By Charis Boke, a Ph.D. student in Anthropology at Cornell University and 2013–2014 Publicly Active Graduate Education (PAGE) Fellow. This PAGE Blog Salon explores the idea of third spaces of engagement between communities and campuses, a topic of the upcoming Imagining America national conference, Oct. 4–6, in Syracuse, NY. This post’s focus: Centering Activism and Equity as Foundations of Third Spaces.
It is a hot August day in southern Vermont. All the other people at the Farmer’s Market have their sunglasses on, even the vendors under their small tents. You join a few of them in the overhang of the Co–op arriving in the middle of a conversation about local foods
“It’s really important to me to eat within the bioregion,” one woman says. “If I can’t get to where my food is grown in less than a day’s drive, I don’t feel like I am really eating what is best for me and the planet.”
“Yeah, I know, right?” a man in Carhartt pants and an old t-shirt interjects. “I mean, if we really want to have resilient communities, we have to keep our money local. And what are the statistics, like, 30–40% of our spending should be going toward food? I’m willing to pay more in order to keep our local farmers and economy in a viable, sustainable condition.”
You sit, listening, sipping your lemonade. The conversation goes on to touch on the effects of GMOs in a long-term food system (several towns in Vermont have recently banned GMO products and seeds from their jurisdictions), the question of physical health and emotional support in the face of massive climate change and a sense of impending loss that people have coming out of that realization, and a brief discussion of ways to better engage the broader community in such conversations and the “work of Transition.” All the folks in this group are involved in some way in using the Transition Towns model for building local resilience. They are the super-dedicated community organizers who run on a mix of adrenaline, optimism, and occasional tunnel vision. You’ve been working with folks who use this model off and on for several years, and you think you have a good idea of what conversations are happening that are vital and productive, and which conversations are missing from the scope of this local community’s work.
This scene is a familiar one for me, as an anthropologist doing fieldwork with Transition activists. I often half-listen to these familiar discussions outside the co-op, reflecting on the Transition network more broadly. It’s pretty remarkable, really, how effectively the model has taken hold in hundreds of communities around the world. The tools the model provides for “building local resilience in the face of the triple crisis of economics, environment and energy” seem to have captured the imaginations particularly, but not exclusively, of upper-middle class white folks in Europe and the United States. It’s almost as if, for the first time, the false sense of safety that privileged communities have been living with for the last 60 years has been shaken. “What’s that?” people seem to say as they lift their heads. “A climate crisis? The potential end of easily available fossil fuels? Economic collapse? Oh shoot! We have to do something!”
And the Transition model has given folks a way to do that something. Through re-skilling workshops where people learn (or re-learn, as some put it) to knit, to hand-scythe hay, to prune fruit trees, to intercrop effectively, people feel they are coming back in touch with the embodied abilities that their grandparents had. The re-localizing efforts the model puts forth—encouraging communities to discover what skills and talents already exist in their human community, and what other resources are available in the nonhuman worlds that they live in—give people a renewed sense of place and connection. All this outside of the purview of centrally organized action, at least in theory. The model is designed as a kind of go-between, or maybe even a “third space,” to mediate between individual lives and practices and the institutionalized apparatuses of local and state government. Transition gives people the tools to get local select-boards and state representatives in on the action, but the work of transition, the work of “building resilience” is framed in the model in pretty explicitly apolitical terms. The message seems to be that the institutions of the state (writ large) are by and large not doing much to help out in the process of preparing for impending disasters of various sorts, so we should just start doing it ourselves. Not in resistance to state power, necessarily, but as an alternative—building the world that we want to see.
As a committed social justice activist and community-accountable scholar, I spend a lot of time pondering the ways to bring my academic training and my activist engagement to bear on one another, particularly in the context of Transition organizing. How can we use this Transition platform itself as a means to address class and race disparities, both within the movement and outside of it? If legal frameworks for eliminating racial discrimination aren’t really working, and state support around economic marginalization doesn’t seem to give folks the long-term stability they need, shouldn’t we be bringing questions of race and class into this extra-institutional, grassroots conversation?
I’m trained in facilitation and mediation, and am committed to building allyship with a few folks in order to create spaces for these talks to happen in the community at a broader scale. Though I don’t think it’s important to cite “third space” in this context, I do think often of Edward Casey and of Henri Lefebvre and other intellectual antecedents to the everyday practices like the ones in which these activists are knee-deep. I think more often, though, of the guiding frames for loving community activism and challenges to the status quo provided through the work of bell hooks and of Gloria Anzaldua and even of Hakim Bey (frustrating though I find him). Here, in my field site home, are a bunch of people really committed to figuring out what kind of world they want—and doing it in the between-spaces, without calling it politics. I want to figure out how I can collaborate with them, support them, and push them further in their own explorations of ways to build a more just, equitable, and resilient world—not one that merely sustains the status quo.
“Hey, do you all want to come over to dinner tonight? I just slaughtered a sheep a couple of days ago. Let’s have a potluck.” She lives just a few miles up the road from me—it’ll be easy to ride my bike there. Nods all around.
“I’ll bring mango juice!” someone says. So much for eating local—we all smile.