It was another sultry Summer day in the Deep South, and the stench was unbearable, but I kept digging. The twenty-two-foot-long dumpster was full of TVs, office refrigerators, computers, coat hangers, sheets, pillows, phones, clothes, soiled and broken futons, cracked lamps, books, “furniture” wall art, and plastic bags of all colors—and I was knee-deep in it. The mounds of rubbish reminded me of the Velveteen Rabbit, who was once a well worn and cherished toy of a young boy but was left behind when newer and shinier toys came along. Like the Margery Williams children’s story, most of the dull—but still useful—items in the dumpster had been brazenly tossed out for the exciting, the shiny, the trendy, the new. But, unlike the Velveteen Rabbit’s transformative fate, most of this dumpster’s forgotten memories would be lost to a landfill to rot for hundreds of years—only ever truly “known” by soil, clay, rocks, insects, methane, tractors, and scavengers. In the deep, steel receptacle the garbage sat still as if it were waiting to see if their owners would come back to make use of them again. Waiting, and waiting, and waiting. They never came.
But, why does this matter? Why emotionally anthropomorphize everyday objects? They’re just things, after all, not people, nor animals. They don’t have feelings, they can’t talk, they aren’t sentient. They just are. While this may be true, all these things are extensions of us, which, in some way, does make them alive, to some degree. And because garbage is “alive,” it has stories to tell, and these stories don’t end when they get thrown in a dumpster. Their narratives continue hundreds of years into the future where they break down in landfills that leak corrosive methane, in incinerators that pump out carbon dioxide, in foreign lands where they are combed through with slave labor in toxic conditions, and in the sea, where lifeforms and ecosystems are suffocated. We now exist in a world where the boomerang has come full circle. We can no longer throw the boomerang toward some other community thinking it won’t come back to us quickly. The world is a smaller place now, so the trajectory is not as long as it once was.
Things changed for me that Summer while we were looking to rescue computers thrown away by students at the end of their Spring semester. Dumpster diving wasn’t anything new to me—I’d been doing it since I was a kid—but, at that time, I’d been working with a community group that refurbished computers deemed junk with people that needed them. I wiped my brow as I rustled through the piles of forgotten memories and hoped I would find a salvageable computer. We were in luck. “I found one!” I pried a grey desktop computer tower out from under black trash bags full of who knows what. A Velveteen Rabbit. It was heavy and its sides were loose. They loudly clanged together as I handed it off to the co-volunteers outside of the dumpster. The computer was a few years old, but it wasn’t junk. We could bring it back to life, organize community, raise critical consciousness of issues interconnected to it (digital inequality, poverty, climate change, e-waste) and take direct action against ecosocial injustice—all through rebuilding what people had thrown out. Through love, care, and compassion, we could make that computer “real,” like the Velveteen Rabbit. I’m not sure of that computer’s fate, but I do know that many of the ones we rescued that Summer were refurbished by people that desperately needed them: elders, children, families, people experiencing homelessness, community organizations with limited budgets—you name it. I continued this work for seven more years, helping the organization get thousands of computers to people in one of the poorest college towns in the country and hundreds of tons of recyclable materials out of landfills and into ethical recycling channels.
A year before I was crawling through dumpsters, organizing volunteers, and doing community outreach, I had been in a deep depression. After I had gotten involved with this organization, and a few others similar to it, I felt electrified. Doing community work with “junk” and seeing this form organizing empower and uplift people, raise consciousness about the ecosocial justice issues of electronic waste, climate change, poverty, and digital inequality, lifted my spirits more than anything else ever had (or ever will). It gave me a sense of purpose, community, belonging, and connection with others, my community, and the environment. Over the years, I saw how this organization and the organizing model that it utilized, Functional Community Organization, made other people feel the same way.
Because of these experiences and global ecosocial injustices, my research and community work are now firmly rooted in ecosocial justice issues. My research aims are to (1) examine how communities and community organizers address contemporary social, economic, and environmental problems as they relate to glocalization; (2) channel research findings into publicly and freely accessible, understandable, and translatable theory, models, methods, and tactics; and to (3) strengthen community work research and methods, community organizers, as well as communities through unique and challenging inquiries into contemporary social problems.
My depression was addressed through community action, and seeing possibilities for change—in myself, in others, and with myself working with others—even in the face of seemingly insurmountable problems. We are in a world that is on the verge of catastrophe. As community workers, we must harness our creativity, empathy, critical thinking, praxis, organizing prowess, and tie them to the winds of new social movements and the New Community Organizing—to meet direct need while taking on structural threats. We cannot have one without the other, we must be prefigurative in each step of our praxis, no matter how difficult, frustrating, or tiring it may be. We must not succumb to nihilism or disillusionment. We must take this grief, this mourning for our planet, and see it in the context of another movement that didn’t think it could achieve anything, the labor movement: “Don’t mourn, organize!” We must see the world as it is, but not give up on it. We must not wholly depend on politicians, self-appointed leaders, bureaucrats, governments, market systems, and so on—we have to do it ourselves, together. This starts where you are and where others are. Start a project, or find a project, and get going—we don’t have much time.
Joel Izlar is a community worker and PhD Candidate in Social Work at the University of Georgia. He has worked as a community organizer on the streets, in shelters, community gardens, food rescue organizations, community technology centers, free skools, and many other direct action-oriented social change groups. He lives in Athens, Georgia with his partner Jessica, newborn child, Cillian, and dog, Polly.