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The fight over the future of one of Arlington’s largest ‘Buy Nothing’ groups

Buy Nothing project banner (via Buy Nothing Arlington (Northwest), VA/Facebook)

Thursday morning, Marsea Nelson woke up to a foreboding text from a friend.

He told her “he didn’t have ‘My Buy Nothing Facebook group got too political’ on his 2023 Bingo card,” she tells ARLnow.

Arguing that a local Facebook group for giving and receiving free stuff had gotten too big to be effective, the page’s volunteer admins have embarked on a process to splinter into smaller, more neighborhood-specific groups. The group currently serves a number of northern Arlington neighborhoods, plus some just outside of Arlington’s borders.

Just as they were about to launch the new groups and archive the legacy one, the group founder, Kayla Owen, stepped in and put a stop to it. She revoked their admin privileges, alleging that they had silenced people who disagreed with the plan while intentionally excluded her from the decision making.

She muted other posts and created a poll: split up or stay together? The admins would be reinstated if a majority wanted to move forward with the breakup.

“I can picture reading this in ARLnow,” said a Dominion Hills participant, who requested anonymity. “I think this is the kind of drama the rest of Arlington should read.”

Buy Nothing is a worldwide movement to help people befriend their neighbors while giving away stuff that cannot be sold or donated to a nonprofit. There are thousands of neighborhood-specific Facebook groups and millions of members, including several groups in Arlington.

Buy Nothing Arlington (Northwest), VA” was experiencing growing pains. The 3,000-member group had boundaries spanning from north of Route 50, all the way to McLean and then over to I-66 and Glebe Road. Some felt that competing for and picking up free stuff was becoming too difficult and theorized that was why some had stopped participating altogether.

While the admins decided four smaller groups were necessary, Owen’s poll found that 75% of respondents did not want to be divided up this way. Poll results in-hand, she decided “Buy Nothing Arlington (Northwest), VA” will remain and discussions of boundary changes will be shelved for now.

“After reading emotional outpourings from members about their sense of loss, I decided that I had to intervene so the community could determine its future direction,” Owen tells ARLnow.

Nelson says she respects this position but sympathizes with the admins, who worked hard on the smaller groups, called “sprouts.”

“It’s so sad, and so silly, that this community people held so dear got so ugly,” she said. “The majority of people wanted the group to stay together so they’re happy to ignore how this all went down.”

ARLnow reached out to some of the affected admins but did not hear back before deadline. Screenshots ARLnow reviewed indicate admins had supporters who criticised Owen’s maneuver and Owen herself for stepping in even though she left Arlington to move elsewhere in Northern Virginia. (For her part, she says Buy Nothing permits out-of-area admins as a “check” on the system.)

“I’m sure [the admins] are pissed,” the Dominion Hills member said. “They probably feel like there’s been a coup.”

On Facebook, one user said Owen’s tactics will turn off people from responding honestly.

“I think people who are turned off by drama will not respond,” the comment said. “Like others, the first word that came to mind was ‘coup.'”

It’s not about the free stuff

What made the “Northwest” Buy Nothing page special to members may have become its downfall.

The idea to “buy nothing” revived the halcyon days of going next door for a cup of sugar in an era when Americans are increasingly distant from their neighbors, perhaps because our lives are increasingly online.

Whatever the reason, Buy Nothing groups became a lifeline for some during the pandemic.

The “Northwest” group became more than just a way to give and receive everything from pavers to houseplants to baby stuff — so much baby stuff — and classroom supplies. It was a needed source of community as people experienced hardships like death or job loss, and  as they struggled with isolation-induced loneliness. Members even started meeting up in person at restaurants and for board game nights.

“I’m sad about the sprout because I feel this deep connection is being ripped away and many of you probably just thought you were getting rid of junk, but those items made me feel like I could show up for my kids on Christmas when we were really struggling,” wrote one woman, in a post shared with ARLnow.

She thanked members for their friendship and generosity and for helping her put presents under the tree last Christmas when she was unemployed.

Another woman said the group fully furnished her military family’s new home when they moved but their household goods were delayed by two months. Someone also made her a place to display memorabilia of her firstborn son, who died at nine weeks old.

“This group is full of some amazing humans and I could not be more grateful for each of you,” she wrote.

Owen said this was the real gift of Buy Nothing, making the decision to create offshoots an unforced error without widespread support. Other local groups are also fairly large: the Clarendon area has around 1,800 members, one for Columbia Pike has around 3,800 members and Rosslyn has 2,700 members.

“Members of Buy Nothing Arlington/NW were not given the opportunity to decide if they thought the group had gotten too big, and thoughtful, data-driven comments about new boundaries were ignored,” she argued.

Other members say that the admins were thoughtful and did seek input on the boundaries.

The soul of Buy Nothing

Like the Arlington group, fractures have appeared in other Buy Nothing groups around the nation.

The Capitol Hill Buy Nothing group, for instance, became infamous for its ruthless banning of people who violate rules, which were set by the Buy Nothing movement’s two founders. That prompted the creation of an anarchic countergroup, “Take My Sh*t.”

Meanwhile, the movement’s two founders have gotten into hot water from critics who said the rules governing the groups make them feel racist and classist. Attempts to loosen the rules in response rankled longtime admins. The two founders have also tried, unsuccessfully, to monetize the movement and divert activity from Facebook to an app they created.

All this is happening in the background, however, and what users want most — including those in Arlington’s “Northwest” group — is just a place to make friends and give and receive things.

Another member told ARLnow she envisions a north-south split along Langston Blvd as a “‘middle ground’ option that may satisfy the largest number of group members.”

“Ultimately, I have been very active on the Buy Nothing page and regardless of how it’s going to end up, I just hope that all this chaos is behind us soon and we can all start focusing again on forming new relationships and nurturing the existing ones,” she said.

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