Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Suitcase head

I used this representational picture to end my presentations this week because people kept asking about my main take-aways. It describes some of the ways my IPSP has had a significant impact on me personally. While my bags will certainly be a few pounds heavier on the return trip, most of the stuff I'll bring back to Arkansas will be intangible and essentially weightless. Here are some of my "learnings," as they like to say over here:

1)Better understanding of water issues, water policy and politics, governance, and community engagement in natural resource management-- in both practice and theory

2) Further confirmation that environment and natural resource management are where my passion lies

3) Clearer identification of the gaps in my knowledge about my own state/region/country, but also a better sense of what to look for, where to find the information, who to talk to, etc.

4) Variety of examples of both good and bad community engagement and more sophisticated understanding of how different stakeholders, levels of government, and government departments perceive different situations

5) Better sense of how academics, consultants, and other "outsiders" can fit into creating better systems and ideas on how to engage these types of people in Arkansas issues

6) Strengthened belief in applied academics

7) Confidence in talking to people in many different situations

8) Practice and confidence in public speaking:

9) Excitement about the opportunity to bring my new-found knowledge back to my community and potentially have it contribute to better, more inclusive and collaborative atmosphere for planning and regulation

10) Proof that enviros, farmers, and industry reps can work together, as well as some practical ideas to use in achieving this cooperation

11) Knowledge about a wider range of jobs that might fit my interests

12) Plenty of evidence of the importance of building genuine relationships, taking time to talk with people over tea or a beer and spend time on their turf rather than hiding behind the walls of the castle (whatever fortress that might be-- a government agency, university, corporate structure...)

13) Understanding of the gravity of the responsibility that governments have in creating systems that optimize outcomes for all residents and the environment within their jurisdiction

14) Observations of the danger of reactionary reform, which does not often allow the kind of high-level architecture that is easier under precautionary reform due to highly pressurized and political situations

What a useful 3 months! Can't wait to see you all!

Monday, August 29, 2011

From little things, big things grow

Enjoy three of my favorite Australian musicians performing an amazing song about an 8 year (8 YEAR!) strike by indigenous station hands for better pay and working conditions.

A lot of things I've learned this summer have confirmed that from little things, big things grow. For example, almost everyone I interviewed described the power of sharing a drink or a meal with someone, how such a seemingly insignificant act can break down great barriers. One person said that government officials often don't consider having a cup of tea with community members as "real" work, but in fact it can be one of the most powerful forms of connection, relationship building, and trust development. And as another suggested, "you can do anything if you have relationships." This came from someone who saw their bitterly divided community come together-- greens and farmers and local government and indigenous all working constructively together-- to stand strong and unified today.

My presence has been a little thing that sparked big things. Today I gave a presentation that one person liked so much he decided he would take my message up the chain of command from here on out. Several people have told me that I have completely changed their feelings about Americans and young people. Others have added a trip to Arkansas to their bucket list, when it wasn't even on their radar before. I may not have had adequate influence to transform any major systems, but I have clarified issues and brought solutions into view and provided some energy and encouragement to making things better. I'm feeling pretty satisfied with my work here. Time to come home.

Saturday, August 27, 2011


On the eve of my 24th birthday it seems appropriate to contemplate beginnings. I can now count my remaining days in Australia on one hand and it is making me inordinately sad. Mama suggested that I view it as a commencement rather than an endpoint. She is right on so many levels. This experience has turned me on to so many ideas and people that have without a doubt advanced my thinking about natural resource management and public participation. I think the contacts I've made here will continue to be useful in my work from here on out. My upcoming work on Arkansas water planning is really like Step 15 in a long progression of events and experiences that began way back when I was born.

The last official commencement ceremony I attended was Barnard graduation. It was a surprisingly good day. Meryl Streep made it amazing. She said, "I can assure that awards have very little bearing on my own personal happiness. My own sense of well-being and purpose in the world. That comes from studying the world feelingly, with empathy in my work. It comes from staying alert and alive and involved in the lives of the people that I love and the people in the wider world who need my help. No matter what you see me or hear me saying when I'm on your TV holding a statuette spewing, that's acting."

Studying the world feelingly. I like that. It's important for all people, but may come more easily to women because of the way we're maybe hardwired or because we have suffered less of the emotional repression that men have generally been subjected to throughout the centuries. I have put a lot of my heart into this latest episode down under, but it is really only one class in this whole long course of life study.

On a whim, in that last month as a Barnard senior, my friend Megan and I decided to audition to be the student commencement speaker. Together. It threw everyone off, but we charmed them enough to get a call-back to the second round. Even though we weren't chosen in the end, the experience sticks with me for several reasons. First, the speech we wrote was all about maintaining the burning curiosity ("staying alert and alive," thanks Meryl!) we valued in many of the Barnard women we knew, a philosophy that still plays a central role in both our lives. Second, it was the perfect continuation of both of our careers as perceived renegades. Megan had dropped out for a semester to rebuild houses and community in Buffalo. I had gone abroad for a semester without the approval of my Department. We both designed our own thesis projects, braving the criticism and sometimes ridicule of classmates and professors. Together, we constantly sought to make Barnard a better place by developing programs for a more sustainable campus and agitating for institutional change. So much so that a girl once asked Megan, "why do you hate Barnard so much?" We were shocked at the time, but laugh about it now. You can't help people who just don't get it.

I'll give a commencement speech of sorts on Monday, when I present my findings to DERM and facilitate a conversation about them. Hopefully I'll provide some fresh insights that will spark new ideas and lead to new ways of operating. I know my findings make a difference in the way I will operate in the future, but making a difference in the wider world is still the goal.

