Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Personal Statement for Watson Fellowship

“I will save the world from death, disease, and war. I will be the best scientist that ever lived. I will discover, design, and make things that will help mankind. I will help conserve water, electricity, and other things that are important to mankind. I will do all of this when I grow up...”

Jason Fults, age 9, “I Can, I Will” Essay Contest

June 12, 2005, 6:30am; Wombarra, Australia. Why Travel?

It is nearly dawn, my first morning back beneath the shadow of the Illawarra escarpment, but I have been awake for hours; quietly anticipating the moment I could slip out of bed and back onto these once-familiar shores, climb atop this rock on the other side of the planet and sing the Sun into waking. I love these spaces in between—between day and night, between sleep and waking, between being here and where I came from. It is in these spaces insight is revealed. I suppose the longing for insight is why I left home again—to remove myself from a familiar context, to peel away some layers and discover what lies beneath.

Admittedly I surprised even myself with this trip. The past three years working as a full-time organizer for the Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC) have been among the most unsettled of my life. At times I lived on the road, visiting one campus after another, one training, one conference after another—it was dizzying. No one could have blamed me for wanting to just stay put for awhile, to be comfortable and at home. Yet the sense that something important is happening inside of me is what drove me here—to be with myself again in this place I visited four years ago, to juxtapose my own inner landscape with the ever-changing, ever-constant sea. The insight will come, I am certain, there are many weeks ahead. For this moment though, calm is settling in, the ocean hums, the Sun awakens, I am here.

June 29, 2005; Sydney, Australia. My story.

Thirty years old—how did that happen? I was in the sixth grade when my mom—a waitress, two kids, recently divorced—turned thirty. I remember that year vividly; the year circumstances compelled us to move away from what had passed for stability—four years living under the same roof. Now we inhabited a duplex just on the outskirts of “The Highlands” in Lakeland, Florida, the so-called “rich” part of town. The banal, upper-class existence we witnessed there was a stark contrast to the working-class environs I had always known and I became aware of being “underprivileged” for perhaps the first time. School proved an inhospitable social environment for kids from my side of the tracks so I got my first job and began pursuing my own budding curiosities.

By age seventeen I was working full-time and nearly quit high school, but also began to develop a nascent political awareness, albeit mostly supplanted by the competing, self-destructive pursuits typical of many working-class adolescent males. When I wasn’t occupied by a soul-deadening job, I spent time at the library looking for some way out which I hoped might be found on a dusty, neglected bookshelf. By age twenty I had begun to find my own ways out. Short, cautious steps at first, like visiting friends who had successfully escaped our home town; then bolder moves: my first protest in D.C., hitchhiking trips cross-country, and joining the Job Corps—which brought me, indirectly, to the steps of Berea College.

What I initially intended to be a five-year degree at Berea was “interrupted” by a few years spent as a full-time grassroots organizer with SEAC. Unlike most of my classmates who seemed intent on plowing through their college experience as quickly as possible, I always felt that life experience supplemented rather than detracted from what we were learning in the classroom. My formal education changed my approach to political work, just as my evolving political analysis altered my conception of what it means to be educated. In retrospect it seems several lifetimes have passed between me and the kid who got dropped off by the Greyhound bus in Berea, Kentucky that drizzling February morning. No experience had yet stretched me, had yet nourished me the way Berea has. I co-discovered aspects of myself I never knew existed and learned the responsibilities that are entailed in being part of a community. At the same time, it becomes more apparent with each passing day that my tenure at SEAC changed how I experience the classroom. As if offering me a final opportunity to contemplate these experiences, the College has enabled me to return to Australia for an incredible internship with AID/WATCH and all that comes with it; reuniting with old friends and discovering entirely new aspects of this place, and sitting here sipping hot chocolate on the shore of Sydney Harbor, contemplating thirty years of life on this planet.

August 8, 2005; in bed. Asking the right questions.

