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ALIDA: Welcome to the Care Work Podcast. I’m your host, Alida Miranda-Wolff. This podcast is for anyone in the business of providing care. Whether you’re being paid for it or not, you’ll discover what it means to offer care and how to take care of yourself in the process. For the last ten years, as a diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging practitioner, a care worker myself, I’ve focused on providing care to other people for a living. Now with this podcast, I’m hoping to create a culture of care in my community and help you do the same in yours.
As someone who’s new to recording minisodes, I’ve been thinking about them as interludes where we can together, me as host, you as listeners, take a moment pause and reflect on what we have taken in.
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Season two is a little bit different than season one in that there are arcs and in case you hadn’t noticed, the first Arc was in addition to establishing what care work is, more generally what care work means in the world of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, which for many folks might not be the place that you would start. But obviously, given who I am and what I do and the fact that I am a DEIP practitioner, that was the place I wanted to start. It was also the place I wanted to start because I was thinking about who is my community? And the people who immediately came to mind were the people I work with every single day. We spent a lot of time at Ethos cultivating our own community inside of our team. And in fact, we talk about our work not as diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, but as community care.
So for the first arc, I was trying to think about what unifies the different pieces and the different stories that came up. And ultimately what I landed on was the fact that each person I talked to Karen Thomas, Karyn Oates, Miriame Cherbib, all had very strong communities. In the case of Karyn Oates, it’s her community on the south side, her community through Posse, her community in the arts world. For Karen Thomas, it’s been her classroom communities, her running community, and the larger and broader community of those who have been transracially adopted and those who transracially adopt. And in the case of Miriame, I think she has the most concrete community, at least when we think about what a community is supposed to be in the form of the entire town of Sequim, Washington. Where she is finding the actual flour that she needs to make bread on her doorstep and her husband is making seven loaves each day that get distributed for free to people across the town.
I have direct experience with Sequim because since the episode was recorded, our entire team went and we ate in the local restaurants and met Miriame’s friends and went to the lavender farms and stayed on the cottages that were just bordered by mountains and water. And so we were there and we saw it. And I started thinking about how do we talk about community and how do we talk about community care? And despite the fact that I had been interviewing these folks on my team, I wasn’t coming up with a good analogy or metaphor or even through line until I reflected on the fact that Karen Thomas is an avid gardener. Miriame, in addition to being a gardener, was actually a farmer at one point. And while Karyn Oates is not a farmer, she certainly is tending to her house plants. And the idea of what we can learn from plants and cultivating plants about care is with me all the time. I just bought a birthday present for one of our team members that consisted of Jenny Odell’s “Saving Time”, which uses a lot of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s work on basically indigenous nature practices as a vision for the future of human society, including the work that she presents in Braiding Sweetgrass. But also builds on the rose garden example that really made her first book, Jenny Odell’s first book, “How to do Nothing Resisting the Attention Economy of Bestseller”. It was the rose garden idea that helped her create another definition of time and how we might use our time or experience our time in the context of place and space and outside of the context of the clock or the world of wage labor that we all live in today. And the other book I got for this person was the book of “Difficult Fruit” by Kate Lebo, which is written as creative nonfiction in one of my favorite books of creative nonfiction of all time, where each section is her trying to cook with a different kind of difficult fruit, whether that’s durian or it’s thinking about something like the pits of apricots that can be poisonous if not cultivated properly. So in that book, she’s also talking about her relationship to space and place and cultivation. And the way that she conceives of time is very different because she’s thinking about the care that goes into growing these fruits, of cultivating these fruits, and then of preparing them and offering care to those around her, whether she’s making a cordial or a pie or something out of rhubarb that delights rather than poisons other people.