Megan is one person who is definitely making a difference to a lot of people. Here's a great story she recently posted on her blog: "When my Granddad was not well a couple of weeks ago, I rushed to see him after working on a demolition crew all day. I was COVERED with soot from head to toe. Everyone was cracking jokes about my appearance, etc. but Caroline my 3 year old cousin walked into the room, took one look at my soot covered face and dirt stained clothes and her eyes lit up as she yelled, "Princess Girl Fighter!" Apparently she had told her mother that this is what she wants to be when she grows up, and so she carries around plastic tools in her toolbelt while wearing a sparkly princess dress!"

Hopefully I'm well on my way to Princess Girl Fighter status. Happy 24th to me!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Rebuilding trust

I've been thinking a lot about ways that trust in government can be rebuilt, matched with government existing in a form that is worthy of its citizens' trust. One of the best approaches, I think, is better engagement of citizens and stakeholders in policy making and implementation. I was checking out the International Association for Public Participation's blog the other day and came across a couple of really interesting things along these lines.

One was a link to the Open Government Partnership, which the US is taking a lead role in initiating. Its formal launch is coming in September and I will be keeping an eye on its progress to see what, if any, practical advancements come out of it.
The Open Government Partnership is a global effort to make governments better. We all want more transparent, effective and accountable governments — with institutions that empower citizens and are responsive to their aspirations. But this work is never easy.

It takes political leadership. It takes technical knowledge. It takes sustained effort and investment. It takes collaboration between governments and civil society.

The Open Government Partnership is a new multilateral initiative that aims to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance. In the spirit of multi-stakeholder collaboration, OGP is overseen by a steering committee of eight governments and nine civil society organizations.
The other really interesting link was to GovLoop, a social network for people working in government to share ideas, build relationships, and engage in policy discussions. They also welcome students and individuals interested in public service. I've only found one of my classmates on there so far, but hopefully this blatant evangelism will get others to sign up!

We really need more happening in my part of the world (meaning Arkansas; Australia seems to be more on target) around deliberative democracy, public participation, etc. There are IAP2 chapters all around the US and the world... except the mid-South. Other than the Clinton School, I'm having trouble identifying schools with any sort of similar program closer than Indiana. Maybe some of those Oregonians and DCers who seem to have it down should come our way. Spread the love.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Warm fuzzies

Just a few cute animal pictures from our recent travels...

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Last fortnight

My last two weeks will be a bustle of data analysis, report writing, and presentations. Yes, I said my last two weeks. I know there have been some rumors floating around that I might stay, but I'm both pleased and disappointed to announce that I'll be returning to Arkansas this fall for my Capstone work. Both options were equally exciting and ultimately I decided it was time to get back and keep laying the foundations for a life of service in natural resource management and environmental protection in the Natural State.

One of the things I'd like to do when I get back is give a series of presentations to some key groups who may benefit from hearing about what's going on in the Murray-Darling Basin. I'd also plan to connect key lessons learned to Arkansas's state water planning process. The point of these presentations would be two-fold: to impart information and get people thinking about alternative modes of operation, and to allow me to continue conquering my fear of public speaking. Sometimes you just have to throw yourself in the deep end. Talking about subjects you're passionate about seems like a good first step.

I've been reminding myself daily to be FRANK AND FEARLESS-- a phrase that's thrown around a lot in the Australian public service. I've also been considering exactly how frank and fearless I can be without getting myself fired or seeing my career plateau because I'm seen as too much of a risk. Not that I have a career yet, but I imagine it's in the cards somewhere down the road ;)

Speaking of the future, the Dean emailed last week to remind us that although graduation is a year away, now is the time to start thinking about post-grad education and job applications. I have been really pleased with the cross-breed of action and theory the Clinton School has introduced me to and in a way I'm curious whether there are any PhD programs that value action and field experience in the same way. Perhaps Applied Anthropology? If I went on to a PhD, it would need to be VERY hands-on. None of that armchair philosophizing for me!

Alright, off to hike the Carnarvon Gorge and spy on platypuses for the weekend.

P.S. I love the continuing use of the word "fortnight" in conversation here. What a useful noun!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Getting around

Some beautiful sights from our trip, for your viewing pleasure.

Mama hanging out with some several thousand year-old Antarctic beech trees, remnant forest from Gondwanaland.

Always beautiful ferns

Dead coral on the beach at Heron Island

The sting rays we swam with right off the island!

Exploring the reef at low tide

Gorgeous giant clam just below the surface

The ferry across the croc-infested Daintree River

Tiny tidal pool at Cow Bay

You can never have too many pictures of beautiful ferns.

Beware the cassowary, Australia's largest flightless bird!

Heaven: journal, music, tropical fruit, and evening hours on a veranda.

Snapping turtle show and tell


I think I've solved a mystery!

I have been pondering ever since I heard the exact same story twice from people in two different parts of Australia. On a past trips to America, both of these people had experienced the "Oh, we love Austrians!" response after telling someone they were from Australia. Both times this story was used as proof that Americans are geographically challenged. While I won't disagree, I think I've gotten to the bottom of this particular issue.

As I was hiking through the rainforest last week, as usual I let my thoughts wander. In particular, I was thinking about the precious way that many Australians pronounce the name of their country. To my American ear, it sounds a lot like "Austreya." I was saying it over and over to myself in time with my steps (I am wont to talk to myself out in the woods when no one is around) and all of a sudden it dawned on me the similarity of the sounds "Austreya" and "Austria". If you leave out the crucial "l," it could very easily be mistaken. And if you don't recognize the accent, there's no way you'd ever question unless the offended Aussie laughed in your face or, more likely, politely corrected you.

Stumbling upon this theory was so incredibly satisfying. Now I just have to spread the word and make it true.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

E-postcards from a chilly paradise

Mama's visiting!

We went on a night hike chasing pademelons and ring-tailed possums with night vision goggles!

And now we're on Heron Island swimming with sting rays and sharks along the Great Barrier Reef!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Innovation station

I love documenting the smart, efficient, quirky, energizing, and thoughtful ways that societies operate. Australia has quite a few examples that I want to bring back to the US:

1. Train door "open" button: What's the point in train doors wasting energy by opening when no one needs to exit or enter them? Most Australian trains have a green button that you push to open only the door you'd like to pass through.

