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Great idea, Great execution, Horrible experience

I head up a large social group in Washington DC (10,000+ members) and volunteer my time at least every other weekend.  I heard about the KK effort in DC and wanted to check out for myself as I am always looking for new things to do in the area to post to our calendar for our members. After my day of work, I will say this definitively: Never again will I work at this kitchen in DC.  It pains me to say this because Krishna in the kitchen is a saint. He was awesome but the patrons treat you like your a second class citizen, speaking down at you and spitting off orders. It also didn’t help that several of the other "volunteers" were there to put another notch in thier belt so that they could go tell all of thier friends how they are doing good.  It made me sick to my stomach to the point that I almost left half way through lunch but I did not want to leave everyone else having to carry the trays up and down the steps.

It seems like a group of people in the DC area found out there is a free meal and are taking advantage of it. It really is sad to see as it is an interesting concept but I want no part of it. This is my first bad volunteer experience.

[KK response: We wanted to thank you for your feedback. Though we are disappointed that Karma Kitchen (KK) didn't provide a meaningful volunteer opportunity for you, we are glad that it gives us a chance to address some of the issues you brought up.

For us, the volunteer experience and personal growth that come from it are a major part of the KK experience. From the standpoint of our guests, the value that KK brings is that people get to practice generosity, and be in an ambiance where everyone is paying for each other. That rise in the density of inter-connections is what creates the "vibe" and subsequently sensitizes us to each other, to our neighbors, to the strangers on the streets. That's why so many come to participate in this experiment at different locations. Surely, Karma Kitchen offers a food-experience; but it is this potential for an internal shift in all of us that makes Karma Kitchen what it is.

The challenges come at the edges, where the gift economy meets the constraints of operating in the current paradigm: unlike a traditional soup kitchen that is financially supported entirely by an external funding organization, a gift economy outfit covers its costs only when enough people choose to be a part of the chain of giving.

For us, the deeper challenge in people seeking a free meal is in the nature of seeking. KK is an experiment designed with a simple idea in mind: everyone is invited to come from an internal space of abundance, to practice generosity the best way they know how. If someone comes in that spirit, it makes no difference whether they contribute financially or not. This subtlety makes all the difference. But the problem you surfaced is that people aren't always in that space, and we want to make a solid effort to improve here. The value we want KK to bring to the dining experience isn't in giving a cheaper meal than another restaurant; when we have succeeded in creating a deep environment, people will literally walk in and say that "there's something uplifting about this place."

As organizers, there's more nuance. The fact of the matter is that we consciously strive to be unconditional, but practicing generosity in this context is in learning how to maneuver these edges with wisdom and compassion. Where we will continue improving is when someone comes with a free-loading mindset, and it's clear there's no shift happening. At such times, we may need to go as far as refusing them a seat. On initial survey, that doesn't feel like the right response, and yet, there's also a great value in holding the whole situation in mind. We can either serve 100% of the people for a few weeks (either when the restaurant canít partner with us, we arenít financially sustainable, or when we canít create a context of generosity) or meaningfully serve 99% of the people sustainably and potentially indefinitely.

The bottom line is that practicing generosity is an incredible service. Constantly bombarded with messages of consumerism, we gloss over the deep value in giving and forget our inter-connectedness. When we find a hundred dollar bill on the street, we think we got lucky. Unfortunately, that mindset is exactly what leads to the Tragedy of the Commons, that if everyone approaches community resources with a free-loading perspective, these resources dry up in the long run. Actually, there is no such thing as "free" -- if we ever get a no-strings-attached gift, it is incumbent on us to pay-it-forward and keep the chain alive. If we are able to see it as a circle of giving, everyone is taken care of so long as we're all paying-forward. Sharing that understanding, not just intellectually but experientially, is the deeper purpose of Karma Kitchen, and why we want to keep it going: along with a meal, we are serving a subtler generosity-experience that creates this cultural shift from consumption to contribution.

Of course, we are clear that KK is an experiment in generosity. We are grateful that we have received your feedback, and plan to use it to continue learning and evolving. ]

--George Christopher on Apr 29, 2011

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