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Neighbors are gathering online to give and get the things they need right now

In “Buy Nothing” and gifting groups around the country, communities are connecting over free stuff.

Efi Chalikopoulou for Vox

When New York City went into lockdown, I needed to print a return label. Stores were closed, and so was my office, the land of free printing. I was moving, for the fourth time in three years — this time across the ocean — and trying to declutter my life as much as possible.

I was already feeling nostalgic about leaving the city and grateful for all it had taught me, and then a small act of kindness exemplified why. A neighbor casually gave me their old printer for free, through posting on our local Buy Nothing group.

I’ve been on my sustainability journey for years, shopping secondhand and making my own products, but I was discovering a new way to live: I wanted to buy less. I wanted, if possible, to buy nothing at all.

Even before the pandemic, no-buy and zero-waste movements were already on the rise, as a growing social currency has developed around being a conscious consumer. The Buy Nothing project, a worldwide social movement, is the largest community of hyperlocal, volunteer-run groups on Facebook where neighbors can offer free items and services to each other, with no expectation to give anything back in return. It was founded in 2013 to encourage a circular economy where people can depend on their communities over corporations and, owing to word of mouth, now has more than 1.2 million participants in 25 countries. Although community share and mutual aid groups have always existed, Buy Nothing has become the most well-known network in the world. I had learned about the project from a WheezyWaiter video and absentmindedly joined my local group last November.

Slowly, I started to interact more with my community by posting items in the group, and felt happy that they were getting a new home. One neighbor showed up on my doorstep for old plates, which she used to make a mosaic. Another hosted a beeswax workshop where we pooled our raw ingredients and made our own lip balm and reusable food wraps.

I loved it — I could get the dopamine rush of having something new without buying anything, and feel the satisfaction of rescuing products that might have been thrown away. Buy Nothing introduced me to other local community share groups, which helped curb my impulse to shop: I stopped caring about brands and packaging and only asked for things I needed, like food and shampoo. It helped me save a lot of money and be more intentional about what I was investing in. These groups became a staple in my schedule, a community model that was my replacement for consumerism. It was exciting to see dozens of posts on Facebook every day, as we built a community around supporting each other through free items. Living in Brooklyn, my default was to tackle everything on my own, but through being a part of several regional Facebook groups, which discussed everything from local activism to restaurant recommendations, I learned how to depend on my community.

Once quarantine started, the groups became my lifeline. I felt disconnected and confused, with most of my friends far away in different parts of the city, but started to feel less alone once I began talking to people in my community. Terry rescued food from local stores; I would bike to her house every other week for fresh produce. Shaunda worked at a food pantry where I donated clothing and kitchen supplies. Fenda and I swapped poetry books. Our mutual aid group even installed a community fridge so people could have 24/7 access to free, healthy food.

As we were adjusting to social distancing, I noticed that people were more active in our Buy Nothing group, since they were cleaning, taking on home projects, and stocking up for the weeks ahead. Suddenly, people seemed more invested in connecting with each other and less self-conscious about asking for help. We were learning how to live with less and building a more minimal lifestyle, like 60 percent of Americans who have been spending less in quarantine. My community became closer than ever through trading puzzles, sewing masks for essential workers, and helping our older neighbors buy groceries. Our gifting groups were a necessary comfort at a time when many people were losing their jobs and trying to save money, pay rent, and make the most of what they had.

But after the first few weeks of quarantine, Gov. Cuomo enforced the stay-at-home order and our local Buy Nothing group went on a freeze, which created some tension in our neighborhood and divided our community. After months of freely giving to each other, we weren’t allowed to gift anything except food or services. Initially, people were patient and understanding, but after two months, many of us became vocal about our frustration with how the group was moderated.

“The pandemic magnified our need for Buy Nothing groups when people were suddenly trapped at home, except our local group shut down. It left a lot of people out in the cold at a time when their need was the greatest,” explains Timothy O’Neal, one of my neighbors who co-founded Crown Heights Share in June, a new community space that was created after a reckoning in the Buy Nothing group.

