spread around the Boone County Courthouse steps on the afternoon of Sunday, June 6, might be familiar to Karla Gough: clothing, books, furniture, toys, jewelry and other household items, ranging in condition from an unopened coffee maker to a vacuum cleaner with a note reading, “Help me, I don’t suck anymore.” Galik and Bullington watch as visitors browse, sometimes piling their finds into boxes, sometimes unloading boxes to leave on the steps.

“We started (free markets) on a smaller scale in Minneapolis in 2001,” says Bullington. Working with a group of about 25 people, Bullington says he held markets once a year. Galik and Bullington’s goal for Columbia is once a month.

There are no rules, and so no limit to how much visitors can take. Nonetheless, Galik says she’s never had a problem with anyone taking advantage of the system. In fact, Bullington says most visitors experience the opposite.

“Some people feel guilty; they don’t think it’s okay to take,” says Bullington, who offered a free counseling service for those feeling guilty with what they took at the first Really Really Free Market. “There’s this inner resistance and obstacles to receiving that people have.” Bullington says the market introduces people to unconditional giving, breaking down fears of scarcity and building new relationships between people at the market.

Bullington says the Really Really Free Market serves students’ needs as well.

“Students come to school and spend money on crap at Target that is incredibly wasteful and expensive,” Bullington says. “If there were a free market at the beginning and end, students could have alternatives.”

Michelle Hagopian, a University of Missouri student and Really Really Free Market volunteer, says the concept of sharing goods took some people by surprise at the first event in April.

“For a lot of people, it was definitely a new thing,” Hagopian says. “They were amazed that people would come put their stuff on the lawn and give it to others. A lot of people were asking me, ‘Will there be more of these? ‘Cause they should have these more often.'”

Galik and Bullington are looking for someone to take over after they move to Colorado in July. If they are successful, the monthly Really Really Free Market in Columbia will join ones they say are held once a month across the country in metropolitan areas as well as college towns like Austin, TX, and Athens, GA.

To the old guard, like Gough, education and goods are still things that cost money. Gough says she’d gladly donate to help those in need, just as Goodwill donates to support battered womens’ shelters and those who recently got out of prison. But she doesn’t expect anyone else to.

But according to Schulte and others, the old lines are being erased and free lifestyles may be even more important in Columbia in the future.

“Now everyone’s talking about the double dip in the recession, thinking that we’re going to go lower than we are now,” Schulte says. “People are now seeking alternatives to build a better quality of life and build their community.”

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