Urban Climate Change and Our Role as City-Dwellers

Increasingly, activists who work on climate change frame their movement around the idea of environmental justice, an interweaving of social, racial and economic justice with the fight to mitigate the effects of climate change and seek a just transition from the fossil fuel economy.

 For Ashley Dawson, a professor of English at the City University of New York, the key sites of this struggle are the world’s cities: where radical social movements and innovative urban planning rise up in places at the highest risk of environmental disaster. He tells this story in his new book Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change.

 He will be discussing the book at an upcoming Town Hall event on Sunday, May 6th, but in the meantime we arranged a conversation between Ashley and Town Hall correspondent Jessica Ramirez. Jessica is an organizer working with Puget Sound Sage, a cross-sector organization based in Seattle that works on equitable policy solutions for our region.

 She and Ashley spoke about Extreme Cities, their common experiences witnessing the effects of climate change firsthand, and what urban resiliency really means in an era of rising waters.

Get tickets to Ashley’s talk on May 6.

Jessica Ramirez: Thank you Ashley for talking with me today. Where are you right now?

Ashley Dawson: In Jackson Heights in Queens, a neighborhood in New York City.

JR: So you are from the very urban center of the urban centers.

 AD: That’s where I live now. I’m originally from Cape Town, South Africa, but I’ve been a New Yorker for several decades. So I think I get to claim this beast as my own at this point.

JR: Well I really wanted to get to know you a little bit more and touch on the book through ways of your life experience. I grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, which is on the Gulf of Mexico, born and raised there. My family continues to live there. I’ve lived in Seattle for the last 15 years and going home about once a year for the last 15 years I’ve seen and witnessed the radical change that the coastline has undergone over the last decade or more. We had a really intense hurricane come through there last year. The year before that, around the holidays, we had a water shortage because of a chemical that was leaked into our water system that left the whole city without water for over a week. People were having to drink bottled water. I’ve really seen the change of the coastline with the new refineries popping up all the time.

            When I was younger I remember looking at them and thinking how pretty they were because in the evening they look like big towers with Christmas lights. So I was always really fascinated by them and I just thought “oh the twinkling lights across the bay,” and as I’ve gotten older and with the work that I do at Puget Sound Sage and the kind of issues that we touch on around environmental justice and environmental racism and the way that effects low income communities and communities of color, I’ve really had an incredibly different relationship with my hometown and I’m starting to look at it in a much different way: in which ways can I help insert kind of this popular education on climate change within my family with family, friends with neighbors when I’m home. And I’m curious for you growing up in Cape Town, how have you seen where you’re from change over the last several years?

AD: That’s a great question. I have not lived in Cape Town for many years. As you can tell from my accent, I spent my teenage years in the United States. My family left South Africa in the 1970s because of apartheid. But Cape Town has been in the news a lot recently because of the drought. I mean there’s a very severe drought affecting all of southern Africa and in fact there are bad droughts right now in many other parts of the world, but since much of Sub-Saharan Africa really relies on rain fed agriculture, the drought in southern Africa is particularly devastating for people and farmers. In South Africa it really threatens to undermine the gains that have been made since the end of apartheid. There’s been a real struggle for the black majority in South Africa to get access to the land that was taken away from them by white settlers—my own ancestors included. The ANC I think has not done enough to help that land redistribution and the farmers who have gotten access to land still are really, really struggling and the impact of the drought has made things a lot worse.

That hasn’t made the news so much as the water crisis in Cape Town. Where the city is about to essentially run its main reservoirs dry and it’s already rationing water, so what that means is that many of the more affluent people living in the city, which because of the history of apartheid means the predominantly white populations of the city, are struggling with lack of access to drinking water, which the majority of people in South Africa have coped with for a long time and it’s generated a lot of fears about the viability of the city going forward and of course this is one crisis among many around the world and I’d be happy to talk about New York City and some of the experiences I had been living in New York City in recent years that help to catalyze the book and those have to do not so much with drought but with sea level rise and the impact of hurricanes. So they’re connected in a lot of ways to what you’re just described experiencing in the south in Texas, Jessica,

JR: Thanks Ashley. I read through your book and you do have a significant amount talking about Hurricane Sandy, so I imagine living in New York City that had an impact on you. Can you tell us more about the connection of what drew you to this book and your experience with Hurricane Sandy?

AD: Sure. Well, as you could tell from the comments I just made about South Africa and given my background and the work I’ve done in recent years with environmental justice organizations, I think it’s absolutely crucial to think about cities and the impact of climate change driven natural disasters on cities and urban populations in a kind of variegated way. You can’t think of cities as homogenous. Even though a lot of statistics produced about cities tend to treat cities as unified units. There are places that are very radically segregated and segmented by histories of racism and economic inequality and exploitation, and when you have some kind of a climate-change-driven disaster like a hurricane, it impacts communities that are uneven and the impact is consequently very uneven and often efforts to help people cope in the aftermath and help them rebuild reflect those histories of racism and economic inequality. And I very much saw that with Hurricane Sandy.

The neighborhood I live in is predominantly immigrant and predominantly people of color, but it was pretty much spared a lot of the wrath of the hurricane. However other neighborhoods in Queens, like the Rockaways, which are on an island—kind of barrier island—off the coast of New York City was very, very hard hit. And that community has a disproportionate amount of the public housing in our borough of New York. Basically under the master builder of the Twentieth Century, Robert Moses, a lot of working class people of color communities for essentially just moved as far away from the center of the city as possible to these barrier islands. And when Sandy came, it knocked out power for the island and flooded a lot of parts of the Rockaways so that people living in the projects didn’t have running water above the fifth floor. They often didn’t have functioning elevators and they didn’t have functioning boilers, so their heat was not working.

This kind of experience is reproduced in many vulnerable communities around New York City so that although the hurricane devastated Wall Street and the area around Wall Street and famously that bottom quarter of Manhattan lost power was plunged into darkness. The really dramatic impact was on people who were already struggling economically before the storm hit. And we already know about those kinds of uneven impacts of climate change from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. But those dynamics were working themselves through in cities around the globe today and not always in quite as visible ways as in Hurricane Katrina with all of its tragic images of people struggling on rooftops and trying to escape the floods. So my book really tries to talk about urbanization and climate change as a global crisis and a crisis of global urban inequality,

JR: Yeah. There’s definitely a lot there. Urban Centers, for me, when I think about climate change, for a really long time I always thought about climate change as being kind of over there in a corner somewhere.

            Actually in my mind I just went straight to California where there’s no water and I just thought, you know, this is an issue for them, not something that I don’t need to care about, but I just thought of it as being… that there is a bigger gap between me and climate change. But then about three years ago I got involved with the farm worker campaign up in the Skagit valley, about an hour north from here, and really started to hear about what struggles are for farm workers who pick in the fields and the kinds of pesticides that they’re working with and what those pesticides are for are to grow foods in radically difficult climates and that is the food that we eat and these are the foods that they pick. This is the poison that gets seeped into their hands, that they bring home to their families, the areas and the environment that their children grow up in.

            And this is also making me remember about the last handful of years in Seattle, wildfires in Eastern Washington where the smoke just billows beyond the mountain pass and into Western Washington and how everyone complains about the smoke and can see what’s happening, but the connection of why that is happening is still hard for some people to make and so thinking about urban centers as the center of where climate change is existing, and then even rural areas are not safe to be either. Where is the medium—what are the ways in which we mitigate climate change and how do you see people doing that? How are some of the most radical ways that you see folks working on climate issues from the urban center?

AD: Yeah, that’s a great question. I want to, before getting into radical adaptation and mitigation, I want to just backtrack to what you said because I think it’s really important about the ways in which people deal with toxicity and how hard that is to pin down because getting exposed to pesticides and potentially—years down the road—developing some kind of cancer is very different from getting exposed to a hurricane or a heat wave. It’s a form of attritional disaster unfolds over an extended time span and consequently is often kind of invisible to science. And corporations are very quick to exploit that and to say “well, you know, you can’t prove any kind of connection between exposure to a certain toxin and an impact many years down the road.”

The critic Rob Nixon has talked about this as a form of slow violence. He also talks about, for instance, Gulf War syndrome, that is the result of soldiers sent to Iraq during the US invasion—either the most recent one or the one in the 1990s—getting exposed to depleted uranium which they were using to blow up tanks and other things and becoming sick after many years. So I think a lot of this has to do with understanding different forms of time and temporality and how we can make connections between different forms of violence and the unfolding of injustice on different temporal scales. And that’s really important to do I think because as you say, often the way that climate change is framed is as something that’s going to happen in some remote future, you know, unless we do, x, y, and z one day we’re going to have to deal with something that’s going to impact us. So I think it’s really important to emphasize that climate change is happening in the present. It’s likely to become much more extreme than the future, but it’s already happening and it’s happening in all sorts of different ways.

