Investing in Each Other Building a community, one worker at a time.scroll down arrow

YES! Photo by Jennifer Luxton

This Is a Life, Not a JobIn rural Colorado, far from the 9-to-5, the work of building a community can be challenging when volunteers are just passing through.

YES! Photo by Olga Kreimer

Mark Schneider and intern Cait Coyle harvest chives from the spring garden, still mostly covered against the early May chill, to mix with fresh goat cheese for farm share deliveries. Behind them are the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. YES! photo by Olga Kreimer

Mark Schneider and Val Phillips have never heard of the gig economy. Two hours from the nearest train stop and even farther from the coastal cities where companies like TaskRabbit and Postmates got their splashy starts, they live what could be considered a simple lifestyle, the opposite of the perpetually iPhone-adjacent city hustle. Their house, built by many hands out of straw bales and heated solely by southern sunlight in winter, stands in a thousand-year floodplain in Huerfano County, one of the poorest in Colorado. They’re the stewards of Shii Koeii (a name meaning “people’s water” in Jicarilla Apache), a creekside homestead now in its ninth year.

Olga Kreimer

Olga Kreimer has lived in California, Maine, New York, and now Missoula, Montana, where she’s a graduate student in environmental journalism.

Smartphones are basically moot here. The internet and electric coffee grinder get turned off on gray, windless July days when battery power is low. The daily rhythm of feeding, milking, watering, planting, and harvesting could be determined by almanac. But the uncertainties that accompany the urban gig economy are a presence here too. Mark and Val opted out of the traditional 9-to-5 workforce to return to something like subsistence farming, but they rely on Medicaid and food stamps to stay solvent, despite working almost constantly in the high season.

Though the land feeds the goats and chickens, which in turn supply the surrounding community with eggs, produce, and four different kinds of goat cheese, a large part of the labor powering Shii Koeii is not homegrown at all. Beside Mark, Val, the goats, chickens, bees, and worms are intern farmers who come to provide the bartered labor force that keeps the place running.


I came to Shii Koeii four years ago, one of a handful of interns who arrived from around the country to learn about small-scale farming, study intentional community, and get dirt under our fingernails. The garden walls we built then are direly in need of patching. That’s more a sign of time than of neglect; built out of willow branches and a muddy stew of sand, clay, straw, and horse manure, they’re built to blend with the land, not overpower it.

Most interns find their way to Shii Koeii through the internet, on sites like WWOOF-USA (the national chapter of World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) that connect the dots between intern and farmer. Most, like I did, come from far away, eager to get their hands in the ground and see a part of the country where the roads have names instead of numbers. They trade farm labor for home-cooked meals and a place to sleep, and like the garden walls they patch and the seeds they nurture, they become part of the living landscape for as long as they stay.

YES! Photo by Olga Kreimer

Two different kinds of raw cheddar are made from Shii Koeii goat milk. YES! photo by Olga Kreimer

I had saved up for my trip, then spent my savings on visits to nearby cities, slices of pie from the café on market days, and one memorable outing to the rodeo. My funds ran out just as my real life called me back east; the start of the school year and a job waiting for me back in Brooklyn, New York, meant that my commitment was fleeting from the outset. It also meant that my months without an income were limited. You don’t need much cash to survive at Shii Koeii; the land provides piles of vegetables, Mark shapes loaves of bread from giant bulk bags of flour, and there’s a stash of shampoo left over from past interns. But those with consumer debt, medical expenses, or insufficient savings may be unable to make it work long-term.

Caitlin Fogarty, one of my fellow interns during the summer of 2012, had also saved in advance to make her way to Colorado from central Florida. She had health insurance through her mom’s employer and a cell phone bill around $20 a month on her parents’ family plan. “I didn’t really spend any money while I was at Shii Koeii,” she says, beyond an occasional cup of tea on day-off outings. “They’re kind of this microcosm in this crazy capitalist world,” she says of the farm. It’s a bucolic respite that wouldn’t be sustainable for her long-term, though. Mark and Val have asked her back, but she just can’t afford it.

“My health insurance keeps going up. Right now, it’s like $400 a month,” Caitlin says. A few years ago, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, making access to care a priority consideration as she looks into possible future opportunities to live in an intentional community and continue small-scale farming. Even with subsidies, her medical expenses are high. “If I was in a place like [Shii Koeii], I’d have to have an outside job,” she says — an untenable option given the farm’s remote location and the intensity of the work required on site.