So with that in mind, I thought it might make sense to talk about community care through the lens of cultivation, plants and gardens. And where I wanted to start is actually with an example that Jenny Odell provides in “Saving Time”, one that I actually find more powerful than her metaphor of the rose garden. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you don’t even need to read all of “How to Do Nothing”, although I highly, highly recommend it. She’s an article on medium where it’s all about the Oakland Rose Garden and what it means to her and how it changes her relationship to the attention, economy, time and space. And while I think that’s an apt metaphor and example, the one that she presents in “Saving Time”, that’s just been sticking with me when I’m trying to explain what community care is. She has a friend who she describes as a subdivisionarian friend who is an avid gardener. And this woman is explaining the give and take that inherently has to happen between a gardener and her friend’s family and community. Specifically, she offers Odell lettuce, she asks Jenny to take some lettuce with her. And Jenny assumes that her friend is just being polite. You’re in my garden. You could take something from my garden. And so she politely declines. But when she declines, her friend tells her no, but the thing is, I actually really need to get rid of the outside leaves so the inside leaves will keep growing. That’s what allows for the continuous cultivation of this plant. Because if I don’t give these outside leaves to you, the plant will reach maturity and it’ll stop growing.
And what Odell writes about this, and I’ll quote her directly here, is that the exchange made her realize how broken her mental mechanisms were for thinking about anything beyond the transactional exchange. She says, part of this is because she’s never lived anywhere she could garden and therefore has forgotten that a plant keeps growing. So assuming that taking her friend’s lettuce leaves would mean her friend would have less lettuce leaves was really the only thought process that she could have because she hasn’t had this experience of being a gardener and knowing that in order to keep growing, you have to give some of what you grow away. So community care for me, is the idea that we are not in one to one relationship with each other, where we are transacting, where I give you something in exchange for something else. Because all of the resources that we’re talking about, whether it’s time or energy or actually something like a head of lettuce, is a finite resource. So therefore, we have to be exchanging equally. Otherwise, somebody is getting more and somebody is getting less, which is very much how we think about the workplace, right?
So it’s very hard to talk about care at work because there is a sense that something is being stolen. If I’m an employee who cares too much about my job, it means that I will give more than I am paid for and I, as a worker, will be exploited. Or if my company gives me too much flexibility or space or autonomy, I will steal time from them. I will commit wage theft. This is what a lot of the discussion really is about. When we talk about return to office. As much as employers are saying that it’s about really fostering a more social and collaborative culture. Really, it goes back to the productivity software that we see proliferating. And the New York Times did a fantastic story on the ways in which companies are really investing in productivity software that is tracking keystrokes and eye movements on computers and docking pay if they don’t see continuous activity. Even though in many cases that continuous productivity works against good quality work, we don’t in our company systems believe that we can offer care or show care to our employees without losing something, usually for our shareholders.
But in the garden, this doesn’t make sense. I was looking at my hydrangeas and I was realizing I need to deadhead some of them so that the plant can keep growing. But I also realized last year I had this whole debacle with my peonies. My mom wanted me to put together a bunch of peonies for her. And I was very precious about these peonies because it’s the first time I’ve grown them on my own. And I am a novice gardener, I’ve only been doing it a few years, and I’m really more of a house plant gardener. Until very recently, like Odell, I didn’t have my own outside garden. So I waited until the absolute last minute to cut my mom this bouquet, thinking that I was protecting and guarding my blooms. But what ultimately happened is, if you’ve ever seen peonies, they’re extremely top heavy, and the actual stems were bending and breaking under the weight of all of these blooms. That really would have needed to be called out in a sequence for the plant to be able to really make it and flourish. But not only that, by the time I cut the flowers, they were almost fully opened, which means that they didn’t last very long as bouquets, but also I cut all of the flowers, and so my bushes were bare. If I had thought about the fact that giving my mom some peonies when she asked for them wouldn’t mean that my garden would be without peonies, but in fact create space for more peonies to grow or for the plants themselves to be healthier.
