Rachel Newcomb, CAC AmeriCorps member 2015-2016
As a young kid my favorite part of my family’s weekly routine was when my mother would pull the car into a parking lot between a Food Lion and a store bearing a cow wearing 3-D glasses. This wondrous place was called MOOVIES and it’s where we picked our choice of VHS rentals for the week.
As Mom parked the car, my sister and I excitedly anticipated for her to unbuckle us: my sister Robyn, age three, in her full car seat peppered with goldfish and other assorted mysteries and me, age 7, in my booster seat. Robyn and I would bound into the store, our pony tails in full swing, hers brunette and mine blonde. I’d push through the two glass doors, hear the familiar bell announcing our entrance, and my smile bloomed across my face. Robyn and I would then both walk calmly, thanks to Mom’s reminder, to the kids’ section to inspect the shelves lined with colorful VHS covers for anything new but familiar, such as an insightful Veggie Tales episode or the more poignant Bananas in Pajamas tape. I unfalteringly reached for the same movie each visit: the 1995 animated story of Balto. This movie was always, mind you, always, the best one in the store because it’s a tale of a misunderstood dog voiced by Kevin Bacon who is able to prove everyone wrong and become a true sled dog with the help of his steadfast friends and perseverant spirit. What’s not to love? After Robyn and I carefully deliberated on our selection, which was the biggest decision we made those days, we scuffed our feet as we’d follow Mom to her go-to aisle: the Romantic Comedies section. Robyn and I would wait for her to make her selection, bored because none of these VHS covers were colorful or interesting, and then follow her to the front of the store. Three movies on the counter scanned by the bleeper-thing. Three movies for this family of three. The same store, the same aisles, and the same beloved routine.
Since we lived in the boonies, we did not have cable, and so the VHS tapes were our only electronic entertainment. We’d watch them, rewind them to the hilarious parts, and sometimes rewind them again. For Robyn and me these tapes were paired with apple juice and pop tarts on weekend mornings. Mom’s movie nights couldn’t start until we agreed to try to fall asleep on the couch with her after dinner. When I could sneak in a peak I’d follow the storyline for as long as possible and always wonder what she found to be so entertaining. To my eight-year-old brain, nothing exciting ever happened. There was usually a woman who had a pretty good life going through a few struggles, one of which was typically a man, but then the man would somehow make her happier than she was before. I mean, at least Balto had deep character development.
It wasn’t until much later that I realized Mom did not watch these movies because she thought they were exciting. I realized, come high school, that she watched these movies because she didn’t have to think about them. As a single mom and a director of a small but successful non-profit, she worked all the time. When she wasn’t taking care of us, she was working. From seeing her face when she woke me up in the morning until she tucked me in at night, the only time I would ever see her relax was in front of the T.V. When I was old enough to watch the whole movie with her, I understood that movies were for laughing and relaxing. Sometimes she would rent the occasional thriller, but no other genres ever appeared in our household. Our weekly routines consisted of going to school, going to sports practice, coming home, eating dinner, and doing homework. What American family’s routine isn’t filled with all of these activities? The weekends, when they weren’t too filled with plans, were reserved for fun because the three of us were busy all week. The forty-five minutes to an hour spent snuggled up on our blue gingham-print couch and cozy blanket that fit perfectly across our three laps was our only quality time spent together. By this point MOOVIES had gone out of business due to the popularity of DVD’s, and our movies were mailed to us from Netflix. Now three of us had to agree on one film per week, and this decision caused a fair level of contention in our household.
While pursuing higher education I studied hard, certainly harder than I did in high school, because I was finally learning about subjects and issues that I cared about (excluding that biostats class). I spent my extracurricular hours getting involved with clubs and student body initiatives. Even so, I felt that I couldn’t do all I wanted to because I felt so “busy.” To be fair, I spent the majority of my time studying or completing assignments, and I always had two part-time, on-campus jobs that filled most out-of-class hours. No matter my workload any given week I found myself too preoccupied with my own individual schedule and responsibilities to pay attention to much else. That changed on Sunday, September 21st 2014 at the People’s Climate March in New York City. I boarded a bus organized by our campus Green’s Club and rode with several of my peers for the five hour trek. I had only been in the big apple once, and my small-town self was not prepared for the 400,000 turnout. People were holding every type of sign and marching packed between tall building to tall building, every group present brought large vibrant displays so that those in offices above could see, and every so often an energetic chant would ripple down the sea of protesters spiking an almost primal feeling of togetherness and strength in our numbers. It was the most moving climate justice experience I have had in my life because there we were, a group of forty students among thousands of others from all backgrounds and cultures, marching for climate justice. Until this experience, even with my Environmental Studies education, I did not understand what climate justice meant. Being in that sea of people who all cared about the health of our planet opened my eyes wider than they had been opened before. An energy rushed through me and washed away any feelings of complacency. I wished Mom could have been there to feel the vast scale of this event.
