Jessica Canham co-founded the award-winning video production company LINK International Productions, and manages Caapi Cottage Retreats, a transformational retreat center on the island of Dominica. She and Eric talk about characteristics that support systems of mutual aid, turning necessary skills into novelties, ethics of service and the impacts of inequality, and planning and organizing systems of mutual aid, among other things.
Links and Resources
Eric Garza: Welcome to the Quillwood Podcast, a show dedicated to helping you learn to navigate today's changing world. I'm your host, Eric Garza.
Today's episode features a conversation I recorded with Jessica Canham. She's a writer and producer at her award winning video production company LINK International Productions. She is currently producing a documentary series titled Love in Action, and I'll put a link to some of the episodes of this docuseries in the show notes. She also manages a transformational retreat center on the island of Dominica, in the Eastern Caribbean, called Caapi Cottage Retreats.
Before I share the conversation I recorded with Jessica Canham, know that Quillwood Podcast is brought to you by Quillwood Academy. Through Quillwood Academy I offer a wide array of online educational events and programs. Coming up I will co-facilitate a study group with Carolyn Baker on her most recent book Undaunted: Living Fiercely into Climate Meltdown in an Authoritarian World. That study group is open for registration. It starts on September 29. Before then, Carolyn and I will team up to offer two free webinars. One of them is going to be on September 15—it's a Thursday—the other on September 22. In both webinars we will create space for participants to ponder the question: What is this global crisis asking of us? Again, both of those webinars will be free. You can learn more about them and sign up, and also learn more about the study group Carolyn and I will facilitate, at quillwood.org. Go to the Events page, which you can find underneath Offerings in the main navigation menu. While you're at the website, you can sign up for Quillwood's email list, also.
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With all of that out of the way. I hope you enjoy today's episode with Jessica Canham.
Eric: Jessica Canham, welcome to the Quillwood Podcast.
Jessica Canham: Thank you, Eric for the invitation. It's great to be here.
Eric: You live on the island of Dominica, in a community that just by virtue of your geography is very prone to hurricanes. From discussions you and I have had, private discussions, I know that your community has a very strong ethic of mutual aid, and I think that is a really useful thing to explore. So I wonder if we could start our conversation by having you talk about what mutual aid is?
Jessica: Sure, I would love to. Because mutual aid is really essential to the fabric of Dominican society we have a term for it, we call it coudme. Coudme is actually a Creole word. Creole is the language of our ancestors, which is partly the French, which is the language of the colonizers, and based on an African root language. Coudme means lend a hand. And this is something that has been, for hundreds of years, part of the Dominican culture. It's this idea of collective self reliance, and it's been going on informally for centuries. It's really something that comes out of communities where there's not a lot of money, and especially indigenous communities. We are an ex-slavery society, so obviously people did not have the resources to pay for things themselves. So helping each other out, helping your neighbor, being in this reciprocal relationship of giving and sharing is something that naturally emerged from these communities, and especially in Dominica.
I would define mutual aid as kind of collective self reliance. It's really networks of care and generosity that meet the immediate needs of people in the community. Our historian Lennox Honeychurch calls it the social glue that keeps communities together. It's really part of the fabric of the culture. And it also helps to address some of the core roots and challenges in the community. For example, people have skills that they can share, because they've been marginalized and haven't been able to access resources. And so it's really support networks, caring networks, and it's really essential to life in places like Dominica.
Eric: You mentioned that a lot of people in your area don't have a lot of money, and you associated that with the emergence of these societies of mutual aid. Do you think that having access to monetary resources would in some way preclude, or maybe inhibit, the emergence of mutual aid?
Jessica: Oh, definitely. I spent half my life in the industrial north, and the other half in an agrarian society, in Dominica. So I know the difference. I'm very intimately aware of the differences. When you have industrial communities where you have very diversified roles, and industry, and services, and people are expected to be very independent, people can, by virtue of the fact that they have jobs outside of their communities and are earning money and are able to spend it on goods and services outside of their communities and in other parts of the world even, so they don't look to their neighbors for this sort of support, for those services. And there's this feeling of being quite autonomous in those industrial complex societies, whereas in an agrarian society, growing your own food, your neighbors growing food, you're getting water from the community, teachers living in the community, the schools are right here. So there's the sense of everything comes from the community. In order to keep it healthy, we need to all pitch in and share our skills and resources to ensure that everybody is taken care of.