Not only would I have engaged in more of a free flowing organic exchange as opposed to a transactional one, but there would have been greater benefit to my garden and to the very plants that I was being asked to essentially harvest. This is how I’m thinking about community care now, which is that it’s really about eliminating this idea of the scarcity mindset. Eliminating this hyper focused idea of exchange is so individual. I mean, the reality is the way that we think about time, the way that we think about resources, the way that we think about money. It all relies on an extremely tight and close look at people and human systems as if we’re really only ever interacting in one to one relationships, which is just simply not the way that humans interact.
One of the things that Odell points out, and I’ve since gone to the actual work that she quotes here, is the philosopher Ivan Ilich in the 1970s really worried that we were forgetting innumerable sets of infrastructures in which people coped, played, ate, made friends and loved that we were just destroying these infrastructures. We had all of these different ways of being together, of interacting together. And especially when we think about our social landscape, our conversations around what social interactions are and look like have become huge zero sum games in his language. And those huge zero sum games, those monolithic delivery systems in which every gain for one turns into a loss or burden for another actually leads to a sense of lack for everyone involved.
It makes me think about an analogy that I often teach in one of my classes about conflict styles. And in it I’m adopting the Thomas Kilmann tool TKI which tells you what your conflict styles are. And there are five conflict styles in this tool. So there’s compromising, competing, accommodating, avoiding and collaborating. And when I teach it I use this analogy of a pie. So often when we are taught, what the best way of dealing with conflict is, we think it’s compromising. But here’s what compromising looks like. When I have a pie that both of us wants to eat a compromise means both of us walk away with less than what we wanted. So I get a slice and you get a slice but it’s less than what we needed. We’re hungry for, we’re eyeing. If I’m accommodating, it might be even worse for me. Although better for you, because I just give you my pie. You can just have it. If I have an avoiding style I don’t even opt in to the conversation about the pie. Resources don’t exist to me.
This is sort of that radical self sufficiency. I lose out on something because I don’t want to participate. Competing is, this pie is mine and I’m not sharing it with you and I will fight you to make sure that I am the only one who gets to eat it. Which is often what is described when we talk about a zero sum game that there’s a loser in the equation. So somebody has to win and someone has to lose. And that’s really the traditional competitive style. And then there’s the collaborating style which we talk about as win win and is often focused on in productivity and conflict discussions. I don’t love talking about it in terms of productivity because I don’t actually think collaborative as a style is productive in the way that our work systems are configured because it’s not efficient but it is better. So a collaborative style, if we go back to this idea of the pie is that we bake a bigger pie so that everybody gets what they want and need and it takes more time, it takes more ingredients, it takes maybe a bigger oven. But it reconsiders what we’re trying to do and it solves for a different goal. It doesn’t assume that the resources available to us are fundamentally fixed and therefore there must be a winner and a loser. It asks us to reconsider our sharing of resources so that we might all gain or benefit.
And at work, it seems like the only way to get that is that there’s some great cost to self, some great cost to the individual. I will give up my personal time, you will give up your personal time, and we will have enough resources to do this thing at work. That’s often how it’s talked about. And so there is a virtue to this idea of always giving more to work than to other areas of your life, because then you can collaborate and that sets you up for success. But it’s not true collaboration because ultimately, in that situation, you are making a compromise or your work is in competition with other elements of your life.
There isn’t a way, as Odell says at work, of truly striking a balance. And this is part of the fact that we have been conditioned to really think of everything as a zero sum game. And what she says is that taking the lettuce was good for both me and my friend. I didn’t get it because that’s not how we’re taught to think about the systems we’re in. Care is considered a finite resource. Think about the classic example of the nanny, the au pair, the full time caregiver of children. What do you often see? That your kid’s nanny doesn’t spend time with her own kids? Something has to give. It’s not possible to take care of someone else’s children and your own. That’s the stereotype. And it’s also possibly a myth. There could be a way of doing it differently. If you think about the traditional Israeli kibbutz where it’s group child rearing that’s taking place and a set of shared responsibilities, and the fact that, that idea was so extremely popular that we have the incredible fraud that became WeWork. But the whole idea of coworking really came from Adam Neumann wanting to recreate a kibbutz style at work. He wanted a place where everybody could grow together, help each other, and together all benefit. That taking things from one another would be good for everyone involved.