Our community discovered some flaws with the Buy Nothing framework, which put the moderators in charge of ethical decisions like which items were considered essential during a pandemic, and whether the person asking for items was worthy of them. “It was putting some people in the position to judge what is a qualified need for other folks,” says O’Neal. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for anyone to ask others to justify their needs. I fully believe in their good intentions ... [but] the group had the potential to help a lot of people, and they just let that sit on the table.”

At one point, child care supplies were considered nonessential, which parents disagreed with, and a member’s post was deleted when they asked for a folding cart for mutual aid deliveries. The unrest started when one member wrote a post sharing their disappointment that the admins were being so strict. A few hours later, the admins turned off comments, censoring a conversation many of us wanted to have. It started a series of uncomfortable interactions where people were trying to openly discuss how the group should be structured, but some members who disagreed with the admins were removed from the group, and many, including me, chose to leave when the climate became hostile.

Through being a member of a Buy Nothing group, you have to follow a specific set of rules and participate in a hierarchical power structure, which most of our neighbors, as evidenced by polls in the Facebook group, found difficult to navigate during the pandemic. For example, you can only join one Buy Nothing group in the area where you live, and people even one block away are not allowed to be a part of that community, regardless of what their needs may be. Recently, a member who supposedly lived one block outside of the radius offered someone an ethernet cable and a moderator commented that he was “put on posting restrictions based on his behavior.” He joined Crown Heights Share, posting, “So glad this group exists … I was pretty emotional and upset after being scolded in public and private for being in the wrong group and then blocked from posting just for offering someone an Ethernet cable.”

We realized that we couldn’t build the inclusive, caring community we wanted in our Buy Nothing group. “It was started by a white woman from Washington [and inspired by her relief mission in Nepal], so it’s completely founded on white saviorism,” adds Terry Chao, a founder of Crown Heights Share, along with Tim and Rachel Newman. “I think when it’s trying to divert stuff from landfill and connect people, it is successful. I just don’t agree with the hierarchy in terms of having it be super hyperlocal. I saw another group get split, and people were complaining about how it was stratifying” the neighborhood along income lines.

By restricting our gifting economy when we needed each other the most, our local Buy Nothing group made many of our neighbors feel unheard and unsafe. Thankfully, our other community groups were still active, so I spent more time on Crown Heights Share, our mutual aid group, and a neighboring group in Prospect Heights that were less strict and allowed us to make our own judgment calls. Through divesting from the Buy Nothing model, we were able to define our own rules, communicate our needs, and connect in a more open way with neighbors we had come to know through the pandemic. It gave me hope to see everyone so excited to talk to each other and find ways to help.

In a time of personal transition, my neighbors became like family. When I was applying for a new passport, one neighbor notarized my documents and another helped me print out my application. The funny thing is, because of contactless pickups, I never met many of these people, but I still felt like I knew them. They told me that I could visit anytime, and that I would always have a place in this neighborhood. It gave me a sense of home I never had before. I’m used to moving countries every few years, but this was the first time I felt like I could come back.

Since I moved to India, Crown Heights Share has become a hub for the community, from 20 to almost 1,000 members, and created offshoots like Crown Heights Social and Crown Heights Plant Share, which are moderated by different community members. These spaces were designed based on our needs and are open to everyone in the neighborhood, regardless of where they live. One member commented that they found the group “more open, less controlling, and less divisive.” You can feel it through the energy of the conversations, with people offering to share items, coordinating donations for local shelters, and becoming friends with each other.

In Crown Heights Social, Tim started a biking group where neighbors can join him for a few loops around Prospect Park every Tuesday and Thursday, and Terry organized a board game meetup at a local cafe. “The Buy Nothing groups felt very transactional and businesslike during the pandemic, but we saw an increase in numbers of people who were looking for a group where the focus was human connection, which is a valid need under these circumstances,” says O’Neal. The group feels like an extended friendship circle, with people inviting the community to their personal events, from socially distanced chamber music reading sessions to anti-racist book clubs.

Over the past few months, the pandemic has brought us back to our local communities and taught us how we can take care of each other outside of the cycle of consumerism. From all we’ve been through, we’ve become even more connected than before. I’ve learned that self-care is also community care — we have a responsibility to look after ourselves and the places we live.


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