YES! Photo by Olga Kreimer

Mark works in front of the milking shed with goats Cholla, Chamisa, Luna, and Piñon. Both barns were built using straw bales. YES! photo by Olga Kreimer

Mark and Val are generous with rides from the transit hubs two or three hours away, and they recently introduced a modest completion bonus to help departing interns on the next legs of their travels. Sometimes, they’re even able to help an intern pay their way to town. Shii Koeii’s nonprofit status also means that some student debts are eligible for deferment, opening the door to a bigger pool of interns. But the kind of financial support that an apprentice like Caitlin would need to stay long-term is still impossible, which means the door just isn’t open to everyone — and Mark and Val are left without the lasting partners they still hope to attract.


With its built-in expiration date, my stay on the farm was not much different from the temporary gigs I pick up as a freelancer. It was just another piece of cobbling together a living. In self-employment, self-sufficiency free of any Office Space overlords is held up as the prize and the principle. Although Val and Mark are similarly building a way out of the rat race, their approach aims for a new paradigm altogether.

For example, self-sufficiency isn’t one of their goals. In fact, “there is no such thing,” says Val. “You are always interdependent with other people, with other life, with other beings. The question is, who do you want to be interdependent with?” Their answer is their community. Their budget relies on donations to break even every year, a conscious choice that’s both pragmatic and deeply aligned with their view of the world. Asking annually for community investment is a radical move, relying on generosity to survive. It’s “a spiritual practice of being vulnerable enough to have to ask for help,” says Val. “And to ask your community to believe in you.”

The farmers market they started five years ago is thriving, with more vendors every season and a committed customer base. Their customers come to market to stock up on heirloom tomatoes and goat “farmesan” cheese, then stop by the farm to take the goats to pasture when there aren’t enough farmer hands on deck. This is what community support looks like.

But it’s not only community support that helps sustain Shii Koeii. Mark and Val’s minimal income qualifies them for government aid like SNAP benefits, which pay for food that the land doesn’t provide. Those benefits allow them to contribute more to the community by making cash available to purchase high-quality local meat, for example, which supports local ranchers — “keeping the money in the county,” says Val.

Their customers come to market to stock up on goat cheese, then stop by the farm to take the goats to pasture when there aren’t enough farmer hands on deck. This is what community support looks like.

Government aid also means that funds are available for Shii Koeii’s direct initiatives to make good food available to people regardless of their means. They offer two-for-one produce and protein deals for low-income customers and are set up to accept payment in SNAP benefits at the market. In a region where the median household income hovers near $33,000, these incremental measures are part of the slow work of expanding food access and growing lasting connections.

Despite the long-term investment and commitment necessary for growing food and community, life at the farm is attended by many of the same uncertainties that plague gig economy job hoppers. Mark and Val have no retirement plan, no fancy health insurance, no guarantees that the land that sustains them now will continue to do so for the next 40 years. To an outsider, the facts might seem frightening: With a $45 a month allowance and a plan to eventually sign over their deed to a nonprofit (once the legal entities are all in order), Mark and Val have committed themselves to poverty-level wages and no financial fallback plan.

If you ask them, though, these problems are not problems at all. Health insurance? Though they’re enrolled in Medicaid, they prefer alternative medicine and — Mark points to the table where we’re eating dinner — kale. Retirement? They trust the community they’re building to take care of them the way they want to take care of their elders, though so far no one is committed to staying on beyond a season. In place of retirement plans and health insurance, Mark and Val have chosen to rely on people. “For us, the contingency plan was always community,” says Val.

YES! Photo by Olga Kreimer

Interns Cait Coyle and Christopher Cordeiro go over the day’s chores at the morning coffee meeting around 7:30 a.m. Mark prepared the bread loaves earlier that morning for afternoon farm share deliveries in the “nearby” town, about 40 minutes away. YES! photo by Olga Kreimer

That’s why it’s so painful when the gig mentality intrudes.

With a few stray bad apple exceptions, Val says that their interns have been thoughtful, collaborative, kind, adept — and every one this year has cut their stay short or, in some cases, not shown up at all.

The revolving door of help can make long-term planning for projects, like a cheese cave and added living space, tenuous at best. But in some ways, the pattern of truncated commitments is not surprising. The remote farm, approached by unpaved roads pitted with cattle guards, is hard to imagine for someone who hasn’t been there. Interns accustomed to light pollution might marvel at the starscape that stretches all the way down to the horizon, but they may not know ahead of time how stir-crazy they’ll feel in such a spot, how much they’ll miss their homes, or even how little they like farming. It’s a big question mark for a lot of well-meaning visitors, and when technology all but encourages last-minute cop-outs with a text or the tap of an app, that attitude can carry over to farm life.

