Q&A with Milicent Johnson, Community Engagement Manager of Shareable.net

Have you ever met someone who is so patiently interested in sharing ideas and promoting the great work of others for social good?  If not, you have to meet Milicent Johnson, or at least learn more about her and her work as the Community Engagement Manager with Shareable. Her enthusiasm for sharing ideas, movements, educational approaches, material and laughs is infectious.  

I had the chance to experience this in person during our first meeting at the 2011 Compostmodern conference in San Francisco a few months ago. We were in a small working session about community engagement, design and social entrepreneurship at the “unconference session.” During our group discussion, co-led by Milicent and Kate Daughrill, co-founder of Detroit Soup, you could tell Milicent was extremely passionate about changing the world  through the power of sharing.

Below is an interview I conducted with Milicent in which she shed some light on her lifelong passion and future endeavors with Shareable and what's known as the "New Sharing Economy," or the "Third Economy of Sharing."

Monika Kerdeman:  What’s your story in 1 minute?

Milicent Johnson: I have been working to create social change, especially within low-income communities and communities of color.  From running tutoring programs for inner-city youth and homelessness programs in D.C., to teaching financial literacy and working on asset development, to working for a Massachusetts State Representative and as a Community Reinvestment Fellow at the Greenlining Institute, it’s all been about community empowerment. At the heart of all the work I’ve done is a desire to empower communities to design their own bright futures. I think for a long time, communities left out of the economic mainstream have been told that “success” means leaving their neighborhoods and adapting to outside, often unsustainable ways of living. These same communities have also been told that the only way they can be successful is from outside investment. We’ve disempowered people. But I think the simple act of sharing helps people to see that there are ways to get what you want and need within your community. And once people begin to think along those lines, they begin to question what else they’re capable of. It sparks a larger and deeper perspective shift.

MK:  If you could solve one problem in the world through storytelling, sharing or design, what would it be?

MJ: A lot of what we do is giving people a place to write about how sharing is helping them to meet the unique challenges we’re all facing. We believe that the success of Wikipedia, Zipcar, Creative Commons and Kiva signal a larger hopeful narrative—one that proves that when given the tools, we go out of our way  to contribute to the common good. And that’s not to say everything about sharing is peachie keen. There are challenges, and we think it's important to share those, too. But we’re hopeful that this new economy will give us the tools to solve environmental and social crises we face like never before, while leading better, more fulfilled lives. Lisa Gansky gave a great TED Talk on the economy of sharing, which really resonates with what we are aiming to achieve.

We also want to give the sharing community a voice to tell its own story. Over the next couple of months we will be rolling out a community blog on which any user can write a story about sharing. Fellow community members can then comment and vote on posts that we hope will spur conversations, collaborations and inspiration.

For an example of how powerful one person’s story of sharing can be, check out Corbyn Hightower’s recession diaries. She writes an honest and brave account of how it's been to have to give up material items (like her car) but how sharing has been important in moving beyond the recession.

MK:  If you could travel to one place, where would it be?

MJ: Egypt. I would like to see what is happening in the streets of Cairo and what will happen with the new leadership and how the constitution is drawn up. The youth there are in a unique position of power and I would love to hear how the young leaders of movement will develop inclusive civic engagement programming and have a hand in shaping the new government.

MK:  What are you working on now?

MJ: At Shareable we are about to launch a national SHARE network.  As an online magazine, we have been around for year and a half. In that short period of time we’ve tapped into the universal appeal of sharing. In January we got around 50,000 unique visitors. We also have a  large international following. But the work we’re doing isn’t just about interesting ideas. It’s about empowering people to bring sharing into their lives and communities. We want to be a platform and voice for things that are happening in the new shareable economy. We want people to share their experiences creating resilient solutions to the economic, environmental and social challenges they are facing. By empowering people to connect to others in their communities interested in live shareably, and by being a resource to connect people with ideas, forums and support in their efforts, we hope that we will build an infrastructure that will be part of a larger sharing movement.

MK: Do you have any requests for collaboration for current or future work?

MJ: We are embarking on an initiative to re-imagine the city as a platform for sharing. This initiative is called SHARE. Our first event, SHARE San Francisco is happening on May 7. We will also be doing an event in New York City and are interested in doing an event in Detroit that will amplify the efforts of local projects and communities to create their own resilience through sharing. So, if anyone knows of great community initiatives in any of those cities that are using sharing to empower communities, I would love to hear about them!

MK: What do you wish people in the world shared more of?

MJ: I wish people shared more of themselves and their stories. Our current way of living has made us so isolated, and that’s where fear and insecurity come from. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The more we connect with each other, the more we are able to see the larger picture of our interconnectedness. You can see it everywhere, from people in Egypt sending pizzas of solidarity to protesters in Wisconsin, and from people in the United States watching what is happening in Libya—the more people can see that someone half a world away is striving for the same thing, the quicker we can begin to break down walls and silos. We can see a better world emerge, a world in which people can make a change in their community, that they have an intrinsic value, their creativity is valuable, and that we’re empathic beings that are willing to work toward a greater good.

When people talk about the Shareable Economy, they generally talk about stuff and technology. It is great to share that, but the larger way it can create more meaningful change is to share broader views and perspectives.

Sharing stems from what you would call the Yawning Effect (the idea that when people see and or experience people sharing, it is contagious and other people begin to share, like yawning.) The moment you do it, if it goes well, you want to do more of it.

People sharing compassion comes through the sharing of stuff. I experienced this first hand when I was looking for housemates in San Francisco through Craigslist. At first I was not as open to sharing my food and stuff; now I share everything and think the experiences are more important than the stuff. People were so open and generous with me. I want to give that back to the world.

MK: As part of your role as Community Manager with Shareable, what do you love the most about your job?

MJ: Having the opportunity to take a proactive approach to providing people with the tools for empowerment and accessibility. Sharing and collaborative consumption are proactive approaches to deep-seated and large-scale change.

We are all beginning to rethink what is possible. Even with all that is happening, there are fires of creativity all around us. Now is the time for us to create our own stories and opportunities. Now is the time to create the world we need and want to be a part of.

MK: Any lessons learned? Challenges, successes and failures?

MJ: I think I’ve learned that you can’t possibly know the wonderful things life has in store for you. I’m not sure where this road I’m on will take me, but I’m excited to be on it! A great work lesson I’ve learned is that you don’t have to do everything alone and you don’t have to have all the answers on how to get there. If you have a good idea and are willing to share it and ask for others' opinions and help, the road will rise up and meet you and a community will develop to help you. A lot of people have shared this with me: to build a road together is to find a community together.