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- Bert Johnson
- Rise Above Graphics owner Gabriela Laz, whose art gallery was evicted to make way for new condos, said the Omni "rescued" her.
In order to create their "commons," members partake in "radical sharing." This means the sharing of tools, materials, and skills within the space. It also entails the complete relinquishment of ownership. "It's completely non-economic," said Niki Shelley, an organizer of Omni Commons and a member of the Bay Area Public School. "It's not about what you're going to get in exchange for something else; X doesn't equal Y."
Omni Commons recently received two $10,000 "innovator awards" from Kenneth Rainin Foundation, an art and science foundation, and from local clothing brand Oaklandish. The commons has also launched an Indiegogo campaign to pay for building renovations. Member collectives also pay rent — although at below-market rates. "It's a hard thing to pay a thousand a month for ... part of this space and let people use for free who don't have the same resources you have, especially when it's your stuff or my 3D printer that can be stolen or messed up," said Keenan. "That's radical sharing."
Radical sharing at the Omni is also intended to examine our culture's deep-seated relationship with money. It's an attempt to reclaim the word "sharing" from the so-called "sharing economy," which includes ridesharing services, such as Uber and Lyft; peer-to-peer home rental services like Airbnb; websites like SnapGoods that facilitate the lending of household items, including appliances, tools, and musical instruments; and enterprises like TaskRabbit and Zaarly, which are mediums for placing personal skills, such as sewing or pie making, on the market.
"The sharing economy is not about sharing," Shelley argued. "Human beings want to share, and value sharing, but the sharing economy seeks to commodify spheres of life outside of the obvious economic spheres; our personal lives are commodified every possible way. Our homes, our cars, are commodified in the name of this sharing economy."
Shelley explained that radical sharing is founded on the de-commodification of goods and relationships. "Radical sharing is based on ... the idea that what is between you and I — this relationship — is more important than the material things that either one of us possess, as opposed to a sharing economy, where the exchange of money is the most important thing."
Jenny Ryan, an organizer at Omni Commons and a member of Sudo Room, went so far to say that the term sharing has been co-opted by Big Tech. "There's a lot of buzz right now around the word 'sharing,' like sharing economy, which is bullshit," she said. "It's just another form of co-optation of what is really an essential human thing.
"I don't know how 'radical' it is, really," she added, referring to the radical sharing employed at the commons. "I guess 'radical' in the sense of getting to the root of the thing, which is just sharing — not sharing in the guise of some startup corporate bullshit."
In many ways, collectives at Omni Commons can be thought of as "anti-" or "social" startups, and the commons is their incubator for launching social and artistic enterprises. Instead of the traditional notion of a startup — a small tech business hoping to hit the jackpot — these startup "collectives" aspire to radical social change, cultural enrichment, community empowerment, and an all-inclusive society, not making money.
Shelley works part-time for a startup in San Francisco, and I asked her about the differences between collectives at the Omni and the startups she frequently encounters. She said it was more appropriate to compare Omni collectives to the original startups that were "hacking on shit in their garages. There's something about young people feeling that they don't have to go the traditional route — don't have to go to college, appeal to authority, climb the corporate ladder," she said. "There's something that feels exciting and sexy, and there's a sense of camaraderie.
"But the fundamental difference is why people are doing it and what they're doing it for," she continued. "We're not doing it for money and we're openly challenging the notion that money should dictate how we organize and the decisions we make in our lives."
But perhaps there's more to it. Walk into any co-working space in Oakland or San Francisco and you'll see that startups collectivize their resources as well, often benefiting from an ecosystem of complementary skills and ideas. In the business world, it's near-paradigmatic that an ecosystem breeds innovation. But the difference is that collectives at Omni Commons don't care about making money. Or, in the words of Korl Silver, an organizer at the commons and a member of Sudo Room, "We're like a business, but our gains are community."
And collectives at the commons that do work with technology — hackerspaces Sudo Room and Counter Culture Labs — represent an antithesis of corporate tech. Noemie Serfati, a French filmmaker who is making a documentary about Sudo Room and Omni Commons, believes Sudo Room and Counter Culture Labs are subversive precisely because they're located in the Bay Area. "The Bay Area is at the heart of an empire," she said. "Because of the tech industry, most of the power is concentrated here."