When Nicole and I learned about Radical Inhabitation—an environmental intervention that our friends from Wesleyan brought to life at our alma mater—our hearts swelled. Radical Inhabitation is a powerful way to reinvigorate our relationship to the land and nurture our capacity to fight the climate crisis through earth art & community making & connection.
The truth is, putting words and values into being is scary and very necessary. It is such a challenge because we do not do it often; it is safe to write and theorize about interaction with green space and the politics of inhabitation. Radical Inhabitation was a beautiful experiment that garnered more people than we could have dreamed of. The people and passion are there, you just have to tap into the bits of them that are willing to sleep out in the chill all night!
RADICAL INHABITATION INTENDS TO….
Re-envision our relationship to green spaces on and beyond campus.
Emphasize deliberate care, for each other, and for our environment.
Recognize the urgency of our climate crisis and inspire action.
Disrupt our daily patterns of complacency.
Foster a stronger sense of environmental consciousness on campus
Encourage environmental alliance, support and collaboration.
Critically discuss the complexities of environmental work, activism and social movement intersectionality.
Address the the issue of who composes the environmental movement.
Defy an expectation of “results.” Rather, create hope and optimism through our collective action.
Radical Inhabitation was an environmental action guided by students Kate Gilbert, Matilda Ostow, and myself at Wesleyan University this spring. The action sought to re-envision our individual and collective relationships to green spaces on campus, specifically aiming to foster a stronger sense of environmental stewardship that would manifest within and beyond campus. The event took place on a Wednesday evening through a Thursday morning at the base of Foss Hill (a grassy hill used as a social gathering space at the center of campus) and consisted of three distinct parts: an evening workshop which included a manifesto reading, grounding exercises, group discussions and activities; a sleep-out in which students slept under the stars in sleeping bags; and a human banner in which participants used their bodies to create a message on the hill for onlookers.
We formulated this event over the course of a semester through the Wesleyan course, “Anthropology of Social Movements,” taught by Professor Melissa Rosario (an inspiring and insanely smart ‘07 Wesleyan alum). This class sought to bridge the divide between theory and practice, asking students to plan and enact tangible, activism-oriented actions around a specific issue on campus. After being broken up into “affinity groups,” (ours being the environmentalism group), we were asked to meet weekly to formulate a discursive action to propose, plan, execute, and document. This was terrifying! As liberal arts students, we are so accustomed to theorizing about activism and radical thought, but are often so removed from any action that actually brings these thoughts into being. Professor Rosario understood this, and thereby asked us to challenge ourselves by exploring a kind of theory that emerges into (and merges with) practice.
Kate, Matilda, and I agreed that the Wesleyan student body seems to lack a sense of urgency around environmentalism - perhaps because many students feel disconnected from the environment by spending most of their hours in classrooms, libraries, and dorms. Everyone has unique emotion-filled memories with the environment that motivate them to take care of it in their own ways. For me, it was growing up wandering in redwood forests, building fairy houses by the creek near my house. For a New Yorker, perhaps it was walking through Central Park. While stats and graphs about sea level rise and carbon emissions are important, I believe it is emotions that truly sway someone to change their behavior. As the three of us met, we realized that we if we wanted to enact change, we had to create a memory-making event that reminded people of their individual and shared relationships to the environment. Harnessing the change-making power of memory, our action aimed to unite people through a shared, emotional experience. It was especially inspiring to have a radical, activist, female professor helping guide our brainstorming and action. And as women who consider ourselves environmentalists and care-takers of the earth, we definitely felt our values align and complement each other as we planned.
The communal gathering and workshop portions of the event were inspiring and successful in so many ways. We asked participants to introduce themselves and tell the group about their favorite green space on campus. Next, we led the group in a grounding guided meditation in which we imagined ourselves to be plants. We also asked participants to leave the circle, walk around the environment silently and on their own, and return with one found object that resonated with them. We urged them to consider the space from a new perspective - perhaps from that of a squirrel, an ant, or even a Wesleyan-employed grounds-keeper. These were intended to slow down our normal campus rhythms and ask us to connect with the greens in ways that we do not usually. For the workshop portion of the evening, leaders from each environmental group on campus informally presented on behalf of their group, allowing for natural collaboration amongst groups. People were asked to take notes in a communal journal, to write their reflections, questions, or drawings. One person said, “it’s so easy to feel fractured and isolated in all our efforts but it’s awesome to have this kind of forum to feel more inclusive and recognize the strength in our community.” Later on we asked people to break up into small groups and discuss topics like the colonial history of this land, the idea of “wild” vs. “tame” land (bringing up the fact that most greens on campus are covered in pesticides and chemical fertilizers), and the current environmental scene on campus. We were pleasantly surprised by how even at 10pm on a chilly weekday night, people were game to discuss tough issues.
It was so important that this entire event took place outdoors. We were pleasantly surprised by how much of an impact that element had on participants. People shared in the communal journal: “More meetings should be held in such a physically and emotionally intimate atmosphere” and “Being outside right now makes thinking about these issues so much more tangible, of course you would want clean air if you want to see the stars.” Unlike most Wesleyan events which happen in classrooms and lecture halls under fluorescent lighting, Radical Inhabitation happened mostly in the dark at the base of a grassy hill. People sat in a circle on the tarp passing around flashlights, snuggling in sleeping bags, sharing snacks and stories. When I went to the Wesleyan shop for more snacks during the evening, I distinctly remember feeling claustrophobic and overwhelmed. Having been outside since 6pm, my body had really acclimated to the outdoors in a way I hadn’t experienced for some time. The event was such a pleasant break from campus rhythms. Radical Inhabitation really required people to take care of each other in a way they normally don’t during academic events. We hope the experience fostered a stronger sense of care not only for each other, but for the earth, as well. By midnight the discussion had died down and we all burrowed into our sleeping bags for warmth.
Radical Inhabitation taught me that change is forged through a process. It tooks many days and many meetings to conceive of our “action” and it took just as much time to feel confident and prepared for such a venture. The truth is, putting words and values into being is scary and very necessary. It is such a challenge because we do not do it often; it is safe to write and theorize about interaction with green space and the politics of inhabitation. Radical Inhabitation was a beautiful experiment that garnered more people than we could have dreamed of. The people and passion are there, you just have to tap into the bits of them that are willing to sleep out in the chill all night! We are so pleased with how our event went and I truly hope that it is just the beginning for radical inhabiting and creative community engagement, on our campus and beyond.