Relaxing after a birthday party for one of my AID/WATCH co-workers which kept me out way too late. During a more lucid moment in the evening I had a good yarn with Tim—my internship supervisor—about our childhoods, becoming politicized, and the importance of asking good questions. One of AID/WATCH’s goals is to uncover and challenge assumptions embedded in economic and development ideologies. They assess how Australia’s foreign aid and trade policies affect the social and ecological environments of others. I discovered AID/WATCH four years ago when I last visited Australia and have been interested in the sorts of questions they were asking ever since. This lust for questioning must be the common thread drawing me both to scientists and to rabble-rousers. Different questions, different methodologies, but at the heart of both groups lies a passionate desire to get to the bottom of things.

As a student researcher in the Department of Energy’s Global Change Education Program I worked with top-notch scientists to predict how climatic change might affect deciduous forests. The prognosis was grim and this research fueled my efforts within SEAC to help build a youth movement for clean energy. While at SEAC and during my time with the Madison County Action Team in Berea we questioned dangerous assumptions embedded in U.S. energy policy and campaigned for changes at the local, national, and global levels. My internship with the Chemical Weapons Working Group—where we challenged the Environmental Protection Agency’s inadequate regulation of the carcinogen dioxin—instilled in me the importance of both using science as a tool for change and understanding how scientific and technological institutions function. These are lessons I will retain for the rest of my life and tools which I will continue to hone.

Everywhere I have been people look to the experts for direction—the doctors, the economists, the engineers. We often fail to recognize that while these experts may know much about a particular subject, they also come to the conversation with their own interests, ignorance, and ideological commitments. Further, many of the problems we look to experts to solve are not fundamentally technical in nature. AID/WATCH points out, for instance, that the problems faced by so many people in the developing world cannot be solved solely by the cadre of technicians Australia sends to their rescue, but instead demand a fundamental reordering of the power dynamics existing between the rich and the poor. Similarly, while my enthusiasm for the possibilities science offers remains high, my understanding of science’s role in society has changed dramatically. As I survey the world unfolding around me I am constantly reminded of dystopic novels such as Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World in which science is used to enslave rather than to liberate. I am increasingly concerned that unless we get a better grip on relationships between science and culture, between the questions and the questioners, scientific progress is unlikely to bring us any closer to the sort of world we would like to inhabit and may do the opposite.

August 30, 2005; Land O’ Lakes, Florida. Looking ahead.

Back in the northern hemisphere and it feels wonderful to be home. I am readjusting to a new time zone and catching up with a nephew who turned two and a sister who started high school while I was away. Hardly anyone from my large family has ever left the southern U.S. They have a hard time understanding my yearning to “see the world,” as they say, but enjoy the travel stories, photos, and new recipes I always bring home. Throughout my stay my mind has wandered ceaselessly and I cannot stop thinking about graduation and my excitingly uncertain future.

My arrival at Berea was like opening a hidden door in a tiny apartment and realizing I had occupied but one room of a vast mansion all my life. My forays into public citizenship have been equally revelatory. It now appears obvious to me that my relationship with science has changed dramatically, yet before I rush off to graduate school I need to spend some time figuring out what those changes mean. Similarly, the perpetual motion of political work too often leaves little time for reflection. My commitment to the movement remains rock-solid yet I feel I have much more work to do understanding the complexities the future offers and figuring out how I can most effectively intervene in that future. What I most want at this moment is the opportunity to step back, take in the grand view of a yet unexplored physical and intellectual terrain, and further discern what I and the world can make of each other. This opportunity to cultivate one’s vision and to learn from the visions of others is exactly what a Watson fellowship offers.

I am eager to step into places significantly unlike my own to interact with other individuals engaged in the pursuit of scientific knowledge and environmental sustainability. I want to better comprehend how they perceive their work and what our exchanges tell us about the sort of future we can create. I also want to better arm myself for what will certainly be an interesting future whatever its outcome. I believe I have something to contribute to making this world a better place, and I think the nine year-old who set me off on this journey, his optimism and naiveté abounding, might still recognize something of himself if we could somehow meet again. There is a wide, old world awaiting and many important questions still in need of asking. I think this will be a fruitful year.

No comments: