One of the key components of social sustainability is changing people’s mindsets. Getting people to think differently is the first step toward getting them to act differently. As Sociologists, one of the things we know is that, sometimes, the best way to create the possibility to think about something in a new way is to radically alter one’s taken-for-granted reality. It’s like the fish that doesn’t know it’s in water until you take the water away: if we fundamentally disrupt taken-for-granted reality, we can see those aspects of our everyday life that are so ingrained that we don’t even think about them. And, once we are able to look self-reflexively at them, it’s possible to imagine that things could be otherwise.
These are the thoughts that come to mind as we explore this week’s social sustainability site: Karma Kitchen. Inspired as a way to promote the value of a gift economy, several volunteers started Karma Kitchen in 2007. Today on any Sunday, everyone is welcome to eat delicious vegetarian Indian food at Karma Kitchen, which is located at a local restaurant, “Taste of Himalaya.” As with any other restaurant experience, you come in, you sit down, and you are served a delicious meal. But here, when your bill comes, the total reads $00.00. With it, comes the message that you may pay the generosity forward in any way you wish. Receiving that bill is a profound moment: an opportunity to re-examine preconceived notions and expectations. To ask oneself, How can I contribute?
"Run by volunteers, our meals are cooked and served with love, and offered to the guest as a genuine gift. To complete the full circle of giving and to sustain this experiment, we leave it to the guest to pay it forward, expressing their goodness in whatever way they wish. One immediate option is to contribute toward the cost of serving a future guest. In keeping this chain going, the generosity of both guests and volunteers helps to create a future that moves from transaction to trust, from self-oriented isolation to shared commitment, and from fear of scarcity to celebration of abundance."
The philosophy here inspires its participants to think differently about economic exchanges, to think in terms of reciprocity, trust and generosity instead of monetary transactions. Experiencing something familiar (eating out at a restaurant) in a context which has shaken up the usual rules of the game provides an opportunity to look critically at our standard operating procedures and imagine that there are alternatives to our taken-for-granted reality.