2. Dual flush toilets: These are becoming increasingly more popular in the US, but in Australia they are the norm. Water conservation is taken very seriously here and dual-flush toilets certainly help!

3. On-demand escalators: Instead of running 24/7, many escalators have motion or weight sensors that trigger the motor to run when a person steps on board. Brilliant!

4. Self-serve, refillable glass bottles of water at cafes: For water guzzlers like me, waiters never seem to keep the glasses filled long enough to slake my enormous thirst. Having self-serve bottles of water essentially solves this problem. After ordering coffee or food at a cafe, you can just help yourself to glasses and one of these refillable bottles of cold water hanging out on the counter or in a fridge. Me like!

5. Electric plug switches: Energy conservation geeks worldwide know that electrical outlets continue to leak electricity even when appliances are turned off (see vampire load). In the US, this can be avoided by plugging appliances in to power strips and switching the strips off when not in use, but in Australia there's absolutely no excuse since every outlet has its own switch.

6. Taxes: Novel concept, I know ;)

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Geography quiz

Match the Australian states and territories with their correct capital cities!

Queensland - Sydney

Tasmania - Melbourne

Western Australia - Brisbane

Northern Territory - Darwin

Victoria - Hobart

South Australia - Perth

New South Wales - Adelaide

Reply via comment on this post by Tuesday, August 9th at midnight Brisbane time.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Do they really?

In case you were wondering whether the stereotype about Vegemite-loving Australians is true, I'm here to report that the tradition is alive and well. Here's a photo of me with my latest hostess' breakfast-- toast with Vegemite. Every one of the 8 homes I have stayed in so far down under has been stocked with the stuff.

To be fair, it's not the obsession it once was. Especially with the younger generation, it seems to be more like the bottle of mayo an American might have in the fridge because it seems like one of those staple condiments you need, but which is in fact only used a couple of times a month.

Australians : Vegemite :: Americans : mayo

Geez, I haven't used an analogy like that since I was studying for the SAT!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

WAY too excited to sleep!

I can't help it. I think my project is the most exciting project in the world! I'm starting to realize that the work going on here has more implications for me than I ever expected. The Murray-Darling Basin Plan is the first of its kind in the world. Its successes and failures will have far-reaching impacts, as it will set a precedent for how large-scale, integrated water planning is perceived globally. I am feeling really invested in seeing a successful process develop here, especially one that will show excellence in community engagement. Australia has an opportunity to lead the world by providing a just, workable model for participatory resource management on the scale of an entire river system. Just imagine if we could draw on their model in the future when the eastern US starts to think more seriously about holistic management of river systems (there are a few programs and plans out there for the Mississippi basin, the fourth largest drainage in the world, but on the whole it hasn't been a huge priority).

Evidence that the world is watching: since arriving in Canberra, I've heard about at least 6 other students and researchers from around the world looking into community engagement in the Murray-Darling Basin. I keep hearing about them because my interviewees mention that they were interviewed the week before by someone else. The main difference, though-- and this speaks directly to the Clinton School's philosophy-- is that these PhD students and professors that I'm hot on the heels of will likely have outputs that will never make it back to the government agencies or the community. The strict requirements of ethics committees ensure that some important information cannot be released, academics may not think to provide a copy of their work to those it affects, the reports and papers may not be in language that is accessible, the information may come too late to be of use, or relationships may not have been developed to the point where the information can be accepted by the agency or community.

On the contrary, my research is in partnership with the agencies themselves. I am constantly in conversations with the people I work with-- reporting on things I've learned, helping them think through strategies and ideas, giving feedback and suggestions. People are starting to know and trust me. They respect my opinions and observations. I have given a couple of presentations in the past few weeks about my learnings so far and each time it has turned into a really interesting conversation about how to practically incorporate the things they heard from me and things they've heard from feedback in the past. It's giving them a chance to synthesize things, think collectively and creatively-- I LOVE IT!!! It half makes me want to stay, it's so exciting. I think I'd make a great Grundsatzfragen (Director of Fundamental Questions).

The only problem with all of this is that I probably won't be getting much sleep in the 3 days I have left in the Bush Capital. They are going to be PACKED with presentations, interviews, conversations, planning.... but I love it I love it I love it!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Winner: Best Australian City

Would you look at this passionate involvement in Hobbes' Leviathan? I spent the weekend blissfully soaking up art, sport, urban splendor, Asian food, and conversation with my college friend, Geoff, an engineering-turned-landscape-architecture grad student at the University of Melbourne. We tried to no avail to get tickets to some of the showings at the Melbourne Int'l Film Festival. As a consolation we made our way through a fair bit of Australian cinematic wonder from the comfort of his living room: The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, Ten Canoes, Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, and Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation.

I also spent time wandering Melbourne's vast network of lively alleyways, writing and thinking in quirky coffee shops amongst hoards of hipsters, and poking around parks, gardens, and verdant squares.

One of my favorite parts of the trip was the time we spent in the National Gallery of Victoria and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, both housed at Federation Square, one of the city's central focal points. I shared some of what I've learned about Aboriginal art and Geoff gave me some interesting background on how the Australian landscape was/is viewed and shaped.

Because the Australian art rooms were sequenced chronologically, we could easily see the development of styles through the decades. The earliest works in the gallery, painted by the first European settlers, were clearly stylized to recall the light, vegetation, and bucolic subjects of merry old England. In some cases, artists actually sought out the inspiration of particular valleys and scenes that were most reminiscent of the old country. As time progressed, artists began to capture the peculiarities of Australian light, vegetation, and coloring with more skill. For example, eucalyptus trees began to be painted with all their gnarls and peeling bark, rather than smooth and gracefully curving as previous artists had depicted them. Previously lush greens were tempered to the appropriate shades. There was still a throwback to European landscapes and sentiments in many of the paintings, but Geoff pointed out that by this time the settlers had physically and substantially shaped the continent, so the paintings probably were reporting what it was like on the ground. A field of grazing sheep with a cottage in the background was very much an Australian reality by the late 19th century.

