This is the first in a series of Q&As with JEI Fellows about the path they’ve taken to financial activism and what they’ve learned along the way. For this post, we interviewed Caesaré Assad of Centipede Collective about what it means to be an outsider to the financial system and how that status can reveal solutions that insiders don’t see.
JEI: You told us when you applied to JEI that you see yourself as an outsider—can you explain that a bit?
CA: I did not grow up having a background or education in finance or investing, so these have naturally been intimidating and scary topics. It is hard to explain the fear and shame that come along with the lack of context or knowing where to begin, which is how I’ve connected to feeling like an outsider in the work of financial activism.
Needing to support myself from an early age, I labored as a food worker for a significant part of my career. As a deep feeler and thinker, I was keenly aware of and deeply curious about the ways that capitalism was negatively impacting the well-being of my family and community. Coming from rural poverty and being QTPOC, I lived in the margins of these realities across the spectrum of my experiences. This position drove a lot of my professional choices, pushing me to the edges, where I was able to observe and understand the levers that drive the system.
To be honest, being an outsider was in a way being in survival mode, working to get some autonomy for myself and to understand this enveloping system that I was subject to participate in. As I gained more autonomy, I began to actively pursue knowledge in the places that made me most uncomfortable. I began to look at the gaps in my own financial, physical, emotional, and spiritual care. As an outsider today, I have lived the experiences needed to contextualize my complex journey out of poverty, so that I am able to look within, and to heal.
JEI: How has being an outsider affected the work that you do?
CA: The financial system is designed to be intimidating and opaque to keep poor people, women, LQBTQ+, and other outsiders looking in, taking what we are given and acting in accordance with rules and frameworks that were decided for us.
I am not guided by the same rules or frameworks that promote replication, extraction, and marginalization. These never worked for me and I have always felt deeply skeptical when being told what to do. This is how I found myself working for systems change and wealth redistribution: by always looking for an alternative way, learning how to go unnoticed, and at times, being well-equipped to absorb the pain of capitalism through my seeking. I have learned to face the pain and to bear it. For many years, I thought my work was to build resistance. Now I understand that actively working to level the playing field means making sure that I am inside the game, making space for myself and others.
As we face the intense and sobering reality of our present world together, my work is to be present. I have learned to protect myself, to ask for help, and to partner with brilliant subject matter experts who are also doing the inner work needed to be the change. Instead of resistance, my work as an outsider is to build bridges of understanding, to expose the potential for mutual flourishing by creating more space for everyone to lean in and contribute to people taking the power back.
JEI: How has being an outsider informed the way you approach the work?
CA: I sit on the edge of many circles of practice, live a holistic and spiritually colorful life as an artist, rely on my intuition and senses, and have decades of hands-on operational experience that tend to differentiate me from my friends and colleagues in financial activism.
My work spans a breadth of topics across the finance and food systems—as a systems change facilitator, I think one of my crucial insights has been an ability to see what doesn’t yet exist through unlikely partnerships. Outsiders have a unique role to play as we make this existential shift; I think that our power is to partner with insiders to expose all of the possibilities.
I recently partnered with my brilliant colleague from JEI, Meg Boucher of Project Lupine, to support a foundation in the development of governance policies for a place-based, community-led fund. As two practitioners who immensely value the Just Transition framework to ground and guide our work, we were excited about the opportunity to support a group of incredibly thoughtful and committed community leaders in their efforts to design the decision-making processes for this fund. Meg and I believe that if the process of transition is not just, the outcome never will be, and that is why we believe governance, or how decisions are made, is so important. Meg and I complement one another with our learned and lived experience, with nuanced cultural understanding, technical knowledge, and a boost of confidence knowing we have a network of allies behind us.
Taking the time and care to build relational trust individually and collectively within the group has made it possible for us to move forward with the design of these governance policies in a way that integrates best practices with meeting the needs of these community leaders. And that brings us closer to the ultimate goal of this work—moving money and decision-making power to those on the margins, the outsiders.
Caesaré Assad (they/she/he) is the founder and lead consultant with Centipede Collective, LLC. They most recently served as the Executive Director of Food System 6, a national food system accelerator, stewarding frontline leaders working for food sovereignty and a just economy. They are a 2022 Just Economy Institute Fellow, a 2021 Emerging Leader in Food & Ag, and a strategic co-creator with Narratives Unbound, a wealth redistrubtion platform built for and by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. Prior to FS6, they led the merger between two national non-profits focused on health, labor, and sustainability, co-founded a food environment design consultancy, launched two wellness ventures for Whole Foods, and worked in marginalized communities to develop job skill training, nutrition, and holisitc health programs. As an experienced facilitator and operator, Caesaré supports interpersonal and organizational relationship to dynamics to create pathways for people to navigate complex challenges around shifting cultural, political, and socio-economic landscapes. As a lifelong artist, raised in a multi-racial family in rural Oklahoma, their life experience is rich and diverse. Over the last 25 years of working in food and social change, they have built a robust community of talented collaborators that align to support Centipede Collective projects and clients.