In light of the Coronavirus pandemic and the rapid shift to physical distancing the Green Institute hosted a webinar on 19 March 2020 titled Staying Together While Keeping Apart. Green Agenda is now publishing transcripts of the speakers of the webinar. This week we are publishing the talks from Millie Rooney, Meg Clark, Tim Hollo and Natalie Osborne. Read Part One.
The pandemic has made me think about how I can bring about the community connections I have onto the online space. Physical distancing might go on for a really long time and so I think we need to consider not just what we can do online, not just the technology, but how we actually do it.
So, in a really exciting way, rules are being rewritten right now – a few people have talked about this. We don’t have a normal way of socially interacting anymore. We don’t have a normal response to these big issues. We don’t have a left and right kind of response, no one’s claimed any of the space, really, politically. We have this very interesting opportunity to think about the different ways we might connect with each other and the new patterns we might set for how we engage as a society. Can we lay down the foundations for how we go on to do that in the future?
I think that’s really exciting, it’s also a really dangerous as other people have mentioned. Because who else thinks this is an opportunity for shaping our future and do they have the best interests of the community at heart. This is all being rewritten right now and I damn well want us to be holding those pens. So how can we think about that?
On a really personal simple level for me that’s thinking about things that I’m already engaged with, and how do I shift them online so we don’t lose the contacts we’ve already got. I do aerial circus training. I can’t go and do that anymore and I don’t have a trapeze in my house. But I want and need this creative community to continue post covid and so I’m doing what I can within my resource capacity to continue to support them. How do we ensure those parts of life we want to maintain are supported through this?
I run a reading group called ‘Reading for the Revolution’. It’s a local group that meets once a month, but we’re going online as of next week, and that’s exciting because suddenly anybody from anywhere can join us, and while we’re further apart we’re actually suddenly a lot closer together with a whole lot of people.
I’m just as close to my community in Hobart, as I am to my friends in the US, or my brother in Sydney, because of the fact we’re all isolating. I’m moving other meetings online and trying to keep those connections going.
But I’ve also been thinking about as somebody pointed out in the beginning, when we move online we miss the opportunity for the chit chat, for those who are walking down the stairs, ‘Oh how is your kid going, how’s your grandma? I’m struggling with X, Y, Z’. How do we have those chit chats and informal human conversations that connect us as people? And so reminding ourselves to make space in these online gatherings for asking how we are, and asking not just how we are but the fun things – not the deep questions, but the light questions.
As I was walking today, in the bit of bush near my house, for the first time somebody actually walked very far away from me as we were walking and I felt quite hurt, even though I understood the logic. So let’s make sure we keep those patterns of saying hello, polite nodes, chit chat in these online spaces.
As I said at the beginning, we’re reinventing how we interact as a society and I think this brings a particular type of opportunity int erms of inclusion. I think we’re all going to be really awkward as we navigate this, and that means we can bring people into the conversations that we’ve been afraid of and felt it would be awkward interacting with. Nicola, you were saying you’ve been pushing yourself to speak with your neighbor. This is an amazing opportunity for us to all push ourselves because we’re all awkward. I’m as awkward as the rest of you, so i think that’s a great opportunity for us. And I think it’s an amazing time for dreaming about what we want. People are asking so many questions, and there’s a recognition of – as Natalie said – there’s a whole lot of things we’re just suddenly starting to see and people are questioning. We can fill that space with amazing possibilities for local interaction and national ideas. Should we be nationalizing all healthcare and all hospitals? Should we have a universal basic income, as Tim suggested? There’s an energy and excitement that we can start to rewrite these conversations, as we as we talk, and as we find new ways to interact.
I really liked what Natalie was saying about vulnerability, I think that’s something really important in these spaces. Remembering to not just be transactional as we talk, because we need the soft bits. I need to know about your craft project, even though I’ve never met you before. I think we need those bits. I think we need to acknowledge that building community is really hard work, and that it takes time and it takes what feels like wasted space, as we’ve learned to do these new places, and there is nothing wasted about that process of learning new ways.
I think that there’s a real freedom and joy to be had when normal goes, when normal hasn’t been working anyway. How can we move into that space joyfully and inclusively? And El, your comment about the way that some of this is just so normal for you I think is a really good reminder that people know how to do this, in these spaces so well already, and find that joy.