So just to give you a kind of concrete example of this, to think about the ways in which existing urban infrastructures are impacted by climate change as the heat island effect in cities means that there’s increasing heat stress on pipes, on transportation systems, on electric grids that can often cause catastrophic and sudden breakdowns, but that are a long time in the making. So to think about those kinds of things and then to think about the ways in which people are exposed to these forms of climate change and how there’s a kind of attritional violence to climate change so that people gradually get worn down and we need to be aware of that as well as to think about so-called natural disasters like hurricanes for example. So all of that is really important in thinking about how we engage in adaptation and mitigation because it means we have to reframe how we conceive of disasters and preparation for disasters. Right now, particularly in the United States, a lot of work around disasters has to do with sending in resources to communities that are affected by disasters. Treating those communities as homogenous as I was saying previously…

JR: Puerto Rico, right?

AD: Yeah, exactly. And FEMA doesn’t think about the inequalities in communities and the need to dispense aid in recognition of these kinds of histories of inequality which we’ve been talking about. And so one has to be aware of those kinds of histories and impacts as one thinks about adaptation and mitigation. So to give you a concrete example of this, a couple of examples that I look at it in the book, one has to do with a very ambitious project that was commissioned by the Rockefeller Foundation and which the Federal Housing and Urban Development Department got involved in which was trying to rethink design and architecture in order to deal with sea level rise and climate change in New York City. And so it proposed things like sea walls to protect downtown Manhattan or to protect an area of the southern Bronx where there’s a huge food and produce market that supplies food for about 20 million people in the New York metropolitan region.

So there was this idea of creating sea walls to protect these areas. But because of the efforts of community groups who had been excluded by previous redevelopment initiatives and particularly the redevelopment of downtown, for example, after 9/11—predominantly working class communities like Chinatown and the lower east side—really didn’t get very much of the aid after 9/11. Most of it went to affluent communities living down around Wall Street. So there was a real push to have community involvement in the rebuilding efforts after hurricane Sandy in the plans for future development. And so the plan for sea walls was to make them wide enough that they could have community amenities like parkland for example, or access to the waterfront and in the more radical cases that some of the construction would be done by local folks who had good unionized jobs. So there was something quite progressive about that.

But plants that were drafted by community organizations took some of those efforts much further. So there are other examples. For instance, the environmental justice organization, WE ACT which is based in Harlem, drafted a plan: a kind of climate action manual for northern Manhattan, which is predominantly people of African descent and people originally from Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, Latinx folks. And so there was a effort to really think about community development to cope with histories of police targeting and mass incarceration of these communities and to do things like build community owned solar powered micro grids that would be resilient in the case of some kind of a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy, but which would also generate income for communities and jobs for communities and that’s just one example of something that would be both mitigating since it would cut down on carbon emissions, but it would also be a form of adaptation since it could increase resilience and it would also fight against gentrification and structural divestment in communities like Harlem over many, many decades.

JR: Puget Sound Sage for the last three years, has been a member of a state wide coalition for communities of color working on climate at a statewide level (Front and Centered), forming and shaping the policy for an initiative that folks are collecting signatures to put on the ballot in November, initiative 1631, which is a fee on pollution, wanting to reduce pollution by investing in clean air, clean energy, healthy communities, and more specifically it takes workers out of the fossil fuel economy and brings them into job training programs to work in clean energy. It helps try to mitigate the tribal nations who are losing land along the coastline every single day and really trying to stop that in its place. And really holding the people who are creating a lot of this pollution accountable for what it is that communities of color and low income workers are really facing on a day to day.

            The Alliance for jobs and clean energy is this amazingly robust—over a hundred different organizations from labor, environmental organizations, and communities of color—who come together for three years to shape this initiative. And I feel very lucky to live in Washington state where we have people who are really thinking beyond the most… you know, when we talk about sea walls, you could build a sea wall all day long and it could get as high as it needs to, but is that the answer? And so thinking really long term about how do we actually stop this in its place.

            And also at Sage, we have another program where we’re trying to build out a climate resiliency hub in south Seattle so that should there be a day where we need to be “off the grid”, can that infrastructure exists in a place where communities of Color and immigrant and refugee folks, low income folks, houseless, folks can all be at and still thrive in and it can that be the place where people can restructure and center themselves and ground themselves again on what we need to do next. I’m curious, through your studies, can you tell me where you’ve seen the most long term work be put in place? As you were talking about WE ACT and the climate action manual, I know that people are in a lot of places all the time and this is just really ringing to me how much we need to be more coordinated in our efforts around long-term strategy on climate. So I’d love to hear from you where you see other long term strategies existing in the urban centers.

AD: That’s such an important question. A lot of what you described Jessica early resonates with some of the things that I encountered as I was doing research for the book. For instance, that climate resiliency hub that you talked about. Part of the WE ACT climate action manual is a call for social centers. The idea is to have spaces which people can escape to when there is some kind of natural disaster or places that would have power or air conditioning if the grid goes down in the summer for instance. But even more importantly they would be places which would give access to various community organizations because I think there’s a real recognition that resiliency isn’t just about shoring up infrastructure. That it’s really about making social connections. You know, the difference between life and death, studies have shown, when a heatwave occurs in the city often has to do with knowing your neighbors and having folks check on one another.

And that I find is very much the case. In New York City after Hurricane Sandy, it was organizations like Occupy Sandy and then the Good Old Lower East Side, which is a tenants rights organization in the Lower East Side, but during Sandy it was kind of transformed into this community survival organization which really sent people door to door to check on vulnerable folks. That social connection is hugely important. So core questions about how to foster that long-term by creating spaces like a resiliency hub and by kind of multiplying those spaces across cities are a really key. It’s hard to do to be honest because particularly in a place like New York City, which is a center for global capitalism, which over the last 40 years has shifted increasingly into some financialization strategies and into accumulation through investment in high end real estate. You know, there’s a huge premium on space in the city and so public housing are really under attack and communities are under attack and I’m sure there’s similar kinds of phenomena in Seattle.

So I think it goes back to the beginning of our conversation where you’re talking about ways to think about community control of land. You know, not only protecting existing public housing. We’re pretty lucky in New York City. We have a public housing authority which has survived all the attacks on public housing in cities in the last few decades. The situation is terrible in a lot of the housing in New York City and our current governor has just been scandalously cutting funding for public housing. So there are huge fights to carry forward around these kinds of basic issues. And then in terms of struggling for social hubs or community resiliency centers, it’s a tough one. And we need to call for those and we need to push progressive politicians like our current mayor, Bill de Blasio, to create that kind of infrastructure while also pushing for some of the elements of just transition away from fossil fuels that you were describing.

We have a similar alliance to what you just talked about there in Washington. In New York, it’s called a New York Renews, and it’s a alliance of Labor—progressive labor unions—and environmental justice organizations and other social movements that are fighting to put fees on big fossil fuel polluters and to direct resources to people working in fossil fuel industries and also to communities that are environmental justice frontline communities that are particularly adversely impacted by climate change. We haven’t managed to get that through the state legislature. There was a huge mobilization on April 23rd, just a few days ago around this and we’re pushing in the state legislature, but unfortunately again, our democratic governor Cuomo, who is likely to try and become president has not been supporting these measures adequately, so there’s a lot of heavy lifting to do politically around this stuff.

JR: Well, Ashley, thank you so much for your time and as we’re talking about social organization and the need to be more connected from urban centers to rural areas and from west coast to east coast, I appreciate you taking time out to talk to me about your book and look forward to seeing you in Seattle.

AD: Thanks so much, Jessica. It’s really been a privilege to talk to you and to hear about the work that you’re doing. I really look forward to hearing more.

Ashley Dawson is the author of Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change out now from Verso Books. He spoke with Jessica Ramirez from Puget Sound Sage. Ashley’s upcoming Town Hall event will be on Sunday, May 6th at 5pm at the Rainier Arts Center in Seattle.

Get tickets to Ashley’s talk on May 6.

The Overlooked Power of Nature’s Invisible Giants

An Air Force loadmaster in the Vietnam War is shot out of the sky, then saved by falling into a banyan. An artist inherits a hundred years of photographic portraits, all of the same doomed American chestnut. A hearing- and speech-impaired scientist discovers that trees are communicating with one another. These characters and their struggles exemplify the sweeping, impassioned story of activism—and stunning evocation of the natural world—that is author Richard Powers’ twelfth novel, The Overstory.

Town Hall’s Alexander Eby talked with Powers about where his idea for the novel originated and why trees, specifically, are important to telling our complete story.

Buy tickets for Richard’s talk on Tuesday, April 24.

Buy the book: The Overstory

AE:  I’m curious about the overall premise of your novel, The Overstory. The overarching throughline seems to be the presence of trees and their relationship to the characters. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

RP: I suppose that’s the easiest way to describe the common denominator of this story. It’s about nine people with very different personalities and very different histories, each of whom for different reasons must come to take more seriously the invisible presence of these enormous long-lived creatures. But beyond trees, I guess it’s a story that asks how to dramatize the relationship between humans and non-humans—how to raise this question of what it would take for us to live here on this Earth rather than be constantly fleeing into one that asks the rest of creation to live on our terms.

AE: So more than just trees in that sense. The whole of nature.

RP: I used trees as an entry point into this broader question of people coming to terms with the world beyond the human. So much of the book has to do with current research that’s revealing all kinds of unexpected aggregate behavior among trees, for instance, their ability to communicate with each other via chemical signaling in semaphore. It just seems another fresh way to talk about this endless challenge of people in a world that is increasingly hard-pressed by our relegation of the rest of creation to the role of mere resource.