Many of Australia's most recognized paintings were born of "the nationalistic sentiment that developed during the late 19th century." Works like Shearing the Rams reflected "the emergence of a national identity defined through heroic rural activity." We saw rooms of paintings depicting the kind of wholesome, hearty farm scene you're likely to find on cookie tins and dish towels.

The Aboriginal art we saw in the exhibit Living Water demonstrated a very different spatial and symbolical understanding from the European-Australian art. The compositions we saw blazed with energy, each telling a story embedded within a landscape that was simultaneously human and non-human. In one painting entirely constructed with tiny dots (the footsteps of the ancestors), it was possible to see the realistically irregular juxtaposition of geographic features and their attendant colors and symbols as part and parcel of an important story involving humans and their ancestors. In these paintings story lines often travel out to the frame, leaving the viewer with the sense of a wider world beyond the edges of the canvas.

One really interesting piece by Kalaju Alma Webou was a representation of the artist's two homes-- the inland desert where she was born and raised and her current home on the coast. Red, orange, and turquoise swirled together on the canvas, but in geographic reality they never touch. She seemed to be telling her story embedded in the landscapes that mix in her own mind, which I thought was a very clever departure from the traditional storytelling/art that I have seen to be dependent on connected geographic regions. Her spatial presentation of individual identity was especially interesting to me given what I've heard about the lack of individual focus in Aboriginal culture.

At the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, I saw another fascinating chronological display of how motion picture has developed, a 5-screen film installation and commentary on the myth of the founding of America, and an exhibit studying movement from a number of mind-blowing perspectives. For example, in one room, several screens were attached to the ceiling and visitors were invited to lie down on large cushioned lounges to view them. Each screen presented a birds-eye view of a person doing something in slow motion—capoeira, bike tricks, pole dancing, tai chi-- around a central pivoting point. It gave me the strangest feeling lying there looking up while looking down and reminded me of something a classmate said when I studied abroad in Thailand a few years ago. After completing our first reef study off the coast of Koh Mook, he said, “you get tired of looking down on the world all the time. It's nice to look the bottom.” I got the same unsettling but exciting feeling of physically shifting perspective from this installation. I love how two completely different experiences in two different parts of the world can feel so linked.

Melbourners LOVE their footy (Australian Rules). I got this shot of some guys watching a game on a massive screen in Federation Square earlier on the same day that I met Geoff at the Melbourne Cricket Ground to watch an Essendon-Collingwood game. He made sure I did things right by entering the stands with a beer in one hand and a meat pie in the other. I've never been one to get riled up over sports, but I can honestly say that this game is exciting! The intensity and energy of the crowd is contagious. I found myself oohing and ahhing at the athleticism of the players kicking and catching balls over incredible distances, waiting with bated breath as they neared the goal, and cheering proudly when Essendon, my adopted team, scored. If I stuck around Melbourne I think I could really get into it.

I haven't graduated to the kind of passion these boys had for the game, but I think I could get there if I picked a team and invested some time in making them my heroes. The one on the right had a cute little dance he did whenever Collingwood scored. The one on the left would yell the most hilariously sophisticated things in his frustration when Collingwood disappointed him. One thing I immediately noticed when we sat down in the stadium was it's similarity to a coliseum. The stands are incredibly steep-sided and the field is shaped like an oval, so even up in the nose-bleed section you are still at a great vantage point for the game and have a feeling of being part of something big. Really big.

Here are some photos from my wanderings. A coffee shop in a cool old building where I spent a few reflective hours:

I really liked the appropriately weathered appearance of the Perseverance Hotel:

Melbourne is known for its public art and colorful alleyways:

This sign is all bundled up for the winter. Yarn bombing is another cool thing Melbourne is known for:

Geoff, his girlfriend Steph, and me drinking cocktails and having a secret conversation about superpowers that I'm not at liberty to discuss:

Sunday, July 31, 2011

To the footy!

"Don't you dare waste your money," the station master barked over the loudspeaker. Heads turned. A couple on a bench chuckled knowingly. I finally realized he was talking to me. "Come to the window. Come on, do you see what it says on my window?" A sign advertised discount Sunday fares. I could save 50 cents by getting my ticket from the window rather than the automated machine. I was grateful for his persistence and happy to provide some light entertainment for the others on the platform. The chuckling couple smiled at me as I waited for the train near their bench. I was headed into the CBD for a day of garden and city wandering and a footy game at the infamous Melbourne Cricket Ground. Pictures to come...

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Too excited to sleep

My 6a.m. flight to Melbourne put me in the air just at sunrise, a wonderful treat. The sun was visible from the air, but the land was still cloaked in shadow, the valleys shrouded in fog. No light, no movement was detectable from my vantage point, but I knew that far below a flurry of activity was underway-- birds on the hunt, fish venturing out near the surface of placid pools, wombats and echidnas retreating to their daytime hideaways, roos springing through the frosty grass. I couldn't possibly sleep. I was too excited about the prospect of seeing the snowy domes of peaks below come alive, tinged with pink and gold. I was not disappointed. The powder caught the gorgeous morning light and capped the range with a profusion of beacons stretching off to the horizon. The landscape broadened and rose up as the frontier of light flowed into foggy valleys, flashed into overflowing lakes, and blazed down coursing rivers, no doubt pricking the ears of wallabies down for a drink. It was a fascinating and wondrous 45 minutes of observation and imagination.

Family Talk

An article I read recently about the killings in Norway pointed out a way of handling horrific situations in a way I never seriously considered until recently. "There was a Ghandhian flick to the Oslo mayor's pronouncement that the correct response to the killer was 'to punish him with democracy and love.'"