When I retired, I decided this was a time when I could do what I want do and became a bit of an activist, and my areas of activism I realize now all are reliant on the fact that there is a public space, a public community. And so this has been a really interesting time for me to go, ‘Well, how do I transform that activism into a different space?.’ And I’m clearly not alone in this. So as the virus has kicked in and destroyed our public spaces, and our supply chains, and travel, and tourism, our public space is effectively shutting down. And then, many of us social activists are one of our main areas of participation as activists has been through social media, where we critique poor government decisions, participate in social media campaigns, spread informed views, encourage people to come to protest events, share black humor, and make sure we’re up to date on the issues of our day. But, as this climate change the fire, smoke, the COVID kick in, on top of the extreme aggressive capitalism and dishonesty that we see in our government and the lack of trust. Some of us are finding it just not very much fun anymore. And we’ve been trying to find ways of engaging as activists, that are more satisfying. And so I was involved in grassroots activism but that space, as you can see is closing up, so many of us have experienced a heightened sense of helplessness and dread.
So what we’ve seen is a pivot away from identity activism and political activism, to more locally based support campaigns right across the UK and the US and Australia and I presume in other countries as well. Countless people who have been involved in the mutual aid campaign, when they’re interviewed they talk about their helplessness, their rage, their anger, and then about feeling empowered and feeling like at least in doing some good. So, they’re falling into this work because they’re just so frustrated and helpless and then they finally find a space where they feel like they can make a difference.
There’s some things worth noting about the mutual aid campaign that I think are really important. One is that it hasn’t stopped the use of social media, but it’s changed its purpose. So now, social media becomes something which connects local geographically located and hyper local people together, which is an unusual thing. So neighborhoods are using social media to connect with their next door neighbor, and the person over the road. So it’s quite a different way in which social media is starting to be used, and that’s been a really interesting thing.
The other thing is that this buildup of this mutual aid thing has been happening relatively silently. Almost under the radar. And we all know about toilet rolls and hand sanitizers and all of those things. But, how much is the media focused on all of these numbers of groups that have that have that have popped up all over the place? Some pundits, though, have actually said that we’re witnessing a pandemic in kindness. You don’t see it in the media, do you. In the UK, the initial effects for mutual aid were under the hashtag of ‘viral kindness’, but it’s morphed into a national campaign. And just last week, there were 87 groups being coordinated by a spoke and hub model of mutual aid COVID mutual aid groups across the UK, and yesterday there were 900 groups. So it’s increasing, much like the pandemic itself, which is kind of ironic. So it’s taking place quietly beneath the surface, using hashtags and sharing ideas. And what is happening in the beginning, is that most groups start off at a suburb level, and then they discover that they can find little nodes that can work inside their suburbs so, they break it down into smaller groups, and you have a little whatsapp groups starting up amongst much smaller, like 50 households, you know much more locus, and things like that. One of the things that that they are finding trouble with is what is the media, what is the media? You’ve got differently, skilled people on IT. How do you how do you bring people along? Do you start off with the lowest common denominator, even though it’s funky? Many people hate Facebook, but almost all of the mutual aid groups that I’ve seen are using Facebook. So there’s an interesting thing that I think we just need to keep watching. Maybe there needs to be a specific purpose process application that would come up for for that.
Civil society has always struggled to receive any funding, political activism, or focus. While there have been a lot of community movements such as transition streets, and shareable cities, and circular economy networks, its lacked any political cloud or visibility. So this outbreak of new mutualistic networks could have a powerful effect well beyond the corona virus.