AE: It’s fascinating to see what we’re discovering regarding research on the behavior of trees. It’s just difficult for us to observe given that this all happens in such slow motion relative to our own lives.

RP: Yes, the research is proceeding in a lot of different directions. The roots of trees are connected underground by fungal filaments, and the exchange of hydrocarbons and sugars between the tree and the fungus, and the reciprocal nurturing of the tree by the fungus produces what Suzanne Simard, one of the leading researchers in the topic, calls the “Wood Wide Web.” It forces us to think of the forest as something that emerges out of lots of individuals, deeply connected in webs of cooperation.

To me that story—the discovery that these other enormous creatures have agency and memory and social connections and complex behavior—compels a rethinking of who we are in connection to these other entities. All of that compels a rethinking of who we are in connection to these other entities.

And that’s kind of an odd program for literary fiction. Traditionally, contemporary novels don’t venture much beyond the psychological or the social. The stories that we tell these days are almost exclusively about us. We fascinate ourselves. We pay attention primarily to the social relations among people, to the tensions inside our own psyches.

AE: Is that why you chose to situate this in a novel format? As fiction?

RP: The stories we tell about who we are, the stories we tell about what non-humans are. They need to be informed by all of those concerns that are traditionally the arena of non-fiction, but they need to have the heft, the emotional impact, and the visceral quality of fiction. We are entirely dependent upon plants, biologically and culturally. They should be at the heart and soul of the story that we tell about ourselves. It shouldn’t be a separate domain treated specifically and exclusively by scientific or non-fiction writers.

AE: And it seems like your representation of trees at the center of this story is aiming to redefine what we imagine a character to be.

RP: We have been almost entirely colonized by a way of thinking that I sometimes call “individual commodity culture,” where meaning is exclusively the domain of the self and life consists exclusively of individual people introspecting, coming to terms with their own conflicting values and making peace with others around them. At this point we believe that life is this simple struggle between ourselves and our immediate friends and family. And that’s as far as the story goes.

It’s difficult to understand that most people who have lived in human history didn’t have that assumption. That for them, meaning was out there. It’s tough for us to think of meaning as anything other than a subjectively negotiated thing.

AE:Is this story the spurred by any meaningful personal relationships with nature or specific trees at all that you can recall?

RP: Until six years ago when I first began to think about this project, I was as blind to trees as anyone. I mean, I saw them, I appreciated them aesthetically, but they didn’t particularly seem to have their own urgency. It was really first experience of a Redwood forest that began to challenge that. I think a lot of people have that when they see Redwoods for the first time; there’s something so majestic that you can’t be blind to them in the way that you are to plant life so much of the time.

Once I saw a Redwood forest as something more than a resource or aesthetic diversion, I returned to the forests of the East where I grew up and began to see the trees of my childhood for the first time, just to look at them and to understand all of the incredibly complicated shapes and forms and structures that they create. I had, again and again, this experience of coming back to the forest of the East while writing this book and saying to myself, “I had no idea.” I never—I had never seen it.

AE: I can imagine visiting forests you grew up with and seeing trees that you saw as a child, coming back to them years later. And it’s the same tree, the same organism.

RP: But everything’s different because something had changed in me. I began to see what had been largely invisible to me up until then. And I guess that’s my hope for this book.  I hope that the reader has that experience of being un-blinded toward these incredible creatures in their own street or deeper into the woods as far as they want to go—that experience of perpetually saying “I never saw that before. I have to look at them now with new eyes.”

AE: It sounds like a lot of native Seattleites will be inspired to take a trip to the Grove of the Patriarchs after reading this.

RP: Or even to see the urban planting in a different way. To understand the richness and diversity of street trees. It’s a great place to start.

Buy tickets for Richard’s talk on Tuesday, April 24.

Buy the book: The Overstory

Lucy Cooke: Re-Branding the Animal Kingdom

Humans often look at the animal kingdom through our own lens, and many times we tend to project our own values and emotions onto the animals. Here to set the record straight is National Geographic Explorer Lucy Cooke. She’ll be joining us on April 22 with wisdom from her new book The Truth About Animals. To give us some perspective on all varieties of animals, beloved and besmirched, Cooke spoke with Town Hall’s Copywriter Alexander Eby about her upcoming event.

Get tickets for Lucy’s event on 4/22.

 AE: In your book you aim to dispel some misconceptions we hold about animals, and you mention Aristotle and Disney in particular as examples of where some wrong ideas came from. Can you tell me more about that?

LC: So the book is about how we have misconstrued animals, and explaining where those misconceptions came from. That’s not to single those two out, Aristotle or Disney that is, but it’s really just to show the range of misconceptions that exist. Aristotle of course was the first Zoologist, the grandfather of Zoology, and he was a fantastic scientist, but even he made some mistakes. And Disney of course is a founding father of popular culture and how we see animals in a popular sense, so really that statement is just to illustrate how we make mistakes about animals not just in popular culture, but scientifically as well.

One of the examples you bring up as a classic misconception we hold is about penguins “holding hands.” How does that example illustrate our misunderstanding?

 As a species, we have a compulsion to anthropomorphize. We’re constantly looking for our reflection in the animal kingdom. But this trips us up and it obscures the truth and it makes us believe things that are wholly inappropriate about animals. Penguins are a good example. They look like wobbly little humans, they have this awkward way of walking when they’re on land, which is not at all how they behave in the water. But this way of walking reminds us of toddlers and it triggers our impulse to nurture. We’re sort of helpless in the face of penguins; we want to adore them. So when we see images of penguins and it looks like their flippers are touching, we imagine that they’re holding hands and that they’re in love.

But that is not true at all. Penguins are birds with tiny brains that live in an incredibly harsh environment and they actually have a kind of brutal existence. They often fight one another in the Antarctic, and they’re often thought of as being monogamous and forming long-term loving relationships. But the majority of penguins find new partners every season, and penguin “divorce rates” go up the further north you travel. The most egregious example is the famous Emperor penguin, and only 15% of Emperor penguins manage to stay “faithful” from one breeding season to another.

So we humans project that loving and faithful image onto penguins, when in reality there’s actually a bit of a darker side to them. Is there an animal that’s the reverse? One that has a negative image which it doesn’t necessarily deserve?

In the book I write about spotted hyenas, who are one of those species that are widely disliked. They’re portrayed in Disney’s Lion King as stupid lowly scavengers or cowards, but the truth is a long way from that. Spotted hyenas are one of the most successful carnivores on the planet. They are a matriarchal society, and extremely intelligent. The researchers I’ve spoken to have suggested that they’re of greater intelligence than lions. They can actually count up to three, and they use their numeracy skills to work out whether they have the advantage in numbers when they’re faced with lions. They listen to the sound of the roars and they work out whether they have a band that’s big enough to overtake the lions. They’re really extraordinarily skilled hunters.

Hyenas are one of the animals that have been considered in a negative light, but we should really consider them the feminist icon of the animal kingdom. They’re a matriarchal society, and they’re extremely successful and intelligent hunters.

It seems like you’re doing a lot of good PR work for these animals, trying to set the record straight.

I think it’s time we re-branded the animal kingdom according to fact, and not sentimentality.

That makes sense. And it also resonates with some of the work you did a few years ago as The Amphibian Avenger.

 (*laughs*) Yeah. I spent six months travelling around South America by myself investigating the amphibian extinction crisis. They don’t get a lot of press, amphibians. They don’t have a furry smiley face and they are less relatable perhaps to ourselves than primates or bears or animals we can see ourselves in. But amphibians are a key part of the food chain, and they’re also the canary in the mine, as it were. Because of their thin skin that they breathe through they’re a good kind of barometer for the ecosystem as a whole. So if the amphibians are in trouble you can pretty much guess that there’s something wrong with the ecosystem too, and the fact that they’re dying out in such huge numbers should be something we’re more keenly interested in.

And since then your travels have taken you even further than South America. You’ve become a National Geographic Explorer as well. Where else has that work taken you, and what was it like?

I was given the award in 2011 in response to the work I did with amphibians, bringing the conservation message about amphibians to a broader audience. I travel a lot. I spend a lot of time in jungles and out there in the wild. While in South America I visited eight or nine countries. I saw fungus-infested frog farms, licked poison dart frogs, drank frog smoothies in Lima, and chased down endangered species in the Amazon.

Well we’re excited to have you coming to Seattle after all that.

 Yeah, I can’t wait to come to Seattle. I’ve never been, and I’m looking forward to my visit enormously! If I’m lucky enough to get some free time I would love to see the orcas. They’re one of those absolutely incredible animals that’s widely misunderstood. Another matriarchal society, hugely empathetic in nature, very smart, they’re fantastic. I hope I get to see them, as well as lots of wonderful human beings during my visit.

Get tickets for Lucy’s event on 4/22.


The Precariat Class: We Are All Fast-Food Workers Now

Over the past five years, Seattle has seen a tremendous expansion of worker protections, driven largely by the organizing of low wage workers themselves. According to Annelise Orleck, a labor historian at Dartmouth College, this is just one part of what has become a worldwide movement, and the defining labor struggle of the 21st century.