I’ve been the one to bail sometimes too. When a commitment made in good faith has turned into more than I could offer, I’ve chosen my own well-being over my word, even while more than a little conflicted. For young people who have grown up in a time of few guarantees, it’s not intentional flakiness that drives such behavior but the sense that no one else will care about their needs as much as they do. It can feel like a fine line between being unreliable and taking care of oneself when no one else will.

The revolving door of help can make long-term planning for projects tenuous at best. But in some ways, the pattern of truncated commitments is not surprising.

Paradoxically, the intensity of farm life may reinforce the mentality that makes it easy for interns to bail. The greens and the goats don’t have time for gradual introductions, especially in the high season. Arriving at Shii Koeii, interns bypass the slow process of building long-term community and jump immediately into intimacy. After such a rapid transition from stranger to local, interns may feel that a sudden departure is just as easy. The short-term contracts of modern gig employment — easily made and easily broken — don’t exactly lend themselves to the kind of deeply rooted community that Mark and Val are building.

Still, even with its uncertainties, the land provides security for Mark and Val in a way that urban living never did. “I grow the same food. The seasons come and go. Nothing dramatically changes for me, and it’s very familiar, and I really like it,” says Mark.

The deep roots the farmers have been nurturing are apparent all over, from the goat share members who take the goats to graze one busy morning to the fried egg sandwiches Mark serves them for lunch: top-to-bottom homemade. “It’s farm table,” he jokes. “We don’t even need the ‘to.’”

Olga Kreimer

Olga Kreimer has lived in California, Maine, New York, and now Missoula, Montana, where she’s a graduate student in environmental journalism.

Dear W-2 Parents, Welcome to My 1099 World Generations Switch Roles in This New Economy

In 2009, my mother lost her job. The associate director of New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, she was moved out, along with many others her age, when her boss retired and a new director rolled in. Over 60 and overqualified, she suddenly found herself not only unemployed but perhaps unemployable. Once an influential player in the museum world, she now had the keen sense that a large part of her carefully constructed identity had been shattered.

Giulia Pines is a travel, food, and lifestyle journalist and photographer. Her work can be found in publications like Departures, Roads & Kingdoms, Kinfolk, Serious Eats, Atlas Obscura, and NPR Berlin. She splits her time between New York, Berlin, and a big old house in Brandenburg.

A few generations ago, that may have been the end of the story. But it wasn’t the end of hers. Examining her skills, connections, and prospects — perhaps for the first time in years — she came to the same conclusion others already had: She was likely never to enjoy the salary and prestige she had before, but, more for reasons of self-esteem than finances, she simply wasn’t ready to retire.

Since my mother had last searched for work, the economy had changed many single-track, steady career animals into workers who thrived on one-off gigs and hazily defined “projects.” This sudden shift in the work landscape triggered an unexpected role shift within our family, turning the table so I became the career adviser.

My mother’s journey cobbling together a second career — as a headhunter and consultant for museums, galleries, and art-related nonprofits — included a wide range of freelance positions. At the beginning, very few of them paid. This closely mirrored the experience of many in my generation. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when she and my father began looking to me, a recent college graduate only a few years into a freelance writing career, for advice, support, and pep talks about money and worth. “You’re a successful freelancer,” my father said, asking for help on my mother’s behalf. “She needs to hear she can do this.”

Apparently, many in her position are already doing this quite successfully. A joint study by Elance-oDesk (now Upwork) and the Freelancer’s Union titled “Freelancing in America” found that more than 30 percent of U.S. workers over age 35 freelance. That includes a good number of Americans approaching retirement.

My mother and I had always been close, but now I simply wasn’t sure how to become her mentor. I was, after all, just beginning to build my own career. Taking cues from my parents — who had once told me I could do and be anything — I had moved to a foreign country on a whim and was struggling with a new language, untold bureaucracy, and the particularly maddening challenge of trying to get noticed in my field from across an ocean. Now, I found myself punting their words of encouragement back again, hoping my mother would absorb them. She understood the obstacles she faced, but I felt it was up to me to help her — to use a particularly life-coach-ready turn of phrase — turn those obstacles into opportunities.

One of those obstacles was mindset. Having just graduated from college, I was, in a sense, more malleable and open, with more time to try on various career hats. My mother, who was fast approaching retirement age, had a set notion of what she could and could not do — regardless of whether that turned out to be true.