But its emergence raises a whole lot of questions. One is what is the grain size as I’ve said about a mutual group, how big does it need to be? The second is how to keep people safe from exploitation and recognize power and marginality and intersectional differences within small groups – how to stop being middle class just helping the middle class. I think that’s a really important one, and we need to look at that. And how do we make sure that their existence doesn’t let the responsibility of government for people off the hook? Like they’ve tried to do with them Big Society in the UK. And that’s a really important one too. So the other one is is local right for all people? I know that there’s been a special Mutual Aid Society set up with the gig economy, for example, and El you spoke about meeting within the disability community as well, where people with shared experience know how best to help each other, and can draw on their strengths. So, and the other one is should these be COVID specific groups or more broadly? And then, is this a sign of deeper, more long term change, or can it be moved to make that the case? Can we, for example, could a well working group in a community tentatively, and not with a colonial mindset, twin with a remote community? And that’s that’s a really difficult one, but could, could we take this further and make it more of a genuinely inclusive awareness raising and take it out of the comfortableness of just helping your next door neighbor go get a bog roll. So that’s, that’s going to be an important part of looking at what’s going to happen here.
So some of the things that people have talked about, is that when pandemics happen, capital, and its stooges are just waiting to roll out more aggressive forms of exploitative capital and disaster capital. But can we be ready and roll out more forms of of different narratives where we are changing the narrative, where we’re looking at our shared vulnerabilities, where we’re taking a strength based approach, where we are in acknowledging our shared humanness, and the within our differences in our power differences? How do we make this a campaign that’s not just about kindness, but one that becomes deeply political and actually helps to change the narrative? And that’s the thing that I think would be really interesting to watch for. Because we’re certainly going to be up against attempts to, while we’re being distracted with this pandemic, rolling out things that are going to be deeply oppressive towards us.
The idea of physical distancing actually came as a tremendous shock. Not just personally, but really from my view of how change happens in the world, and how we can make our communities more equitable more just, more vibrant. It’s really forced me to rethink a lot of my plans, both in my local community and for the Green Institute’s work, which for some time have been really focused on getting people offline into rooms together, face to face to work through issues together.
My entire philosophy is based on interconnection. The idea of ecological politics for me is about deeply understanding that healthy societies, healthy democracies, like healthy ecosystems, are those which are diverse and interconnected. Respecting difference, while valuing unity. Cultivating social cohesion, practicing deliberative and participatory democracy — these to me are the paths towards facing up to the multiple interconnected crises we face. Climate destabilization and ecological collapse, the rise of the politics of hate, spiraling inequality, the deliberate destruction of democratic norms and institutions, all of which are – when it comes down to it – driven by philosophies of disconnection and of dominance.
So if that’s the case, how on sweet Earth do we practice and cultivate connected diversity ecological ethics, when we can’t get together? Well, it makes it hard, much harder than it needs to be, but it’s not impossible as tonight is showing. In fact, in a horrible way, the fact that we’re facing a pandemic gives us an opportunity to have conversations about connection and interconnection in new and wonderful ways. We can talk about how pandemics show that all our lives are inextricably intertwined for now, and forever, whether we like it or not. We can discuss how we’re seeing the impossibility of trying to keep economics, health, environment, education, social justice, siloed; treated as separate questions with separate answers. We can raise how vital it is for social beings to stay connected as well as we possibly can while keeping physically apart. For the sake of our own mental health, for the sake of more vulnerable people around us and to not allow this pandemic and the response to it break social cohesion even further. We can talk about how capitalism has constructed an efficient world so incredibly fragile that a series of shocks in a row can bring it to the edge of collapse. We can, awful as this situation is, use the time of crisis to look after each other now, and to build networks of resilience, so that our communities are stronger in the future. Whether it’s mutual aid making new community connections, whether it’s online meetings and gigs, enabling a reduction in unnecessary travel and increasing accessibility. Whether it’s balcony singing bringing music to people, or even the introduction of an emergency universal basic income, an idea which is growing momentum around the world expanding dramatically the realm of policies which are possible.
Make no mistake, this is very likely to be terrible. If anything close to the worst predictions occur, all of us here tonight are likely to lose someone close to us. Many of us will lose jobs, and livelihoods. This just means we need to work even harder to support each other through the process, to stay together while we’re keeping apart. And if we work hard enough, this may be the crisis which leads to the complete rethink of our political and economic systems and norms that can enable most of us to survive and even to thrive in the decades ahead.
Dr. Natalie Osborne
I’d like to pay my respects to the Jagera and Turrbal Peoples, on whose unceded land I live and am speaking to you from today, in Meanjin/Brisbane.