 In her new book We Are All Fast Food Workers Now, she argues that this movement can only be understood, and can only flourish, when placed in a truly international context. Annelise will be discussing her book at an upcoming Town Hall event on Monday, April 23, but in the meantime we arranged a conversation between her and Town Hall correspondent Alex Gallo-Brown. Alex is a writer and former labor organizer in Seattle who currently works on the outreach team of the Fair Work Center where he helps train and advocate for workers rights.

 They spoke about the new class of workers called “the precariat” and the place for joy in the labor movement.

Get tickets for Annelise’s talk on 4/23 here.

Alex Gallo-Brown: First of all, thank you for writing this book. I thought it was really compelling and important. One of the most striking things about the book was that so much of the stories are told by the workers themselves. You really focused on the workers and their voices from Tampa, Florida to the Philippines, to Cambodia, Bangladesh. Why was it important for you to let the workers speak for themselves?

Annelise Orleck: Well, that’s something that’s been a hallmark of my career really from my first book, Common Sense and a Little Fire, which talked about garment union organizers in the early part of the 20th century. It really was important to me to get as much material as I could in workers’ voices and poor people’s voices. My third book, Storming Caesar’s Palace, is about a group of welfare mom activists in Las Vegas who opened this incredibly effective anti-poverty organization in their own community. And there too, I really tried not to speak through them, but to let them speak for themselves. So this was more challenging in a sense, obviously because it’s global and because there are so many voices, but I felt like the hope, the resistance, the resilience, the creativity, the humor, the enjoyment of protests, all of that would come through so much better in their words than if I tried to narrate it from a distance.

AGB: Absolutely. And I think that really does come through, the global aspect, especially. You open with this powerful vignette about McDonald’s workers who’ve come to a conference in Brazil and they lift their sleeves up and they all have the same identical fire burn scars on their arms, but they’re from different places. One’s from Tampa, one’s from Tokyo, and one’s from Manila. When we’re talking about economic justice, why is it so important to focus on the global or to emphasize the global?

AO: In the last 30, 40 years, the economy has become global and we have the rise of these transnational corporations. There are probably about two dozen of which have more power than most national governments, most countries. And so it’s really important to talk about the global because we have a global trade regime through the World Trade Organization and their courts, and we have a global economy and therefore workers have recognized that they need to organize globally. So that conference that you talked about in Brazil in the summer of 2015 brought together fast food workers from around the world, because Brazilian fast food workers convinced the human rights committee of the Brazilian Federal Senate that McDonald’s, which was the second largest employer in Brazil and also the second largest private employer in the world, was driving down wages and eroding safety regulations and overtime laws around the world, not just in Brazil.

And so the Brazil Senate invited workers from around the world to testify about their conditions and also what they saw as the effect of McDonald’s on their larger economies. So I think being global is really key. And in the age of social media and cell phones, they can do that. A garment worker organizer Kalpona Akter who’s a leader from Bangladesh but who’s traveled around the world trying to explain to people—to make people see—the killing conditions under which clothing is made today, said, “workers may not have water in their homes, but they have phones.” Almost everybody’s got a phone these days and that enables them to communicate with workers in other countries.

AGB: You use this term “precariat” to describe the new class of post-industrial worker. Listeners may be familiar with that term. What does that mean in the context of neoliberalism and this global trade regime?

AO: Obviously it’s a play on Marx’s proletariat and this notion of a vanguard of workers, which he saw as industrial workers by and large. The precariat are the people who are rising up today and they are workers who have been denied the status of employees, have been reduced to contract workers or freelance workers, or in this country we call it “gig workers”, right? The gig economy. We passed a lot of these labor laws in the United States, in many countries around the world, that guarantee that you don’t have to work longer than a certain number of hours, that you have overtime protections, overtime pay and safety protections. That precariat doesn’t have that because they’re not employees. They’re precarious workers are contract workers. And the thought was that not only could you pay them less, but not give them benefits. They don’t have benefits, they don’t have retirement, pensions, they have no job security, they have little mobility within the company in addition to very, very low wages. So the idea was that they wouldn’t rise up because they’d be afraid. But again and again, what people who have worked in the precariat said to me is “what do I have to lose?” Right? There are so many of these jobs out there. Unemployment is no longer the issue. We have almost full employment in this country, for example, right now, but people need two or three jobs to put a roof over their heads.

AGB: And we see this in Seattle in particular, we’ve had a lot of these new labor laws passed over the last five years that have been really great in a lot of ways. We have a $15 minimum wage. We have paid sick and safe time, wage theft, ban the box, secure scheduling—and yet the gig economy and this move towards the independent contractor as well as rising costs, rising housing prices in the city have made it almost uninhabitable for low-wage workers. I’m wondering what you think the movement for economic justice in a place like Seattle looks like.

AO: I think in many ways Seattle lead the way, being the first to pass the $15 wage, paid sick and safe days, all the things that you just outlined demonstrate the extent to which the low-wage workers organizing, union organizing, and coalition politics in Seattle have yielded some real victories in terms of laws. But as fast food workers in the Philippines just told me they just won a big victory where they lobbied for and got the Federal Department of Labor to say that thousands of fast food workers have to be regularized. They have to be called employees, they have to be protected by labor laws. But they said “now we have to enforce those laws.” And that’s always been the case: going back to the New Deal, when you started to get minimum wage and maximum hours laws federally, workers had to enforce them.

And so I think that’s part of what has to happen in Seattle. The passing of the laws is just the first part. It’s not just economic justice laws, right? You can think back to Brown v. Board or some of the big civil rights victories. The civil rights movement came afterwards to enforce those decisions. So I think once the laws are passed that’s step one, and then the movement needs to go on. But I think increasing union membership in Seattle will really be crucial. I think that going back to campaigning for some kind of rent control, public housing, some kinds of protections so that the city can remain economically diverse will be really crucial. And again, these are all rights that people fought for a hundred years ago, and 70 years ago. And that’s part of the story of this book: how we’ve gone back a century in terms of the rights of poor people in workers and how we need to campaign for those rights again.

AGB: Another striking aspect of the book for me was this idea of joy, that organizing can be a pleasurable and joyful experience. You write that “resistance is contagious, rebellion feels good.” And you quote sociologist who talks about the Eros effect. In some ways this contradicts maybe our popular notion of organizing as being tedious or difficult, especially for folks who are working 40 hours a week or more in places like Walmart. Can you talk more about the pleasures of organizing and reclaiming power?

AO: I think it’s both. Obviously it is tedious, it’s difficult and it’s risky. People have lost their lives in this struggle and many people have lost their jobs as a result of their organizing. But there is a feeling when people get together. The sociologist I quote talks about how something changes in your mind. You won’t let people speak to you in the same way they once did. One of the consciousness-raising groups that I write about in this book was of grape pickers in the Western Cape in South Africa. They belong to this union called Sikhula Sonke—We Rise Together and We Grow Together—and this woman talked about how she started looking people in the eye, that she started standing up to her full height when she would speak to people, whether it was employers or politicians or male union leaders who didn’t take her seriously, and that was an important example for her children.

And then I think when you interview people about their protests, they’re fun, right? You’ve got the Philippine fast food workers who are largely young and they’re doing singing, dancing, flash mobs for protests. It’s fun, right? They sing to Katy Perry’s “Firework.” They started a strike in 2014 that pulled fast food workers out all across Manila with this snaking dance line singing “Let It Go” from Disney’s Frozen. And their signature song is Aretha Franklin’s 1967 mega hit “Respect” and they call themselves the R-E-S-P-E-C-T Fast Food Workers Alliance. So I think in all of those ways the pleasure of organizing is really palpable. And I go back to an earlier book of mine on the antipoverty welfare rights activists. The leader of that movement in Las Vegas, Ruby Duncan, said: “You know, all our lives people have been demanding things of us. It felt so good to finally be the ones doing the demanding.” I think that’s part of the pleasure of rebellion.

AGB: At the end of the day, I think this is a really hopeful book. The typical narrative of the labor movement is that it’s in decline. Union membership is going down, wealth disparity is growing and we have this Janus decision that is being heard by the Supreme Court which may devastate public sector unions. Trump is president. Why should we feel optimistic?

AO: Because I think there’s a lot of great stuff going on and there are a lot of important changes. And I think people need hope to keep going. I just spoke to a union conference on women in the trades in Milwaukee and that’s what folks were saying, that it really helped to have some hope. It really helps to see these young people around the world who are standing up not just to Donald Trump, but the murderous dictators like Duterte in the Philippines, and really dangerous dictators like Hun Sen in Cambodia. So I think we need hope and I think there’s a lot to be optimistic about. For example, the fact that in four years, American low-wage workers won sixty-one and a half billion dollars in increased income and raises for themselves. Some of that was through local laws like Seattle’s, some of it was through private corporations being convinced to raise wages. Some of that was through the big victories in New York and California when the state legislated the $15 wage. I think those were victories and we need to celebrate them and we need to celebrate the fact that workers gave them to themselves. The fact that this transcends party lines. In the same night Donald Trump was elected, five red states voted an increase in the minimum wage. So I think all of those things are our victories and I think workers’ sense of power and pleasure also matter. Laphonza Butler who heads the largest union local in the country right now—the health and hospital workers in California—said people were feeling literally strangled before this movement and the psychological benefits far outstrip the economic.

