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Got Broken Stuff? The Tool Library Has a Fix

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 19/04/2024 - 6:00pm in

I showed up to my first Dare to Repair Cafe with a notepad and a shopping tote full of holey sweaters.

The pad I needed to take notes on the event — a roving ministry, of sorts, for broken household items.

The sweaters, on the other hand, I took as mea culpas: I had said I’d bring a faulty Bluetooth speaker in the hopes a volunteer could make it play again. But my husband had already tossed the speaker in the trash. We were, in other words, part of the problem.  

“You won’t do that again,” said Don Winkelman, 71, a long-time volunteer for Dare to Repair. “We have people come in one time, with a lamp or something, and then we see them again and again.” 

Don Winkelman at a repair cafe event.Don Winkelman is a longtime volunteer for The Tool Library’s repair cafes. Courtesy of The Tool Library

Dare to Repair exists to reprogram wasteful consumers like my husband and me. Since 2017, the roving monthly cafe has traversed Buffalo, New York, and its environs, helping attendees repair broken electronics, household goods and small appliances. 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans throw away nearly 40 million tons of such items each year. Repair cafes — of which there are now more than 3,000 across the world — offer an economical and environmentally friendly solution: Fix your broken stuff, instead. 

In Buffalo, repair cafes represent part of a larger regional movement around sustainability, communal resource-sharing and mutual aid. The monthly events are organized by the city’s Tool Library, a fast-growing, 13-year-old nonprofit group that lends tools and other equipment to individuals, small businesses and community organizations. 

Tools on display at The Tool Library with a chalkboard showing hours of operation.The Tool Library has amassed a collection of almost 5,000 items, from hand tools to a cotton candy maker. Courtesy of The Tool Library

To date, the Tool Library has diverted 7,779 pounds of waste from landfills via its repair cafes and amassed a communal tool collection of nearly 5,000 items. It also serves as a model, a resource and a centralized hub for a range of other community sharing projects, from little free libraries to public gardens. 

“We’re part of a broader economic transition away from a system that really hasn’t been serving most people, locally or around the world,” said Darren Cotton, The Tool Library’s founder and executive director. “We’re shifting toward models that are more sustainable, more regenerative and that rely more on people helping one another, as opposed to a market delivering services.” 

The birth of Buffalo’s Tool Library

Cotton, 35, first dreamt up plans for The Tool Library while studying urban planning at the State University of New York at Buffalo. The university is an economic and cultural engine for the region, but its decision to open a suburban campus in the 1960s siphoned both people and resources away from University Heights, the city neighborhood surrounding its original campus. 

By the late 2000s, entire blocks of University Heights had been gobbled up by absentee landlords who leased their neglected properties back to low-income renters and students. Residents wanted to fix up their homes and address wider neighborhood problems, such as street trash and low tree coverage. But they frequently lacked access to basic tools, or the knowledge required to use them. 

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“It was a convergence of all these different problems,” Cotton said. “I realized, ‘Wow — a library is such a great platform for addressing all of them.’” 

The Tool Library launched in a tiny storefront in 2011 with roughly 40 tools and $15,000 in federal community development funding. Cotton and his all-volunteer staff developed a membership model, where residents could pay a low annual fee for unlimited tool rentals, as well as a system for tracking their growing inventory of hand tools, power tools and lawn and garden equipment.

Tools and other items on shelves at The Tool Library.The Tool Library processes more than 14,000 loans a year. Credit: Caitlin Dewey

In 2022, Cotton took on a full-time role and hired Lissa Rhodes, a poet and trained carpenter, as the Tool Library’s first operations manager. One year later, The Tool Library relocated to the ground floor of an old neighborhood bank on Buffalo’s Main Street, expanding its footprint from 1,500 square feet to more than 2,500. 

Today, the organization boasts nearly 1,500 members and processes more than 14,000 loans a year. Its wide east- and south-facing windows overlook a bright lending room, where tools are shelved in neat blocks of Ryobi green and DeWalt yellow: drills, jigsaws, sanders, drivers, lawnmowers and leaf blowers, hydraulic jacks, router tables. An entire wall is hung with coils of extension cords and hoses, while several shelves gather the library’s growing collection of household miscellanea: a sewing machine, a projector screen, a bocce ball set, a cotton candy maker. 

“A tool is anything you need to get a job done, whatever that job is,” said Rhodes. “Is it a presentation? Then your tools are a projector screen and a projector.” 

Repair Cafes

That community-minded, DIY ethos has gradually prodded The Tool Library into other initiatives, including tree-plantings, park clean-ups and — of course — repair cafes. In 2017, a director with Buffalo’s recycling department approached The Tool Library about collaborating on a series of repair events.

Since then, and despite a hiatus during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Repair Cafe has salvaged more than 500 items. Volunteers will happily tinker with lamps, furniture, small appliances, bikes, broken windows and damaged clothes, though they don’t currently accept computers, tablets or phones. 

Volunteers work on a sewing machine.The March repair cafe was held in the basement of a public library in the village of Akron. Courtesy of The Tool Library

For the March iteration, a team of volunteers set up shop in the basement of a public library in Akron, a small village 20 miles northeast of Buffalo. The room hummed with quiet chatter and the intermittent vrooms of faulty vacuums. Volunteer fixers puttered around a coffee station and traded stories in between work on lamps, clocks, Kitchenaid mixers and old CD players.

The atmosphere is both studious and social; over time, fixers often become friends. They also teach attendees the skills needed to make their own repairs: “What I love is that you not only get your fixes for free, but you get a lesson as well,” said Antoinette McClain, a Tool Library board member who helps organize the events. 

Many of those fixes are quite simple — which makes the impulse to junk these items look all the more wasteful. Both of the broken vacuums at the March cafe simply needed a good cleaning, for instance. Jennifer and Rebecca Outten, who brought the vacuums, said they would have spent $400 or more to replace each one. 


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“We love the Buy Nothing groups,” said Jennifer, referring to a movement of popular Facebook pages that encourage people to reuse household items instead of buying new. “But this, the repair cafe, I had never heard of.” 

I also left the Akron library with a newfound appreciation for repair: To fix the holes in two cashmere sweaters, volunteers Don Winkleman and Tom Guerra coached me through the process of ironing on a fabric patch.

Volunteer Tom Guerra (seated) at the March repair cafe.Volunteer Tom Guerra (seated) at the March repair cafe. Courtesy of The Tool Library

Of course, I am but one of the millions of consumers needlessly tossing and replacing my stuff — and the repair movement faces a long, uphill battle against the wider culture of throwaway consumerism. In Buffalo, The Tool Library also faces the sorts of financial constraints common to many small community nonprofits. The organization will soon have the option, for instance, to acquire the building it moved into last year — but the cost to acquire and renovate the structure tops $1 million. 

The Tool Library plans to launch a capital campaign in April, Cotton said, and is currently a finalist for a major regional foundation grant. With that funding, he added, The Tool Library could build out new community space, seed mini-libraries across the region and further champion communal resource-sharing as a model for social and environmental innovation. 

