Reason for hope

The former Kingston headquarters building of the Girl Scouts Hearts of the Hudson, Inc., on the corner of Clinton Avenue and St. James Street. (Photo by Phyllis McCabe)

Hipster clubhouse or birthplace for disruptive change? Or both?

The former Kingston headquarters building of the Girl Scouts Hearts of the Hudson, Inc., on the corner of Clinton Avenue and St. James Street on the fringe of Uptown Kingston, was purchased in early May by the Good Work Institute. Inc. (GWI). Property transaction records indicate a sale price of $309,000.

GWI is a 501(c)3 non-profit originally spun off from Etsy.com. Its mission is “to educate and connect a network of local community members and actively support their collaborative efforts to regenerate their places.” Its 2016 tax return indicated net assets of $2.4 million (mostly Etsy stock). Its president and sole compensated officer, according to the IRS 990 form, was ex-Etsy employee Matt Stinchcomb, who was paid $69,231 by GWI in 2016. Other workers were contracted.

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65 St. James Street, a modest white frame two-story building a block down Clinton Avenue from Academy Green and the YWCA, could use some regeneration. Its craggy, misaligned bluestone sidewalks and worn asphalt parking lot need work. The 1900-square-foot building, located in a block of residences mixed with professional uses, could use a paint job. The entrance on St. James Street features an unpainted wooden ramp for the handicapped.

Beginning this fall, Greenhouse Kingston, GWI’s first “civic incubator” intended to provide a habitat for high-impact, community-led innovations, will occupy the space, according to the Good Work Institute. Greenhouse Kingston, GWI indicated, will maximize civic engagement through workshops, mentorships, public events, office space, funding opportunities and direct support. The diverse community leadership provided by GWI will work “to create living examples of a regenerative and equitable new economy.”

Kingston resident Micah, who prefers to be known at present only by his first name, will spearhead the management of Greenhouse Kingston (he doesn’t have an exact title yet) for GWI. Micah said that Greenhouse will host both fledgling organizations and those deeper into specific purposes.

In the past four years, GWI has conducted three six-month experiential community-building programs with cohorts of more than 30 persons (entrepreneurs, placemakers and community leaders) each in the Hudson Valley. Acceptance is by scholarship only, and all participants get full scholarships. Participants join sub-groups organized around four hubs: Hudson, Kingston, Newburgh and Poughkeepsie. Kingston, which has perhaps 30-plus of the 100 or so graduates, is the first of the four hubs to get a central GWI location.

Micah said GWI had looked at rental spaces in Kingston, and decided that the St. James Street location “fit the bill” best. It felt right, Micah said. It has some original molding and tin ceilings. GWI has a contractor, and expects to move into Greenhouse Kingston before the end of the year.

The problem of finding meaningful work in a community context didn’t start with the digital age. Matt Stinchcomb’s approach incorporates an amalgam of diverse social strands. How these strands will come together in Greenhouse Kingston is hard to know. Suffice it to say that GWI represents an ambitious addition to the existing fabric of Kingston organizational life.

The first strand, quintessentially American, may best be represented by Frank Capra’s film It’s a Wonderful Life. Midwestern community banker George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, finds a way through community solidarity to foil the evil intentions of the richest and meanest capitalist in Bedford Falls. It’s not difficult to imagine Matt Stinchcomb playing the Stewart role in a similar script.

The second strand explores alternative institutions. The title of E.F. Schumacher’s book Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered provides a clue to the philosophical direction of the western Massachusetts-based Schumacher Center for a New Economics, of which Stinchcomb has been board chairman. Among the group’s strong interests are the local currency, the Berkshare, and the use of blockchain technology for non-institutional transactions.

A mostly European anti-capitalism represented by worker cooperatives and trade unions represents a third strand of GWI thinking. Democratic local institutions built from the ground up are more trustworthy, more participative and more engaging than those offered by classical capitalism. Stinchcomb’s experiences at Etsy, transformed in a few short years from an idealistic leader of the maker economy into a publicly held profit-maximizing corporation, had a significant influence on his thinking.

Finally, there’s a wide streak of zen concepts to Stinchcomb. Zen is not big on preconceptions. “Now here’s my chance to execute my vision for the world — and let’s see if I can do it,” Stinchcomb told an interviewer from Best Self Magazine. “I have no idea what I’m doing and that’s wonderful, because I have real beginner’s mind.” He is on the board of directors of Naropa University in Colorado, historically a leading outpost of radical zen Buddhism in the United States.

The local world can always use new ways of thinking and acting, particularly ways attuned to other elements of economic transformation. The Stanford Business School describes social innovation as “the process of inventing, securing support for, and implementing novel solutions to social needs and problems.”

Shaking society up organizationally as well as interpersonally can be a positive force. An outfit like GWI, which has worked so hard to create a complex fabric of interwoven human connections, can contribute to the spread of new forms of social innovation. Innovative civic engagement is perhaps the most positive when linked through partnerships with a variety of kindred organizations. GWI sees Kingston as a fertile base for its work.

In a recent publication, GWI paints a bleak picture of our present critical time. “An economic system fueled by insatiable greed and growth has left our communities to struggle with ecological devastation, financial inequality, emotional despair and social injustice,” it concludes. But then things brighten up a little. “At the same moment, we feel there is much reason for hope.”

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