AGB: Great. Thank you so much. We’re really excited that you’re coming to Seattle and thank you for sitting down and talking to me.

AO: Thank you and I appreciate the work you’re doing, so thanks so much.

 Annelise Orleck will appear on Monday, April 23 at the Summit Event Space on Capitol Hill in conversation with The Stranger’s Heidi Groover. Her book We Are All Fast Food Workers Now: The Global Uprising Against Poverty Wages is out now from Beacon Press.

Get tickets for Annelise’s talk on 4/23 here.

The Space Barons — A Privately-Financed Commercial Space Age

In 2017, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Elon Musk’s company SpaceX successfully landed a reusable rocket booster. Later this year, Virgin Galactic—the spacefaring spinoff of Richard Branson’s Virgin Airlines—intends to take tourists into suborbital flight. And here in the Pacific Northwest, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s true passion is his commercial space company Blue Origin. According to journalist Christian Davenport, a staff-writer at the Washington Post, this flurry of activity marks the beginning of a new era of space exploration and a brand new space race: not between nations but between private companies and the eccentric billionaires driving them.

Davenport tells this story in his new book The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos. He’ll be speaking about the book at a Town Hall event at Seattle’s Museum of Flight on Wednesday, April 25th. But in the meantime, Town Hall’s Alexander Eby spoke with Christian Davenport about this new frontier and whether he’ll be in line for a ticket to the stars.

Get tickets for The Space Barons and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos on April 25.

AE: Who are the Space Barons?

             CD: In the book I focus on Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Paul Allen. I think what makes them interesting is that all of them obviously have enormous wealth and come from a Silicon Valley background or ethos and saw space as a dynamic new frontier that was ripe for disruption and innovation. Their approaches are different, their personalities are different, but what unites them is that they made their fortunes elsewhere focusing on very different industries. Elon Musk has worked at PayPal and Tesla, Jeff Bezos founded Amazon, Paul Allen co-founded Microsoft with Bill Gates and Richard Branson has a myriad of companies. They all have experience in business and entrepreneurship and going up against big industries like Amazon taking on Barnes and Noble and the book industry, and Elon Musk with Tesla taking on virtually all of Detroit. But I think Space presents to them perhaps the biggest challenge of all. It’s the most difficult and I think the reason why they chose it is that it’s something they’re really, truly passionate about.

These guys coming at these different projects from the perspective of entrepreneurs… it’s right there in the title ‘The Quest to Colonize the Cosmos’. This is ultimately public-facing. The goal is to put people into space.

             That’s right. Particularly with SpaceX and Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic that’s their main goal. There’s only something like 550-560 people who have ever been to space. In a lot of cases they grew up watching the Apollo era and seeing people in space. Elon said a year ago: it’s 2018 we should have a base on the moon by now. That’s clearly a goal of Blue Origin’s right now. They clearly are focused on human space flight and getting people into space.

When Jeff is asked about this—“aren’t these tourism trips up to space just trivial, like going on a rollercoaster ride?”—he has two responses. One is that it’s really good practice. You’re not going to get good at something you do a half dozen or a dozen times a year. To really get good at space you have to launch repeatedly, to do it over and over again which is what they hope to do with these suborbital spaceflights. Then: when you get up there you have a few minutes of weightlessness, you unbuckle your seatbelt and float around the cabin of the spacecraft, you’re able to look at the windows and see the curvature of the Earth: the globe without any lines delineating countries, the thin veneer of the atmosphere. People talk about that being a transformative effect. If these companies are able to get more people out into space and have that experience, where it comes to the point that you know someone whose gone to space or know someone who knows someone and that begins to spread, that could have a transformative effect on our society.

Is it the sort of thing you expect will happen in our lifetimes?

             I think the first suborbital flights might be as soon as this year, might be next year. Virgin Galactic is gunning for this year, although they had a setback in 2014 with a fatal crash that killed a co-pilot. Obviously it’s very dangerous and a huge challenge but they’re getting close. I think Blue Origin is getting close as well. SpaceX has been hired by NASA to fly astronauts to the International Space Station. It now currently flies cargo and supplies and experiments to the International Space Station and its next step is to fly humans there.

Is it a trip you would take if you could?

             When I met with Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, ahead of the meeting I went to the NASA archives and pulled the journalist-in-space application. A lot of people forget that NASA had a journalist-in-space program that was cancelled after the space shuttle challenger blew up. People remember the teacher who was onboard that flight because there was a teacher-in-space program. They also had planned to do a journalist-in-space program. So I submitted my application to Jeff and to Richard. I haven’t heard back yet, though I don’t think I want to be on the first flights. I’ll let them fly a few times and get the kinks out and then I’d consider it.

What’s your first planet destination?

             As Jeff Bezos likes to say, there’s nothing quite like Earth! I think I’d be earthbound and watch others do that and explore (I’ve got young kids and a family). But I do think there are people who would want to go. We’ve got a permanent presence in space now on the International Space Station. The goal of NASA now under the Trump administration and the goal of SpaceX and Boeing and Lockheed Martin and Blue Origin and some of these other companies is to work with NASA to create a permanent presence deeper into space: on the moon or in the vicinity of the moon. We went to the moon in the 60s and early 70s and left flags and footprints and came back, but the goal is to establish a longer term presence there that could then be used as a stepping stone to get deeper into space and to Mars.

It sounds a lot like Science Fiction!

It does. When we’re thinking about mining asteroids, or Jeff’s goal of millions of people living and working in space, that’s the big distant goal that’s hundreds of years out. But the first step to get there is to make access to space much more affordable, economical and reliable by building a transportation network to the stars. Just like the railroads opening up the west. Right now it’s just too hard to get to space. It’s too expensive. They want to lower that cost, make it much more affordable and much more accessible

Then help other people establish a further foothold into space once they’ve got that foot through the door?

             That’s the idea, that they create the stepping stone and that other people follow in their footsteps and other industries emerge. We’re already starting to see that. What we’re talking about is the launch providers—the guys who just lift stuff off the surface of the Earth and get it into space. But once you’re in space there’s all kinds of things you can do. We’ve seen companies like Bigelow Aerospace that’s for years has been building habitats that expand—I don’t think they like the analogy but it’s a little like a balloon. They’re made of a very durable kevlar-like material and filled up with air and pressurized and become habitats, become space-stations and that’s another commercial company.

There’s a company called Made In Space that’s using 3D printers to manufacture in space. You’ve got the small satellite revolution: companies like Planet that are already putting up many small satellites to monitor the health of the earth. Then there are all the things that once you get up to space and it does get more accessible that you don’t know will happen. You can’t always tell what opportunities that will open up.

It boggles the mind to think that this is something we might see.

             I try to lay that out in the book. Whatever happens, let’s not forget that space is hard. There are setbacks and delays and not all of these dreams are fulfilled in a timely manner. But I do think that this is a time that we’ll look back on 30-40 years from now as a historic moment. We had the cold war space race that begin with the Mercury Program, then Gemini then Apollo which got us to the moon. Then there was the space shuttle program and the International Space Station. And this is a new era in its own right: a privately financed commercial space age that frankly could not have been possible if it weren’t for visionary entrepreneurs who had a lot of money that they were willing to invest into this.

Christian Davenport will be speaking at the Museum of Flight on Wednesday, April 25th at 7:30pm as part of Town Hall’s Science series. He is the author of The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos out now from Public Affairs books.

Impossible Monuments to a 100 Year Migration Crisis

Mary Ann Peters is an artist whose combined studio work, installations, public art projects and arts activism have made noted contributions to the Northwest and nationally for over 30 years. Most recently her work has focused on the overlap of contemporary events with splintered histories of the Middle East.

She will speak about her artwork at our upcoming event on Thursday, April 5th with Gary Faigin, who serves as Artistic Director at the Gage Academy of Art. In the meantime, Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley spoke with her about migration, impossible monuments, and making the ugly beautiful.

Make sure to get tickets for her event on Thursday, April 5th.

JS: When you say your artwork is being informed by the migration crisis, what do you mean by that?

MAP: What I have been doing is researching migration patterns that happened at the turn of the 20th century out of what is what is now current day Lebanon and at that time, was Syria. And I’m looking at the pattern and the footprint of that movement through Europe into the Americas and making artwork about it. I’m comparing that historical record to contemporary events that are happening now and looking at how people are moving now.

I would argue, and I will say this, that there isn’t a migration crisis, there’s a humanitarian crisis and I’ve had enough experiences now being in Europe and also in Lebanon to be able to back that up a little bit.

That’s really what the crux, what the focus has been with my work.

You’re looking at the past 100 years or so, then, of that movement?

Yes. I’m comparing the footprint and the experiences 100 years apart.

What has been the most striking to you doing that comparison?

I’m not a researcher, really, I’m just a pretty good snoop, I guess. What I look for is under-noticed incidents that can, in some way, trigger an image I can make, or an installation I can make that would make people think about what would happen there.