“I finally had an epiphany when I realized at my age, which was not so young at the time and is even less young now, it was unlikely someone was going to hire me,” she told me.

After decades within an organized office environment, finding success as an independent contractor proved to be tricky. “I don’t really know very much about the business end of things,” she conceded.

She wasn’t the first to admit that this came from growing up with a very different vision of women in the workplace. “My parents didn’t expect me to work, and, I mean, I didn’t particularly expect me to work,” she said. I was shocked to hear this at first, but then pleased at how far we had come. Just one generation lay between me, an aspiring freelancer struggling to build my own business, and my grandmother, a full-time homemaker. My mother was the middle link. No wonder she was often sorely lacking in confidence.

My mother understood the obstacles she faced, but I felt it was up to me to help her — to use a particularly life-coach-ready turn of phrase — turn those obstacles into opportunities.

Contrary to what my parents and parents’ parents may have thought, these days my mother is sure to find more encouragement from fellow travelers along her particular road. “Career reinvention is viewed today not as a lack of commitment but as a sign of imagination and entrepreneurship,” said Jennifer Zaslow, 49, partner at Clear Path Executive Coaching. “I remember my dad telling me, ‘I always wanted you to find a job you could stay at,’ but now people are leaping from stone to stone.”

Of course, my mother is quite aware she’s been able to make those kinds of leaps from a position of tremendous privilege. After the end of a near-40-year career at the Met, with her husband still working, “we had no mortgage, we had no car payments, we have no debt, and that’s huge.”

For my part, since that conversation with my father, I’ve encouraged my mother to go in for interviews and I’m vocal when I think she’s getting a bad deal. After hearing about a train ride to Boston for a lackluster interview followed by a particularly disappointing meal with a potential boss, I declared, “Bad food? Deal breaker!” I was half joking, but she didn’t take the job.

I’ve helped transform her resume into a LinkedIn profile and advised her on which profile photo to use. Our next plan is a sit-down meeting over a new website, which I will design for her based on the skills I learned designing my own. My mother’s story has made me all the more appreciative of my freelance writing career — one I stumbled into more than chose deliberately — and how it has prepared me in myriad ways for whatever may lie ahead.

Just a few short years later, as my own earnings grow along with my confidence, I remember how my father put it when he first asked me to help my mother: “She needs to hear she can do this.” Looking back on it now, it was exactly that moment that made me realize I could.

Giulia Pines is a travel, food, and lifestyle journalist and photographer. Her work can be found in publications like Departures, Roads & Kingdoms, Kinfolk, Serious Eats, Atlas Obscura, and NPR Berlin. She splits her time between New York, Berlin, and a big old house in Brandenburg.

How to Turn Gigs Into Good JobsSeizing the gig moment to create an economy of shared values

YES! photo by jennifer luxton

Kaleena Marcelin, a recruiting coordinator at LeadGenius, video chats with the director of recruiting, Ruby Bhattacharya, while her daughter sits on her lap. Marcelin works from home, which lets her be there for her children. YES! photo by Jennifer Luxton

Kaleena Marcelin was working as an office manager for an air conditioning company when she gave birth to her fourth child. Marcelin had raised three children in Margate, Florida, a suburb of Miami, but she couldn’t afford day care with four. She started looking for work that would allow her to stay home. First, she tried Craigslist, where she found gigs typing and editing. But there wasn’t always enough work, and she never got to interact with anyone.

“You kind of felt like you were a machine,” she said.

Christa Hillstrom

Christa Hillstrom is a senior editor at YES!

Then Marcelin found a company that offered steady work, a generous wage, and consistent interaction with co-workers. But she didn’t have to go back to working 9 to 5. Instead, her job at the tech company LeadGenius combined the flexibility of gig work with the stability and structure she wanted. She doesn’t receive benefits and is paid as a contractor, but she sets her own hours, can afford to pay for health insurance, and is able to care for her young children without hiring help.

Creating fair jobs for people who needed them was part of the mission for the three founders of LeadGenius in 2011. But as they seek to fine-tune their labor policies, they’ve turned to a new ally: the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), a coalition that represents more than 3 million home caregivers, nannies, and other domestic laborers nationwide. Palak Shah, the organization’s social innovations director, had seen how quickly the gig economy was growing and worried that millions of new workers were facing the job insecurity, unsafe conditions, and precarious wages domestic workers had long experienced. She saw an opportunity to help a new crop of businesses to factor dignity, compassion, and fairness into their bottom lines — especially young companies whose norms remained malleable.

