By Halima Cassells
“We believe and wish to practice uplifting our community wealth and creativity; putting less into the waste-stream; reclaiming practices of meeting our needs without money; and empowering ourselves by re-evaluating what is valuable.” — Free Market of Detroit
My father owned one pair of gym shoes for as long as I can remember. Literally ONE pair. He had a few pairs of shoes for the office, and a couple for dress, and that was it. He wore this pair of 1978 Nikes everywhere on the weekends; out to the garden in the backyard, to the grocery store, to the wood shop in our garage. And I was extremely embarrassed as a preteen, when he wore them to take me anywhere. “They fit, and they do their job,” he would say “no need for another pair.” One day I noticed the sole began to peel, and there was a small hole. I excitedly showed him thinking he and I would go shopping for a new pair. I was wrong; I was dismayed when he went to the shoe shop in the Eastern Market and had the sole repaired. They were not for fashion, or for others to like. They were valued for their usefulness. This lesson (although super-hard to swallow at the time) became extremely important and central to my life as I got older.
Fast forward a decade or two… to the birth of my second daughter. She and my eldest are nearly eight years apart. I had no baby stuff just laying around when she popped on the scene. And I definitely did not want to buy a bunch of stuff that would no longer be useful after 6 months or a year. So I decided to host a backyard barbeque with a swap table. The bottom of the invite read, “Please bring any gently-used outgrown children’s clothing or toys, we will have a swap table at this event.” We were a small group of family and friends, and somehow we amassed a giant mountain of stuff… some stuff I was SUPER grateful to have, some stuff other people were happy to walk home with, and some that was eventually donated to COTS.
This was so successful that a group of friends began hosting these events around Detroit and the Free Market of Detroit was born. For five years it has continued to expand, adding several different elements: DJ’s and a dance floor, a photo booth, open mic and live performances, artists who sew and help facilitate fashion up-cycling workshops, as well as other unique experiences for participants to enjoy. In the past year the Free Market hosted 10 swaps in schools, community centers, churches, at festivals, urban gardens, and conferences. Much of the success is in the interaction between people. “It made me so happy to see someone wearing a shirt I helped her design and sew at the swap over a year ago, I cannot even tell you,” Diana N., a Detroit-based multi-talented artist, told me a few weeks ago. Sharing the stories behind the object, knowing you gave or received a gift from someone you know, and co-creating useful items together are all ways that we enjoy building community.
The admission to every swap is one item. Everyone is entered into the circle of giving this way. And if folks show up without anything, we ask them to make a pledge to pay it forward or host their own swap with family and friends the next time they have a get-together. Why? We want to inspire people to re-evaluate their stuff, and think about how we can share and better put it to use. Once I told a woman that to get a pair of snake-skinned heels she wanted she would have to leave an item. “Anything?” she asked. “Yeh, anything that you are ready to let go of,” I said. She lived around the corner, and asked me to hold the shoes, she would be right back. She returned with the most wonderful bags of clothes and books and toys, and a look of relief on her face. “I have been wanting all this stuff out of my house for so long, thank you,” she said as she walked away with the heels under her arm.
So how did we get here? Our great-great-grandparents did not have closets full of clothes; and garages full of gadgets, and attics and basements and storage lockers full of stuff, and yet many lived fulfilled lives. Where does our desire for more and more stuff come from? The website storyofstuff.org offers a lot of interesting insight.
And what we are doing really isn’t new. In fact, its ancient. Societies all around the world practiced gift economies, and placed value based on what the needs were at the time, and the relationships between people. Even on this land, before it was colonized, First Nations peoples had protocols for sharing and trading with each other and meeting needs without the use of money as we know it today.
We will be exploring stories of swappers and the narratives that drive our society through photography and art in a forthcoming book, Fashioning the Free Market, due out in September of 2018. Check out our website www.freemarketofdetroit.com to stay informed of the release as well as upcoming swaps. And please let us know if you’d like to host your own. We would love to promote yours!