WHY RESTRUCTURE EVERYTHING?
Once we start to connect the dots between major problems facing the world today we see that they are interconnected, driven by the same engine. This engine has many names - capitalism, the patriarchy, neoliberalism, the military industrial complex, or The Man - but it is essentially the pursuit of profit and economic growth at all costs. This engine drove colonialism and imperialism. It exploits human and natural resources. It turns citizens into consumers and the commons into commodities. This engine has enabled multinational corporations to wield more power than people and the governments they elect. But this engine is sputtering. Since it has driven so many of today’s problems, today is the perfect opportunity to restructure everything.
In 2016 I graduated from Dartmouth College wondering how I could change any of the problems I learned about in my Environmental Studies degree. Every class about systemic issues seemed to boil down to corporate interests disrupting livelihoods in pursuit of profit. But when career fairs rolled around, most opportunities were in that corporate world.
Some escapades in the working world revealed flaws in each approach to change. If I do urban planning, would top-down plans for a smart and sustainable city be too detached from the people struggling to get by? Would every effort to make a neighbourhood more “green” contribute to gentrification and displacement? If I do behaviour change campaigns, would recycling, eating less meat and buying green products really make a difference? Would I just be enabling people to think we can buy our way out of this crisis (if you can afford to)? What’s the point of political advocacy when our politicians prioritise corporate interests and big donors? What’s the point of doing nonprofit work when we are dependant on conditional grants or just putting a bandaid on a fundamentally flawed system? What’s point of research and academia when its dowsed in jargon and stays in its bubble? Despite the respect I have for people doing this work, the existential grappling started to spin.
In retrospect, it all came down to a classic question that many people face - do i want to change the system from the inside, protest the system, or leave and build an alternative system? I now like to call this the “titanic decision” - the boat is sinking, are you going to stay on and reroute or jump overboard and rebuild. I try to think of each project as an experiment in effective change-making, testing what approach fits best with your attributes and privileges instead of looking for a silver bullet. One of my privileges (in addition to having a supportive family, US citizenship, an able body and white skin to name a few) was receiving this Brooks Fellowship and being able to take this year in Australia to explore different approaches to systems change and how to tell their stories in a compelling way. With each story I gathered this year, this question of finding my role in the movement lingered in the back of my mind so you may see it seep into some of my reflections (but don’t expect any answers).
FINDING MY ROLE
This wide array of mediums and styles is partially an experiment in how to tell a more compelling story (no offence to the written word). I should emphasise the word experiment here - I have no formal training in film, audio, or art so teaching myself editing programs has been a challenge (I’ve gotten very good at googling). But I believe every person should be able to tell their own story, so the more audio, video, and photo I use the less my narration has to get in the way.
Most recordings were taken “in the field” as I helped out (or attempted to) with whatever needed to be done on the project, whether it was chopping carrots, making a promo video, organising a fundraiser or shovelling horse poo. I tried to see through an ethnographic lens as a “participant observer,” getting to know the people and project first before I planned how I’d make all my random recordings into a story. This lack of planning would probably make a media professional sick, but I enjoy the rawness and reciprocity.
For some projects I was able to capture their story while I helped out with their media needs, so in those cases I had a fixed final output. For other stories I only spent a day with the person, helping out if I could but mostly just collecting content. It all depended on what their needs were.
I started this year in Australia with an internship at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, doing ethnographic field work with a team researching co-housing and affordable communal housing models. I kept meeting people doing amazing things to address Sydney’s housing crisis, so I started volunteering in small ways outside of this internship and bringing my audio recorder with me everywhere. After the internship ended I started working on the Voices of Community Energy podcast but kept collecting stories with groups I met on the side. I then started doing longer volunteering stints on permaculture farms and a theme emerged - local community ownership of housing, energy and food.
HOUSING, ENERGY, FOOD
I received a grant called the Brooks Fellowship that funds graduates to continue their studies experientially and abroad through a project they design and propose. There are no research papers or required deliverables, no supervisors, no school credit, just a lump sum check and 9-12 months. This level of open ended freedom seemed too good to be true and was actually quite challenging. But with this fellowship as a cushion I was able to do “work” for no pay on various projects that interested me.
The cushion was thin enough that it drove me to experiment with a lifestyle outside of capitalism. I didn’t set out to do this experiment, but I’ve been time-rich and money-poor so I’ve gradually found ways to exchange time and “labor” for my basic needs. This happened formally through workaway and wwoofing as well as informally through dumpster diving or volunteering at events, restaurants and community gardens. In addition to these “non monetary exchanges,” some of it happened in “gift economy” style - I have a lot of gratitude for the friends that let me sleep in tents in their yard, borrow their bikes and ride in their cars. Living in unused space, eating wasted food and not buying things (unless they're from people I want to support) sometimes feels like I’m a parasite on society but I’m ok with that for as long as the waste persists and I have the time to find it.