Eric: And maybe to build on that a little bit, in addition to the ways that having access to monetary wealth might inhibit someone's ability to plug into and contribute positively to a community of mutual aid, I suspect that there are other characteristics that a person might have that might make it challenging for them to do that. And conversely, there are characteristics that a person might have that might make it a lot easier for them to plug into a community of mutual aid. I'd love to spend some time talking about some of those characteristics, and I wonder if you have some thoughts on what kind of personal characteristics might make it easier for a person to to contribute usefully to a community of mutual aid?
Jessica: If we talk about the practical day to day skills and resources, it really is very basic. Living skills like carpentry, cooking, electricians, plumbers, people who have skills which are necessary for day to day life are obviously valued members of the community and feel they have something to give. And I think generally, in these agrarian societies, people develop these skills out of necessity, but they're also encouraged to because their parents might be stonemasons or fisher people and they are encouraged to have those skills so that they can build their own home and they can go catch their own food. And, of course, farming. Most people here have backyard gardens. I'm sitting in a garden right now of a friend who's an organic farmer. And it's very typical, even if it's not your full time job, to have a little patch of land where you're growing your root crops and vegetables, where you have tree crops, because that supplements your diet, and that keeps your cost of living down.
It's incentivized to develop skills, life skills, that are going to be very useful not just to your own family, but that you can trade as well and contribute. And I think there's this feeling that everybody's contributing something. So if I don't have a skill, I better develop something, or find something that I can give. And so it's a collective feeling of a being of service. And that's an important word, the whole idea of service and community. I don't think you can have a healthy community without the idea of service, without everybody feeling "I have to serve in some way". And, "I have to be able to give back because I've been given so much to be able to be in this community".
Eric: You've mentioned that you've spent part of your life in in the industrial north. I've spent my entire life in the industrial north, although now I live in a state that is at least somewhat agrarian, and it's really fascinating to me to think about what you said about the development of basic living skills, because again, you say that, where you live, people do this out of necessity. But where I live, with some exceptions, most people might choose to develop some of those skills, carpentry, stone masonry, growing food, hunting, foraging, not so much out of a sense of necessity, but almost as a sense of novelty. People romanticize the practice of learning how to build things, like carpentry or working stone. People think of it as an art form, but not necessarily a necessary skill. People think of having a garden as an expression of artistic endeavor, but not necessarily a requirement. And it's just interesting to me to see how what is seen as a necessity in parts of the world is turned into a novelty, or even a romanticized novelty, where I am.
Although I also very conscious of the fact, especially with climate change, that that can change very quickly. And I know France, for example, right now is having all kinds of trouble—and other countries in Europe, too—with supply chains, and food shortages, and drought—and those realities can make what used to be something viewed as a novelty into something that is much more of a necessity very quickly.
Jessica: Yeah, absolutely. There's been so much abundance and so much consumption in the north, anything you need is at your fingertips to order online or to go to the store, you don't have to know how to repair things because you can just call up your repair person or send it away and get something new. It's really had this unintended consequence of de-skilling people. The industrial culture has really de-skilled people, that we don't have to learn those skills anymore. Like you're saying, it's more like a side thing. It's for fun, it's a hobby. Whereas in most of the world, people do have to have some basic living skills to survive.
Eric: Yeah. And another thing that you said, there's no healthy community without an ethic of being of service. And that rings so true to me. I feel like in the community where I live—I live in a fairly small city called Burlington, in the northern part of the state of Vermont—I think that there are people that I know that embody that. There are individuals that I know that embody that, or that at least embody that in the context of certain other people. There are people that I would be willing to help out, there are people that I know that I can call on who'd be willing to help me out. But it's not something I get the sense that is generalizable to the city as a whole. One of the things that I've been thinking about a lot is, What would it take to coax people, or help people, to be able to generalize that? I wonder if you've any thoughts on that?
Jessica: Yeah, I think the pandemic is instructive around mutual aid and ethical behavior, because there's this truism that was going around during the pandemic, which is saying, We're all in this together. I don't know if you heard that. We're all in this together.
Eric: I hear that for all kinds of issues, and I don't believe it for a second.
