Models Monday: An Old Way of Being an Environmentalist

We experienced beautiful weather here in Atlanta this weekend. The sun was shining and the temperature climbed to almost 70 degrees. These beautiful conditions pushed many of us outdoors and into community with people who you can reach out and touch but whose company you rarely get to enjoy. I sometimes encounter my neighbors in the morning as we’re preparing to take our children to school but we don’t get to talk like we did yesterday. While our children played together, we stood around discussing young people, particularly the young college students working in my neighbor’s office. She works as a Social Worker and her division was recently assigned several interns. My neighbor usually enjoys mentoring these young people but she often marvels at the assumptions that even they make as people committing themselves to helping those who live in communities they would describe as being very much their own. “It’s like t.v. tells them who their own grandmother’s are,” my neighbor mused. “They talk about people who look like stereotypes of who I know them to be,” she continued. “I guess I’ve been doing this work for so long, I know that people are more complicated than their storylines on television,” she said.

I sympathized with my neighbor’s story. I told her about being in the public library last week overhearing what appeared to be a student group discussing a community service project they were planning. The project involved going door-to-door in “the community” informing people about energy efficiency in their homes. “What people don’t know” was the repeated refrain in their conversation. The only people I could imagine not knowing about home energy conservation in my community growing-up, which was very much like the West End community they were describing, were children. Children were the intended recipients of a wealth of knowledge from older people about how to conserve just about everything: “What you running fresh water for? Put that baby in that same water you just washed that other child in; it ain’t hurtin’ nothin’. That baby wouldn’t that dirty,” I would hear as advice given to young parents who clearly knew little about how to best use their resources; or this, “Close that refrigerator door , girl! You need to know what you want before you pull that door open,” was the instruction I was given when I lingered too long in the refrigerator; or, “Can Mary fit this? Sarah outgrew it.” Hand-me-downs was a way that the life of garments was extended so that money wouldn’t have to be wasted on new clothes. Perhaps my personal favorite was, “Stop burnin’ all these lights! Why you got all these lights on with all this light coming from outside? It ain’t dark in here.” My grandfather spoke of electric lights as though they were candles.

The language that I heard while growing-up was more colorful than the language of the green movement and so, more interesting. The students that I overheard mistook the colorful language for ignorance because, perhaps, it lacked the scientific terms they were using to describe their world. I didn’t know a single scientist when I was a child, but I knew people who practically worshipped the natural world. I knew people who took pride in their lawns and flower beds, their gardens and the birds they fed. I saw people pick-up trash they didn’t throw on the ground themselves; who shared abundance and didn’t just boast of it. So I wanted to say to those young people I overheard talking, “Imagine if the people you’re planning on helping do know something, then what are you going to do? What will your project amount to?” I think it’s clear that they wouldn’t have had much of a project, but if they thought about collaborating with people in the community they wanted to work in, they might have been on to something interesting.

Marvin Gaye’s phenomenal track “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)” always sounded like a collaborative work to me. The “mercy, mercy me” part always sounded like an old person’s voice; something my grandparents would say. In my mind, this song draws on an ancestral presence to voice urgent ecological concerns. The result brings the young and the old together to reclaim a cherished ecological past that was once a reality that the old knew very well, not some fantasy or sentimental delusion.

I certainly understood my neighbors frustration with her interns. Theirs was a model of service that diminishes the collaborative possibilities of community work; reducing a colorful world to one predictable tone.

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