NSF Fellowship Proposal: personal statement

NSF fellowship proposal part 3 of 3. The story of me…

This is a time of intense difficulty. Over the past five years we have witnessed increasing retrenchment of economic modes and institutions. The economic gains of the late 20th century appear for the moment to have been predicated on a shared illusion of limitless growth. There are, however, always limits. The greatest limit appears to be of human understanding. The recent shock and continuing shudders throughout the system were not unpredictable. Even so, many economists, business people, and politicians were trapped in the expanding bubble, unable to react for risk of lost opportunity. This crisis was just not part of their models and narratives of the world. For this reason, neither will be the solutions to it.

For most of my adult life I have engaged in community activism. During my undergraduate career I spent my time working to draw attention to and resolve issues of university governance and influence. This took many forms, from creating awareness of increasing degrees of corporate influence at the public land grant university I attended to critiques of and organization to redress the labor exploitation facilitated and permitted by the university’s investment and procurement strategies. Central to this were efforts to open university governance structures to greater degrees of student and citizen involvement. I was involved in local anti-sweatshop and fair trade campaigns, in the formation and early years of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS). Campus democratization efforts on my part including serving on the Coordinating Committee for 180/Movement in Democracy and Education (180/MDE), an organization committed to increasing access to and openness of our educational institutions, but that is now defunct.

During my early activist period, two experiences were particularly informative and led me to look for alternative methods of engagement. In the fall of 1999 I served on a university committee that addressed licensing matters in relation to labor abuses. Debate focused on which of two monitoring agencies with which the university should associate. When it came time to vote, the six faculty and staff representatives voted in line with our chancellor’s preference for the industry-backed agency despite early trends towards one established by labor and human rights organizations. The other two student representatives and I came to view the process as broken. We resigned and attempted to meet with the chancellor. He refused. We occupied his office for a week. The year prior we had also occupied the office, an action that ended with concessions to create the committee on which we had served. This time we advocated for better process and representation. We were denied.

The following summer, at a joint conference for USAS and 180/MDE, discussions focused on USAS’s national organization structure. Some of us, deeply committed to democratic principles, wanted to create a loose informational and organizational network that maintained individual chapter autonomy while creating the means for emergent organizational direction. We did not want the national office declaring what was or was not appropriate. Others felt differently. When the formal debate and decision came up, most of us who preferred a decentralized network were explicitly blocked from participation. The assertive plays for centralized power and individual prestige that were in evidence turned me and others away.

Several years later, after taking time off to recharge and recover from these contests, I sought involvement in local, cooperative businesses. I spent years working for a worker-owned and cooperatively run taxi company, including one year on the board of directors. At the time I was trying to re-embed myself in my community while maintaining my interest in the possibilities of people voluntarily coming together. This occurred to a degree, and through my time there I was able to experience my city in new ways. I became better acquainted with the particular distributions of wealth, influence, capability, and barriers found here. Despite my regular encounters with my city and neighbors I still felt isolated. Disassociated fifteen minute conversations with riders offer certain value and insight, but I wanted to enable and empower people like myself to build something more substantial.

More recently, I have volunteered for and served as the president of the board of directors of an independent, cooperatively owned, and collectively operated bookstore dedicated to community engagement and social awareness. My motivation was to reaffirm our community commitments and address changes in the bookseller industry. A significant aspect of my time as president has been to embed ourselves more effectively in the various communities of which we are part. This position is predicated on my view that the success of any organization is due to the degree of value the organization is able to return to its community. Businesses and organizations exist and maintain themselves not by the amount of income they directly generate but by their ability to create value within their communities that returns and circulates throughout the entirety. My efforts to implement this perspective are still underway.

In 2005 I returned to school to complete my abandoned undergraduate degree. It was done only to receive a diploma, but I unwittingly took a class with my future advisor. Before then the real challenge I faced in school was maintaining my interest. With the influence of Tim Allen that changed. I found someone who shared my interest in counter-intuitive, abstract ways of thinking who forced me to press it further. Systems theory, as I explored it further, became not only about understanding the workings of the world but of our processes of thought and exploration. In our lab we think of things as much as we think about thinking of things. When combined with postmodern philosophies this intellectual posture allowed me to do again what we as children had already done: take things apart, put them together in novel and exiting ways, and see what our creations offer. In my case, that meant our models and understandings. I found myself asking: What happens if we ask the unaskable? What might that create? I suddenly discovered that I could explore my strongest interests and make them functional.

One and a half years ago, as I began to plan for and develop my PhD project, I knew I wanted to study attempts to address social and economic collapse. In this time of great social challenges and anxiety about the future, little else seemed as challenging or as pertinent. During the ensuing months I spent time thinking about processes of community value creation and capture; about the importance of allowing community self-definition and not allowing it to be supplanted by particular institutional goals; about means of drawing upon but not remaining subservient to the past; about distinctions between preservation and restoration and how to incorporate change without alienation; about entropic principles of closed and open systems and how they relate to communities and localities; about how this moment of uncertainty can be a source of creative potential and empowerment.

In the course of this contemplation I was introduced to time banking, a form of community currency predicated on the idea that all members of a community are valuable and able to contribute. A community poor in certain types of materialized wealth is not itself impoverished. It is nearly infinitely rich. What might instead be lacking are the means of identifying and bridging people’s needs and abilities. Time banking is about reconnecting communities, both the individuals who within them and the spaces between. It is about finding ways to become more than we are, individually and collectively. This has the potential of acting as a radical intervention that could benefit all parts of the economy.