By Groundswell participant Kevin Elliott In Groundswell this week we discussed places: How do places, or, our conceptions of them, interact with us and shape our roles as aspiring, young social entrepreneurs, and how do we in turn mould places for ours and the community’s needs? What do places do to us and how do we find our places?
Matt Hern discussed the complicated paradox between multi-national corporations operating globally while also rooting themselves in particular countries as a way to encourage us to rethink the relationship between geography and contemporary capitalism. How is it that in a globalized world, life seems increasingly “worldless?” Is it fair to suppose that the only form protest can take is then “meaningless” outbursts? Or is there a way out of such an aporia? What can case studies like the Mondragon Corporation, the co-ops in Bologna, the Recovered Factory movement, and the Solidarity Economy in Brazil teach us?
Gerry Dragomir continues to emphasize the place of money, the spectre that we can never chase away. Accounting, investments, and money management may be to many of us realms that exist in some other place, in someone else’s world. But this is our world too. Here we return to the basics, balance sheets and positions of financial statements. How do we create and understand such information, and how do we both place value and generate the place(s) for value from them? But perhaps more importantly, what, in this context, is (the place of) value?
We had the pleasure of hearing from Steve Williams, from Constructive Public Engagement, give an informative guest lecture on data mapping, and more generally, the burgeoning relationship between technology and narratives. At first the two may seem like odd bedfellows, the decidedly inhuman form of machinery coupled with the primordial characteristic of the human condition, storytelling. But as Reilly Yeo helpfully clarified for us during Williams’s talk, “We should use data as a window, not a black box,” which is to say, in another context, “The play’s the thing.” Through examples and methods, we discussed possibilities and challenges of mapping not just places and settings, but what happens in such places. If there was a climax to this narrative, it perhaps gestured towards the imperative for change. How do we take mapping, the archetypal tool to chart places, and rethink this tool as a means for social change? How do we identify the rise from niche innovations to redefinitions in the socio-technical regime to finally a hegemonic shift in the socio-technical landscape itself? Indeed, each stage of change itself has its place.
But this change can, perhaps must, begin locally. Since the beginning of Groundswell, we have all sensed the covert dilemma between our mandate for implementing feasible, community-based political change and the call to not be tempted by the red herring of the evils of particular manifestations of contemporary capitalism at the expense of tackling the system itself. Of course, at what place do we, and should we, direct our passion? Gilad Babchuk, in his developing role as Groundswell sage, defiantly proclaimed we can do nothing if we do not start at home, Vancouver, implying that community activism is not a distraction from but a necessarily generative stage towards bigger things.
Let us look at Vancouver: Located on a peninsula, the affluent west side cocoons itself in its own world, using Main St. as its gatekeeper, disallowing cultural and social access to east-side residents without a passport. North Vancouver is for the urban young professionals and retired conservatives, and West Vancouver attracts some of the country’s richest residents, who do not derive their money locally but from offshore markets. They all have their own places, their own plot of land, their own moira, fatalistically cordoned off by rivers and bridges. Blinded by the faint promise of speculative capitalism, they derive their value—their very cultural worth—by gambling with stocks and bonds. Here place takes on powerful, metaphorical terms: The geography of the land, the places of our lives, corresponds to the (lack of) bridges between these disparate worlds. Is it fate that creates these disparities? The fate of plotting one’s lands, relying upon the gambling house, and cutting oneself off from the world with geographical barriers, creating one’s own moira without any way of breaking free from the boundaries, a lot separated by water and bridges, and Main St. With these conceptions of place, there is no room for transcendence, no room for change. This is why east Vancouver, without its own peninsula, can symbolize alternatives. But in east Vancouver too we isolate ourselves with our radicalism; as Gilad emphasized, we may not have passports to the other worlds, but we are not even trying. We must not subjectivize those from outside east Vancouver to create an “us vs. them” mindset; when nobody outreaches, we unwittingly play along with the game just as much as everybody else does. To get out of the game, Gilad professed, we first have to understand it and then play it knowingly, that is, strategically. Heck, even Dante went along with Virgil’s game of fun through Hell before he could escape; in contemporary times, it is the classic tale of Tron. Our projects in Groundswell require self-reflection and bridge building, not more bridge burning.
So, at what place does this leave us? Where do we go from here? This week’s Groundswell guest speaker, Claudia Li, co-founder and co-director of the Vancouver-based Hua Foundation, probably answered this question for us without realizing it: Even she does not know where (and why) she is going, but maybe that is the point. Li created the Hua Foundation, whose mandate is to bring together the worlds of cultural heritage and social change through an environmental lens, because of a growing tension she noticed in her communities between tradition and activism. Li does not have any answers for such questions as: At what place do we direct our attention, community preservation or community changing? At best, Li can only hope that the question is a false dichotomy, and perhaps all the Hua Foundation can do is reframe questions instead of providing answers. Li delivered her most insightful remark in her conclusion: “The point is to reframe the message instead of recreating it. We need to change our methods of tradition and not the tradition itself.”
These are truly helpful words for when us Groundswell participants begin creating our own community-based projects. Our place, after all, should not be about finding answers, but creating questions.