by Vanessa Haugh, Online Organizing Fellow, Energy Action Coalition
Andy Myers is an LGBTQ and environmental activist, and an organizer with Working Films in Wilmington, North Carolina. I wanted to talk with Andy about what he's been doing in his community and some of his thoughts on DIY and creativity in activism. The conversation turned to the opportunity that DIYers have to come together to heal and sustain themselves as activists, or people who care, and to build community.
First to provide a working, slightly drawn-out personal definition of DIY. When I think of DIY, I think growing food, making or repairing clothing, fermenting, playing an instrument, writing, brewing, building your own tandem bicycle, etc. But the essence of DIY is the empowerment found in the creative process. In our culture, we are so often separated from the sources of our needs. People we haven't met, or machines, make our food, our clothing, and provide our entertainment. Often, we no longer provide for ourselves except by making money and buying services and products. As a result, our lives become more and more stripped of meaning. Convenience can have deep costs. Doing it yourself is a first step in freeing ourselves from a commercial culture that disempowers and humiliates the individual. It helps us become more self-determined people, one project at a time. And through this process of empowerment we can share skills, make invaluable connections in our communities, and lift each other up.
Vanessa: What kinds of DIY projects have you gotten into?
Andy: Food is my first go-to. Fermenting, gardening, pickling…I've been brewing recently. For me it started when I began eating healthier. I started eating healthy, then I started shelling out money just to eat healthy, because in America of course the wrong things are subsidized. I started fermenting kombucha, which was easy as pie. From there I started pickling, fermenting things like sauerkraut and kimchi, brewing things like beer and my own mead, gardening. And really it was just a sense of empowerment, you know? And that sort of is what led me to this grander idea of doing the food swap in town. In addition to replacing my own purchases by making it and doing it myself, I tried to create my own economic system, even if it is just once a month, that's not created on the backbone of capitalistic thought. A system built upon community and the idea of a gift economy. So that's the DIY stuff I've been involved in. Building my own garden, then an economy...With swapping and trading and even just giving, everyone wins.
V: What about DIY do you appreciate most?
A: I think what I like best about it is the empowerment, at the end of the day. That's what’s most exciting about it. In additon to that it's sort of the uniqueness that comes with it, and the community building. With the swap for example, you have people with all these DIY projects and you have that in common. Fellow DIYers have commonality that bridges everything else.
V: How exactly is it empowering? Is it the money-saving aspect? The process itself?
A: Saving money was just the catalyist. Instead of trying to fix something that's broken, we're saying "screw it, we're doing something else." As an activist, I definitely have that feeling that's it's all too overwhelming. It's intangible, thinking about campaign finance reform and all that. For the burnt-out activist, it's really empowering. All you need is a few friends who feel similarly. You don't have to ask for permission to do something, which is never the case. Freedom of not having to ask for permission. That's something we struggle with as kids, but we just get new parents as we age.
V: What do you think is key to starting and sustaining a DIY project?
A: For me personally it's always been about talking about my ideas. The more people I talk to about an idea or project, the more I feel like I have to do it. It's nice to bounce ideas off each other and it's good to create personal accountability. With DIY there's no such thing as selfishness. It's all built on sharing. And beyond sharing food and whatever tangible thing youre making, it's really based on sharing skill. If someone's excited about my kombucha, I show them how to make it.
V: So it’s not about coveting your process to make a profit. You want to share the empowerment.
A: Yeah, when operating in those systems that are built on sharing, you tend to value people more. In a capitalistic system, you value no one else but yourself. When I say burnt-out activist, what I'm mostly referring to is the overwhelming feeling that what you want to do is impossible. Take any political issue. What most people know by now is [that] before addressing any issue you have to address a lot of other things first. No matter what issue you're working in, it can seem overwhelming, and that can burn you out quickly. But I think working in something with DIY in your community, even if you’re a LGBTQ activist and it seems totally unrelated, working in a community garden can really sustain you. So for a seemingly unrelated issue--gay rights, civil rights, immigrant rights—go participate in your community garden. You feel like we're all in this together...building community. Since the amendment one vote, I will say, there's been such a nice coalition that's resulted from that. For example, NAACP coming out for gay marriage. It's awesome. You should check out Reverend Barber, if you haven't already heard him speak. DIY and community development is a way to sustain those relationships that are totally rare and awesome.
V: How do you weave creativity into activism? And how important is it that activism by creative?
A: I think with any form of activism, you don't want to repeat anyone else, but you also don’t have to reinvent the wheel. So at work, I made the video My Marriage is Not Threatened by Gay Marraige in NC. It was based off of the Facebook page of the same name to get heterosexual couples that aren’t' threatened by gay marriage to send in pictures of themselves. I made a piece describing the page and interviewed them to find out about their philosophy. They made the point that heterosexual people should be angry at these religious right folks that say that their marriage is so fragile that two people of the same sex getting married is going to invalidate their relationship. Basically saying, "don't exploit us to make your discriminatory argument." One thing I’m really stoked on and have been for a while is documentary films ability to transform audiences. I’d say 20 years ago, if you asked people what documentary films they’d seen you'd be hard pressed to get lots of answers. Nowadays you get a lot of answers. I think what I liked about that so much was that it’s a fresh thing. People may not read a book about an issue but they’ll see a two-hour film that will piss them off. Documentaries are great at doing that... people aren't stupid. I think you always have to reinvent your strategies. Build community at the local level. Local elections are really important, and lots of people don't care about their local elections, but they pay attention to presidential elections. Especially with younger people, I think. I think we need to reprioritize who we're talking to.
Thanks a lot, Andy! Best of luck with the food swap and all your work!