“It’s one thing to be cool and novel and niche,” Cotton said. “But the question for us is: How do we make sharing and repairing ubiquitous?”

The post Got Broken Stuff? The Tool Library Has a Fix appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

Exclusive: Unite bans anti-racist documentary – after first offering to support

‘Resistance Street’ film premieres in London this week – but not in Unite buildings, against the wishes of Unite officers and reps

The Unite union has continued its trend under general secretary Sharon Graham of banning left-wing films and books by blocking showings on its premises of a new documentary by Richard David – despite its equalities directors first offering maximum help.

‘On Resistance Street’ trailer

The film was shot over a two year period in England, Belfast and New York and features renowned musicians, bands, writers and commentators looking at the role music plays in the fight against Fascism and racism. Siobhan Endean, Unite’s equalities director, initially responded to David’s approach:

Thank you for your email that you sent to our Executive Council. My role is working in the field of equalities within unite and I would be very keen to help you as much as I can. You asked for an email address for our general secretary it is [redacted]  I would also be very grateful if you could share a link to your film, and I will see what can be done to support the film.

However, within a short time this willingness to help was withdrawn, prompting the film’s creators to write directly to Sharon Graham:

Dear Sharon,
I am writing to you as the writer-director of the new British feature-length documentary ‘ON RESISTANCE STREET’, which received its sold-out international premiere in Belfast, at the Queen’s Film Theatre on October 19th 2023.

The film was a two year independent production, shot in England, Belfast and New York. It is an in-depth examination of the role which music has played historically in the fight against Fascism, racism, bigotry and Right Wing ideology.

As such it contains contributions from a wide array of musicians, Trade Union leaders, activists, authors, historians and commentators. These include members of The Sex Pistols, Steel Pulse, Aswad, Stiff Little Fingers, The Levellers, The Men They Couldn’t Hang, The Defects and The Outcasts. There are also contributions from contemporary British artists such as the East London based Grime Star Lady Shocker, who performs individually but is also a founder member of the
ground-breaking ‘Female All-stars’ Grime collective.

Other contributors include: Matt Wrack FBU Leader, Weyman Bennett, national co-ordinator of ‘Stand Up to Racism’, Chris Salewicz, biographer of Joe Strummer and Bob Marley, Anti-Fascist author and historian Rick Blackman, feminist historian and author Louise Raw, Clash ‘Rude Boy’ movie star Ray Gange, leading female Black Lives Matter activist Chantelle Lunt, Terri Hooley, founder of ‘Good Vibrations Records in Belfast, Mexico City Trade Union leader Fernando Luna, New York State Union organiser Dan Gniewekei and others.

The film also shows as to how a new Trade Union, was created in Mexico City, with between 3-400 members, this after a year of online video call consultations, between British, American and Mexican members of an online Clash fans group named ‘Clash Fans Against The Right’. The members involved were full-time Union officers in their own countries. That group was founded by myself and Robin Banks, in direct response to Boris Johnson’s ludicrous and deeply cynical claim that The Clash were one of his ”Two favourite bands”, that obscene announcement contained inside an official Conservative Party political broadcast in November 2019.

That social media group has since evolved into a real life Anti-Racism organisation named ‘Resistance Street’, which has staged live music events in London, Liverpool, New York and Belfast over the last two years. These events also featured many political speakers including Trade Union leaders like Matt Wrack. In its third section, ‘On Resistance Street’ traces that evolution and shows how social media can be harnessed and utilised powerfully on behalf of the Left, when people pool their intellectual and creative strengths.

The film was produced by myself and Robin, the lifelong friend of The Clash’s Mick Jones, who was immortalised in the band’s song ”Stay Free”. A song written by Mick himself and about their friendship. Robin and I were both friends of the late Joe Strummer, whose lyrics and quotes appear at various stages of the film.

This letter is sent in direct conjunction with a recent proposal which originated via friends of mine who are Unite Officers and Shop Stewards in Southampton, the city in which UK production was based. This followed another sold-out Southern regional premiere screening at Solent University Film Theatre on November 17th. The proposal was that there would be a special screening of the film for Unite members, Anti-Racism activists and other members of Trade Unions at the Unite-The Union HQ in Southampton.

I have personally attended previous Anti-Racism documentary screenings at the HQ, which were well supported and successfully received, audience-wise. Secondly, it was proposed that following that initial event, this could act as springboard for a series of special screenings in Unite HQ’s across the country.

Both Robin and myself were only too delighted at this proposal, given it had always been our hope that special political screenings could materialise via agreements with Trade Unions.

Many people who have seen ORS, have commented on its in-depth educational value. The film not only chronicles music’s role in this battle as stated, but charts the entire drift towards the political Right in America, Europe and Britain, as we confront the present. As such, the ascendancy of Trump, the Brexit campaign and the British and European Far Right are all documented, with emphasis on the now alarming authoritarian stances of the current Conservative government in Britain.

We emphasise that given our own political convictions formed over a lifetime, we were absolutely perfectly happy to see this screening and the proposed series across the country, take place with us making not a single PENNY of profit from it all.

We have now been informed that this proposal is not possible, in direct relation to a relatively recent motion passed by the Unite-The Union National Executive.

As you are well aware, that motion has forbidden the screening of any documentary films in Unite-The Union buildings, unless they are specifically to do with working conditions, wage disputes and industrial relations.

The officers and Shop Stewards concerned were truly shocked by this motion. So are we. Firstly, such films are few and far between and are only likely to be made if they were commissioned by Unions individually or the TUC.

Secondly and more importantly, this decision was taken without consultation of your regional political education officers, general membership or indeed the Unite-The Union Community section. As such, we believe this amounts to a Stalinist-style decision and one which stands directly at odds with the overall principles and history of Anti-Fascism and Anti-Racism in Britain.

It is a decision which consequently denies workers/members the opportunity to watch a film like this inside a recognised Union environment. It is a decision which raises serious questions concerning your Union’s commitment to Anti-Racism in general and which constitutes a gross act of cultural censorship.

Working class cultural activism and creativity should be an absolutely integral part of any genuine political education programmes. Particularly when it is based inside energies challenging racism in Britain.

The Shop Stewards and officers all voiced that belief and it is one we share and endorse completely. We are of course aware of the furore caused via screenings or potential screenings of the Jeremy Corbyn film ‘The Big Lie’.

We shall not comment further on that, other than to say until we hear differently, we have to assume that this motion was passed as a knee-jerk, supposedly politically expedient reaction, to all that. If you are of the view that there are other bona-fide reasons behind the motion, we would very much like to hear what they are.

In light of all this, we are now requesting the following:

  • That your National Executive convenes to formally re-assess this decision.
  • That in doing so, the Executive democratically consults fully with your regional political education officers and only reaches a final decision after such consultations.

