SCHOOL | Orientation and orienting

Posted on 29/05/2017

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It’s important to start, rather than just play chicken with intentions, and this start, while tentative, endeavours to gather some threads and fragments. I arrive in Brighton in mid May to attend the STEPS Pathways to Sustainability Summer School at the University of Sussex. One of 40 or so other participants drawn from higher degree research programs globally.

I begin this time in Brighton with wandering – small observations, reorientations and encounters. The first day, like most of the days to come over this two week visit, is warm and there is a steady stream of day-trippers between the train station and the waterfront. Drawing on my knowledge of urban morphology and with the aid of a small map, I mentally plot out the spatial relations in the city particularly the main roads and the landmarks to imprint a mental map. From my hotel room, I can see the glistening sea, the rows of terrace houses, the tight grid of laneways, the aspirational estate apartments, the respite of green spaces, the residue of industrialism and leisure, and the domes of the Royal Pavilion. My hotel is located centrally, near the train station, which makes it easier to get my bearings. The stories of nationalism and inequality are written in the landscape, playing out repeatedly in physical and media worlds as the Brexit campaign rolls on and the human cost of austerity and neoliberalism populates the streets. The call of seagulls and fresh breeze flow. The city is pulsing as visitors and residents revel in the sensory joy of abundance and light of the long days of the northern summer.

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On the streets, the shape of everyday life emerges – the homeless are cocooned in blankets, sleeping bags and doonas – on the streets we are intimately drawn into connecting and shaping the social. The homeless ask for money and other help as the day wears on. Pennies and other coins are dispensed into the cups and hats resting on the footpath. Others give sustenance like sandwiches, fruit and water. They pause to listen to stories of hardship. Many congregate around the train station entrance – a man asks me for some money, prefacing his request with how he is out of work and camping on the beach near the pier. I acknowledge the unfairness and honour his struggle as I give him several pound coins, apologising for not being able to stretch to more and for the fact that he had to ask as our hands lock for a moment. I hear other fragments. A young man, sitting on the street with his dog, tells another that “Everything was fine until I lost my job …”. A man extends his hand to another and slips him a note, telling him to take care and hoping that things will get better. Women are more visible along the waterfront, taking up residence in covered shelters and more enclosed places. There are other shards of conversations about people who are out of work, without money, unable to work and consequently unable to provide for their basic needs due to the shredded social safety net. This is the human fallout of careless regimes that impose austerity and continue to expound the faltering ideologies of neo-liberalism, marketisation and self-reliance in which people are worthless. This is how unsustainability acts on and in lives. Brexit looms and these present and deep inequalities seem like a harbinger, heralding the emergence of a voracious and monstrous shadow that will consume so many more. I am struck by the kindness and pathos together with the failure embedded in those small gestures and exchanges. Surely small change – connections and gestures – can make a difference. Public drinking and smoking are common as I weave around clouds of smoke and groups of people as they carouse crowded streets and footpaths. The streets are covered in litter and rubbish as garbage bags left for collection are shredded by scavenging seagulls, perhaps also people. Here I encounter the problems so familiar and visible in my own everyday living – homelessness, sanitation and public health. These are social phenomenon that planning has historically addressed and, at times, even ameliorated.

This reorientation continues into the STEPS Pathways to Sustainability Summer School and the first sessions that focus on getting to know each other. The attraction to this event is obviously the content and the methodologies developed by STEPS and breadth of experience of the faculty. However, for me, participation in this event is a personal experiment with agency and broadening my experience; intended to see how or if I, as a middle aged woman, can ease or fit into events targeting and extending PhD programs. It’s been a valuable and edifying experience offering some perspectives on how I might better manage these age differences in the future and whether there is any efficacy in the lived experience of a ‘mature PhD’. This isn’t a claim for any special consideration but rather an approach to PhD researchers that examines the ‘otherwise’; if language is political then what do terms like ‘young PhD’ or ‘early career researcher’ actually mean and who do they address in the institutionalised and prescriptive environments of academia? I suspect, it is for me to navigate these differences better rather than those who are younger given that some are yet to reflect on ideas of age and aging and what that means for peer-to-peer relationships, their activism or their living. The challenges facing young researchers and PhDs, and young learners more generally, are vast, especially as they also grapple with the hyphenated and fractured identities of activist and researcher. Disposition matters. More than 30 years after I first stood on picket lines or participated in street marches – with unionists, with feminists, with Indigenous people, with environmentalists, and with social justice, civil liberties and human rights advocates – I still stand with those groups and people. At times, still calling for the same reforms, like reproductive rights for women. Despite the urgencies of so many issues and reforms, activism can be slow and enduring and it can take lifetimes even in privileged contexts like Australia.

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A question remains about how to recognise our difference and different stages of our lives – that our common pool of commitments and experiences remains ever binding, yet liquid. The introductory exercise, River of Life, aimed to provide a means for telling our stories and the metaphoric significance of running waters. These reflections are not unique to the STEPS environment as so much of this Summer School reminded me of the Design Futuring labs I have participated in. Yet, as I have noted in my reflections on those, there’s a question in the mix about the making of community and, in particular, the role of older people – beyond the paradigmatic student/teacher relationship framed by the university – and their place in peer-based learning environments and nascent communities of researchers. If we are in this together, how far does this togetherness extend in an academia which is adroitly cleansing itself of the middle aged and older staff? It is not the first or most important question but it is a question that often weighs on my embodied self, striking cacophonous notes in always varying and multiplying situations.

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