Let me give you two historical differences. Syrian President Bashar Hafez al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad – this isn’t a hundred years separation but it’s the lineage – attacked the city of Hama in 1982 and I found this by following the history of Hama. Assad’s father besieged the town of Hama for 27 days in order to quell an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood against the government. He closed the borders and he closed the media and nobody really knew the extent of it until years later.

story board 2
watercolor, gouache on clayboard

The reason I was following Hama is, for one, it’s a really beautiful city. It’s kind of the basis of farming country and it has this river that runs through it. It has an incredible aqueduct system with big water wheels in the river. In reading about that, I stumbled onto a ritual that happens. People go to the river in a ceremony. I think it happens once a year and they pour red dye into the river next to the water wheels and it churns up the water and turns it red. It’s like giving life blood back to the river and commemorating, at the same time, the people that died. That’s the way I’ve read the story.  So, I made a painting called Painting the River Red as a consequence of reading about that.

In regards to your process – you read something like the red river – what inspires you to make a painting versus an installation versus a sculpture?

Which way can I best convey the narrative that I’m trying to suggest?

I have been doing a series, that I will be showing several pieces of during the event, called ‘impossible monuments.’ Those are based on contemporary information. Reading about Aleppo. Reading about the White Helmets. Reading about this incredibly beautiful historical site, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and it’s being destroyed. That story got me.

But when you fly on an airplane and you look down it just looks like a beautiful pattern in this ground. You don’t necessarily see the destruction. That piece that I did about Aleppo that I named Ghosting, was about how people hold onto the memories of spaces that then, in turn, informs their holding onto their cultures.

I want to talk about the migration crisis, at the event, as a point of reference for the resilience of cultures that are in forced movement. I want to talk about footprints of cultures in various places that take a stronghold. They don’t move. They just get incorporated into the cultures that they have found themselves in.

You translate information and turn it into art. 

I am an interpreter. I am not duplicating something that happened. I am interpreting something that happened. I am pulling up into the consciousness and into the visual framework for people things that they would not access, not see, not realize, and give it a physical form for them to take away with them to think about.

The very first ‘impossible monument’ that I made was I bronzed a set of pita breads. The reason I did it was because one of the big contributors to what’s happened in Syria in the beginning was drought. I don’t think people understood that. I don’t think they know that there was an uprising; that there was a protest by the farmers for the government to help them because there was a drought and their crops were failing. Most of those crops were tied to wheat, and wheat is what bread is made of and then there was a bread shortage. In the full range of people moving from rural settings to urban settings or moving onto refugee camps, this staple, this thing – it has so many layers of meaning, bread – was in jeopardy. It wasn’t a given that you could get a loaf of bread.

impossible monument
5 unique bronzes
scales variable, 6″-10″

Your artwork seems to be shifting. Previously, it seemed to be of natural disasters, apocalyptic. Now, it’s more focused on a more personal and human element.

I think you’re right. The difference is there’s more of a sensitivity now about the source. The pieces that alluded to disasters are true. They were there but they were much more abstracted.

I went to Lebanon and Syria in 2010, just prior to the Arab Spring. When the Arab Spring happened and then collapsed it just became clear to me that I had nothing to lose by upping the ante on how I was talking about these issues. I thought I had a moral obligation. My family has alignments there. A lot of people of Arab descent were being maligned on a daily basis. The terrorists of the hour. If I can do something with this I really should.

I had no idea I would be doing this work at this point in my life. I have nothing to lose.

If you feel like it’s your moral obligation to make this artwork, what do you hope someone takes away from it then?

I would hope they wouldn’t take for granted these scenarios. The world is in a calamitous state right now, or it, at least, seems that way, since we’re reminded of it all the time. I think it’s really hard for people to process all this stuff and one way to go is not to think about it at all. But you can’t see what’s good in the world unless you take into account how things have gone haywire.

I purposely make things that are quite beautiful. I understand it as a device that I use.

story board 1
oil, ink on clayboard 36″x48″

You mean making the ugly beautiful?

Yes. I really think there’s a place for beauty in these seemingly unbeautiful things and calling attention to them. It’s kind of a seductive way to get at that but that’s what I want. I don’t want people to think they’ve seen this. I want them to walk away with an afterimage. 

Afterimage. What does that mean to you?

An afterimage implies that you still remember but the event is over. In terms of me as an artist, it’s a way, under my hand, of resurfacing things that happened. It’s not the thing; it’s the reference to the thing.

There’s no telling what we’re interested in until we’re interested in it, but do you see yourself continuing doing this politicized artwork in the foreseeable future? 

I think of it as political but mostly cultural. For me it’s as much about elevating cultural records as it is about the politics of that. They’re different but, sometimes, the politics can’t be avoided. 

I’m looking a lot right now at the architecture of war. There actually is a way to be trained to make structures that accommodate war.  That’s everything from refugee camps, whose schematics can be quite beautiful, to calculated tactics like the Israeli government dictating that new settlements have red roofs so that when their Air Force goes out on maneuvers they know what not to bomb. There is software that examines incidents and recreates the sites to better understand factors beyond relying on eyewitnesses.

I have no idea where I’m going with this inquiry, but something will surface that I hope will be informing.

Peters will be joined onstage by realist painter Gary Faigin, who serves as the Artistic Director at the Gage Academy of Art. Sit in with Peters and Faigin as they discuss the shift in Peters’ work, and how through research, intuition, and gut feeling, her pieces come together.

Get tickets for the event on Thursday, April 5th.

The High Cost of Living With Conviction


Town Hall presents Living With Conviction—Sentenced to Debt for Life in Washington State on Tuesday, March 27th.

Keshena is $50,000 in debt; she’s filed for bankruptcy. Her husband and step-father are serving time in prison, leaving her to care for her two young boys. She has served time herself, and has found it immensely difficult to raise a family and readjust to everyday life on top of paying Washington’s Legal Financial Obligations (LFOs). Michael is a disabled veteran. He served a five-year sentence in prison and was ordered to pay $11,000 in LFOs. Despite the $75 a month he’s paid for the last five years, he now owes $17,000 due to interest. Sue suffered from poverty and abuse in her early life, and soon found herself the victim of domestic violence and drug addiction. She served 15 months in prison over a decade ago, and is still paying off legal fees to the state of Washington—most of which are accrued interest.

Deborah Espinosa knows Keshena, Michael, Sue, and many others in our state saddled by crippling debt due to fines, fees, and victim restitution costs. Espinosa’s research on debtors’ prisons in Africa (and in the US) has made her eager to humanize these legal issues—eager to put a face to the problem. That’s why Espinosa founded the visual storytelling project “Living With Conviction”, composed of her photos of individuals suffering from the seemingly inescapable financial burden of Washington’s legal system. “It’s a visual storytelling project about how the State of Washington sentences people to not just prison, but to a lifetime of debt.”

Sabrina: “$39,000 in fines doesn’t affect somebody who doesn’t care. It doesn’t affect a junkie in a basement shooting up. . . . But for somebody like me, doing everything they are supposed to be doing, . . . People should care. They could arrest me. I live in fear of it. But I just don’t have the money.” * Sabrina and her husband have six children and one baby girl on the way. As a child and into her teens, she was emotionally, physically, and sexually abused. She started using methamphetamines at 17 to to connect with her mother. * This project, “Living with Conviction: Sentenced to Debt for Life in Washington State” is on the impacts of court-imposed legal financial obligations (LFOs) on formerly incarcerated individuals and their families in Washington State. LFOs accrue interest at an interest rate of 12%. Failure to make one payment can result in arrest. * Right now, the State Legislature is considering House Bill 1783 to reform LFOs. * “It’s an act of love and an act of faith to allow yourself to feel the pain of another.” * ~ Isabel Wilkerson * #Livingwithconviction #Massincarceration #LFODebtforLife #VisualizeJustice #cjreform

A post shared by Deborah Espinosa (@sameskyphoto) on

“My intent with this project is to amplify the voices of formerly incarcerated individuals who are struggling to survive, and thereby bring an end to the imposition of such costs on the poor and marginalized.” She believes the purpose of law is to serve communities and level the playing field, creating a more just society. And according to her, Washington’s LFO policies do the opposite. She sees the LFO policy as designed to fund the criminal justice system on the backs of the poor and racial minorities, perpetuating cycles of incarceration and poverty. On her website, Espinosa decries this cycle as fundamentally unjust and asserts that Washington’s LFO system “represents institutional discrimination and structural racism at their finest.”

“Living With Conviction” is Espinosa’s way of introducing us to the people in Washington who are suffering from LFOs—showing us their faces and enshrining moments from their lives in photography. “It is about formerly incarcerated individuals as they struggle to re-enter their communities following prison, burdened with substantial debt, as well as obstacles to finding housing and jobs.” Espinosa’s work has appeared in The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Foreign Affairs, O Magazine, and the Harvard International Review, among other publications. Her work is currently in a 10-year exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights.

“Visual storytelling makes us all realize that we are talking about real people,” says Espinosa. She uses the hashtag #VisualizeJustice to catalog her work, and to illustrate the inequality issues of LFOs not as abstract legal concepts but in terms of the people they affect. “As an attorney, an officer of the court, I feel a sense of responsibility to correct legal and structural wrongs.”

