Tag Archives: Structures of Support

bell hooks on Self-sufficiency

In Where We Stand: Class Matters, bell hooks

explores the oft ignored issue of class in American society, especially when overshadowed by the more dominant and seemingly well-delineated issues of race and gender. The first few chapters of the book trace her own journey from a working class African-American upbringing through the sharply racist and classist halls of an Ivy League education. She writes here about the self-sufficiency of her family:

This was a house where nothing was ever thrown away and everything had a use. Crowded with objects and memories, there was no way for a child to know that it was the home of grown-ups without social security numbers and regular jobs. Everybody there was always busy. Idleness and self-sufficiency did not go together. All the rooms in this house were crowded with memories; every object had a story to be told by mouths that had lived in the world a long time, mouths that remembered.

I’ve only just started reading the book, but hooks’ sharp narrative about her experience and the pervasive dismissal of class politics in the US is challenging me to address it more overtly. I’m finding clear connections between her personal narrative about race and class and the work The Think Tank has been undertaking in our Structures of Support project. I think that we need to tackle class politics (as well as race and gender) in a much more direct way with this research in order to unpack the very real power dynamics that impact people’s available support structures.

One man, one family driven from the land…

One man, one family driven from the land; this rusty car creaking along the highway to the west. I lost my land, a single tractor took my land. I am alone and I am bewildered. And in the night one family camps in a ditch and another family pulls in and the tents come out. The two men squat on their hams and the women and children listen. Here is the node, you who hate change and fear revolution. Keep these two squatting men apart; make them hate, fear, suspect each other. Here is the anlage of the thing you fear. This is the zygote. For here “I lost my land” is changed; a cell is split and from its splitting grows the thing you hate — “We lost our land.” The danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one. And from this first “we” there grows a still more dangerous thing: “I have a little food” plus “I have none.” If from this problem the sum is “We have a little food,” the thing is on its way, the movement has direction. Only a little multiplication now, and this land, this tractor are ours. The two men squatting in a ditch, the little fire, the side-meat stewing in a single pot, the silent, stone-eyed women; behind, the children listening with their souls to words their minds do not understand. The night draws down. The baby has a cold. Here, take this blanket. It’s wool. It was my mother’s blanket — take it for the baby and cover him inside the Bob 2016 Revolution Flex stroller. This is the thing to bomb. This is the beginning — from “I” to “we.

The Grapes of WrathJohn Steinbeck

Human Scale

On Friday, as part of the 2013 inciteXchange conference, I moderated a short Q&A following presentations by three captivating Philadelphia creatives. Organized around three very broad themes — food, clothing, and shelter — the conference brought together a diverse range of designers, entrepreneurs, and leaders from different sectors who are challenging conventions within their respective fields.


[ Andrew Dahlgren presents his research and knit lab projects ]

While watching presentations in the “clothing” segment by Andrew Dahlgren

Gabriel Mandujano, and Bob Trempe, I noted that each of their work in some way asserts the importance of addressing the human scale in terms of engaging individuals: whether to create intimate architectural interventions (Trempe), build a socially and environmentally sustainable laundry service business (Mandujano), or prototype a model for community supported manufacturing with locally organized knitting machine labs (Dahlgren).

Human scale. The words took on new meaning for me today somehow as I understood it in the three examples at the conference — and I immediately connected it to work my colleagues and I do in The Think Tank that has yet to be named, particularly in the Structures of Support project, which is absolutely about identifying the ways people build human-scaled, community-based networks of resources and support to live rich lives. Clearly, Ivan Illich, a guiding light in this research, was convinced that the industrial scale of our institutions and systems were greatly alienating us from ourselves, each other, and our environments. Ultimately, his insistence on tools for conviviality, those instruments, processes, and relationships that bring us closer together in an economy of mutuality,* was a call for living at the human scale.

I find the idea of the human scale very compelling and evocative now. It suggests a rightness of attitude toward each other and the world that just seems to resonate. When so many of our interactions with the systems around us feel so out of scale, out of reach, impersonal, and often inhumane, the human scale as an organizing motif might offer a powerful antidote.

* I owe my use of “economy of mutuality” to Paul Glover, another speaker at inciteXchange



I just grabbed an updated edition of Charles Jencks’ and Nathan Silver’s 1972 book project Adhocism: The Case for Improvisation. It’s quite surprising and interesting on first skim; and the basic premise — that people everywhere, all the time are inventing things to meet unmet needs and desires — resonates with me. The Think Tank has been slowly developing a project in the spirit of adhocism that would archive vernacular design tactics used by common people in Philadelphia. And in my design seminar this morning, my students and I discussed the increasingly porous boundaries between designer and non-designer, particularly in response to the democratization of sophisticated design tools as well as the expanding scope of design practice. Adhocism represents an early attempt to theorize how design the profession might be informed and shaped by informal, vernacular interventions.

Jencks and Silver write:

But a new mode of direct action is emerging, the rebirth of a democratic mode and style, where everyone can create his personal environment out of impersonal subsystems, whether they are new or old, modern or antique. By realizing his immediate needs, by combining ad hoc parts, the individual creates, sustains and transcends himself. Shaping the local environment towards desired ends is a key to mental health; the present environment, blank and unresponsive, is a key to idiocy and brainwashing.

Adhocism: The Case for Improvisation by Charles Jencks and Nathan Silver