If this does not happen, we believe it makes an utter mockery of their supposed role and programmes. We also believe strongly that there should be further extended consultations with appropriate representatives of Unite The Union-In The Community, this also on a regional basis.

It is our conviction that the current decision cuts right to the heart of supposed ‘democracy’, as related to fundamental ethics and principles of Trade Unionism within ‘Unite-The Union’. We believe this decision should be reversed. We believe that these matters will attract widespread attention and public interest within the public domain. With that in mind, we request a formal response from yourself at the earliest possible point.

In Solidarity.
Richard David
Robin Banks

The pair received a response from Sarah Carpenter, Unite’s newly-promoted (without proper process, according to union insiders) ‘Executive head of operations’. The reply, while anodyne in its language, confirmed that Unite has no intention of reversing its ban – and did not address any of the makers’ concerns about the political motivations behind it:

Dear Richard and Robin,

Thank you for your letter which you sent to the General Secretary on 18 December. The GS is currently involved in industrial disputes and has asked me to respond.

Your letter rightly refers to a decision made by the union’s Executive Committee (made up of lay members, elected democratically by and from the wider membership), which was debated and agreed by them at their meeting in September 2023. This decision was ‘That Unite should not use its premises or resources to show or promote any external films or other content that does not relate to our industrial agenda to support the pay, terms and conditions of our members and/or support existing Unite policies. In this context the Union should be especially careful to avoid appearing to endorse any material which causes unnecessary offence to members.’

This would mean that we cannot show any films unless there is a clear link to our industrial agenda. The film you have produced looks fascinating and I am pleased to see that you have found venues where this can be shown. However, from the information you have sent I do not see that there is a link to our industrial agenda, and so we are not able to use Unite premises or resources to show or promote this film.

Carpenter has been accused, acting on Sharon Graham’s behalf, of threatening a soon-to-retire regional official with the loss of his pension bonus if he did not cool his support for the people of Palestine against Israel’s genocide – and of cancelling showings and readings of films and books showing the pro-Israel lobby’s sabotage of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party and exposing abuse by Starmer’s Labour toward left-wing party members.

Sharon Graham has been alleged by Unite insiders to have:

Her supporters also prevented debate and votes on Gaza at a March meeting of the union’s elected executive.

Apart from the issue of Gaza, her tenure as Unite boss has also been marked by a string of other allegations – which neither she nor the union has denied – including destruction of evidence against her husband in threat, misogyny and bullying complaints brought by union employees. She is also embroiled in both an employment tribunal for discrimination and a defamation lawsuit brought by Irish union legend Brendan Ogle for the union’s treatment of him and comments made about him by Graham and her close ally Tony Woodhouse.

‘On Resistance Street’ will receive its London premiere at The Gate Picturehouse Cinema in Notting Hill on
Wednesday April 17th. That will be followed by a short theatrical run across Britain. The film will then feature in a wide number of national and international Film festivals.

If you wish to republish this post for non-commercial use, you are welcome to do so – see here for more.

Total Eclipse of Despair

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 06/04/2024 - 4:52am in

On April 8, the moon will pass directly between the Earth and the sun, shrouding parts of the world in darkness, and creating a tempting void we’re told not to look at directly. It’s a relatively rare but well understood phenomenon, full of portents; the sun and the moon aligning just so—a haloed, shadowy abyss that is astonishing to behold, but harmful to observe without the right protection.

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The Coalitions Presidents Make: Presidential Power and its Limits in Democratic Indonesia – review

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 02/04/2024 - 8:00pm in

Marcus Mietzner‘s The Coalitions Presidents Make examines Indonesia’s political transition, focusing on power-sharing arrangements and their impact on democratic reforms post-2004. Drawing on extensive qualitative data, Mietzner both sheds light on Indonesia’s particular case and reflects more broadly on coalition politics in emerging democracies, writes Yen Nie YongThis post was originally published on the LSE Southeast Asia Blog.

The Coalitions Presidents Make: Presidential Power and Its Limits in Democratic Indonesia. Marcus Mietzner. Cornell University Press. 2023. 

The Coalitions Presidents Make is a welcome contribution to the analysis of the processes of political change in the emerging economies of East Asia and Southeast Asia, especially in light of Indonesia’s recent parliamentary and presidential elections.

Post-Suharto Indonesia is often portrayed as an era that ushered in the birth of a new presidential democracy in the country. However, the transition from a decades-old strongman regime – specifically one that bookmarks the turbulent period of postcolonial social and economic development and Suharto’s fall – was messy and remains incomplete. It is from this incompleteness that Mietzner began his comprehensive study on the coalition presidentialism of Indonesia from the year 2004 to its current state.

Mietzner utilis[es] data from over 100 qualitative interviews with not only the former and current presidents of Indonesia, but also various actors who are directly and indirectly involved in the process of coalition-building.

This monograph is aimed at readers familiar with the literature of coalition presidentialism within the field of Political Science and Indonesian Studies. However, as a researcher who primarily focuses on Malaysian companies in the postcolonial era, I found this book to be a page-turner, largely due to Mietzner’s adept narrative-building skills throughout the book. This is hardly surprising, as Mietzner offers details gleaned from more than two decades of observing the country’s democratic transition from a close-up view. Mietzner’s approach is also ethnographic, by utilising data from over 100 qualitative interviews with not only the former and current presidents of Indonesia, but also various actors who are directly and indirectly involved in the process of coalition-building. The amount of qualitative data accumulated is commendable, as access to the presidents’ inner circle generally requires years of effort in relationship-building, as well as the researcher’s discernment in knowing the difference between the true internal workings and smokescreens of Indonesia’s politics.

How have Indonesia’s presidents post-2004 managed to survive the perils of presidentialism, and what is the price for it?

Mietzner’s key research questions are fascinating – how have Indonesia’s presidents post-2004 managed to survive the perils of presidentialism, and what is the price for it? Indonesia, he argues, achieved more success in transitioning from an unstable presidential regime in the early post-Suharto period into a democracy that is among the world’s most resilient. This is mainly because of the informal coalitions with non-party actors who enjoy or covet political privileges such as the military, the police, oligarchs and religious groups. These actors require as much courting and co-opting as political parties and legislators, a key finding which current studies have ignored or downplayed. In each chapter, Mietzner explains the collective power of a political actor, and utilises a case study to link the phenomenon with his analysis, which I found to be compelling and clear. The locked-in stability created by the broad coalitions under Yudhoyono’s and Widodo’s presidency, nevertheless, had dire consequences in terms of stagnating reforms and democratic decline. Mietzner argues that Indonesia is a prime example of this phenomenon and ought to be a valuable lesson to be studied by those interested in presidential democracies globally.

