What is work? What world are we making together?
Transformative learning about work is itself a kind of work, work on ourselves. It can be exciting work and hard work. As we explore “work”, the self can run the gamut of experience, from the passive child who says “you made me” work to the adult, who says “I create” my life’s work to a social entrepreneur who says, “what world do we want to make together?”
Does “work” mean economic production to you? Is “work” a dirty word? Is “work” your livelihood?
Transformative learning about work asks us to question what we do not yet see about ourselves, how our history and society has shaped our worldview. How do we internalize society’s stories about work? it requires us each to see our choices, the stories we tell ourselves about our identity, our self-worth, our motivations, our relationship to authority and external environment.
We each enact different stories about “work”, depending on who we are at any moment in time. For some, “work” is a paid job. “Work” is a thing in supply and demand. You can “create work” by hiring. You can “get work” by connecting with people who need your skills. For comparison, recently, I’ve been learning with a group of Maasai Dreamfishers. Their “work” includes carrying water for hours, creating beadwork for sale, milking cows, and repairing huts. From the sale of one beadwork item, a family buys food for one month. “Work” is caring for one’s people. It is an age-old practice. As a third comparison, for some Dreamfishers, “work” is facilitating the empowerment of girls to build self-worth and technology skills. Work is transformation.
These are dramatically different enactments of work – Work as a thing you get, work as a practice, work as transformation.
I’d like to offer another view by telling you a story from my history that shapes my worldview of work. In my early 20’s, after living a high life in a successful startup in NYC, I lived a year in an economically depressed rural mountain town, where I made my way into an abusive relationship. I was in a daily surround-sound of abuse, physical and psychological. Within months, I spiraled downward into being homeless, living out of a car for six months in winter.
Poverty was no longer a vicious cycle that other women knew. It was me, barely keeping my clothes clean enough and my body healthy enough to work two part-time jobs. As I lived out the patterns of economic and patriarchal oppression, I daily made choices that reinforced self-defeating narratives about the value of my work. I chose to work jobs, where I was constantly criticized and not at my best.
But, then, I did make my way out of this cycle. I found my way out by seeing that I could choose. I could work my life differently. Part of my work became building a new support system to create a new surround sound of care. I reached out and opened up to people, who believed I could create a new performance of my life. A new friend told me of an opportunity in a nearby town managing a college kitchen. Even though I had never managed a cafeteria or cooked for 250 youth 3x a day, I knew I could manage an operation, I could cook and teach cooking.
So, I took a leap into a new performance as a manager. Slowly, as I experienced my life anew, I continued to make new choices about work. As I served food to college kids in the cafeteria line, I realized I too could go to college. So, I made part of my life work “going to college”. And, when I became critical of institutional education, I made my life work to be building transformative learning environments for adults.
I share this story, to say that transforming economic production or oppressive stories about work is a journey. Day by day, work was the journey of fishing my dream. A journey that I did not take alone. On days that I couldn’t see the way, I made a path with the many bits of kindnesses gifted to me.
Work is how we perform our life. Work is what puts the life in livelihood. Work is how we create the value we each want to manifest in the world. And we can create different performances.
Work is what I choose to do on this day with the precious life I have still. That is my work. Your work may be cooking for your children, gardening, building software, taking care of a sick friend, making art, teaching a group of children, or connecting people to resources.
We are all entrepreneurs, creating value together. When we recognize that we are intertwined with the systems around us, we create value by doing more of what we love to do and connecting to people around us who share our joy.
It is from this understanding that Dreamfish was founded. It is a place in which we can provide a mutual support system for each other in our journey of work. Success looks like bits of thriving.
Transforming economic production is not just about tranforming other people; it is about transforming ourselves. Unhealthy patterns that are internalized are subtle because they are often barely conscious to us. Yet, together, acting as support systems for each other, this work can transform ourselves and our world.