“A goal of mine is for people to open their hearts to this population.” This population includes Keshena, Michael, Sue, and all those Deborah Espinosa has photographed—and all those still faceless in the state’s criminal justice system.

“Whether we are incarcerated or not, we still are living marginalized lives. . . . You are taking away access to the American dream. Everybody should be entitled to that – to be able to work hard and see the benefits of their hard work. And not to be penalized for things that maybe happened years ago. Things that happened as a result of a disease. Addiction, alcoholism, or mental health.” ~ Carmen . . . This project, “Living with Conviction: Sentenced to Debt for Life in Washington State” is on the impacts of court-imposed legal financial obligations (LFOs) on formerly incarcerated individuals and their families in Washington State. LFOs accrue interest at an interest rate of 12% from the day of sentencing. Failure to make one payment can result in arrest. . . . Right now, the State Legislature is considering House Bill 1783 to reform LFOs. . . . @acluwa @marshallproj #Livingwithconviction #Massincarceration #LFODebtforLife #cjreform #documentaryphotography #VisualizeJustice

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Deborah Espinosa will be joining Peter DiCampo—Town Hall’s Inside/Out Neighborhood Resident for the U District and Ravenna—to discuss Living With Conviction and the power of documentary photography as a tool to oppose poverty and inequity. Join us on March 27 at University Lutheran Church and explore Espinosa’s photographic struggle against injustice.

Beyond Escobar: Murder and Denial in Colombia

For decades, the people of Colombia have been brutalized by a violent civil war fueled by drug money and billions of dollars in military aid from the United States. It’s the bloodiest and most intractable conflict in the Western Hemisphere but it remains poorly understood and seldom discussed in the U.S.

 For insight into the plight of Colombia, Town Hall is proud to present Maria McFarland Sánchez Moreno, author of ‘There Are No Dead Here: A Story of Murder and Denial in Colombia’. Maria worked for over a decade at Human Rights Watch chronicling stories of violence and corruption in Columbia. Her new book reveals what she learned there, but also tells the story of courageous individuals who resisted paramilitary violence and provide some hope for justice and peace in that country. 

 She will be speaking about the book at a Town Hall event on Tuesday, March 27th but in the meantime I spoke with Maria about Colombia, the United States’ role there, and the intersectional consequences of the war on drugs throughout the world.

Get tickets for Maria’s upcoming event on 3/27.

EW: Thanks so much for talking to me. We’re very excited to be presenting you.

MMSM: I’m super excited about it! It will be wonderful to be in Seattle and to get to present the book there.

For many Americans the main thing they know about the Drug War and the conflict in Colombia is the story of Pablo Escobar. But your book actually begins after his death in the mid 90s, which far from ending the violence actually catapulted the country into a new phase of extreme conflict. So can you share a little bit about the context in which your story begins?

Yeah. So a lot of people think that Colombia is about Pablo Escobar and that after he died things somehow got better, but that’s not true. After Pablo Escobar was killed, other groups immediately stepped into his shoes and in particular people who were involved in getting him killed—a group called the Pepes, people persecuted by Escobar, who were former associates of his—immediately took the reins of the drug business. They were closely connected and in many cases they were the leaders of a paramilitary groups in Colombia, which claimed to be fighting left-wing guerrillas, claimed to be protecting people from abuses by the guerrillas, but in fact served as death squads for powerful interests and drug trafficking and became a huge factor in their violence. And so as they expanded throughout the 90s, they committed horrific massacres: killings of trade unionists, of community leaders, indigenous leaders, people who got in their way, and tried to spread terror in communities that were on territory that they wanted to control.

They would claim, for example, that a particular community was working with the guerrillas and use that as an excuse to go in and pull everybody out of their homes, commit a massacre, kill several people in front of their families, torture them, rape the women, in some cases a kill people in very gruesome ways, and in that way, force the rest of the community to flee in terror. So you had, even as the violence was happening, you had also this massive force displacement crisis where hundreds of thousands, eventually millions of people were fleeing the communities that they lived in—mainly rural communities— and moving into slums on the fringes of major cities.

The internal displacement crisis in Colombia prior to the Syrian civil war was one of the largest refugee crises in the world.

People don’t know that about Colombia. It’s also something that’s happened over many years and so people didn’t see it.

The conflict in Colombia can be so grim and the accounts of the violence can be so chilling that I was happy to see that you structured your book around profiles of activists who were able to mount effective resistance, some of whom paid with their lives. Can you tell us the story of one of these characters and why you approached the book this way?

When I was covering Colombia for Human Rights Watch, I got to know so many people in the country who had, despite all the pressures against them, all the pressures to either work with criminal organizations or armed groups or at least look the other way from their abuses, these people had insisted on standing up to those pressures and instead pressing for what they thought was right for justice, for truth, for basic human rights. And these are often very ordinary people who just could not go with the flow even though it would’ve been much easier and safer for them to do so. And those stories were never told in the United States. Most of the stories that come out of Colombia in the U.S. are either about Pablo Escobar or maybe you hear a little bit about the FARC’s kidnappings or you hear about DEA agents as the heroes.

When the real heroes I got to know were very different. So I started working on the book, focusing on this one character named Iván Velásquez, who I got to know when I was covering Colombia for Human Rights Watch. And he was an assistant justice on the Colombian Supreme Court, which has jurisdiction to investigate congress. He, one day was sitting in his office and received a complaint. It was very simple. It said: the paramilitary leaders who are negotiating now with the government on the terms of a supposed peace deal have claimed that they have friends in 35% of Congress. Please investigate this. This is very disturbing. And Iván Velásquez, who had had a history of investigating paramilitary crimes and other positions in the past, could have set that aside. He knew how dangerous it would have been to really go after the paramilitaries or their allies in Congress.

But he decided to take a look and there wasn’t much to go on. He started looking at old case files that were lying around in the court that might point in the right direction. And he started finding that there were a whole bunch of old case files that included evidence that was relevant and slowly he started finding witnesses and he built a series of cases against members of Congress eventually leading to what became known as the parapolitics scandal, where about a third of the Colombian congress ended up in prison for working with the paramilitaries, conspiring with them to commit electoral fraud, and in one case, murder.

Another party in this conflict is the United States. What was Plan Colombia, when did it start and what were its goals?

Well, the United States has been in involved with Colombia for decades. The war on drugs officially started in the 1980s and the US started increasing its aid to Colombia around then in the late 90s after a peace negotiation with the FARC guerrillas failed the US started Plan Colombia, which was a massive influx of mostly military aid into the country, meant to supposedly help with counter-narcotics but also provide greater security in the country, more order. And unfortunately because of that, because the vast majority of that money was going to the military, in practice the US was supporting a party in the conflict that was working with paramilitaries who themselves were among the country’s biggest drug traffickers. So in terms of fighting the war on drugs that didn’t really make any sense,

What has the Trump Administration’s policy been towards Colombia?

Well, it’s interesting, the Trump administration has been very critical of the Colombian government. The government a few years ago suspended areal fumigation of cocoa crops. In part that was because the WHO itself has said that glyphosate, which was being used to fumigate the cocoa crops, could produce cancer. And so they made this decision, they stopped it, the US didn’t like that. And then it appears that the Trump administration doesn’t like the peace deal with the FARC and cocoa production has gone up in recent years due to a variety of factors. And so Trump is approaching this long-time ally by threatening them and saying that he might remove them from the list of countries that cooperates with us on narcotics. So it’s a very aggressive, hostile approach at a time when Colombia is maybe starting to shift policy.

This isn’t that surprising because Trump, when it comes to the war on drugs, has been completely over the top. I mean, he and Jeff Sessions not only wanting to go back to the most aggressive harshest way of talking about the war on drugs, but they want to go even further and so you have Trump recently calling for the death penalty for people who sell drugs.

Echoing Duterte, the president of the Philippines.

Praising Duterte! And so it’s not surprising he’s using the war on drugs domestically as a way to get his base riled up. You know, the war on drugs within the United States has always targeted primarily people of color and he is using it clearly as an excuse to go after immigrants in particular. And against people who he’s stigmatizing as undesirable—people who sell drugs, people who use drugs. It’s easy to demonize and then get people angry and then say “let’s kill them,” even if that does absolutely nothing to solve any problems.

For more about the human rights crisis in the Philippines, check out Town Hall’s April 6th event PANALIPDAN! DEFEND!

And that’s a nice segue into the last thing I wanted to ask you about, because a lot of the research into this book was done in your previous role at Human Rights Watch, doing watchdog work in Colombia, but you recently moved to a new position as the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. A lot of people in the Pacific Northwest are very proud of our region’s forward-thinking policies on drugs and marijuana decriminalization and later legalization.

And LEAD and supervised consumption sites!

What do you see as the relationship between organizing to resist the Drug War domestically and your previous work and the subject of this book which touches on the impacts of the Drug War internationally?