Through reading this book, my impression is that the power-sharing arrangements between the president and his diverse coalition partners are akin to a prisoner’s dilemma. Mietzner argues that the incumbent president and his predecessor opted for this particular kind of accommodation because of perceived and imagined fears of what might happen to them if they were to choose the path of taking down these coalition partners. The coalition partners also appear to have taken a similarly defensive stance, thus perpetuating existing political arrangements among the actors at the expense of democratic reforms. This, Mietzner explains, is grounded in history, as both sides remain committed to upholding the image of the Indonesian presidency as the key provider of political stability. Many of the politicians and coalition partners lived through the Suharto years and learned how to “do politics” during that era, thus internalizing the appeal of working with presidents in power rather than working to overthrow them.

One element which Mietzner could have expanded upon in the book is how […] historical pathways have impacted on the current accommodation style between the president and non-party actors.

One element which Mietzner could have expanded upon in the book is how these historical pathways have impacted on the current accommodation style between the president and non-party actors. The relationship between the president and the oligarchs is particularly instructive in this regard, as Mietzner shows that in post-2004 coalitions, the oligarchs’ participation in coalition politics became “more direct, formal and institutionalized” (194). What happened during the transition years post-1998 that had enabled the oligarchs such access which was not available to them before? This context can help clarify if the pre-1998 accommodation between the president and capitalists were thoroughly dismantled, and if so, led to expansion of coalitions to other non-party actors after 2004. As history has shown, past strongman leaders in Asia (especially those who fought against colonialism) do not fade easily. The nostalgia for Suharto’s rule was also highlighted by the media during the 2014 presidential elections, elucidating how historical baggage constrains presidents from embarking on meaningful political reforms in this country.

The Indonesian case is an ideal one to expand conceptual boundaries in comparative studies of coalition presidentialism.

Does the specific context of Indonesia’s coalition presidentialism make this case an outlier and thus inapplicable to other democracies? Mietzner emphasises that the Indonesian case is an ideal one to expand conceptual boundaries in comparative studies of coalition presidentialism. As the bulwark of democracy in Southeast Asia, perhaps Indonesia may offer valuable insights beyond coalition presidentialism. As a novice reader on the conceptual theories of coalition presidentialism, I am also curious about whether this can also be relevant to other democracies in Southeast Asia, especially in the context of their shared postcoloniality. After all, the multiplicity of non-party actors in Indonesia’s context should also be situated in the diverse cultural identities of these actors and the postcolonial unsettledness of the nation’s identity. In his proclamation of Independence in 1945, Sukarno had famously used the acronym “d.l.l., or etc. in the Bahasa, which author and former journalist Elizabeth Pisani highlighted in her book Indonesia Etc: Exploring the Improbable Nation.

In Mietzner’s concluding chapter, he writes, “the more pressing challenge is to explore how coalitional presidentialism can work without sucking the oxygen out of democratic societies (245).” This is a conspicuous issue confronting not only Indonesia, but also its neighbouring democracies in the region. The revolving door of party and non-party actors in Indonesia highlights the precarious nature of the development of civil society in Southeast Asia. One can also see the parallels drawn in Malaysia’s coalition party politics, its longstanding stability, and the inclusion and exclusion of civic groups that have undermined the nation’s political progress for decades.

In this sense, Mietzner’s analysis of Indonesia’s coalition presidentialism is highly relevant for future research, as it presses upon researchers the important message to continue to investigate the undercurrents of other young, evolving and often fragile democracies in recent years.

Note: This book review is published by the LSE Southeast Asia blog and LSE Review of Books blog as part of a collaborative series focusing on timely and important social science books from and about Southeast Asia.

The review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Image: Joko Widodo, the President of Indonesia

Image credit: Ardikta on Shutterstock.

On Keffiyeh and Watermelon – Revealing the Meaning of Palestinian Symbols

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 02/04/2024 - 1:02am in

Those who admonish Palestinian Resistance, armed or otherwise, have little understanding of the psychological ramifications of resistance, such as a sense of collective empowerment, honor and hope.

But resistance is not just a rifle or a rocket launcher. The latter are but one manifestation of resistance, and if not backed by strong popular support, they hardly have much impact.

Indeed, all forms of sustainable resistance have to be rooted in culture, which helps it generate new meanings over time.

In the case of the Palestinian struggle, the concept of resistance is multifaceted and strongly embedded in the collective psyche of generations of Palestinians, which allows it to surpass the ideological and political confines of factions and political groups.

Though the symbols of this resistance – for example, the keffiyeh, the flag, the map and the key – are part of this generation of meanings, they are mere signifiers of ideas, beliefs and values that are truly profound.

No matter how hard Israel has tried to discredit, ban or recounter these symbols, it has failed and will continue to fail.

In the early 2000s, for example, Israeli fashion designers created what were supposed to be Israeli kuffiyehs. From a distance, the Israeli scarves looked similar to the Palestinian traditional scarves, except that they were mostly blue. At a closer look, one would be able to decipher that the Israeli replica of the Palestinian national symbol is often a clever manipulation of the Star of David.

This could easily be classified under the banner of cultural appropriation. In actuality, it is far more complex.

Palestinians did not invent the keffiyeh, or hatta, one of the most common neck or even head scarves throughout the Middle East. But they did take ownership of it, giving it deeper meanings—dissent, revolution, unity.

The keffiyeh’s prominence was partly compelled by Israel’s own actions and restrictions.

After occupying the remainder of historic Palestine, namely East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, Israel immediately banned the Palestinian flag. That ban was part of a much larger restrictive campaign aimed at preventing Palestinians from expressing their political aspirations, even if symbolic.

What the Israeli military administration could not prevent was the use of the keffiyeh, which was a staple in every Palestinian home. Subsequently, the keffiyeh quickly became the new symbol of Palestinian nationhood and resistance, at times even replacing the now-banned flag.

The history of the keffiyeh goes back many years before the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing of historic Palestine by Zionist militias in 1947-48.

In fact, if one examines any revolt in Palestine’s modern history, from the 1936-39 Palestinian strike and rebellion to Palestinian resistance during the Nakba to the Fedayeen movement in the early 1950s, all the way to the present, the keffiyeh has featured prominently as arguably the most important Palestinian symbol.

Yet, the real rise of the keffiyeh as the symbol of global solidarity with Palestine and the Palestinians did not become a truly international phenomenon until the First Intifada in 1987. It was then that the world watched in awe an empowered generation only armed with rocks facing the well-equipped Israeli army.

Palestinian keffiyeh 1988Palestinian protesters wearing keffiyehs hurl rocks at occupying Israeli soldiers in Nablus, Jan. 16, 1988. Max Nash | AP

 

Two Types of Symbols

It is worth noting that when we talk about the ‘symbolism’ of Palestinian cultural symbols and counter-Israeli cultural symbols, we refer to two types of symbols: one laden with intangible, although quintessential representations—for example, the watermelon—and another with tangible and consequential representations—for example, the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

The Al-Aqsa Mosque is a symbol of Palestinian spirituality, history, and nationalism, and it is also an actual physical structure located in an occupied Palestinian city, Al-Quds, East Jerusalem. For many years, Israel has perceived the Mosque with alarm, countering the Palestinian claim by alleging that, beneath Al-Aqsa, there lie the ruins of the Jewish Temple, whose resurrection is critical for Jewish spirituality and purification.