I noticed a striking similarity to an approach described by Libby Hoffman in a talk I attended before leaving for Australia about her film Fambul Tok (family talk), which follows reconciliation and forgiveness in post-conflict Sierra Leonean communities. Instead of jails and negative forms of punishment, she described villages that traditionally took a more positive approach to transgressions by community members. The transgressor would stand in the middle of a circle, surrounded by his community, and each person would provide positive statements about his worth and value in that community. The film's website states that the Sierra Leoneans "often repeat a local saying-- 'There is no bad bush to throw away a bad child,' meaning that even bad members of the community are needed and must be rehabilitated for the community to thrive."

Food for thought.


My swim suit has reappeared! It was in the lost and found at the mall I venture through on my way home from the bus stop. It was still wet. That definitely deserves a laugh and a big thumbs up!

I've been getting a lot of questions lately about the American debt. I can't exactly answer them as I have been watching in horror from afar like everyone else around the world, but I think this Daily Show segment from a while back about sums it up:
JUST KIDDING! I think Paul Krugman of the NY Times would disagree with this. And when I surreptitiously borrowed The Australian from my sleeping seatmate on the plane to Melbourne this morning, I found our looming crisis had garnered a huge, color picture of a concerned-looking John Boehner on the front page. I'll be watching closely to see how things unfold in the next few days.

Another interesting article I read described the fear many Egyptians have that their struggle has been forgotten. I remember having this very discussion with my fellow students in our Social Change class earlier this year. While we were inspired by the uprising that toppled Mubarak, my classmates and I were most interested in what would happen when the citizen pressure and media attention died down, once the difficult work of restructuring the country began. I know I have been remiss in keeping up with Egpyt's journey, so today was a good reminder. One article in the paper discussed the limits of social media in the actual decision-making and negotiations that occur when redeveloping a social structure. "Revolutions need leaders and none has emerged from the millions now joining the debate... dissent fomented in bedrooms can mobilize the people but has yet to produce the personalities to lead them."

This limitation is interesting to note as I continue to consider the role of government and political leaders in facilitating things like natural resource policy and management. I'm trying to reconcile the balance between collective involvement and individual leadership. One tension I've felt in my work is that creating fair systems for the ever-expanding "collective" often requires oversight and framework setting at a scale so far removed from local people that it can be difficult for higher level leaders to stay grounded. Although Australia has been trending toward centralization in some areas (education, resource planning, etc.), they seem to be going in this direction with some lingering misgivings. Namely, which issues should the federal government really be given ultimate authority over and which can they simply facilitate by supporting the actions of state and local governments as in the past? Subsidiarity is a helpful new vocab word I learned this week to help me think things through. While in the states this is a concept I hear most often touted by conservatives, I don't think the concept is partisan at its root. Like subsidiarity suggests, however, it's an and rather than either/or question of how to split up jurisdiction among different levels of government. Figuring out appropriate levels of involvement is the trick, but even states understand that they do not exist in a vacuum, that the things going on within Queensland borders have an effect physically, economically, and socially on the entire nation.

In my quest for more information on participatory resource management, I have come across some interesting models that seem to be working. Most of them are in Europe. There was HarmoniCOP, an EU initiative that created a best practice manual for collaborative water planning. I've been learning about the incredible Elinor Ostrum-- nobel laureate, theorist, professor, and activist--and her work in social ecology and NRM. I'll be sitting down with two of my new workmates next week to hear about their experiences in collaborative bush fire management and Scottish rural development. It's an exciting world!! I just wish more had come up when I googled "collaborative natural resource management USA." Or that anything had come up when I googled "collaborative natural resource management Arkansas."

Thursday, July 28, 2011


What a day. Earlier this week, my external hard drive stopped working. Today, after an unsuccessful attempt to recover my files with the help of the Clinton School’s wonderful Kari, I finally had to face the fact that it had crashed completely. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just my backup drive. It was my main repository for 4 years of photos, music, and archived things like college essays and parts of the film I made before graduating from Barnard. I’m crossing my fingers that I can find bits and pieces of this stuff on various computers back home. Otherwise, here’s to hoping Vimeo and Facebook never die.

By mid-afternoon I was starting to feel a little crazy. My head was buzzing, I was antsy, and I couldn’t seem to get any work done. So I went to the pool! It was great to be in the water again. Whenever my mind started to wander towards my disappointments, I just swam harder and focused on my stroke. I kept swimming until my severely out of shape body couldn’t drag another arm through the water, but it was enough to get my head screwed back on to my body and temporarily stop me from obsessing over things that are beyond my control.

But that wasn’t the end. When I got home, I realized that I had misplaced my swim suit somewhere between the office, the bus, and the walk from the bus stop.

While no doubt a let-down, I couldn’t care too much because I had seen something on the way home that made everything alright. For the first part of the ride, I had my eyes shut against the glaring sun shining directly in through the window. When I opened my eyes I noticed, in a spread of sheer winter cloud out to the side, a colorful little sun dog. Then, on the walk from the bus stop I admired the stringy bark hanging from the eucalyptus trees and the reddish tinge of the tall grass on Mount Taylor and I couldn’t have been happier.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Adventures in the Bush Capital

Today I had a lucky break when a meeting was canceled at the last minute while I was in the vicinity of new Parliament House in Canberra. My exploring plans had been stymied by rain for the past few days, but today was beautiful and sunny. They let me take my backpack full of stuff inside without a single question, and I was free to wander unsupervised around most of the complex, including the rooftop overlook and the House and Senate chambers. The chamber colors are the traditional green (lower house) and red (upper house) borrowed from England, but they've been given an Australian twist. The House chamber is tastefully done up in the same nice shades of blue-green that you would find in a eucalyptyus forest, while the Senate chamber colors are softer versions of the red soils of the outback-- dark rose, mulberry, and mauve.

