'Karma Kitchen To Go' In Marin
Posted by Nipun Mehta on Apr 12, 2010
[Last week, several of us supported a phenomenal GreenMuseum event -- Giftivism: Exploring the Intersection of Art and Service. At the reknowned Headlands Center for Arts, the event was "sold out" right as it got announced. The wide range of guests included inspired artists, community leaders, philanthropists, and service hearted spirits. Along with various activities, we made our first KarmaKitchen "To-Go" delivery as everyone experienced a KK-style dinner. Due to time constraints, I didn't get to share all the stories, but below is the gist of the introduction I offered.]
I volunteer with an organization called CharityFocus, that leverages technology to ignite "gift-economy" projects. One of those projects is Karma Kitchen, which you'll be experiencing today. Every Sunday, a bunch of volunteers take on a restaurant, pay the food/rent costs, and offer an experiment in generosity. Your check at the end of the meal reads $0.00 -- your meal has been gifted to you, and you're invited to pay-forward whatever you want to for the person after you.
The reactions to this simple concept are absolutely wild, and beyond anything we had originally expected. It confuses people with gratitude. :) And that's something that doesn't happen all too often in our culture.
If you break it down, there are three big things that seem to happen in people during this experiment in generosity.
First is the awareness. We are all constantly receiving, starting with 9 months in our mother's wombs. But we forget. And getting a gift of something so basic, like food, is a radical surprise for people. For some people it takes a while, but sooner or later, people start realizing, "Hey, my meal was paid for by someone before me, who I don't know. It is being served to me by volunteers, who I don't know. And I have a chance to pay it forward for people I don't know. It's really a shift from me-to-we." Random guests tear up during their meal and sometimes, like in the case of Piero Amadeo, right as they walk in.
Second is gratitude. Once we realize the gifts we are receiving, starting with food and onto more subtler gifts, there is a natural flow of gratitude. It's inevitable. The first and basic expression of this flow is money. The check explains that it takes $650 (in Berkeley) for us to host each week and it also takes 100 volunteer hours; but really, what's the price of a gift-economy exprience? As Oscar Wilde said, "We know the price of everything, but the value of nothing." So people give money to sustain the experiment, but there is this other dance that happens inside them. Guests want to give more. They sing songs, offer art along with their books and DVDs and more on our kindness table; they share insights on the weekly theme, people bring produce from their yards, flowers from the streets, t-shirts off their back, you name it. It's almost as if people are longing to express their gratitude, but never found a space to practice it.
Third is paying-it-forward. You have a sense of sharing this experience with other people. And the biggest testimonial for this is the presence of the volunteers themselves. There's always a waitlist to volunteer at Karma Kitchen -- all of April, for example, is already full. One of the biggest tasks of the volunteers is to "blow people away with generosity." Once they get the hang of the logistics, this is where the fun starts. And volunteers do all kinds of incredible Smile Card "tags" with goodies like Peace Chains. Most of it is dynamic, and sometimes you have a story that you'll never forget -- like the time when a volunteer was given $100 and asked to bring back whatever change he thought was right. "This is about trust, right? So I trust you to bring back whatever is right." After some confusion, the volunteer goes inside, takes out a twenty from his wallet and offers the guest $120. Words simply cannot describe how elated that guest felt, as he left the restaurant.
So that's the experiment called Karma Kitchen. And today, you have volunteers who have come here simply to share that joy with you. Among them is a former Astrophysics PhD student from UC Berkeley (Pancho), an art teacher at an adult college (Susan), a musician from Trinidad living in Oakland (Arthur), a technologist from the Silicon Valley (Bill), a naturopath who is offering gift-economy health care (Aumatma), and a social change filmmaker visiting from India (Meghna). Not only will they serve you a meal and lead activities at your tables, but they will also stay after to do the dishes. It is through their actions that they share their essence of generosity and love.
[At 10:30PM, after doing dishes for 100 people, we were all smiles.]