Strengthening the Community through a Local Currency: The Brixton Case

Guest post by Naomi Lipke. Naomi is currently developing and testing an app for foodsharing in Denmark. By exchanging extra food, we reduce food waste and create community. Download the Android version here.

The Brixton Pound is a complementary currency. Its ten-pound note is graced with a photo of the late David Bowie who grew up in Brixton. Being generally fascinated by complementary currencies, I created an opportunity to visit Brixton and the Brixton pound when I traveled to London.

Complementary (also called alternative) currencies operate at a city, country, or international level in parallel to an official national currency. Complementary currencies can be as common and familiar as airline miles or as hip as Ethereum. Similarly, the goals of complementary currencies are diverse. This post will focus on a complementary currency developed for a community goal. The goal for a community might be, for instance, to support local businesses by creating a currency that can only be spent in a certain locality. This prevents the currency from leaking out of the local community and thus, increasing its multiplier effect. In addition, complementary currencies are sometimes used when the value of the national currency falls.

At the time I visited Brixton, I was about halfway through a book called Sacred Economics, which poetically as well as pragmatically, describes reasons for, methods of setting up, and ways to get involved with, complementary currencies. In addition, I had recently attended a workshop in Oslo on complementary economies, where we talked about being able to purchase municipal services like bus tickets with a complementary currency that was earned through community service activities. As I came to Brixton with these experiences in my mind, I was enthusiastic about a complex, effective model that was pushing the boundaries and limitations of past complementary currencies that I had experienced. The Brixton Pound does seem to be successful, but it was possibly not successful in the ways that I hoped or for the reasons that I had hoped.

The Brixton Pound. Image by Naomi Lipke.

When I arrived in Brixton, I spoke with my Airbnb host about the Brixton pound and asked about her experience with it. She pointed out the David Bowie bill on her refrigerator and said that they had been excited about the currency at first, but didn’t use it much anymore. She went on to talk about the changes in their neighborhood. It seems that housing prices in Brixton and London, more generally, are going up very quickly. You can’t really understand change over time from a two day visit to a place, of course, but she wasn’t the only one who told me that Brixton had been changing very rapidly. I got the impression from my hostess that she was disappointed that the Brixton Pound hadn’t been more successful in slowing these changes in Brixton.

I met with the co-founder and current head of the Brixton Pound, Tom Shakhli, in a storefront under the train tracks. While we spoke, people came into the shop to ask for directions, to ask about the Brixton Pound, to buy a custard tart, and to say hello. From the first moment, he made clear that the Brixton Pound did not define its success with numbers. He was more interested in the number of people who had heard of the Brixton Pound and thought well of it than the number of pounds spent or how often they were exchanged.

I asked Tom what had made the Brixton Pound successful, and he pointed to the design of the bills and their strong and diverse grassroots support. He thought that the professional design of their paper currency lent it credibility. When I asked about their grassroots support, he said that the project had been backed not only by activists and artists but also business owners and the local government. I told him about the reservations of my hostess, and he responded by explaining that Brixton was not experiencing gentrification of a typical variety but rather foreign property investment and speculation. He didn’t think that the currency was well-suited to this challenge. I traded my British pounds for some Brixton pounds, and the young man behind the counter sent one of the amazing custard tarts along with me.

The Brixton Pound Cash Machine. Picture by Naomi Lipke

The Brixton Pound Cafe. Picture by Brixton Pound Facebook page.

Although Tom emphasized their community support and graphic design as keys to their success, the Brixton Pound does have several interesting features that likely improve the function of the currency. For instance, they operate a monthly lottery, which qualifies as a means of keeping their community currency circulating. Particularly with complementary currencies perhaps, people hang onto their money, maybe because they don’t have as many opportunities to spend it. The lottery can be seen as serving as a means of collecting these funds into a pool and then redistributing them. The lottery raised money for community projects as well as for running the Brixton Pound organization itself. The person who wins the money can keep the sizable sum of 1000 pounds for themselves or donate it to a community project. To add to their technical cred, the project has an ATM and an mobile phone app.

Leaving the Brixton Pound office, I wandered down a side street and ran into Diverse Gifts, a store that I recognized from the project’s website. After browsing for some time, I engaged the store owner in a conversation about the Brixton Pound. She was positive about the initiative and said that it provided free marketing for her business. She could pay her local government bills with Brixton pounds. She also used it as a kind of savings account: she just ignored the accumulation of Brixton Pounds, and then used them when other accounts were low. She said that she usually changed them back into British sterling. She pointed out that most people who thought that the currency was important were middle-class and educated. She said that the area was still fairly working-class and that it might not really catch-on unless it was either better at engaging the working class or the working class in Brixton was replaced by the middle class. I asked her, “why the currency; why not just marketing,” and she responded that the design of the bills was important. People liked the design. She said that it was an object that people rallied around.

The following day I went back to the office of the Brixton Pound. That morning an open and engaging woman named Jackie was holding an art class. Also hanging out was a little girl with her father and Frank, an inspiringly enthusiastic young man, who was in charge of office management. I sat and painted. The little girl’s father left to buy fish, delivered it home, and then came back for her. Tourists wandered in for directions. Other curious people came in to find out about the Brixton Pound. I played foosball with a young man who was perhaps around ten years old while his dad asked questions about the Brixton Pound, and Jackie cleaned up the art supplies. (I almost let him win. It was close.) It felt like a friendly place where people could not only hang out and get a sweet treat, but who could generally find a friendly person to talk to.

I ate lunch with Jackie and Frank. Jackie told me about her plans for a children’s art program. It seems she had been testing her arts program out in the Brixton Pound space, finding interested parents, and hoped to develop a more formal, paid program in a different community space.

Since visiting Brixton, I heard Stephanie Rearick of Mutual Aid Networks mention that, in her experience, complementary currencies were partly about the system, but more about community organizing. My impression of the Brixton Pound was that it was most successful, because of its conversations and connections with its community, not because of a clever design. Although the project has a digital currency, a lottery, an ATM, and other interesting features, the focus and possibly the popularity of the project may stem more from the community aspects of the project.

Last fall the Brixton Pound moved out of the space under the railroad tracks and into its own pay-as-you-feel cafe. Its website suggests that it is continuing to develop its work by focusing on local food within its cafe. In the basement, there is a studio space meant for artists who want to work with the community. In these ways, the Brixton Pound seems to be doubling-down on its community-centered vision, and slowly adding new projects that align with the interests of the community.

(Thumbnail image by https://brixtonpound.org/).