Jessica: Yes, it's this very banner, We're all gonna pull together, we're gonna do what's right, because we're all in it together. Yet, in reality, I heard this great explanation of this truism from Meg Wheatley: We're all in the same storm, the pandemic, the storm or whatever disaster, but in very different boats. And some of us don't even have a boat. And some of us are in the water, and we can't swim. And that really talks to the stratification, the gross inequality, of industrial cultures, that some people have these mansions and they could easily work from home during the pandemic and order whatever they needed, and they had tutors for their kids. And then there were some kids without tablets and without safe places to be at home when everything was locked down, and abuse skyrocketed and all these other kinds of things.
I think the core issue is that you have to actually believe that you need one another. Your friends in Vermont, your community, they have to actually believe that you need one another in order to actually act in an ethical way. Because if you don't truly need each other, then you can just give lip service and head nods to those kinds of truisms—we're all in this together—but the core belief that meeting each other is central to building these mutual aid networks. And I think that's why it's the glue that holds together societies like Dominica, where we actually do need each other. We actually don't all have everything we need at our fingertips. We don't have the money to create the perfect life, or even to meet our essential needs. We actually have to share, and we actually have to cooperate. And I think until society gets to that point, it's hard to see a way that those mutual aid networks are going to emerge from industrial culture. You really can't have that kind of ethical behavior unless you really believe—and it's true—that you're all really in it together.
Eric: As you were speaking I was reminded—I don't remember how many years ago this happened—but there is an instance where—this was before the pandemic—there was a gentleman or maybe a couple gentlemen who set off a bomb at the Boston Marathon and injured a number of people, maybe they even killed a couple people. It was called a terrorist act. And it was fascinating to me, the aftermath of that, because you started seeing these shirts and bumper stickers pop up all over the place, at least in my region, where people would have a T shirt or a bumper sticker that said, "We're all Boston marathoners now", trying to claim the fear and the pain of the people that were running the marathon and directly affected by this. And I thought that was so bizarre. And I'm still trying to make sense of it, trying to identify with people who are trapped in some kind of a situation that really causes them to suffer and at the same time utterly denying the fact that that's not remotely true. We're hundreds of miles away from where that happened. No one to my knowledge has set off a bomb and a terrorist attack in my state. And so the idea that people are going to traipse around with T shirts and other memorabilia saying "we're all Boston marathoners now" is just bizarre to me.
It seems like that connects to what you're saying, that we pay lip service to this idea that we need each other, but people's day to day experience—for many people, not all—for many people doesn't really include that. They have their decent house, internet connection, all the immediate things that they need, or they can go to a grocery store or hardware store close by and grab whatever they need. They have disposable income. It's easy for me to imagine how that would undermine the emergence of systems of mutual aid, at least at a city level.
Jessica: I think it's a systemic issue of how industrial north developed, and the emphasis on consumption, and the emphasis on production and profits. Global capitalism wants to supply everything that a community used to supply. Traditional communities would be the ones to supply the entertainment. We come together and we'd sing, and we would tell stories. Industrial culture says no, you can go to the movie theater, you can get Netflix, you can purchase your entertainment, your feel good stuff. Same with restaurants and grocery stores where people come together and have meals together and share. That kind of sharing and coming together on a regular basis is something that builds that kind of feeling of mutual aid, and mutual care, and generosity.
One of the times when it really shows up is, of course, in a disaster. If you don't have those mutual aid networks, you really feel the lack of that in a disaster when you lose all the infrastructure. And that brings us to hurricane Maria. Our island was devastated in 2017 when it just completely destroyed—this category five hurricane with winds of 170 miles an hour—came through Dominica and just flattened almost every structure on the island, or took off every roof. Roads were down, power, electricity, the grid was down for more than 10 months, agriculture was destroyed. So you had this incredibly destructive crisis—fueled by global climate change, global warming definitely supercharged this storm—and there was nothing around for people to eat, schools were down, banks, everything had shut down. Ports. And so people just naturally came together and started taking care of each other, started helping put roofs on houses, started tending to people who were injured and ill. And there were already those support networks. So people didn't wait for government to step in, or for somebody to parachute in supplies. We just basically foraged—a lot of food was on the ground from the wind, and still there was some root crops in the ground—and shared. People were sharing what they had and making sure everybody was okay and would survive this very uncertain period in this incredible crisis.
