October 1, 2011

On Community

Now these two things are related, so you'll have to trust me that I'll pull them together.  I promise I will. 

1)  I was having a conversation with a friend and asking her about what it would take to finish her bachelor's degree. 

She stated that she needed one class and around two grand to pay off the university so she could register. 

That was it?

That was it.  What was holding her up boiled down to having not only enough money to pay for the one class, but to pay off an outstanding debt so she could register for that class.   Now, having taught Freshmen Composition, I understand the bureaucratic nightmare that financing college has become.  When I was getting my bachelor's degree, it may have indeed been a little bureaucratic but it pails in comparison to what people have to do to finance their college education today.  Yes, many states have gotten better about helping people, but many times the restrictions, the regulations, the sheer volume and complication of negotiating the system means it is actually much easier to screw up.   Yet, the system is set up so that funding it via student loans is ridiculously easy.   In my college days, I actually walked away from a grant to help pay for my senior year because at the end of my junior year, my boss informed me that I had to cut back on my hours because I was in danger of making too much money.   Yet, I could actually handle the workload (about 30 hours a week) and was not really living extravagantly, but for about a month I had to cut way back because my grant (which I got six months before) stipulated that I only make so much.  Rebelling, I financed my senior year by taking out a Guaranteed Student Loan.   I was lucky.  As the NYTimes noted in 2009, the average amount a student will owe upon graduating is twenty grand, thus many students aren't so lucky and either graduate with a lot of student debt or, perhaps, don't even graduate at all but still carry the same amount of debt as if they had.

In my friend's case, she'd gotten a grant to cover her college expenses, but when she dropped below a certain amount of credits, the grant was rescinded.  Unfortunately, she'd already "spent" the money and thus now owed the university.   Now, I'm not some sort of financial wizard, nor am I particularly good at saving money, so for many years I pretty much lived from paycheck to paycheck.  Perhaps I could've saved, but more often than not I counted on my regular job to keep me clothed, housed, and fed.   What little was left over kept me from going insane by buying a new book, going to a concert, drinking beer, etc.   So, the daunting task of paying off a large debt just didn't happen.   And university debt, because they always have something you want, is pretty easy to ignore.  Yet, eventually, you find that you need your Official Transcript, want to register for a class so that you can explore other possible career choices, etc. and you scramble, beg, plead with family to pay it off.  

And maybe you do pay it off, jump back in, move on with your life and everything is hunky-dory?   But, I'm beginning to notice a disturbing trend.   What I'm noticing is that too often people's lives get sort of stuck, hung up on some sort of big financial hurdle that lurks, blocks, and sort of prevents people from getting off of the treadmill of bouncing from shitty job to shitty job.  And if they finance their college career using student loans, they end up perhaps working jobs that pay well, but make exorbitant demands on their time, their sanity, or both?  What happens is extremely talented people get sucked into a system of working jobs because they pay well, offer decent benefits, etc. but don't really fit, yet their stuck because they owe too much to get out and pursue what is their dream.  

There has got to be a better way.

2) A few months ago, I was talking with a friend.  She was just winding down a several month long poetry tour and was getting ready to head back to school.  She was broke because poetry tours, while possibly keeping you alive, aren't particularly lucrative.  She needed money so she could continue her studies, so she used the very same network for booking shows and put out a call for people to support her by donating directly or buying her product.

Still another example.   A poet had just finished the pre-planning for a new CD.   To fund the production of the CD, he created a Kickstarter Campaign and asked people to pitch in.  After about a month, he'd gotten enough money to produce his CD and is now touring in support of it.

And finally, one last example, an artist has this one-man show that he really wants to perform.   He creates a Kickstarter campaign to defray his travel expenses and asks people to contribute so that he can perform the show without having to dip into his own personal budget.   

Now what if we combined the power/energy of a local community with the powerful funding platforms available on the net?  Could we create a "foundation" for people who may just need a little push to finish a project, a goal?  What would it look like if we, as a community, chose to put our money where our collective mouths are?  If the artist I know and love could be supported by like minded individuals but is done in such a way as to not create any sort of financial hardship?   What if, for example, I could give someone thirty bucks towards their outstanding debt at the university and my contribution was, in essence, matched by thirty other people pitching in thirty bucks?  That's nine hundred bucks without asking anybody to do anything more than not buy 2 new books, or 2 new cds, or a couple of moderate nights at the bar? 

How would that work?  How could we leverage the power of our local community and the power of our extended virtual community?  I know my answer, but is this something that seems worthwhile to you?

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