Therefore, Al-Aqsa cannot be considered a mere symbol, serving the role of a political representation. On the contrary, it has grown in terms of imports to carry a much more profound meaning in the Palestinian struggle. It would not be an exaggeration to argue that the survival of Al-Aqsa is now directly linked to the very survival of the Palestinian people as a nation.

According to renowned Swiss linguist Fernand de Saussure, every sign or symbol is composed of a ‘signifier’, meaning the form that the sign takes, and the ‘signified’, the concept that it represents.

For example, although a map is commonly defined as the geographic representation of an area or a territory merely showing physical features and certain characteristics of the place, it can take on a different ‘signified’ when the territory or land in question is an occupied one, as Palestine is. Therefore, the physical representation of Palestine’s borders became, with time, a powerful symbol, reflecting the injustice inflicted upon the Palestinian people throughout history.

The same process was applied to the keys belonging to those very refugees, the victims of Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestine. The only difference is that while the villages existed and then ceased to exist, the key existed as a physical object before and after the Nakba. The house and the door are, perhaps, gone, but there is a physical key that still, symbolically, unlocks the dichotomy of the past, with the hope of, one day, restoring the door and the house as well.

In view of this, the segment of land stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea ceased to be just sand, water, grass, and stones and became a representation of something else entirely.

It must be denoted that the slogan ‘From the River to the Sea’ neither references actual topography nor politics. It is based on the understanding that a disruptive historical event has wrought a great deal of injustice, pain and hurt to historic Palestine. Confronting this injustice cannot be segmented, and it must take place through a wholesome process that would allow the land but, more importantly, the native inhabitants of that land to restore their dignity, rights and freedom.

 

Watermelons and Red Triangles

Some symbols, although employed even before the beginning of the Al-Aqsa Flood Operation, became far more popular after October 7. The watermelon, for example, has been used repeatedly throughout Palestine’s modern history, specifically when Israel banned the ownership or display of the Palestinian flag. The fruit itself, aside from being a symbol of the richness of the land of Palestine, also features the same colors as the flag: black, red, white, and green.

Another related symbol is the red triangle. A small red triangle began appearing as a functional tool in videos produced by the Al-Qassam Brigades, merely to point at a specific Israeli military target before it was struck by a Yassin 105 an RPJ shell or any other.

With time, however, the red triangle began acquiring a new meaning, regardless of whether it was intended by the designers of the Qassam videos.

Some connected the red triangle as a symbol to the Palestinian flag, particularly to the red triangle on the left, situated over the white color, between black and green. In truth, the origins of the small red triangle do not matter. Like other Palestinian symbols, it, too, has the generative power to accumulate new meanings over time.

 

Culture and Counter-culture

Like the ‘Israeli keffiyeh,’ Israel has tried to counter Palestinian culture. They did so mostly by devising laws to prohibit Palestinians from communicating or embracing their cultural symbols.

Another tactic that Israel used was claiming Palestinian symbols as if their own. This is quite common in clothes, food and music. When Israel hosted the Miss Universe Beauty Pageant in 2021, contestants were taken to the Arab Bedouin city of Rahat. Being obviously unaware that Bedouin culture, with its embroidered clothes, food, music and numerous cultural manifestations, is a uniquely Palestinian Arab culture, beauty pageants took to social media to express their excitement about being part of “a day in the life of a Bedouin,” with the hashtag #visit_israel.

Such episodes may highlight the degree of deception on the part of Israel but also expose, to a large extent, Israel’s feeling of cultural inferiority. A quick examination of Israeli symbols, whether it is the flag with the star of David, the Lion of Judah or national war songs, such as Harbu Darbu, seem to be largely extracted from biblical references and religious heroics that have existed even prior to the existence of Israel itself.

And, while Palestinian symbols reflect the desire of Palestinians to return to the land of their ancestors and to reclaim the rights and justice that they have been long denied, Israeli symbols seem to lay claims – ancient, religious, unverifiable merely. If this reflects anything, it tells us that, despite nearly a century of Zionist colonialism and 75 years of official existence as a state, Israel has failed to connect to the land of Palestine, to the cultures of the Middle East, let alone carve for itself a place in the yet to be written history of the region, a history that will surely be written by the native inhabitants of that land, the Palestinian people.

Feature photo | Illustration by MintPress

Romana Rubeo is an Italian writer and the managing editor of The Palestine Chronicle. Her articles appeared in many online newspapers and academic journals. She holds a Master’s Degree in Foreign Languages and Literature and specializes in audio-visual and journalism translation.

Dr. Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and the Editor of The Palestine Chronicle. He is the author of six books. His latest book, co-edited with Ilan Pappé, is ‘Our Vision for Liberation: Engaged Palestinian Leaders and Intellectuals Speak Out’. His other books include ‘My Father was a Freedom Fighter’ and ‘The Last Earth’. Baroud is a Non-resident Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA). His website is www.ramzybaroud.net

The post On Keffiyeh and Watermelon – Revealing the Meaning of Palestinian Symbols appeared first on MintPress News.

Step Right Up And Get Your Low-Priced ‘Pro-God Content’! Donald Trump Enters the Bible Business

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 29/03/2024 - 3:56am in

Nearly four years ago on June 1, 2020, Federal officers violently cleared peaceful protestors from...

Mr. Jimmy Climbs the Stairway to Perfection

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 28/03/2024 - 9:24am in

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culture

Published in Nikkei Asia on 15/3/2024

I’m sitting in the front row, almost close enough to touch Jimmy Page’s sky blue jacket. Page, leader of the legendary rock band Led Zeppelin, is in the midst of a lengthy number called “Dazed and Confused,” which requires him to run a violin bow across the strings of his electric guitar, thereby producing a series of mournful and disturbing sounds.

At least, the figure on stage looks, sounds and moves like Jimmy Page, but of course Led Zeppelin disbanded in 1980. The charismatic riff-meister is now 80 years old and living a quiet life in a haunted house in London with his girlfriend, a flame-haired 34-year-old poet he met a decade ago.

The rail-thin man with the ringlets hanging over his face in the Tokyo live music venue is Akio Sakurai, also known as Jimmy Sakurai or just “Mr. Jimmy.”  A former kimono salesman from snowy Niigata Prefecture, he has dedicated more than 30 years of his life to reproducing with astonishing authenticity what he calls “the sound magic of Jimmy Page.” Thus tonight, he is wearing the same  kind of satin bell-bottoms that Page wore in 1968 and 1969, using the same guitars and picks and, naturally, striking the same rock god poses.

This particular performance is modelled on the band’s early and, some would say most creative, period. Typical of Sakurai’s scholarly approach is the opening song, “Train Kept A-rollin’,” a staple of Page’s previous band, The Yardbirds, who can be seen playing it in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film “Blowup.”