As a recent graduate with a full time position at Beardsley Community Farm through CAC AmeriCorps, I now completely understand what Mom felt every day. No wonder she couldn’t think about any more: her head was overflowing with work and countless responsibilities. Now, I have a full week’s work cut out for me every week due to the nature of a non-profit farm located next to an urban food desert. I am proud to increase food access by providing over 10,000 pounds of fresh produce annually to those who would otherwise not have access to it.
Every day I am an ambassador for food justice by maintaining five acres of productive land, donating our produce to local hunger relief organizations, and educating children about
the importance of nutrition and healthy eating. This is an incredibly rewarding but demanding role. Working outside on a daily basis makes me feel physically tired, and when I get home at the end of the day, I just want to relax. Who doesn’t feel this way? Very few people have the emotional and mental stamina to engage in educating themselves about what is wrong with the world and how to fix it when they are working one, two, or sometimes even three, jobs. This is the problem: only those who enjoy the immense privilege of not having to worry about day-to-day survival, and have the resources to learn about the ailments of our society, are going to be the ones who can devote their time and energy into issues that matter. The number of people who fit this description is not enough people to make full scale changes. There is so much inaction because our climate realities are incredibly daunting. It is unbelievably difficult for anyone to comprehend the magnitude of our climate reality. Those who are living paycheck to paycheck or wondering where their next meal is coming from do not have the capacity to make sure they recycle or to make purchases from local stores. The choices and actions that make us feel good about ourselves for doing our part to make our natural environment healthier are not available to those who cannot reach these choices.
This situation is truly unnerving, and that is why it is even more crucial that we who have the comforts of a stable life jump to action, even if we’d rather sit on the couch, watch that reality television show, and drink that glass of wine. When we stay inside our bubble of willful ignorance and refuse to acknowledge the injustices of our society, we are just giving in to what corrupt powers want: distraction. Because few have the courage and energy to reject this distraction, the world can keep on turning with all of the transgressions it holds. I am someone who at my core feels compelled to pursue a life of decreasing these injustices, but even so, I struggle with laziness. Laziness, combined with apathy, are the two most dangerous characteristics anyone on this planet could have right now–given the time-sensitive manner of our severe climate problem, Unfortunately, these characteristics are found in members of any first-world country. How could they not be present in us all given the comforts of our society. Why is anyone going to do anything about a problem they cannot see? A collective paralysis is having deadly consequences in the face of a changing climate, but these consequences are not always apparent to us due to where they are taking place. People will take action if they are faced with a problem they can feel, but the question running through my mind more often is, how to sustain the feelings that fuel action? These questions are difficult to wrestle with and honestly none are more important to adequately answer.
I choose to engage in the climate justice movement because I feel a purpose in inspiring others to take action, and through doing so, I am fighting my own inaction. By contributing to an urban farm where the the community benefits from the production of fresh, organic food, I am not only helping to provide sustenance, but also helping supply nutrition education to the food insecure who do not have equal access to affordable healthy produce. By deciding to participate in the AmeriCorps program, I am showing all of our student-aged volunteers an avenue of good they can take to begin leading an intentional life and how to become aware of the health of one’s community. If all of us who are able and have the means decided, right now, to distance ourselves from our televisions and wifi in order to get closer to our local communities to change small things that are not right or just, we would not only be making a large collective difference, but our eyes and ears would be more attuned to the environmental and social degradation taking place across this world, even if it’s not happening in our backyard.
The hardest part about changing most habits is stopping, but in this case it is starting: starting to care more deeply about the lives of our youngest generation, and others who will come after them, more than just our own lives. If we look to the children in our lives and just think, “what they are going to have to live through if we do not take immediate action?”, we will feel compelled to combat the paralysis and to contribute to a cause greater than ourselves. I feel motivated to fight for food justice when looking at the preschoolers I teach while talking about vegetables, and I wonder what the world is going to look like when they older. I wonder such questions as, what foods will they be able to eat if temperatures rise so much that many staples of East Tennessee can’t grow here anymore? When we look past our own (in many cases, first world) issues and into the greater scheme of lives on this planet, turning off the bad rom com isn’t so hard of a choice to make. My term in AmeriCorps has taught me, above all, that if we simply keep in mind that the more we give back, the better we feel–and the more we want to make this world a better one. It’s truly a win-win situation for us all.
This blog post is a collection of personal reflections and expressions. All opinions represented are those of the author and do not represent the official opinion or views of the Knoxville – Knox County Community Action Committee, CAC AmeriCorps or any other party referenced.