Seattle might not rank among the most prolific major cities in America, but it’s easily one of the most forward thinking. Homeless youth can go receive shelter assistance and counseling by simply inquiring at any library or bus. Job seekers with unscrupulous pasts like felony convictions have a fair shot at post-prison employment, thanks to a program called Career Bridge initiative. And in a move bound to please anyone who watched Michael Ruppert’s peak oil monologue Collapse, plastic bags are no longer dispensed by local businesses.
So perhaps it was fitting that my discussion with local Millennial and Scripps College graduate Marian seemed to hinge upon timely issues like privilege, responsibility, and lives less ordinary. The 24 year-old Latin American Studies major is currently enjoying a few weeks of lassitude before heading south to TK, where she will be getting grubby as a fulltime coffee plantation worker. The two of us met for coffee on a windswept Tuesday morning in Seattle’s colorfully bohemian-cum-yuppie Capitol Hill neighborhood.
First things first, tell me more about your up-and-coming life on this plantation.
Well, during my senior year of college, I was working as the head manager of Scripps’ flagship coffee-house, The Motley. And I was connected to a woman named Lucia Ortiz, who runs a coffee farm down in El Salvador called Las Mercedes Pepinal 1. Our connector was a specialty coffee roaster based in Apland California – Klatch Coffee – that works with local cooperatives and family based farms around the world. So upon meeting Lucia, she offered to take me in for a while and let me work on the farm to learn more about the process of growing coffee.
And how is Lucia going to put you to work?
It really depends on the season and who’s working there at the time, but it’ll likely be a combination of fieldwork and quality control; making sure that the growing is taking place at a consistent rate. But I’ll also be doing some work for Deborah Gittler, who runs an El Salvador educational nonprofit called ConTextos. They operate primarily in the coffee growing regions of El Salvador and provide libraries and critical thinking education to kids living in these regions. I’ve had some educational experience in Central America and when I told Lucia this, she said, “Oh, well you should meet Deborah as well.”
I want to return to that educational experience in a moment, but with regard to your new job, was it more or less in line with what you saw yourself doing after senior year? What thoughts about employment were going through your head at the time?
I didn’t really put a lot of stress and energy into finding a big, fulltime job while I was still in college. I wanted to very present for the events of senior year, and my original plan had been to dig into the job hunt once I got back to Seattle. But I didn’t feel very nervous. I think there’s this big push in our culture to follow a certain timeline. You know, you’re supposed to get into a good high school, then you study hard so you can attend a good college, study harder so you can get a good job, but then what? If your whole life is a means to an end goal, I feel like you’re going to turn 40, look back and think, “Wait a minute: what was I actually doing?”
Do you remember when you began to get a sense of this life timeline?
I think I was 16, when everyone was in the thick of SATs. And around then, I decided I wanted to take some time off between high school and college. Initially, I received a lot of backlash for that idea. My parents said, “Well, why don’t you just do that after college?” No one I knew was doing this.
How did you spend the gap year?
I went down to Central America and spent about seven months in Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. I was primarily teaching preschool and elementary school in rural areas.
What were the logistics of finding these jobs? Not to mention, getting there?
So, I learned that the organization Global International had an educational wing called The Phoenix Project, and they’ve worked with communities to develop government-certified curriculums for preschool through sixth grade students; mostly indigenous children. I joined the project about six months after I graduated high school and raised the money to travel there myself, working full-time at a bakery in Seattle and also selling handmade artwork like paintings and printed cards.
Considering the amount of time you spent in Central America, how did your peers at Scripps respond when they learned about how you spent your first year of adulthood?
People were definitely surprised. There were only 10 other people there whom I knew had taken gap years. And for a while, I felt a sense of distance between myself and a lot of the incoming freshmen, most of whom were still very present in their high school communities and that experience. After having very tough experiences seeing immense poverty and structural violence, it was disorienting.
Tell me more about one of those experiences.
Well, for instance, the country and community I became most involved with was Nicaragua. I was in the northwest region, and upon arrival, the organization I was working with had just closed down the school I was supposed to work in and was in the process of building a new one. It was only about 20 beams at that point: no roof, no walls, nothing. I was one of four volunteers and we basically had free rein to help design the school day and determine how we wanted to work with the community. And the community was a squatter town. There was no running water or electricity, and most folks were living in homes made of garbage bags and old scrap wood found at the dump. I’d certainly been around poverty by this point, but to see such an extreme instance, where people are living on bananas and tortillas…it was difficult to navigate the feelings that were evoked. Not to mention returning to the states to attend a private college where all of the 11 housekeepers were Latin American women.