More to the point, it was the first number that Led Zeppelin played when the four musicians came together for their very first rehearsal. Like several other songs Sakurai performed for us, the band never recorded it. His faithful renditions are the result of close study of super-rare bootlegs.

Tribute bands abound in Japan, with credible imitators doing Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Rolling Stones and many more. One of the most celebrated is The Parrots who have been performing the music of The Beatles from their home ground at the Abbey Road club in Roppongi for decades. They have played in front of such notables as former U.S. ambassador Caroline Kennedy, President Marcos of the Philippines and Paul McCartney himself.

Their leader, the late lamented Mamoru “Chappy” Yoshii who died in 2017, was a professional John Lennon for thirty eight years, just two years less than John Lennon was John Lennon.  He fulfilled his role with remarkable verisimilitude, including traces of a Liverpool accent despite having little proficiency in English. Now a new and much younger adept has taken over.

Even amongst such experienced and skilled performers, Sakurai stands out for the intensity of his approach. Every detail must be right, from the creases in a shirt similar to one Page wore at a particular concert, to the vintage amplifiers he uses. Just as the great director Akira Kurosawa would place antique objects in cupboards on his sets, even though they could not be seen, so Sakurai uses authentic equipment to transport himself into a different reality.


Jimmy S in contemplative mood

On his You Tube channel, he describes his lifework in terms of Japan’s three-step process of learning called Shu-Ha-Ri, best known overseas for its application to aikido and other martial arts. In fact, many traditional Japanese practices use the concept which has its roots in Zen Buddhism and goes back to Zeami, the 14th century master of Noh theatre.

“Shu” means protect: you protect the teaching by learning it by heart. “Ha” means break: you break through to a deeper understanding of the underlying philosophy.  “Ri” means separation: you transcend the form and everything becomes spontaneous and effortless.

To translate it into Sakurai’s context, “Shu”: you copy Jimmy Page’s guitar work over and over again. “Ha”: you come to understand the deep foundations of Jimmy Page’s sound. “Ri”: you actually become Jimmy Page.

Sakurai gained a huge boost in 2012 when the real Jimmy Page visited Tokyo and dropped into the club where his number one fan was performing. From the footage of the event, it is clear that he loved the show, congratulating Sakurai on the “incredible work” he had put in. Inspired by the experience and encouraged by his wife, Sakurai decided to move to California.

Jimmy Page & Jimmy Sakurai meet in 2012

Jimmy Page & Jimmy Sakurai meet in 2012

His story has been told in “Mr. Jimmy”, a recent indie documentary directed by Peter Michael Dowd, himself a dyed-in-the-wool Led Zeppelin fan who sweated blood to get the film made. It is fair to say that Sakurai’s American adventure has had its ups and downs, from a gig in a pizza joint to a manager who compared him to an act at Disneyland.

He joined Led Zepagain, an American tribute band, only to find that that their fans like getting drunk and hollering and only want to hear the famous numbers. Refusing to be a mere “jukebox”, Sakurai’s response is withering: “to play this music in a lazy, lackluster way would be inexcusable.”

Finally, however, he gets as close as you can to the real thing, joining Led Zeppelin Revival – a band helmed by Jason Bonham, the son of Led Zeppelin’s long-deceased original drummer. At the end of last year, they played a sold-out gig in a Roppongi theatre.

In other hands, the film could have ended up as a campy “weird Japan” affair. Instead, it is not really about Led Zeppelin at all or even music. What matters is the purity of Sakurai’s quest and his refusal to compromise.


Sakurai wields a double-necked guitar, as made famous by Page

Jimmy Page is his “ikigai”, his reason for living. Everyone should have an “ikigai”. It makes you a stronger, fuller person. You do not have to be an artist. You could be a schoolteacher, a monk, a sushi chef or a mountaineer. You do not need to be Japanese either — although one of the talking heads in the film describes Sakurai’s level of lifelong commitment as “typically Japanese,” and there is definitely something to that.

Some years ago, film critic and Japanologist Donald Richie drew a wry parallel between Japan’s Beatles tribute bands and gagaku, 8th century Chinese court music which persists in Japan a millennium after disappearing from China. Likewise, Richie predicted, in the far future Japan will have “something called The Beatles. It’ll be four people with guitars, and nobody will know exactly what it is, but it will be the only place in the world that will have it.”


Led Zeppelin in Japan, 1971

What was a throwaway witticism becomes more salient as the rock era, which lasted some 60 years, visibly comes to an end. One by one, the practitioners are leaving for the great gig in the sky, and the possible variations on what is a highly limited format are largely exhausted. After another 60 years, the music will probably sound as remote as the popular songs of 1900 seemed to the rock generation.

Yet, as Richie intimated, if anyone wants a taste of what it was like, Japan will surely be the place to go. In all probability, Japan’s Beatles bands will still be there, playing live on a regular basis. And who knows — perhaps a third generation Mr. Jimmy, wearing the correct jacket and trousers, will be blasting out “Heartbreaker,” “Whole Lotta Love” and “Black Dog.”

 

‘Late Night With The Devil’ Reflects the Role of Talk Shows in Sensationalizing the Satanic Panic of the 1980s

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 27/03/2024 - 8:24am in

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Archive, culture

Late Night with the Devil premiered in select cities this past weekend, allegedly raking in...

How Teen Girls in Mumbai Are Learning to Stand Tall

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 21/03/2024 - 7:00pm in

As Nausheen, a 14-year-old Mumbai schoolgirl, demonstrates the kicks and punches she has newly learned, there is a perceptible change in her body language. From a shy, giggly teenager, she turns into a budding supergirl: somehow she seems taller, her stance straighter and her voice louder. 

“When I practice these moves, I feel a surge of power inside me,” she says. “I feel like I don’t have any fear.”

Nausheen has been learning martial arts — among other concepts such as consent and communication — at the free biweekly workshops conducted by the nonprofit MukkaMaar at her government school in a crowded Mumbai suburb. “I have learned to be strong and to face people with confidence,” she says, “whether it is my parents at home or strangers outside.”

A group of girls doing stretches on a patio.MukkaMaar partners with 56 government schools in Mumbai. Courtesy of MukkaMaar

Contrast this with what MukkaMaar’s founder Ishita Sharma remembers from a casual conversation with a group of middle-school girls a few years ago. When asked what they would do if someone attacked them on the streets, they unanimously responded: Shout bachao bachao! (help). 

“They didn’t even think about it,” Sharma says. “It was a natural response to expect someone else to come and save them, because that is what they have been taught, what they have seen in movies.”

It was with the basic aim to shift this control from the outsider to the individual that Sharma started MukkaMaar — roughly translating to “throw a punch” — as an empowerment program for adolescent girls. “Women need to take responsibility for their own safety and not succumb to the ‘What will the poor woman do?’ narrative,” she explains. 

Courtesy of MukkaMaar

At MukkaMaar’s free workshops, girls learn martial arts and build confidence. They also learn about communication and consent.

