Notice that my footnote becomes, effectively, an endnote.
How can I make sense of this project? From where does it come? First, it is based on an assumption that a community knows best what it needs. Experts, many planners, and abundant economists would disagree with this statement. International development efforts have been and continue to predominantly be decided from outside. During my undergraduate education, a professor of mine—Dr. Deane Curtin—liked to share this story:
United Nations representatives went to a small village. They looked around and saw how the women were cutting trees and brush for cook fires. This was degrading the environment and allowing for soil runoff. The men from the UN said to each other, “These women need solar ovens, then they won't cut down the trees.” They then went back to the UN and petitioned for money, bought the solar ovens, and returned to the village. They showed the women the ovens, how they worked, and explained how it would save them time and resources. The women of the village inspected the ovens for a few minutes, then walked off. One of the UN representatives asked one of the women why they weren't going to use the ovens. She said, “We cook at night. We're too busy during the day.”
When “experts” proposed a strategy for improving their lives, they did not listen first. The same professor liked to share another story:
Students and I were traveling in India and we visited a village. The women were raising money to buy bicycles. The women explained how much they traveled from one village to another. Bicycles would free up some of that time. The next year, we went back just after the bikes arrived. These women in long saris were trying to hop on their bicycles as they raced down a hill because no one knew how to ride a bicycle. With the women's permission, the students jumped in, placed the bikes on flat ground, and gave two or three of the women lessons on riding a bicycle as they held the bikes steady. Those women then taught the others until all the women began to cycle on their own.
These stories provide two different narratives of development. As we transform—or transition—our communities toward sustainability, we can choose which narrative serves us. Will we listen to economists, politicians, engineers, and other “experts” or will we listen to our own community, requesting help on our own terms?
I have another story to share. Food justice scholar and activist Dr. Robert Gottlieb spoke at my school Northern Arizona University in the Spring of 2010. He had many exciting and enthusing stories of community gardens, local markets, farm-to-school programs, and other sites of just community development around food. I asked him something like, “Given that each of these projects is place-based and comes out of a particular habitat and cultural location, what—if anything—can we in Flagstaff learn from them?” Robert Gottlieb did not have an immediate response and after the conversation, Dr. Patrick Pynes approached me. He said, “I liked your question. You were asking, in a way, if these stories are useful for us here in high altitude American Southwest.” For those who do not know Patrick Pynes, his focus is on Southwest food systems and culture.
I left that meeting more critical of the utility of Robert Gottlieb's project than I know am. What I have learned is that these community enterprises—explored in detail in Food Justice, which he co-authored with Anupama Joshi—are important for others to hear. They do not provide models. What they provide are stories that inspire us, that we hear and can then contextualize to our own places and times. Through listening first, we begin to imagine with greater creativity, cleverness, and potential. That imaginary then expands into action.
Over Autumn of 2010, I was handed a great many conceptions of power. Paul Apostilidis has provided an intellectual capstone to this understanding of power. Antonio Gramsci describes hegemony as the mindset imposed—in the form of culture, politics, economy, and so on—onto a society that hinders or prevents thinking beyond that system of power. A quotidian example would be arguing for students trying not to fall asleep in class during a lecture by the professor; these students are not being served by the experience, but the school and the instructor are such that the potential actions for the students are limited (attention, doodling, sending text messages, napping, and so on). Apostilidis, through his examination of immigrant slaughterhouse workers and organizing in Breaks in the Chain, argues that this hegemony is constantly enacted. The students themselves refuse to break out of the dull, aimless, and forgettable classroom.
Apostolidis's next step is incredibly, even radically exciting: If hegemony is enacted by everyone, not just the institutions with/in which we participate, then we are presented again and again with opportunities to contest hegemony, wrest power from it, and even escape it. For Latino/a slaughterhouse workers,1 this latent power is manifested with the slowing of the “disassembly line” to a human scale, such that beef stacks up in heaps all over the factory. When the managers try to regain control by leading some line workers out to be summarily fired, all the workers from that stage walk out together. When the managers try to chain the doors to keep the workers there, they then plainly state that they cannot be kept in, that they will break the windows if the doors are locked. First, the workers—organized and coordinated as the are—contest the power of the managers to set the pace of the line; then, they wrest power to terminate workers arbitrarily; and finally, they proclaim their ability to escape, to leave the factory altogether no matter the chains put into place. These workers have refused to participate in the hegemony of the factory.