From the rooftop I got a good sense of Canberra's very strange design. Hardly another building was in sight. It was just trees and hills, and beyond them mountains, as far as the eye could see. The city is spread out in a way that almost makes it seem like it doesn't exist. One minute you'll be standing in a town square and the next you're hiking through the bush. After my jaunt through Parliament House, I needed to get to a meeting on a street that, according to the map, seemed nearby. A policeman pointed me to a path that led down one side of Capitol Hill. I was immediately engulfed by eucalyptus trees and proceeded to make my way down into a legit forest as if I was in the middle of nowhere. The rain had really brought out the eucalyptus smell, so everything was fresh and minty. It's similar to the smell of a pine forest in hot sun, only better. Fifteen minutes of hiking later, I popped out on a roadside and was presented with a menu of different government buildings. I turned around in amusement to look where I had come from and saw nothing but a thick mass of trees with the giant flagpole on top of Parliament House in the background. I had to laugh. And take a picture. Yes, my experience in Canberra certainly lives up to it's "Bush Capital" nickname!

Instead of high-density development, Canberra is decentralized around several town centers that are surrounded by suburbs and bush. They don't typically allow tall buildings or development on any of the hills, so you get amazingly clear and uninterrupted views of the landscape.

The extraordinary amount of breathing room takes some getting used to, but it has its charms. For example, we saw kangaroos grazing on the Governor-General's estate! And a giant herd of sulfur crested cockatoos:

Also, there are bike trails everywhere-- around lakes, amongst the forested hills, and through each town center. It's a bicycle paradise, really. The mountains in the distance are all part of a national park that seems to be well utilized by the sporty residents of the Australian Capital Territory. I could literally leave my house, be in the wilderness within minutes, and stay there for weeks. A little further south and you enter the Snowy Mountains, where you can hike around to tiny huts and shelters, some of which are old drover's shacks and settler's homesteads.

I got an informal drive-by tour of the different embassies in Canberra and saw a few things of note. Most of the embassies are fairly modest, small buildings. Then you drive past the American embassy. And drive. And drive. We've got a HUGE compound surrounded by a tall, white, wrought iron gate. The compound is filled with massive colonial-style buildings of red brick. Way to be ostentatious, 'murrica. Then you round a corner and there's a fenced off section of forest backing up to the American embassy. A sign states that this is supposed to be the site of the Iranian embassy. Maybe it's an incentive for them to get their act together: look at this lovely slice of bush we've reserved for you!

When we passed the Chinese embassy, my lovely tour guide told me that when the Chinese remodeled their Canberra embassy a few years ago, they found a number of spy devices the Australians had planted in the walls. Apparently that didn't go over too well :)

Warm, fuzzy memory for a chilly Canberra day

As the rough waves crashed against the Point Lookout cliffs on Straddie in the most incredible show of power, we saw a beautiful thing. Just below the deadly explosions of water against rock, several dolphins were nonchalantly sufing the monster waves. Each time a large wall of water would roar up into being, the dolphins were suspended as if set in a column of blue-green glass. Incredible.

I later learned that Moreton Bay, the area we were in just off the coast of Brisbane, has the largest resident population of bottlenose dolphins in the world.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The End of Growth

Many of my classmates have discussed how their experiences abroad this summer are putting things in perspective for them. I’d add that reading about their experiences is putting things in perspective for me across a wide range of situations and cultures. One thing that particularly struck me was reading about the severe lack of basic drinking water in the Tanzanian village where Fernando is working. People in his village sometimes have to walk for a full day in search of water, and there have been multiple deaths from dehydration and exhaustion. I’m so impressed with his recent efforts working with the community to fund, design, and build a rainwater cistern (and this is outside of his normal work).

In comparison, even after a decade-long drought here in arid Australia, towns and cities in the Murray-Darling Basin still had access to water for what they call “critical human need.” Some towns were very close to running out, but the rains came just in time. The debate here rages at a very different level-- how much water to allow for agriculture and industry versus the environment. Drinking water is rarely mentioned, though it has been highlighted increasingly in past years since fears were heightened among local government officials during the drought.

Many Australians I’ve met have said that they are raised to think they live in The Lucky Country, full of natural resources, natural beauty, and peaceful, content people. Although they are a rather dry continent, Australia is the widely-acknowledged leader in arid zone water resource management.

However, many factors are contributing to rural decline in Australia, as around the world. While rural communities here may have their basic needs provided for and a functional welfare system to pick up the slack, people are still dying. In addition to major youth outmigration and crippling household debt, increasing rates of suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, nutritional issues, and inadequate mental health care are also weakening rural communities. For those reliant on agriculture and facing additional water cuts under the latest round of water reforms, these health and wellness factors are at an all-time high. From the perspective of the village in Tanzania, access to water alone would be cause for celebration. In rural Australia it is a given and so most resident’s sense of fulfillment has been built on a more complex system of expectations related to farm infrastructure, tertiary educational opportunities, quality health care and education, good harvest years, and access to technology, among others. These expectations are currently being dashed and people have few avenues for coping mentally. Several people have described the process as similar to grieving.

I feel like I’m looking into the future. In a country or world where development has been capped, what is the fallout for those who have built their identities and will to live around expectations of achieving a certain standard of living that is no longer possible? I’m curious about the psychological impacts that rural Australian communities are experiencing and whether that provides a glimpse into the way other developed countries might react to the necessary end of growth. The reality is that water is a finite resource. Efficiencies can be developed to some extent, but each level of efficiency is increasingly more expensive and difficult to attain. What happens in your head when your community, once thriving and successful and ever hopeful for a brighter, more prosperous future, reaches the end? Is it possible to avoid the suicide and depression by changing one’s attitude, or will it take generations for humanity to come to terms with a new way of looking at the world, one that doesn’t rely on constant development and more money to attain happiness? My question is specifically targeted at the US: will it be possible to cut back our ingrained expectations about what constitutes the good life and be content with alternative ways of being? Do we have a looming mental health crisis on our hands? I’ve never quite thought of it this way before.