Sharma began in 2016 with four girls on a public beach and the conviction that teaching self-defense was the way to empower them. Over seven years and 3,000 girls later, she has learned that along with martial arts, there is also a need for a change in fundamental beliefs and attitudes. She shares examples of how these girls are schooled to be “good daughters” who grow up to be “good wives” (for instance, to blindly marry the man chosen by their parents, as opposed to committing to a “love marriage”). She explains that there is a need to teach them to question and debate at home, negotiate for their rights, develop and assert their own personalities, and so on. 

MukkaMaar now partners with 56 government schools in Mumbai, where martial arts teachers are trained to listen to and counsel the girls, who open up with their own stories. These trainers are young men and women in their late teens and 20s, who usually work in teams of two. At 19, national level boxing champion Aradhana Gaund is not much older than the girls she trains. “They treat me like their friend, and I laugh and cry with them,” she says. 

A girl kicks at an object held up by another girl on the beach.In the workshops, girls learn that violence is not a knee-jerk response, but a last resort. Courtesy of MukkaMaar

Elsa Marie D’Silva, founder of Red Dot Foundation, a nonprofit working to create safe spaces for women, says it can be intimidating for young women to stand up against harassment, and so “it is important to show them how they can speak out together, along with their friends or as a group, to call out bullies.” Indeed, this is one of the things that gives Gaund the most satisfaction: seeing how these classes have taught the girls to band together and support one another.

According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2023, India ranks a dismal 127 out of 146 countries, based on indices such as access to education, economic opportunities and health. What is even more concerning is the unceasing, systemic violence against women that takes several forms including intimate partner violence, rape and assault, dowry deaths, acid attacks and everyday street harassment.

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Women are told from childhood to keep their heads down and take these things in stride, that to react would be futile and even dangerous. They internalize this to such an extent that they suffer harassment silently, which in turn encourages their abusers to carry on with impudence. This is where MukkaMaar has been making a small but significant difference.

Iqra, 13, says, “Earlier, I used to move away quietly when a man touched or groped me in the [public] bus. But now, I just make my voice loud and strong like I have been taught, and tell them to stop it.” At this, her friend Fatima chimes in, “Now we feel like we can also walk and talk like the boys.” 

Courtesy of MukkaMaar

Ishita Sharma started MukkaMaar with the goal of changing girls’ “natural response to expect someone else to come and save them” — and showing them that they can be the ones in control.

But they have both also been taught that violence is not a knee-jerk response, but a last resort. “If we fight, we will also get hurt, but we can speak up,” Iqra declares with the wisdom of one far older. 

And speak up they do, at every chance. “At my cousin’s wedding, a boy I don’t know started teasing me,” Fatima recalls. “When I shouted at him, his mother intervened and scolded him. Earlier I used to feel nervous in such situations, I used to think, ‘I am a small girl, what can I do?’” 

As Sharma describes it, “We are not telling them that violence is the answer, but that violence should not be tolerated.”

A group of girls in uniforms sit together on the floor in a room with blue walls.“We train them to vocalize their feelings, to open up their shoulders and lift up their chins,” explains one of MukkaMaar’s trainers. Courtesy of MukkaMaar

The MukkaMaar website states, “It is necessary to recognize that violence includes microaggressions, discrimination, threats, and loss of opportunity as much as assault.” The training, therefore, does not just cover self-defense but also building physical fitness and emotional strength, as well as boosting (and often instilling) self-confidence. 

Senior training fellow, Bhishma Mallah, 26, who has been with MukkaMaar for over four years, says that the girls begin with so many barriers, like shame and fear, that even to get them to exercise in front of others or to express themselves verbally is a challenge. “We train them to vocalize their feelings, to open up their shoulders and lift up their chins. We have to tell them repeatedly to forget about adjusting their dupatta [traditional scarf used to cover head or shoulders] and focus on the activity.” 

A trainer demonstrates a punch.Even during workshops, the girls ask for permission before making physical contact. Courtesy of MukkaMaar

One of the many ways in which the trainers chip away at the diffidence of these young girls is by making them chant “I am important” even as they practice their moves. Or asking them to imagine how a dog growls, and to channel that aggression in their kicks and punches.

Each hour-long session includes 20 minutes of conversations and counseling, with the remaining time devoted to physical training. “We teach them about concepts like boundaries, consent and safe touch. Even during lessons, they have to take permission from their partner before any physical contact,” explains Mallah.

Sharma admits it took her a couple of years to realize that for a girl to build agency, there is a lot of familial and social conditioning that needs to be undone. “There is no point in teaching them martial arts alone, with its focus on discipline and technique — because unless we teach them critical thinking, it is all pointless, and forgotten the minute they step out of the classroom,” says Sharma.

Red Dot Foundation founder D’Silva adds a word of caution: “It’s not enough to just empower the girls to speak up, it is also the responsibility of adults to listen to them when they do. If their parents or teachers don’t take them seriously, then the child will quickly learn not to tell anyone — because there is the added fear of having their personal freedom curtailed under the guise of protecting them or saving the family honor.” 

A change in the larger ecosystem may take a long time, but it is clear that something is shifting within these girls. While one cohort confronted a cop making a video call in front of them and challenged him to prove he was not taking their photos without permission, another group of girls gathered the courage to file a police complaint against their physical education teacher who had been harassing them. For others, it has meant something as seemingly trivial as talking back to their fathers and challenging gendered rules and restrictions. 

“I have learned to be strong and to face people with confidence,” one MukkaMaar student says, “whether it is my parents at home or strangers outside.” Courtesy of MukkaMaar

These may seem like small incidents, but for these young girls in Mumbai, the freedom to think independently and challenge those around them has been life-changing. 

In the short run, Sharma says MukkaMaar wants to focus on fewer places and create retention, rather than spread the program thin all over the city. The future is digital for MukkaMaar alumni, with a chatbot that helps the girls have a two-way conversation about self-defense techniques, physical fitness, understanding of different types of gender violence and soft skills like communication and negotiation. This keeps them connected to the program, and to everything they learned in it, even after they leave. 

The post How Teen Girls in Mumbai Are Learning to Stand Tall appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

The Perks of Virtual Coworking With Strangers

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 15/03/2024 - 7:00pm in

From a young age, Alexis Haselberger’s son always asked someone to stick around when he needed to get chores or homework done. At first, she wondered why he needed help.

“Then I realized that he didn’t need me to engage with him, he just needed to know that my body was there,” says Haselberger, a time management and productivity coach in San Francisco. 

Though they were not initially aware of it, Haselberger and her son were practicing “body doubling,” which involves having someone alongside to help you focus on a task. The term was first coined in the 1990s by a coach specializing in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Haselberger’s now-13-year-old son has not been diagnosed with ADHD, but he continues to find body doubling helpful. So does Haselberger, who does have ADHD. She asks her husband to be around while she completes certain tasks, and she organizes regular video calls with work peers to make progress on “important but not urgent” goals. They start by sharing objectives, then switch off cameras and focus for an hour. 