So if we eliminate this idea of care as something that is scarce because we look at plants okay, so stay with me here, here’s what I’m trying to say. When I think about community care, and I think about gardening and I think about tending and cultivating plants, we talk about time and care as finite resources, right? But if we think about something like lettuce or fava beans or snap peas, we can grow more of them. If we keep the seeds, if we tend the plants, we can grow more. They aren’t finite resources. Good care for them leads to more, and good care for them leads to good care of the ecosystem. And they, in turn, take care of different things. You know, it’s like planting milkweed in your garden attracts pollinators who are fed and cared for by the milkweed because it provides shelter for them, it provides food for them, it provides cover for them, but then they pollinate, and so the plants can grow more. And you have this ecosystem where the milkweed does receive a benefit from the pollinator, the pollinator does receive a benefit from the milkweed, but that’s not all that’s happening. The larger ecosystem is benefiting from this exchange, and it’s acting on the milkweed and acting on the pollinators, and vice versa. The milkweed can’t grow without what else is happening in the ecosystem, what’s in the soil, what’s happening with the sun, what’s happening with the rain? And if we think about it this way, how does that change our relationship to how we offer care and consider time? Is time truly a fixed and finite and exhaustible resource? Is time a resource at all? Because time itself doesn’t just exist within you. And I think this is the point I’m trying to make about community care when we talk about time as money.
Obviously, if you’ve listened to this podcast, you know that my big gripe is this idea of no handouts completely ignores care work. Because you wouldn’t have workers if you didn’t have people birthing those workers, feeding those workers, raising them, educating them, making sure they actually get themselves into the workforce. Without parents, you don’t have capitalism. It’s not possible. We don’t have automatons or AI or robots doing all of our work. And even if we did, somebody has to build them and maintain them. And that involves care. Our entire economy is subsidized by unpaid care work. So that’s my quick soapbox moment. But what if we think about time this way instead of thinking about time as really just existing within me? I have a certain amount of hours in a day or hours in the week, or hours in my life. How does my time relate to the time of those who came before me and the time of those who come after me? How do we grow more time? Seriously, I’m asking you to think about it. How do we grow more time?
In simple ways, it takes me less time to garden because my forebears learned how to do it so that now those steps are baked into not just the informational wiki how guides that I’m looking at, but even things like our seed banks and our seed libraries. It’s also important when considering time is nonlinear and not just fixed within me. So I’m a parent when I think about time. The time I spend now isn’t just about what happens to me and how I use it, but how it unfolds for my son, which I think is why the sort of climate change terror and grief that I experience has really been heightened since I had my son. Because now I’m thinking about not only what I’ve done with my time, but what I and all of humanity have done with time and how that will affect the time my son experiences as it relates to place, and space, and even how much time he or human beings will have. Here’s the thing about climate change. What will be lost is humans. It’s not humans have to save the climate. It’s humans have to save themselves by addressing the climate. And that nuance is important because it also challenges this idea that there’s only one kind of time, only one variety of time, only way of considering time. How Odell talks about it is that you could plant more time and grow more of it, and there would be more varieties of it over time if you thought about it in the same way that you thought about plants.
So all your time could grow out of someone else’s time, maybe out of someone planted a long, long time ago. And that would mean that time is not the currency of a zero sum game, and that sometimes the best way to get more time, if I’m limited on time, would be to give you time. And the best way for you to get some time would be to give it back to me. So if time was not a commodity, then our time, if it was shared, right? If we were pooling all of our time instead of thinking about it as this individually packaged, I have, this amount of time in a day would not be as scarce. We could pool our time together and have more of it, and then we could essentially have all the time in the world, because all of us together and all of our time brings us all of the time in the world. I think the same thing is true of care. And I think care and time are inextricably related because we need time to engage in care. And care is defined temporarily. When are you caring? How long are you caring? Whose time is used for caring, whose time is spent caring or being cared for? The two can’t be separated, in my view.