Ultimately, though, this idea gives me hope. It’s easy for people of my generation to despair—we’ve been handed a really messy planet. But a new question has been sparked in my mind—despite the realities, can changes in attitude and mindset help us get to a better psychological place to handle an uncertain future? Rather than seeing the end of growth as something scary, what if we viewed it as an opportunity and actually helped it along? What if we could reframe the message about the future? What if the end of growth meant that families became closer, people regained a sense of appreciation for the natural world, soccer clubs thrived, nutrition improved, and crime decreased?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Equity ≠ Empowerment

What happens when efforts to create equity are at odds with efforts to empower communities? Someone recently pointed out to me that the Queensland government is charged with facilitating equity of resource access and use among residents now and in the future, but this has led to an interesting quandary when it comes to living out that mission.

Take the current situation in the Murray Darling Basin, for example. The state has been asked to help develop and support a local group in each water catchment that will have broad representation across the community. These groups are a modified version of the Community Reference Panels and other advisory councils that were created to aid water planning activities in the past. The groups have several important roles. They create an established go-to group that government officials can interact with and provide information to in order to have it better disseminated throughout the larger community. The representatives are able to gather opinions and concerns from their respective groups and create a more unified voice for their region. They are also better positioned to make quality submissions during public comment periods and negotiate with government officials over the details of the plans. A side benefit of the groups is that the different representatives learn from one another and have a mediated environment within which to build relationships and alliances across a variety of interests.

In theory, the local groups can be an effective form of community empowerment, conflict resolution, and participation in water planning at a scale that was not previously possible. If the state genuinely engages with these groups, they can have a more substantive influence and the subsequent plans will have a great deal of buy-in because they were created collaboratively. The public comment period for the draft Basin Plan will be released in the next few weeks, so these groups need to get up and running, and FAST.

The problems start when you acknowledge the different levels of empowerment in each catchment community. Some already have sophisticated structures in place and respect among stakeholders. These communities have jumped at the opportunity and formed their own local groups with limited government assistance. Other communities are not so organized or have historical divisions and tensions that make it difficult to pull representatives together. The state has simply encouraged the savvy catchment communities, but the others require much more assistance. From a government perspective, you would ideally have equally empowered and organized groups in each catchment. You can't have one or two holding all the cards because that would make for an unbalanced outcome in favor of those areas. But the government also can't necessarily represent the unorganized communities' interests well because they often do not understand the specific needs and history of those areas.

What would you do in this situation? In the name of equity the state has gone out and attempted to create groups in the less organized areas. Have their actions gone too far? At what point does it move from well-meaning organizing to coercion? The timeline the state is operating on does not allow for the needed community development that would create true ownership in the group, or for seeking out reps for interests that are not at the table and providing leadership development for them. This usually means that the usual suspects (those with an economic interest in the proceedings) come together and purport to speak for the whole community. While the limited group will be able to provide some input, it will not be holistic and may even cause further division and disempowerment within the community as a whole.

But what is the alternative? The government can't just ignore all of the local communities and make decisions unilaterally. That's exactly the paradigm they're trying to move away from. I think it's interesting that one noble cause can, in some cases, block another noble cause. What a horrible trade-off to navigate.

Dance Review: Bangarra Dance Theatre

I didn't have a chance to glance at the program before the theater lights went dark. No idea what to expect. I had never seen traditional Indigenous Australian dance, which is the root and inspiration of the contemporary works choreographed and performed by Bangarra Dance Theatre. What I did know was that the title of the night was Belong, and the two pieces I was about to view were titled About and ID.

About opened with a single woman dressed in white and a fine white mist creeping out from the right side of the stage. As the mist snaked and curled its way ever closer, she shrank from it and slowly, deliberately backed off the stage to the left. Then, a highly coordinated mass of dancers congregated in the mist under a backdrop that resembled a view of distant mountaintops. They began a sequence that had an uncanny resemblance to the opening scene of Ailey's Revelations. Arms were raised like flying birds above the dancers' heads and they moved as one, costumed in earth tones. The dancers made their graceful and powerful way through several scenes that seemed to represent a number of different natural places and processes-- desert, sea, and thunderstorm. A voice spoke throughout, describing experiences in the land, and drum beats filled in the silences. The woman in white reappeared throughout, sometimes joining in the dancing and other times standing back as if observing. Knowing that the theme of the night was Belong, I wondered whether the mist represented tradition and the woman in white was attempting to determine her relationship to and place within her cultural heritage.

At one point, a male dancer came out with chalk all over his body and hair. It came off of him in clouds when he moved and danced, mimicking the shape and direction of his movements. So cool! The mist was on and around him, as if he and the mist were one.

When I read the program during the intermission, I learned that the piece "explores the mood of the winds as they move across the land, sea, and sky signifying key moments in time. It reflects the strong links between communities and their natural environment." The woman in white was listed as "Storyteller," so perhaps she wasn't backing away from the mist so much as summoning and creating it. The spoken words must have been her own. Her involvement in the dancing from time to time took on new meaning-- as a guide rather than an attempt to fit in. From my limited knowledge of Indigenous beliefs, this kind of storytelling is very significant because, according to a book I'm reading, "Aboriginal Creation myths tell of the legendary totemic beings who had wandered over the continent in the Dreamtime, singing out the name of everything that crossed their path-- birds, animals, plants, rocks, waterholes--and so singing the world into existence." These paths are often called "dreaming-tracks" or "songlines," but to many Indigenous people they are "footprints of the ancestors" or "way of the law."