Alexis Haselberger sitting in a chair at a table, about to speak.Alexis Haselberger began practicing body doubling before she knew the term. Courtesy of Alexis Haselberger

Video calls like these are part of a growing trend: structured online sessions, in groups or in pairs, for anyone who wants to resist distractions and get things done.

In focus

The exact cause of ADHD, which affects an estimated five to eight percent of children globally and often continues into adulthood, is unknown. Among adults, it can create problems with time management, following instructions, and focusing or completing tasks. Although more commonly diagnosed in children, diagnoses are rising rapidly among adults in some countries, particularly among women.  

Kirsty Baggs-Morgan, 50, who lives in Malta and runs a business supporting HR professionals, describes herself as “an absolute shocker” for delaying boring tasks until the last minute. For a while, she would ask her assistant to join her on a call when she needed to complete a task, “but we’d end up just chatting for the whole hour.” 

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That changed with Baggs-Morgan’s ADHD diagnosis in August 2023. A coach recommended Flow Club, a company that hosts “virtual coworking sessions designed to drop you into productive flow.” As in Haselberger’s video calls, participants join a session and share their intentions, then get on with their work until the allotted time is up. In addition to multiple daily sessions, Flow Club users benefit from a supportive community — well over half of users are neurodivergent — and special features to aid focus, such as optional music and the choice of verbal or non-verbal sessions. 

Already, Baggs-Morgan has racked up well over 130 Flow Club sessions — often while sitting in a physical coworking space. “For me it’s been an absolute game-changer,” she says. While the physical community provides real-life interaction, the online one helps her to get work done, and even to stick to a regular morning routine. “I like step-by-step instructions. I’ll actually do it because it’s written down,” she says, referring to the to-do list that every participant fills in at the start of a session. Other users might be doing anything from decluttering to writing a book — Baggs-Morgan even recalls someone using a session to take a nap.

Kirsty Baggs-Morgan sits at her computer.Kirsty Baggs-Morgan often participates in online coworking sessions while also in a physical coworking space. Credit: Andreea Tufescu

Focusmate is similar to Flow Club, but puts users into pairs instead of groups. It was founded in 2016 by Taylor Jacobson, who had long fought procrastination himself. In 2011, he asked to work remotely — “and then I got fired from my job,” he explains, “because I just could not focus.” When he later got into coaching, he discovered the power of virtual coworking, and was convinced it could help millions of others like him.

Focusmate has now hosted over five million sessions, with users in over 150 countries. Like Flow Club, it was not designed with neurodivergence in mind (nor was Jacobson initially aware of the concept of body doubling), although more than a third of current users identify as neurodivergent and about 28 percent have an ADHD diagnosis. And while Focusmate is billed as being for “anyone who wants to get things done,” Jacobson suggests its value is much deeper, as he knows from experience: “When we say procrastination… you’re not living the life you want to live. ‘Procrastination’ sounds kind of trite, but it’s not. It’s really demoralizing and sad.” 

Feedback from Focusmate users backs that up, Jacobson says: “It’s insane how life-changing this is for people.” A recent company survey among 212 regular users with ADHD found that their productivity increased by an average of 152 percent. Ninety-eight percent said Focusmate helped them make good use of their time, 82 percent that it helped them feel less lonely and isolated, and 88 percent that it improved their well-being. Flow Club does not have data specific to ADHD users, but co-founder Ricky Yean points to its “exuberant” testimonials and the fact that users attend an average of 10 to 11 sessions weekly.  

CEO of the brain

Joining strangers online to get work done has become increasingly common, particularly since the Covid-19 pandemic. Caveday and Flown offer virtual coworking for anyone; other services target particular audiences, like Writers’ Hour or Preacher’s Block. Online “study rooms” for students are also widespread. 

Screenshot of a Flow Club session.Flow Club sessions include features to aid focus, such as optional music and goal lists. Credit: Flow Club

But why do they work? Focusmate cites research on the benefit of “precommitment” and social pressure. Yean points out that even brief social interactions unleash dopamine, which drives motivation (dopamine levels can be lower among people with ADHD). Other research finds that we may change behavior when we know we’re being observed, that company can have a calming effect, and that our performance improves when we train alongside others.

For Haselberger, joining a body doubling session provides that small but important push to get started. “We know from the research that action begets motivation, and not the other way around,” she says. “If you are body doubling, then you’re saying, ‘Okay, I’m going to do this thing.’” 

Zareen Ali, the London-based co-founder of Cogs, a mental well-being app for neurodiverse people, suggests body doubling is a way of outsourcing the “CEO of the brain” — the part that’s telling you what to do. “Having someone else take on that role acts as an external motivator,” says Ali. 

Belonging matters

For neurodivergent people, there’s also the benefit of feeling less judged. Neurodivergent young people still face “a lot of bullying,” notes Ali, who studied educational neuroscience, and they often value peer support.

Kirsty Holden, 37, echoes the importance of finding like-minded people. She is awaiting an ADHD diagnosis, following years of feeling that something wasn’t right. “I grew up not really feeling a part of anything,” she says. 


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Holden, an online business manager based in Yorkshire, England, was not tempted by platforms like Focusmate or Flow Club, but joined the ADHD Business Collective, a coach-led program that includes body doubling sessions. She values the personal element: “Just knowing that those people get me and know my name… that’s what I really like.”

“For a lot of ADHD-ers, we haven’t felt safe to share what is going on in our minds,” Holden adds. But that is changing. “There are people out there that understand this, there are places where we belong.”

More scaffolding

Online body doubling is unlikely to work for everyone. Neurodiversity is “a massive, umbrella term,” Ali points out, and even people with the same diagnosis may be very different. She herself is autistic and finds body doubling distracting.

One of the barriers highlighted by both Focusmate and Flow Club is apprehension about meeting new people. Asking for a body double might also feel like admitting you need help, says Jacobson. Users of both platforms are majority women; Yean wonders if men find it harder to show some vulnerability.

FlowClub founders David Tran and Ricky Yean sitting on cement steps.Flow Club founders David Tran and Ricky Yean. Credit: Flow Club

Things have come a long way since the pandemic-prompted surge of remote working. Tools like Zoom expanded what was possible, but there was a lack of tech to properly support new ways of working, says Yean. People were “burning out like crazy” as they struggled with more responsibilities than ever and blurred boundaries between work and personal life.

“We went from ‘we can’t’ to ‘we can,’ but that’s such a low bar!” says Yean. “Are we thriving? Are we happy? … And are we able to manage all this?”

Flow Club — which aims to create a space of positivity and friendliness — is “in our little corner of the internet, which is trying to create a little bit more support, a little bit more scaffolding, a little bit more camaraderie with other people who share your mission or share your goals,” Yean continues. “I think we have learned that there’s ample opportunity to create more of these types of spaces that are much more supportive. And I think you can define ‘supportive’ in so many different ways.”

The post The Perks of Virtual Coworking With Strangers appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

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