So I think that community care is really about not just saving time, but sharing time, cultivating, tending, growing one another through this shared pool of time so that we might make more of ourselves. And for me, that’s the ideal of community. And that’s what I see when I hear about how Miriame’s community in Sequim operates, right? You could think about it as, oh, it’s such a slog, it’s so much time. The fact that she and her husband are waking up at dawn every day to bake loaves of bread that they’re giving out for people. They could sleep in, they could be answering emails, they could be doing other things with that time. And the same could be said of their friend who’s dropping off flour first thing in the morning, every morning, so that they can bake the next batch of bread, but actually, they’re sharing time. Their friend grows the wheat and grinds the flour and doesn’t have to make the bread, but can partake in the bread later on, just like they don’t have to grow the wheat and grind the flour, but they can make the bread. And that’s a direct exchange between the two of them. But even being in their community and seeing what community care looks like for them, it meant that anytime Miriame needed anything, there was someone who could provide it. We needed a cake stand. And the cake baker didn’t have a cake stand for the cake that she baked, but a neighbor did. And that neighbor didn’t think anything of lending out that cake stand or didn’t expect that Miriame would lend something back in return. Maybe sugar, maybe a slice of cake. There was no negotiation that took place because the community is already sharing in so many ways sharing food, sharing relationships, sharing care. I mean, one of the things that they’re doing in Miriame’s community is advocating for universal childcare, but I think it shows up in some of the other episodes too.
When Karen Thomas was talking about the kind of classroom that she was creating and how integrated and inclusive it was and how she was specifically attending to students with disabilities, students on the autism spectrum, there could have been from her, a sense of but I’m taking time away from the other students, or I’m giving more to this student, which results in me taking something from others. But that wasn’t her mindset at all. Her mindset, though she doesn’t express it in this way, is, I’m vibing with this kid, and this kid is learning in this way, and this kid learning in this way in this space. And watching this kid learning in this way in this space with me is actually of benefit to others in the space, that it can all be in a shared pool, in a shared pot, and a shared classroom that instead of being competitive, the entire classroom can be generative. And I think we get that sense, too, from Karyn Oates when she talks about how everyone is deserving of and entitled to a sense of dignity.
Whether they work in retail or the arts or education or some highfalutin career that we may put on a pedestal instead. No matter who you are, there is enough dignity to go around. But that requires that all of us are generous with giving out the behaviors that allow folks to experience a sense of dignity. I think that the idea of collectivism comes up as a dirty word because it’s politicized in a way that isn’t necessarily political at all. The reality is, since humans have existed on this world, we have collected together and shared things so that we might survive this sort of splintering off into individual pods and groups. The shrinking down of space, the shrinking down of time. This, in my view, which works very much against care, which creates a burden of care because there aren’t enough resources to provide it when we have less and less people, less and less time, less and less space. This is a relatively new invention, and I don’t think it’s one that’s serving us. So if you take anything away from this minisode, apart from maybe considering time a little bit differently, it’s a question what would it look like for you to grow time in service of offering and accepting care in ways that you haven’t been able to or haven’t thought of before?
Thank you for listening to Care Work. Please share this podcast with other care workers in your community so that we can collectively create a culture of care.
This podcast is a collaboration between Ethos and Alida Miranda-Wolff.
Your host is me, Alida Miranda-Wolff.
Theme music “Vibing Introspectively” was written and recorded by Logan Snodgrass.
Production assistance was provided by Ivana Savic-Grubisich.
Audio editing and podcast post-production were provided by Organized Sound Productions.