For me, the War on Drugs is a root cause of many of the social justice problems that I’ve tried to tackle throughout my career. So in Colombia I saw how the War on Drugs meant that this created this huge illicit market in drugs that fueled organized crime, that gave them this enormous power and ability to corrupt authorities and undermine democracy and kill people in enormous numbers. Later on I worked more internationally and I saw very similar patterns in Afghanistan and Mexico again: the drug trade fueled by prohibition in turn leading to massive violence and corruption. But then later on I worked on the US as co-director of the US program at Human Rights Watch and I worked on criminal justice issues here and immigration and national security issues. And again, I saw how the War on Drugs was this major factor fueling the mass criminalization of people in the United States.

In other words millions of people getting arrested in most cases for nothing more than consuming drugs. So possessing drugs for personal use. Overwhelmingly these arrests are affecting people of color. Even though black and brown people use drugs at the same rate as whites, they are arrested for using those drugs three times as often as white people. So many people are deported because of low-level drug offenses. For simple marijuana possession, many, many immigrants end up deported. Even green card holders who would otherwise be allowed to stay. The War on Drugs has even been used as an excuse to justify mass surveillance both in the US and abroad. So to me this is a critical issue that we need to address that we can also tackle so many other social justice problems that I care about.

Well, thank you so much for doing this work and for writing this book.

Thank you so much. I’ll say one, one more little thing. I think the book in addition to getting people to think about the war on drugs, I hope it inspires people because we’re talking about characters in this book who are ordinary people yet made tremendous change possible in their country, even under the most dire of circumstances. And if that was possible for them in Colombia, it’s certainly possible for people who are fighting for change in this country.

 Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno will be speaking at Phinney Neighborhood Center on Tuesday, March 27 presented by Town Hall Seattle.

Kory Stamper Would Like a Word

Kory Stamper is a lexicographer who worked for nearly two decades at Merriam-Webster dictionary, a world she reveals in the new book, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries. She will be speaking about the book at her upcoming Town Hall event on Sunday, March 25th. In the meantime, Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley spoke with her about her love of language, the lexical merits of emojis, and the wonderfully weird word that is ‘gardyloo.’

Get tickets for Kory’s upcoming event on 3/25.


You’re a lexicographer. For the common person, what is that?
A lexicographer is a writer and editor of dictionaries.

Have you always had an interest in words and writing and reading?
I always loved reading but really in high school I started loving individual words—the way that individual words sounded, or what they meant, or how they could be deployed.

Anytime I told people what I did for a living I was bombarded with questions and assumptions about what the job was and lots of assumptions about what English was that just aren’t true.

I started blogging about language and then decided to write this book as a behind-the-scenes of how dictionaries are made but also to give people some kind of entry point into what English actually is. As a dictionary writer, you often hear from people who think English is dying and they complain that English is falling by the way side, and kids these days and so forth.

Texting and emojis…
Exactly. Soon we’re all going to devolve into gestures and grunts. But the reality is that all of things actually enrich English. English is such a resilient and wild and beautiful language. I wanted to write the book as a love letter to this oft-maligned language that is actually really inventive and beautiful.

What do you hope readers gain from reading your book, then?
The recognition that language is dynamic and dictionaries are dynamic. That neither of those things are, or should be, static. Language changes at a really quick pace and that’s good and right, so dictionaries should also change and that is also right.

I suppose people are often surprised that dictionaries don’t just sit at the library, the giant tome opened up. I’m assuming a lot of people believe that’s still the case. It’s just a thing that existed and it is never edited, reworked, redone. It’s just like the Bible.
The analogy of the Bible is a really good one because it’s not that it doesn’t move or change but for some people the dictionary has this elevated status. It is the arbiter of good English. It tells you exactly where the language is. That’s just not the case. Dictionaries just record the language which is terrifying when people realize what that means. The language is pretty wild. You can’t really stuff it into a box very easily.

Do you get complaints when people think there’s a word that isn’t elevated enough to be placed in the dictionary?
They’ll always find something that they don’t think deserve to be in the language. Dictionary.com just this week announced that they’re trying something new. They’re going to enter some emoji into their dictionary. From a lexical and linguistic standpoint, emoji are used as lexical items. So that makes sense. The response to that has been like Dictionary.com is blowing up the English language. Because people are responding with ‘Those aren’t words.’ ‘That’s not real communication.’ ‘Only kids use those.’ People find just amazing things to complain about whenever a dictionary does anything.

So, personally what is your least favorite word?
In a professional capacity I have no least favorite word.

Off the record.
Lexicographers are people, too. We all have our own likes and dislikes. I cannot stand the word impactful. I understand that is an irrational dislike. I’m completely aware of how irrational that is. I’ve had to revise the entry for impactful, so I’m very aware of how current it is. It’s just a word I don’t like.

What are some of your favorite words?
One word I love because it makes me laugh that there is a word for this and that there’s enough use of it for it to merit entry into the dictionary is the word gardyloo. Its definition is something like “used as a warning cry in Edinburgh when it was customary to throw slop out the upper story window” I love that there’s a word for that.

The specificity!
Yeah! Only in Edinburgh. Only during this time when it was customary. I love that. Etymologists, people who study word histories, think that gardyloo actually comes from French. Which tells you something about not just the time this was used but also that there was a time when Scotland was under French rule. But it’s a ridiculous word! But I love that it’s ridiculous. I love that it has a place in the language.

For more from Kory Stamper come see her on Sunday, March 25th at 6:00pm at Seattle University, presented by Town Hall Seattle. Thanks for listening.

In-Residence Kicks Off!

Every year, Town Hall selects exceptional local artists and scholars for paid residencies where they engage with Town Hall programs and collaborate with our programming team to develop original events for the community.
In a typical season, we hand our residents the literal keys to Town Hall. Because our building is closed for renovations this year, we’re especially grateful to The Cloud Room for offering our Residents keys to their beautiful co-working space on Capitol Hill as we all turn Inside/Out together.  We’re asking this season’s Residents to revel in their curiosity—to engage in their host community, in Town Hall’s programming, in their art and thinking—and to funnel their findings into experiences that we can share together.
Thanks to a generous grant from the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, each of our four Inside/Out communities has their own Neighborhood Resident. Within each of their neighborhoods, our Residents will be co-curating a series of hyper-local Town Hall events in close collaboration with their Neighborhood Steering Committee. Our Resident events will take place March through June 2018, and all of the programs will be free to the public to attend.
Our remarkably competitive search was guided by our goal of supporting innovators who may not often see themselves reflected in the arts community, such as people of color and LGBTQ folks.
We’re thrilled to announce feature their first events, happening this month!

Shin Yu Pai, Phinney/Greenwood Resident

Peter Levitt with Shin Yu Pai: Sacred in the Everyday (3/22)

Zen teacher Peter Levitt is known for the warmth, humor, clarity, and depth of his teachings—as well as his many books of prose and poetry. He takes the stage with poet and Resident Shin Yu Pai for a complex and intimate discussion on the intricacies of human relationships and the notion of coming home to ourselves—to who and what we naturally and truly are. Peter shares readings from his most recent poetry, exploring our connection to the natural world and singing the sacred in the everyday.

Erik Molano, Capitol Hill/Central District Resident

Evolving Masculinity: A #MeToo Era Conversation and Workshop (3/23)

Explore revolutions in the culture of masculinity in the #MeToo era—rejecting patterns of dominance, violence, and power and building a clear understanding and respect of boundaries and consent. First, hear from Jordan Giarratano, founder of feminist martial arts dojo Fighting Chance Seattle, who discusses strategies to evolve a masculinity that is empowering, balanced, and founded in integrity. Then relationship coach and facilitator Galen Erickson leads groups of audience members through interactive sharing sessions on the effects of gendered expectations on our personal lives and collective social understanding of what it means to be a man.

Peter DiCampo, U District/Ravenna Resident

Living With Conviction: Sentenced to Debt for Life in WA (3/27)

The purpose of law is to serve our communities by level the playing field and creating a more just society. Documentary photographer Deborah Espinosa believes that the only way to know if a law is serving us is to listen to those most impacted. Living with Conviction: Sentenced to Debt for Life in Washington State is a multi-media and civic engagement project about how the State of Washington sentences people not just to prison, but to a lifetime of debt.

Failure to make monthly payments for “legal financial obligations” that are due in the wake of prison time can result in arrest, and the loss of housing, jobs, and children. Espinosa and a panel of individuals featured in Living in Conviction join us to share their stories of trying to survive and thrive under court-imposed costs, fees, fines, and victim restitution.

Jordan Alam, Columbia & Hillman City Resident

Neve Mazique, Nic Masangkay, and Jordan Alam: How the Body Holds Its Stories (3/31)

How do our bodies retain memory of the events we experience? How can we connect with the emotions and life-altering changes recorded within our physical selves? Local artists Neve Mazique and Nic Masangkay take the stage with Inside/Out Neighborhood Resident Jordan Alam to share original works of prose, movement, and music expressing how personal experiences are held within the body. They present their narratives of life-altering and intensely physical moments—from birth to violence—exploring how these events have impacted these artists physically, and how their bodies still carry changes that impact every encounter with the world. Then on April 2, learn to use your own body’s experiences as creative inspiration in a workshop with Jordan, Neve, and Nic: Telling the Stories of the Body (4/2).

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