I’m a Lecturer in the School of Environment and Science at Griffith University, I teach primarily into our urban and environmental planning program. I’m interested in radical education, transformative pedagogies, and relational and collaborative learning. My courses are heavily contact-based, with very little online infrastructure. In my courses we talk a lot about power, about community, about social and spatial justice, about access, about equity, about participation and refusal, about presence and absence.
I’m not going to talk today about the affordances and limitations of different kinds of digital learning tech; what I’m more interested in thinking about is, in response to Tim’s question around “Staying Together while Keeping Apart”, is how this moment of unevenly shared vulnerability might enable certain ways of learning together? How might this moment of lost control and broken plans facilitate a more horizontalist mode of facilitating learning?
I don’t want to shy away from vulnerability; I want us to sit with it. So often in climate change discourse we focus a lot on resilience, and that’s often necessary and good, but I also think there are things, people, systems, that can’t necessarily be made resilient, or not to all things. Something is lost when we focus so much on only what is resilient – what can bounce back, what can take further abuse. Maybe it is worth honoring vulnerability for what it is – maybe it can also be a way of being. Vulnerability may be about being open – about our capacity to affect and be affected. Yeah it’s risky, yeah it hurts. But I think vulnerability, shared vulnerability, can also enable connection, enable solidarities.
I don’t want to elide the power imbalance that exists between me and my students; I’m not going to pretend “we’re in this together” means we have the same set of responsibilities and abilities – we don’t. And not just in the classroom; my home life is not precarious or dangerous and I’m continuing to be paid, which is a lot more than many of my students can say. A big percentage of my students are new arrivals to this country – they’re yet to build strong local networks. A significant percentage are first in family, people of colour, non-traditional students, have caring responsibilities, have a disability, have mental health issues. Vulnerabilites and precarities and exposures are varied. I don’t want to flatten out vulnerability here; there are many different vulnerabilities in this pandemic – some of them are continuations or exacerbations of existing vulnerabilities, caused by structural injustices, longstanding inequities, and the many existing failures of colonial capitalism. But. When, as educators, our best laid plans fall apart, when our well practiced techniques and ways of operating are no longer available, when we are wracked with worry, when we all totally refuse to pretend ‘business as usual’ is possible or advisable, maybe there are ways to teach and learn differently from that space of uncertainty, rupture, and falling apartness?
The course profile, the course plan, is broken. Instead of cobbling together a dodgy repair job, what and how can we learn in the wreckage? How might this help reconfigure us as a community of co-learners, and the possibilities of learning within the Neoliberal Universities – a system so committed to order, hierarchy, exclusion, and control? What happens when a crisis forces us to fail as parts of that system?
In Unthinking Mastery, Julietta Singh writes, “In failing to master, in confronting our own desires for mastery where we least expect or recognize these desires, we become vulnerable to other possibilities for living, for being together in common, for feeling injustice and refusing it without the need to engage it through forms of conquest”
Singh’s use of ‘vulnerability’ here is interesting – the idea that in order to gain a sense of new possibilities, new and more ethical ways of doing and being together, we might have to be vulnerable. In this moment of shared vulnerability, where more of us are more acutely aware of sense of exposure, of a loss of control (imagined or otherwise), of things going so wildly not to plan – alongside that is a very real sense that we will need each other, that we may soon need help to come to us from outside the home, that we need neighbours, need community. Our vulnerability in this, to this, reveals our interconnectedness.
And it’s that interconnectedness from vulnerability that I want to use to reconfigure my teaching practices in the wreckage of my plans.
So for the next couple of months I’m going to start learning and teaching here – in this feeling of shared vulnerability, uncertainty, failure, and broken plans. Instead of trying to force some proxy of ways of learning that aren’t available to us right now – let’s spend more time with the kinds of thinking are we more drawn to, and more able to do. What is *important* for us to learn – to learn about community, about social and spatial justice, about access, about equity, about participation and refusal, about presence and absence, about cities, right now?
I have literally no idea how this will go. But I’m heartened by Julietta Singh, who also writes:
“Education in this sense is a transformative act of becoming profoundly vulnerable to other lives, other life forms, and other “things” that we have not yet accounted for or that appear only marginally related to us.”
That kind of transformative education might actually be more possible now, rather than less.