Eric: We've never had anything on that scale in Vermont that I know of, but many years ago—this is more than 10 years ago, now—there was, it was a hurricane when it was in the Atlantic, but when it made landfall and went inland it was a tropical storm called Irene. I remember that Irene, the center of that storm went inland far enough that in Vermont we got really torrential rains, much more severe rains than certainly would normally happen. And this is not as true in the northern part of the state, but in the southern part of the state the rains were severe enough that a number of significant roads were washed out. The rivers overflowed their banks and just tore down roads and bridges and left a number of towns completely isolated. There was no way to get to them, there is no way to get from them out if someone needed to go to the hospital or buy food or other supplies. I heard stories of mutual aid type ethics emerging in those places, once it was clear that they were going to have to fend for themselves for a few days. But for the most part, it was just a few days. There were definitely places where it took a week or two to get electricity back online, and maybe a month before some kind of road was hastily built so that people could get back on the main roadways. But again, not remotely on the scale of what you've dealt with in Dominica, from Hurricane Maria.
I bring that up because it seems to me that there is a seed for mutual aid in maybe not all people, but most people, but it seems like it's that need that has to be there in order to bring that out. Otherwise the fact that all these entertainment commodities, and everything else is so readily available, that that will—forgive me using this term—but that will trump the development of these communities.
Jessica: Yeah, I think that's very true. Sometimes I see it in the younger generation, especially in certain groups, where they do come together, and they do rely on each other. There's a consumerism culture that has really put a wedge in where community used to be for a lot of communities that are wealthy, or middle class communities. And then there's marginalized people who can't buy into those communities or afford to participate. They're on the marginalized edges, and have a lot of issues around self confidence and self esteem and addiction, issues with depression. When you see that kind of wealth and opulence then and you're not part of it, but you're living next to it, that's really unhealthy as well for community building, and that really segregates people. I see people pushing back against that in intentional communities in the north, trying to act more collectively around basic resources, whether it's housing or gardening or farming. There are collective communities that I think are growing too.
We saw with COVID, people being locked down in their houses or in their apartments, and people who were in intentional communities—and a lot of people thought, if I had been in an intentional community, life could have still continued because we could have created a bubble around our community and just gone about our business. I think that was a wake up call during COVID, to How do I really want to live in such an isolated, vulnerable way? How sustainable really is this if there's a crisis and I'm locked in my house? And people are afraid of their neighbors, is that really how you want to live, in times of transition?
So I do see younger generations may be making different choices. Maybe not thinking about buying a house. There's more co-housing opportunities now that I'm hearing about, and people are considering. And yeah, I think there is a trend, a slower transition in the north, but I think it's going to become a necessity as things break down and unraveled further due to all these other pressures, with ecosystems collapsing, and supply chains, and the financial system, which is very fragile. I think as we see these different series of collapses, I think people will start to come together more out of necessity.
Eric: I think you're right. And that actually leads to my next question, which is, I'm assuming—and by all means, please correct me if this is wrong—but I'm assuming that there's at least some planning that goes on in your communities about who's got what skills, and some negotiations and understandings about how we're going to proceed if something happens, and we need to call this mutual aid network to the fore. I'm curious to learn about that, if such a thing exists? Is there planning in that regard?
Jessica: Absolutely. There's a big disaster management at the national level, and every community has their disaster management committee, and people who are trained, who are members of Red Cross, Red Cross volunteers in the Disaster Management Committee, which usually comes out of the village council, members are part of that. And there's training that goes on, and standard first aid, and things around water restoration if the water system goes down. And obviously, people are encouraged to participate who have certain skills. Builders or healthcare professionals are obviously involved. Around this time—and we deal with disasters every year, we get ready for hurricane season, so we're always prepping. Not prepping in the sense of guns and ammunition and bunkers, but we're always talking about, okay, we need to stock up on basic supplies if there's a hurricane, and we can't get down to town. There's always this understanding when you live in a hurricane prone part of the world, you need to prepare every season. Tree trimming, getting ready, making sure you have enough supplies, making sure you have enough drinking water for a few days in your house stored, making sure you know where the hurricane shelter is, of course, and everybody knows that. Making sure they're secure. So there's all these things that go on in the spring of each year, and new people might join the committee and get new training, and that kind of thing.
