Am I a commoner?

Do you think of yourself as a commoner? What makes us a commoner? 

Recently I was guest speaker at a public conversation on the theme What shifts when we approach our world as a commoner? jointly organized by the University of the Streets Café (Concordia University) and the Montreal Art of Hosting community. I took the invitation as a space and opportunity to get clarity on how and when I came into my identity as a commoner.

Fifteen years ago I was employed as a techno-pedagogue, working with open source applications and open culture. Operating in this paradigm of open values just made so much sense to me. One particular online learning project I had contributed energy and dedication to was attributed a business model that locked the publicly-funded content behind virtual fee-based walls. I struggled as this action made no real business sense and threatened the accessibility of the quality content, but I did not have a commoning framework to refer to. I felt that something was deeply wrong but I had not yet connected to any concept of knowledge as a commons. This was one of the small but significant catalysts that led me to co-found our social enterprise, percolab, dedicated to developing our collective capacity to collaborate and innovate. Despite situating percolab as a social enterprise and the clarity of our intention, the commoner in me still hadn’t awoken.

Instead of renting out traditional office space for percolab, I spent two years cofounding a coworking cooperative with others. It took time to collectively move forward: for 14 people to come together, to find our shared clarity and together create a formal organization. It was so self-evident that our coworking should have a cooperative legal structure that it took a few years for me to realize that, though the coworking movement is exploding across the planet, cooperatives are few and far between. Though I was committed to ensuring that the cooperative had an agile and enlivening co-governance, back then I did not see that within our coworking we are commoning.

Later I discovered and joined the international Art of Hosting community,  a multilingual self-organizing network working in complexity for the common good.  This community practices collective stewardship and the sharing culture in a way that feels like we are in the future, and yet I wasn’t yet seeing it as commoning.

It is through the invitation of somebody who is clearly a commoner, Alain Ambrosi, that the light finally turned on and I got to “see” the commons. Alain invited me to facilitate a Commons breakfast conversation with guest Frédéric Sultan. During this delightful event hosted by Communautique, Alain shared his (continually evolving) definition of the commons and printed it out on a thoughtfully folded long sheet of paper that each person could preciously unfold. To this day that definition lives on my fridge:

We speak of a commons each time a community of people is united by a similar desire to care for a ressource that it is has inherited or created, and self-organizes in a democratic, friendly and responsible way to ensure access, use and sustainability in the general interest and the care for the ‘good living’ together and the ‘good living’ of future generations.

A few months later, Alain invited me and a few fellow Montrealers to attend the Economics and the Commons Conference in Berlin. Saying yes to this invitation was an act of fully entering into a new identity: Samantha Slade, commoner. It is a like a new pair of glasses that I wear. These glasses pull everything into focus and suddenly I have the clarity to understand that yes, working with open source, open content and open culture values is commoning, the coworking coop is commoning, and the capacity building that percolab nurtures is in support of commoning. Things begin to make sense in a connected way. This thread was being woven all these years of my life through my emphasis on a sharing culture, self-organizing mindset, collective empowerment and care for the common good. Like Dorothy, I had it all along. I just needed a little prodding and reassurance from someone who could help me see.

With that awareness of the commons comes a new responsibility — maybe that is why I was nervously dancing around the term all that time. What is this responsibility? Much like Alain’s ever shifting definition of the commons, it is something that will continue to unfold.

For the time being, I notice that the public conversation helped me loop all the way back in my identity as a commoner. I give thanks to conversations that offer moments of reflection with others to make sense of the complexity we live in.

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By Samantha Slade

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