I have introduced a concomitant concept to this discussion of sustainability: radical democracy. Apostolidis explores how his subjects—people who are simultaneously immigrants, workers, organizers, family members, Latinos/as, and so on—are reconstituting politics within their work environment. Hegemonic pressure has individualized these identities such that one worker's story is separated from another's, that collectivity is cut off from the workers. Through storytelling and listening, organizing and planning, action and reflection, these individuals begin to see one another as narrative subjects; by sharing narratives, their similar pains, pressures, and traumas become unifying and constitutive of a larger political body.
In a limited sense, sustainability does not require democracy, whether that democracy is radical or not. Sustainability, since first defined in a social-environmental manner in 1987, has predominantly meant using resources and natural cycles in non-depleting ways. As residents of planet Earth, we cannot afford to undermine the mechanisms that make our residency possible. This goal is obviously substantive and challenging. We are, in multifarious ways, farther from it than ever in the history of our species. We may approach such sustainability as technocrats or beneficent tyrants, setting in place strategies to reduce population, pollution, contamination, and habitat destruction from above such that our planet continues to be habitable by human beings.
This echoes sharply of the UN representatives deciding that women need solar ovens. In simple terms, we don't need solar ovens. We need institutions attentive to the needs of people and places. We need to listen to the lessons of place. Stories from other places are useful, but it is our own narrativizing that will produce the culture, institutions, and communities we need for sustainability. This is the artery (and all arteries have accompanying veins) from sustainability to democracy.
I will show how Flagstaff is already a community of alternative, attentive, generative stories. As I have previously said, these are not the current dominant stories of this place. We have stories—stories I hope are gaining traction—concerning food, education, citizenship, employment, and more. My aim is to attend to stories of housing. These stories will be reflective and historical as well as potential and “fictional.”
Let me share a story I have about housing. In February of 2011 I moved to a house in the Southside neighborhood of Flagstaff. This building has a history all its own: a lumbermill workers' union, a wedding chapel, a dance studio, a squat, and now it is a residence thanks to our peculiar landlord. The building has three flours, the basement and third floor act as apartments while the main floor has four individual bedrooms, a small shared kitchen, an uncommon single bathroom, and an expansive common room. My friend and previous roommate Tim Haynes moved in with me, so that we shared the space with two strangers.
Tim and I were immediately warmed by our new residence. It felt accommodating and comfortable after our six month stint in an apartment south of town. Our new roommates were generally easy going, though each with his own habits. Near the end of the summer—following the exchange of one of these roommates for another stranger—Tim and I engaged in some cleaning. We felt ambitious and proud of a reconfigured common space and consolidation of what we felt was cluttered, dusty equipment. Most of this was owned by our then-absent roommate. We saw the clean, expansive wooden floor and the openness of the rearranged furniture and looked forward to hosting friends in this crisp, breathable room.
Our absent roommate returned from a not especially pleasurable trip. He came in perturbed and agitated from his time away and the long sojourn back. He came in with a nearly finished six-pack in hand. He saw the new shape of the common room, his tidied and consolidated equipment; he did not like what he saw. What ensued was an argument for which I had little precedent. He began to argue, then shout, and eventually physically threaten me. Tim attempted to soften the engagement, but he had clearly focused his attention on me. My nervous laughter did nothing to ease his mood.
I do not think of myself as an especially vulnerable person. I am tall, broad, white, male, (generally) viewed as straight and receive various other wards of my person. I often carry a small Opinel knife, a gift from a generous host during a stay in St. Paul, Minnesota in January 2008. I was once temperamental, but have never been one for physical confrontation.
When my roommate threatened to break my jaw, I was so terrified I almost broke into tears.
Days later dust had settled, even if it settled onto eggshells. Many things happened in those interceding days. I continue to hold this episode against my roommate,as I think is wise, I understand a good deal better who he is and why this modest shift (what Tim and I exclusively viewed as an improvement) inspired such a dramatic episode. My roommate's concerns were not given any space (from his vantage) to surface, to enter a shared discursive space. Aggressive language—rarely physical aggression, I am told—is the means by which my roommate was able to bring these issues into a conversation. What we—as a household—needed was a safe space for each of us to share and confront these issues evenly and fairly. I believe we lacked anything like a political space for us to raise conflicts, expectations, and desires for our shared living space. I withhold forgiveness of what I feel was a breach of basic civility, but this episode will continue to inform me in terms of housing and personal safety.
This is a story I carry with me, a story that is part of who I am.
1One aspect of Apostolidis's project is to challenge the limitation of this terminology. He interviews these workers-organizers and listens to their immigration narratives, their histories, and their conditions to deconstruct a simple conception of immigrant labor and reconstruct these people as narrativizing subjects.