And one of the things that we did after COVID, when COVID hit, we started a village WhatsApp group, which we hadn't had before. So every single household, or not every individual but everyone with a cell phone, is connected on this village Whatsapp group. Our village nurse manages it, so she was putting out notices as we learned more about COVID, and how to stay safe, and what kinds of things we needed to do. Those kinds of messages went out to counter a lot of the fake news and a lot of the hype, and people were getting very scared. So it was really important to get out information. And also so people could offer services. We did a food drive for all the elderly, so elderly people could stay at their home. We collected food baskets, and we went around every couple of weeks and dropped off food and medicine to any person over 70, who was at risk and felt more vulnerable. We wanted to make sure those people didn't have to leave their homes to get their basic needs met. And so those kinds of things came out of what was already there in terms of our sense of community, but it was more activated during COVID, during times of crisis and uncertainty.
And that's something that you could start, I would imagine, a little WhatsApp group in the community. Our WhatsApp group has grown into sort of a community bulletin board where people are posting if they've got things to sell, if they're if they're making rotis that afternoon, if there's a kids camp was on to raise funds for whatever was happening. People are always doing something, volunteering, that's not paid. And it's just a way to, instead of at the church announcing what's happening, because people are going to different churches, we have WhatsApp group so people can find out about what's happening in the community. It stimulates a bit more discussion and conversation around issues as well.
Eric: I don't know if this is something that is in existence everywhere, but I know this is something that we have here in the state of Vermont: we have something called Front Porch Forum. You can access it on the web, but you sign up using your email address. And then you can post to Front Porch Forum and then at the end of the day, everybody's post gets circulated to everybody in your neighborhood. You give them your address, which is not publicly posted, but they have the city divided into neighborhoods, and then you get all the posts that are put by people in your own neighborhood, and then you have the option of selecting to get messages from neighboring communities too, neighboring neighborhoods. I know that this is run throughout the state of Vermont. It might go into parts of New York State also. It's been really, really useful. There is some mutual aid stuff, and then there's, Oh, I lost my dog. Oh, I found your dog, that kind of stuff. So maybe not quite mutual aid.
Jessica: When I was growing up—I'm trying to think of what were the volunteer groups in my neighborhood growing up in the suburbs in southern Ontario, and the only one that really comes to mind is the Neighborhood Watch. I don't know if you remember Neighborhood Watch?
Eric: We have one of those in my neighborhood, actually.
Jessica: It was primarily about property. I'm gonna watch your property, make sure there's no one that I don't recognize coming into your property. But it's also about if a child is lost, or needs to come into someone's house, there's a neighborhood watch sticker there so you know that's a safe house for a child to run into if there's an issue or something. But I just remember, it's very much about keeping the bad people out of the community and preventing crimes before they happen, but less about coming together, how can I help you, to support your needs. It's a very different approach to community building, which didn't really feel that much like community building.
But then we also did have meetings, community meetings, if there was a zoning issue. In one area there was a little public school where there's just not enough kids to keep it open, so the land was going to be sold and it was going to be zoned for housing. People had to talk about that before it could be. And of course, now there are monster homes where there used to be a school and a school yard. It's more about development, commercial development than about non-monetary activities. I haven't lived in the North for a long time, so that might have changed. I hear about transition towns, and I hear about other efforts for people to come together and start to weave more intentional community.
Eric: We had the emergence of transition towns in the early 2000s. Maybe there are a couple still holding on here in the state of Vermont, but I think most of them have fizzled out. I was involved in them when I first moved into Vermont. There definitely was not an ethic of mutual aid there. People wanted to present, to create this narrative where there is community, and that they were all part of this community doing these things,. But at the end of the day, everybody went back to their own houses and they all had plenty of money, and they kind of did their own thing, and then came together as a transition town when it was convenient. It just didn't seem like it had much staying power. And maybe that's not true in other parts of the United States, but certainly where I am now in Vermont, it just didn't seem like it had much staying power. Which is sad.