“If we’re going to shape the future of the new economy, we’re going to have to agree on where to go,” she said.


Late last year, Shah and her colleagues began drawing on domestic workers’ experience to define some core values that could steer the gig economy toward honoring workers’ well-being. The result was the Good Work Code, a set of eight values that companies can adopt and implement. Some of them, like “a livable wage” and “safety,” would be familiar to labor organizers a century ago. Others, like “support and connection” or the combination of “stability and flexibility,” reflect the unique situation of contractors who often work remotely and may rely on apps to find gigs. While the code is not an accountability program — participating companies aren’t ranked or graded on their performance — signing on requires a public, demonstrated commitment to implementing the code’s core values.

The NDWA recruited 12 forward-thinking companies — including LeadGenius — to be the first signatories. Most of these companies, which together employ everyone from freelance veterinarians to graphic designers to home care workers, already had fair work at the core of their missions. Their leaders had long been trying to figure out how to tweak their models to better serve workers.

But participating in the Good Work Code helped them create and sharpen practices supporting specific values, all while participating in a wider movement to define and model new business norms. Shah hopes to take advantage of current attention to gig labor to shape a new conversation around what good work means now — and how business can build equity into its future.


When Sherwin Sheik’s sister was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, his family started the long process of finding and hiring caregivers. The family was spending a lot of money on care, but the caregivers seemed to barely make ends meet. They earned just a fraction of what the agencies charged their clients. “How can we expect them to take care of our families when they’re worrying about their own?” Sheik wondered.

Participating in the Good Work Code helped them create and sharpen practices supporting specific values, all while participating in a wider movement to define and model new business norms.

In December 2011, he founded CareLinx, a company he describes as “LinkedIn for home care workers.” Caregivers build their own brand on the platform, choose their own clients, and become official W-2 employees — not contractors — of those clients. Because it’s a digital company, Sheik was able to cut down on overhead and prioritize wages. Those who find work through CareLinx make higher wages than the industry standard, while the company makes money on a fee charged to clients — not subtracted from workers’ checks. Because low-paid jobs in private residences often put care workers at risk, CareLinx chose to focus on the values of livable wages and safety.

David Rolf is president of the Seattle-based Local 775 of the Service Employees International Union, which represents home care workers. He said other app-based home care companies are starting to follow CareLinx’s lead, recognizing the advantages of having W-2 employees in the complex and intimate field of home care work. “[CareLinx] did it right, right out of the gate,” Rolf said. “They were the first ones to prove they could make W-2 work.”

This drive to experiment with best practices for employment is what ties the companies that have embraced the code together. When three graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley, launched LeadGenius in 2011, they looked at companies like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, where labor was often anonymous or unskilled. But because of the complexity of LeadGenius’ work generating sales leads for corporate clients, the company required skills, consistency, and strong communication in its workers. Many, like Marcelin, have been involved for two years or more and bring valuable experience to their jobs.

That’s why LeadGenius decided to set up team groups, placing workers together in a simulated traditional work environment. William Wickey, senior manager of content and media strategy, said the company’s hypothesis is that “we can get better work done for our client and do better by the people working for us by building in these support systems.”

Part of the original mission statement was to provide “fair trade” work for unemployed and underemployed people around the world who may otherwise experience poverty. Currently, more than 500 people from 40 countries — including India, Serbia, the Philippines, and Kenya — are employed as contractors. Nearly half are women, and nearly a third, like Marcelin, support at least three other people with what they earn. Initially, the founders imagined providing supplemental, part-time work, but it didn’t turn out that way. “[The contract workers] wanted steady, full-time or near full-time work as a full source of income,” Wickey said.

The Good Work Code aligned with what LeadGenius was already doing. As participants, they selected the values of support and connection, along with stability and flexibility, as key areas of focus. They had already been surveying the entire workforce twice a year on issues like wage satisfaction, and the code guided staff in asking further values-based questions. They have found that their workers strongly value human interaction — the sense of being part of a team — and that LeadGenius was headed in the right direction when it came to flexibility and job security.

They have found that their workers strongly value human interaction—the sense of being part of a team—and that LeadGenius was headed in the right direction when it came to flexibility and job security.