The second piece, ID, was less cohesive than the first. Each new sequence within the piece was a clear departure from the one before-- stage setting, costumes, dance styles, and music all changed dramatically from part to part. I had a hard time developing a clear narrative, but the piece did a great job of raising some interesting questions. For example, one scene opened with a row of five dancers at the front of the stage. Each had a large number painted on their chest-- 1, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16. My interpretation was that they corresponded to blood percentages. Similar to the United States, you can gain access to different kinds of government assistance if you can prove that you are least 1/16th Indigenous. Thinking about it from my own perspective, I know that I'm likely at least 1/16th Welsh, but this has no meaning for me. On the other hand, my 1/4 Italian Catholic heritage has a great deal more meaning to me than my 1/2 Eastern European Jewish heritage. I know some Americans who do not know their background at all. Identity and heritage are so complicated.

Another scene in ID depicted the antics of rowdy schoolchildren on a set of bleachers. One child sat alone at the top of the bleachers, quietly keeping to herself. Finally, all of the "children" sat down, painted their faces black, and smiled broadly. The scene closed with a loud CLICK and a bright flash. No matter how different the majority of the kids acted, they would still be viewed and depicted as black.

I attended the performance with a couple of anthropologists. As you can imagine, this led to some very interesting discussions about traditional Indigenous culture and dance. They suggested I look up this video by Yothu Yindi called Treaty. I hope it gives you a sense of both some traditional dance styles and some cultural issues.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

In her shoes

"You'll stay with me?"
"Until the very end."

This is the reassurance that Harry Potter's deceased family gives him before he faces Voldemort for the last time. I saw the final movie tonight and it was a good reminder that our loved ones are always with us, even when we can't see or talk with them anymore.

Sometimes they can even seem to reappear quite tangibly. I don't know what it was, but the facilitator of a meeting I attended on Friday seemed to be channeling my grandmother in such a clear way that it actually made me choke up. Maybe it was a combination of things: the familiar way he looked over his glasses, his witty sense of humor, the way his eyes crinkled when he laughed. Or maybe his confident attitude and impeccable word choice.

My grandmother died a few years ago when I was a freshman in college. I often wonder what kinds of conversations we might have had if she was still alive, now that I'm really developing as an activist and leader.

As we had the same shoe size, I inherited some very nice Italian leather shoes after her death. They give me a great deal of confidence. I look at the worn soles and am reminded of how she helped to pave the way for me by pounding the halls of the Arkansas state capitol and the streets of Little Rock for decades seeking justice and understanding. She became a civil rights lawyer, served as Assistant Attorney General for several years, and was active on the Panel of American Women. She was a campaign manager and active Arkansas Democrat, raised an incredible family, was a supporter of the humanities and of science, and could often be found blissfully dancing Second Line in her adopted Louisiana city. She cared deeply for people and the environment.

Obviously, I had to bring a pair of her shoes with me to Australia. Their power lies in the daily reminder that she is with me. Always. Until the very end.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Australia will be there

"What side was Arkansas on?" is a question I have been asked several times about the American Civil War. Australians have a vague sense when I mention the South that the war was a big deal for us. I complicate their notions by explaining about Arkansas's sparse population and split loyalties at the time.

I think many would be surprised about the frequency with which war is discussed here in Australia. People are very saddened by the 30 soldiers they've lost in Afghanistan, which might not sound like much compared to the thousands of American soldiers who have died, but is devastating and dramatic for a historically peaceful country of only 22 million. They are especially bewildered because it's difficult to understand what they're even fighting for.

Australia has a history of coming to the aid of other countries in wartime. During World War I, Australia fought beside Great Britain as a member of the Commonwealth, though they had gained their independence in 1901. Anzac Day, held on April 15th, commemorates the 1915 massacre of Australian and New Zealander troops that occurred on the beaches of Gallipoli, Turkey. At the moment I'm reading the Australian classic novel, A Fortunate Life, in which the author shares a good deal of his horrific experiences fighting at Gallipoli.
Suddenly all hell broke loose; heavy shelling and shrapnel fire commenced. The ships that were protecting our troops returned fire. Bullets were thumping into us in the rowing-boat. Men were being hit and killed all around me... the sight of the bodies on the beach was shocking. It worried me for days that I couldn't stop to help the men calling out.
Later, he describes leaving the battle field:
It was the nineteenth day of August 1915. I had been on Gallipoli only six days short of four months and I want to say now that they were the worst four months of my whole life. I had seen many men die horribly, and had killed many myself, and lived in fear most of the time. And it is terrible to think that it was all for nothing.
World War I touched almost every Australian family directly due to the heavy losses incurred. The small country sacrificed in extraordinary ways. In addition, as one of my colleagues described, the world wars were a defining line for Australia by catapulting it from relative obscurity and isolation into the international scene. Following the second world war, access to capital and consumer goods grew, sparking a major spate of development that has scarcely slowed over the past 60 years.

I interviewed an indigenous elder in St George who described the changes in the land over the century. Before the war, western Queensland was primarily made up of sheep stations. There were no irrigation schemes and the rivers ran clear and unimpeded. Everything changed in the 1960s. Weirs, dams, and irrigation channels were developed on the major rivers, large machinery was suddenly available, the stations were divided into soldier settlement plots, and the scrubby land was plowed up to make way for wheat and cotton. My interviewee and his brother, the only Aboriginal pilot to fly in World War II (he flew a Kittyhawk Fighter with "Black Magic" painted on the nose), were shearers before the war but turned to other industries in the changing landscape.

After the wars, many towns created meeting places for the Returned & Services League that are still community centers today. We had a drink and dinner one night this week at the St George RSL and I noticed these clubs in some of the other towns we went through. Australia has not been substantially involved in many other conflicts since the world wars. Still, there is a sense of concern about war in general. Perhaps some fear comes from its geographic relationship to growing Asian power. After all, the Japanese did attack the northern part of the mainland during World War II, and several submarines found their way to Sydney harbor.

I met an antique maps seller at a weekday market in Brisbane who told me about his amateur interest in the psychology of war. He studies war in the hope of coming to some understanding of how living, breathing men and women can be sent to their deaths as a means to an end. I wonder about that as well. How are these actions justified in the hearts of the men and women in command?