Jessica: It's so easy to get your services and your goods in the north with a phone call or a click or just to pay, and to not have to deal with any sort of personal friction or any reciprocity other than money, which is there, but it takes out the personal responsibility, takes that out of the equation. Some of the things we we certainly partner with government on. We do have some services. Government obviously provides a lot, but can't provide everything. And the corporation's here are very small, we don't have the kind of Amazons, and massive Costcos, and that kind of thing. We have a lot of community groups, farmers groups, NGOs, we really try and create opportunities for training so people can do more for themselves, upgrading their skills without having to pay to go to an expensive college or program. We depend a lot on international aid as well, and bringing in people who can talk about best practices in whatever area. And we try to create those opportunities for farmers and for people in healthcare and people in different industries, because people don't have the money to do four year courses and that kind of thing outside of the islands. But now with online learning, there's certainly a lot more people can learn online themselves. But with our older population, that doesn't work, because unless you're a digital native, a lot of people are very hesitant to try to do online learning.
Eric: And speaking of online learning, I think that was where you and I originally met. I don't remember if you and I originally met at a Deep Adaptation event, or if we originally met because you signed up for a book group that I did.
Jessica: Yeah, that's right, Quillwood Academy. I think the book was How Everything Can Collapse. Collapsology. That was great. And you continue to do those. I think those are great opportunities to have those kinds of conversations. And we did talk a bit about what makes societies fragile and what we can do to strengthen our communities.
Eric: I see we're getting close to an endpoint. I'm curious if you have any final thoughts you'd like to offer before we wrap up?
Jessica: We've covered a lot. And it's interesting to hear about glimmers in the north of things that are happening that are more community oriented. Our big challenge of courses is the brain drain, losing young people to the north because there's so many more opportunities for work and for study. More are thinking about coming back now to Dominica, which is really nice because there's a bit of a disillusionment. First of all, there's an affordability crisis in the north. Most young people can't afford to buy into most housing markets. The prices are just astronomical. And also recognizing it's nice to be close to nature when you're in an emergency. And when there's a lockdown, it's much better to be in the countryside than in a city. So there's starting to be a change of perspective on what is quality of life, what success looks like, with this next generation, which I am really appreciating, I'm seeing that in my own daughter and her friends, and I don't think they're gonna go the same route of just amassing a lot of money like some of their parents. Have a big house and the big vehicles and all of that. So, that gives me a bit of hope. And we certainly need that if we're going to have any semblance of a chance to become more resilient in the future.
Eric: I do carpentry work, not just as a novelty but as a way of making part of my living. And I was riding to job maybe a couple of months ago with the gentleman who was the project manager, and one of the comments that he made that I've thought about a lot since then—he's a Vermont native—and he said that Vermont's two biggest exports are powdered milk and young people. And the young people are the exports exactly for the same reason that you articulated, because they don't perceive an agrarian state like Vermont as having much in the way of opportunity. And also because they can't find the kind of high paying jobs that they want, and make as much money as they want to make as fast as they want to make it. They can't buy into land or the housing markets. So they just leave. And a lot of them will go to Boston, or New York City, or Massachusetts, or other places further afield. But yeah, you reminded me of that comment that he had made. And then they'll come back when they're 50 or 60 to buy second homes and try to retire.
Jessica: We have a lot of retiring people coming back from the UK and the US to build their retirement home after they've made their money. We want people to come back sooner than that, while they're still young and vital and ready to start new projects and new businesses. I do have hope, because I do see a change in the next generation in terms of their values. And we have a really interesting group of millennials here that have an artists association, and they're doing a lot of cool things nationally, and a lot of mentoring. And the arts are becoming more elevated.
Eric: Thanks for taking the time. This was lovely.
Jessica: Thanks, Eric, for the invitation. And I hope to see you again soon on an online event. Or you're always welcome to come to the Caribbean, to come to Dominica and check it out.
Eric: I kind of sworn off of air travel because of climate impacts. But who knows, maybe I'll find my way out there one of these days.
Eric: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Quillwood Podcast. Again, this episode is brought to you by Quillwood Academy. You can find it on the web at quillwood.org. Check out the Undaunted Study Group that I will co-facilitate with Carolyn Baker, and the two free webinars that she and I will offer, also. You can find all of those on the Events page under the Offerings submenu.
This is Eric Garza signing off from this episode of the Quillwood Podcast. Until next time, walk softly and take good care.