I recently submitted my third quarter reflection to the Watson Foundation, and I only have three months left of my Watson year. I also graduated from Wesleyan University about a year ago. It’s hard to believe; time moves in strange ways when you’re constantly immersed in the unknown. Here are my reflections from my third quarter, and some updates about what lays ahead in my final three months. Spoiler alert: I changed my itinerary again.
I spent the beginning of my third quarter in Brazil, seeing the country running full-steam during it’s hot and buzzing summer. Brazil is a place to learn about building community. A strong sense of collectivity and commitment to family and friends seems to infuse itself into the everyday more than other countries I’ve visited. I especially saw this aspect of Brazilian culture in the home of my lovely host family, a gathering place neighborhood childcare, birthday parties, and bloco (Carnaval street party) meetings. In Brazil, people get together alot. They form bands, make drum circles, play in capoeira rodas, and dance in their neighborhood’s samba school.
Experiencing this strong sense of collectivity and seeing it’s warming effect on the people there reminded me of one of the aspects of cooperatives that I care about the most. Cooperatives build community. To me, Brazilian communalism contrasts starkly with culture in the United States. American politicians, academics, and activists alike publicly reference Robert D. Putnam’s Bowling Alone, lamenting the collapse in American communal life and civic engagement. I think cooperatives could be part of the antidote to this trend, allowing people to develop skills for collective living and decision-making at work. I’ve heard repeated in interviews in country after country that cooperatives don’t just make better workplaces, they make better citizens.
I think community engagement also makes happier citizens. I thought about happiness a lot in Brazil. Due to the warmth with which the locals receive visitors, Brazil is seen as a happy place. In the face of political turmoil and violence, Brazilians were quick to point out the holes in this stereotype. I don’t know if Brazil really is a happier place, but I do think Brazilians have a unique capacity for creating beauty together in the face of immense challenges. In this setting, I read Johann Hari’s Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions. Certain books have been great research partners so far during my Watson year, synergizing with the lessons I’m learning in a country and helping me experience the author’s message in a more tangible way. Much of Hari’s books focuses on our “missing connections,” and the broken social dynamics that run our world. After building a case against hierarchical workplaces, Hari introduces the idea of worker cooperatives as one of a variety of solutions for the social causes of depression. Hari reminded me of one of the questions that I started my Watson year with, that got lost along the way: Are workers in cooperatives happier?
An interview in Barcelona at the beginning of my journey pushed me away from this question. I stopped questioning worker-owners about their own happiness, fearing the sentimentality of that line of investigation. But in Brazil, I remembered that this question matters for me. I fell in love with Brazil for its population’s openness and capacity for genuine connections. Past all the structures and terminology and logistics of cooperatives, I’m really searching for happier and healthier ways of living together. I realized that the interpersonal experiences, the emotional life of cooperatives, moves me. I want to continue pursuing more psychologically-focused research, perhaps even exploring the underdeveloped field of happiness in self-managed workplaces after my Watson year.
Reconnecting to this deeper meaning behind my work has re-focused my attention on another greater goal for this year: returning to the U.S. after my journey and building its solidarity economy through institutions (cooperatives, but there are other also tools) that are more democratic, autonomous, self-managed, and inclusive. During my first two quarters I was loving that feeling of newness, of being far away from everything known, that I forgot how much I want to eventually return to my community and build something. I spent more time during the third quarter thinking about my future back at home, and how the American context will shape cooperatives into something different from anything I’m seeing abroad.
Cooperatives in Mexico, my current location, are particularly good at honoring their context and history. They are deeply tied to indigenous traditions of communal property and responsible land stewardship. What values in the United States can strengthen its cooperative movement? While feeling distinctly and authentically Mexican, cooperatives here also reach out and eagerly learn from cooperatives in other countries, especially groups in Basque Country and Andalucia, Spain. This global network of cooperatives and ‘social/solidarity economy laboratories’ have been inspiring and energizing for me.
These connections have also triggered another itinerary change. With this renewed excitement for my future work back at home and glimpse into the growing international solidarity economy networks, I have decided to head to South Korea instead of Nepal. While both countries would have an abundance of interesting projects to explore, I think I will learn more in South Korea that I can apply directly to my work in the US. Also, cooperatives in Korea are well connected to groups I’ve met with in Spain and Mexico, so I can’t wait to see how methods of organizing that I’ve already learned about here are working on the other side of the world.
I’m sure this next quarter will feel like a whirlwind. I’ll be in an entirely new context, after six wonderful months in Latin America. There will be unique challenges with language and cultural differences in South Korea, but I think it will provide a fresh boost of energy for my research. And I’m confident that the networks I have built in the past nine months of my trips will be there for support during this new phase. Finally, I am still planning to return to North America to spend my final month in Montreal, a hub for solidarity economy projects close to home.
I think I’ve spent more time during this quarter looking outward, especially at the community structures in Brazil and Mexico that inspire me to build more instruments of collectivity in the US. However, the spaces where people gather are also spaces for personal growth and learning. For example, Brazil’s welcoming drum circles reminded me how much I want improve my musical skills, and its friendly people encouraged me to try out Portuguese which I will plan to continue learning. Mexico’s vibrant artisan craft-making scene inspired me to pick up crocheting, something that can be done as a solo activity or in community workshops and gatherings. I can’t wait to see what inspires me in South Korea, what areas of self-driven learning I’ll explore next. This seems to be a great gift of travel: the confidence and widened perspective that make learning new skills seem within reach at any age, wherever you are.
I can’t believe I’ll get to meet you all in three months. I’m excited to show you how much I’ve grown from the person you originally invited on this journey a year ago.