Not everyone is optimistic that voluntary efforts like this will be enough. Rolf, for example, applauds the efforts companies are making to improve working conditions within the gig economy, but he believes that a code lacking an enforcement mechanism risks becoming a labor version of greenwashing. Though “stimulating public opinion is important,” he said, “I worry about companies saying, ‘I operate out of the Good Work Code’ if they aren’t accountable for changes.” Rolf would like to see a certification process for companies that hire gig workers and points to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food Program, which engages a third-party organization to monitor farm working conditions and hold growers accountable.

Shah agrees that a “Good Work” certification could be a smart goal for the code as the online labor marketplace matures, helping both workers and customers make better-informed decisions about which companies to work for and support. “However, it’s critical that we agree on the vision before any steps are taken toward enforcement,” she said. “The Good Work Code is helping us articulate the reality we’d like to usher in, but we still have some work to do in sharing that vision and building consumer demand for good work.”

The code is still new, and though broader corporate interest in fair work cannot be directly attributed to it, Shah is hopeful about the changes she’s seeing in the industry: an increase in profit-sharing models, more companies classifying contractors as W-2 employees with benefits, and growth in partnerships between online companies and worker organizations.

“The size and scope of our social dilemmas are so great right now that no discipline alone is going to be able to address the magnitude of the conflict that we have today,” she says, adding that neither the labor movement nor the tech industry can solve these problems by itself. “The breakthroughs are going to come when these disciplines collide and come into interaction with each other.”

Christa Hillstrom

Christa Hillstrom is a senior editor at YES!

Essay

Hello, Community! Benefits of a Side Job Selling Cherries

When I first saw the “Help Wanted” sign posted at the stall of a farm at my local farmers market in Seattle, I hoped I’d get work picking cherries. When I called, it turned out the job was selling them, but that was almost as good.

Fan Kong

Fan Kong is a grumpy graduate student in the social sciences who spends most of her days in front of screens thinking about educational inequities. In her spare time, she works for a farm selling produce at Seattle’s Pike Place Market.

I was looking to escape from the abstractions and theories that, until that point, made up most of my days as a doctoral student in the social sciences at the University of Washington. I was tired of rearranging text on a screen and longed for the type of work that involved my hands.

A day’s labor at Pike Place Market, the nation’s oldest public market, means selling over $1,000 worth of cherries, learning something new about a neighboring vendor, and speaking Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese with tourists. These are the specific and concrete ways I feel successful — a stark contrast to the ambiguous notions of success that characterize my graduate studies.

However, not everyone comes to this work in order to escape abstraction. Working at various markets throughout Seattle, I’ve met other gig workers who were in some sort of transition. Maimoona is a recent college graduate hoping to work full time in an arts-focused organization, but in the meantime she has an internship with an art school, while also working for a movie theater and the farm. Lucas is a licensed massage therapist who holds five jobs. Per has been meeting farmers’ daily deliveries and helping vendors set up and close down shop for the past couple of years. He told me that he purposefully wanted to “start at the very bottom” so that someday he might have his own stall at the market, selling his blown-glass creations. The flexible schedules help them make ends meet while continuing to take steps toward the careers they desire.

What does it mean to eat with the seasons? How should a community sustainably feed and nourish its people?

The farmers market community is both local and global. Talking to the Chinese-speaking tourists from China, Taiwan, Canada, and Australia reconnects me to the Chinese diaspora. Locally, the workers are bound together by the informal gift economy of market culture. On any given day, I can trade up to two pounds of cherries for coffee, cigarettes, and produce from other farms. Cherries serve as currency as well as social capital — by spreading general neighborly good will and cheer.

I moved to Seattle in order to study issues of equity and social justice in education. That work, which remains my life’s work, is just as important to me now as before. However, somewhere along the path of my graduate studies, the more I analyzed my object of study, the further away I felt from its urgency. My life was becoming one-dimensional, much like the texts I was manipulating on screen. During these times, I wanted a small part of my life to be separate from academia.

I didn’t expect to subject this new gig to any type of intellectual scrutiny. But, of course, even selling cherries is never just about selling cherries. I took this gig not only because it was convenient for my student schedule but because working at farmers markets makes us ask these inevitable questions: What does it mean to eat with the seasons? How should a community sustainably feed and nourish its people? Who does the work of farming and harvesting local produce? What percentage of profits is returned to the agricultural workers?

If there is any sense of community born from the gathering of people and the exchange of goods at a market, then it begins with the acknowledgment that everything we do is politically and ethically related to those essential questions.

Fan Kong

Fan Kong is a grumpy graduate student in the social sciences who spends most of her days in front of screens thinking about educational inequities. In her spare time, she works for a farm selling produce at Seattle’s Pike Place Market.