The Garden Where Rough Edges Grow
By Hannah K. Gold
Every young generation, as it comes of age, is told it’s special, that everyone else’s hopes and dreams live through it, and, simultaneously, that it is already not living up to these expectations. With this in mind, I — a 23-year-old who’d never spent a weekend at a conference before — placed a starchy blue shirt and a shift dress in my backpack and took a bus to Boston.
Last month, I attended CommonBound, a gathering of more than 650 people, most of them activists, academics, and students, organized by the New Economy Coalition. In the classrooms, gyms, and corridors of Northeastern University, we came together to discuss what the “new economy” is and share whatever projects we had been working on to further its realization. I spoke with and learned a great deal from leaders at Demos, the Responsible Endowments Coalition, the Center for American Progress, Black Mesa Water Coalition, and the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
According to an article by Gar Alperovitz, one of the keynote speakers at the conference and a leader in new economics, the movement is founded on the belief, “that the entire economic system must be radically reconstructed if critical social and environmental goals are to be met.” Everyone at the conference seemed to agree that this means establishing an economy that prioritizes communal values over individual ones. The emphasis was placed on climate, labor, and racial justice. We came up with more than 650 versions of a world we all had to win.
I came to the conference assuming I was there to take in and look up at the myriad ideas that constitute the new economy constellation. What I came to realize, while there, was that I have a voice in this movement too, and it was largely the youth culture and intergenerational emphasis of the conference that made me comfortable with this The New Economy Coalition awarded 301 scholarships for attending CommonBound this year, many of them went to young people and students. Last year, the New Economy Coalition’s annual conference, reRoute, focused specifically on “building youth and student power for a new economy,” and was the culmination of its yearlong youth and student network program. During the opening remarks on Friday night, I was surprised to see that scattered among the distinguished professors, and community leaders, the activists who got their start in the 60s and now wore khakis down to their knee caps, were people who looked younger than me.
That evening I had trepidations attending the founding of CommonBound’s youth caucus. In college the “econ kids” lived behind a veil of zeros and curves I could never puncture. My alma mater, the University of Chicago, produced some of the most conservative economic theories of our day; now the CEO of Credit Suisse sits on their board of trustees, while his employees set up recruiting tables in the student cafes. At the worst parties, small talk amongst twenty-year-olds would move from a spirited endorsement of Locke to a confused endorsement of Wall Street. In the words of Cher from Clueless, “I don’t wanna be a traitor to my generation and all, but…”
The caucus turned out to be nothing like what I had expected.
We talked for a while about the intern economy, how we as students and recent graduates live in a society that pits our young ambitions against one another, Hunger Games-style. The struggles that come with not being paid sufficiently for one’s labor are, more often than not, accompanied by the pangs of student debt, the massive principle balance that monthly interest payments never dissolve. Many among us complained that given the financial burdens placed on young people so early in life, our generation doesn’t deserve its bad rap, the irony and the eye-rolling. One woman pointed out that, yes, the situation is dire, but that the democratization of higher education, even in the last decade, means young people across socio-economic groups now have an immensely powerful problem to solve together through collective action.
That night my friend, who was hosting me for the weekend and was, at the time, getting wasted at his fifth high school reunion, checked in to make sure I had made it safely to his house. He texted his concern, and I texted back that I was still at the conference. His reply: “Wow, that’s a lot of Communism!”
I didn’t know at the time that a series of key words would come to punctuate my weekend as naturally and inauspiciously as commas. These would include: Marxism, capitalism, paradigm, Piketty, heterodox, commune, coffee and Marxist. “Communism” was rarely spoken of. Maybe the shedding of the suffix is how we keep the community, lose the institution, and crystalize this shiny new feeling in language.
“Yeah, and youth caucus-building,” I typed.
Seconds later he called. “Youth cactus? What is a…how is a youth cactus?” And so I spent the next few minutes convincing him what I had spent the better part of the night convincing myself of: the youth isn’t so prickly after all.
“Someone is going to tell our story, the question is who.”
The next day, I found myself in a workshop on the importance of messaging and storytelling within the new economy movement. The facilitator Christine Cordero, of the Center for Story Based Strategy, showed us photographs from the media’s polluted storyline during the first few days after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Black people swimming through the streets carrying whatever small possessions they could find were labeled “looters.” Images of white people doing the same were labeled “survivors.” The media too was up to its neck in its own racist bullshit.
This workshop was essentially a call to resist the conservative logic that says stories are irrelevant, that people are moved by facts alone. This had also been one of main lessons I took away from the youth caucus the night before. We were resisting the logic that ourstories don’t matter, and we were saying they mattered, first of all, because we tell them to one other, which means they are already, invariably, connected.
At lunch, conference-goers broke into plenary groups of their choosing—“Free up Your Money to Do Good” and “Divest from Fossil Fuel Companies to Invest in Green Solutions.” I found a group of seven, who didn’t want to discuss one topic in particular.
It’s possible that each of us was born in a different decade. Among us was an older man wearing a rainbow kippah. He taught me that FASBs are Federal Accounting Finance Boards and launched into a history of the deregulation of America’s financial institutions, beginning in the ’70s. I explained to him how I landed at this conference largely because of a fluke, which happened almost exclusively through interactions on Twitter.
The high point of the weekend for me may well have been the words of artist-activist adrienne maree brown, who spoke on the final panel with Gopal Dayaneni and Alperovitz. Brown spoke of the necessity of building radical narratives, what she called “science fiction” of the new economy. “The problem with most utopias for me,” she said, “[is] mono value, a new greener, more local monoculture where everyone gardens and plays the lute and no one travels…and I don’t want to go to there!”
Before Thomas Moore messed with the etymology of “utopia,” forever transforming it into a good place, “utopia” meant no place at all. It is tempting to bind these definitions with a single romantic thread—what we want doesn’t really exist, perfection is annihilation. But I like brown’s active message so much better. The perfect place is out there, it’s just no place we want to be. And, make no mistake, utopias abound, offering the illusion of easy messaging. “Google the words ‘new economy,” Cordero had said, “and you’ll see a lot of white people in gardens.”
I felt that afternoon, in that room of 650 worlds and no utopias, that there were real branches between them, holding us together, stretching back through many decades. And though my mind is still a deeply cynical system, I now have a greater desire to fight for a better world alongside the stratospheric dreamers of my generation. Here in the garden where the rough edges grow.