How did you come to terms with this disparity?
A part of me wanted to feel outraged. I frequently asked myself, “Why do I have all this while other people don’t?” But I came to realize that it was better to embrace privileges like college rather than reject them. Because embracing them puts you in a position where you acquire the means to bring such privileges to places where they’re desperately needed.
How easy was it for you to find other students you could confide with, about these feelings?
It took awhile for me to find these people, but I eventually did. Most of my friends have experienced some form of struggle in their lives, and they’ve really grown through it, solidified their core values.
Do you think socioeconomic consciousness is a quality shared by Millennials today?
In terms of the community I found at Scripps, definitely. I encountered many kids in Claremont who were looking to find creative ways by which they could plug their passions into a greater cause. There was a lot of thoughtful engagement in the issues affecting our generation and the wider world today. For a good part of college, several friends and I worked with a local organization called Crossroads which specializes in helping women who’ve just been released from prison find jobs, get documentation like drivers licenses and basically readjust to life on the outside.
Almost everybody I’ve talked to for this project has identified with this kind of idealist drive in one way or another. It might not constitute the majority of Millennials yet, but it does seem to be trending. Why do you think that is?
Well, we’ve come to a point where we’re seeing cumulative information – largely thanks to the internet and leaks – about how the actions of both the United States and humans in general are impacting the world at environmental and social levels. I mean, back in school, I decided to research incarceration for my thesis, and part of that research involved reading CIA documents that had just been declassified and made available to the public. The fact that we can learn about everything from state secrets to the tiniest communities in rural areas of the globe…I think for many people, that’s powerful motivation for addressing long-neglected problems. And it’s happening in new ways. When the Bush Administration invaded Iraq, there was this lamenting, like, “Oh, the activist community isn’t engaged like they were during Vietnam.” But people are engaged by contemporary means like information sharing and community organizing via the internet.
Maybe we’re witnessing a new approach to activism. The failure of Occupy Wall Street – the most physical movement in years – does suggest transitioning away from old tactics. But I think a lot of people would ask, when does internet organizing, for any cause, give way to meaningful action?
When any issue becomes personal for someone, I think that’s the moment when the machinery starts to click. And there are so many ways to personalize global issues. Look at Mothers Against Drunk Driving. It was founded by a mother who lost her child in a drunk driving accident. And then there was the moment when Dick Cheney’s daughter came out as gay. It was a sea change for this guy who had spent his political career working against the best interests of the LGBT community.
To play devil’s advocate for a moment, have you ever struggled between your activist urges and the desire to “settle down” and get a traditional job with benefits? Actions that afford a degree of financial security?
I definitely want to have a family one day, but right now, the most important thing to me is making a difference in my community. So I don’t see myself taking a very traditional path through life. The nice thing is, I’m encountering more organizations that address socioeconomic issues and also offer positions that provide enough to live upon. It’s encouraging.
Looking back, is there anything you would have told your 18 year-old self about the times that would follow?
I’ve learned that it’s really easy to get impatient with the slow increments by which change happens. Living in the age of immediacy and information, a lot of us like to think that we can do something instantaneously. Transition has always taken a long time, and I’ve learned not to get completely deterred by that.
Looking ahead, 10-15 years down the road, is there anything you see yourself doing?
I hope that I’m working in a community that I feel passionate about, that’s dedicated to a shared goal. I hope to still be learning and challenged. When you’re struggling, you’re still open to environmental factors around you. I guess I don’t want to be “settled.”
What does that mean to you? To “settle”?
For me, to be “settled” would be sort of like becoming complacent; I’d stop thinking about the world, reading the newspaper regularly, or even asking questions. And that includes questions about what I’m doing with my own life, whether I’m engaging in acts of reciprocity and kindness.
Moving forward, what do you perceive as some of the greatest challenges you will face on a personal level?
I definitely have a tendency to take care of the people and things around me more than myself. And I’ve found that’s very unsustainable. You have to be healthy and strong to benefit a larger cause. I also don’t see myself making much money. I mean, I don’t seek comfort in financial stability alone, but I still have a lot of debts to pay off and I’ve often gotten caught in the cycle of making money so that I can travel somewhere and work before coming home and starting from square one again. When I get to the point of starting a family, that’s going to be a new financial responsibility to reconcile. I’d like to have kids within the next ten years, hopefully.
How about Millennials as a generation? What do you think most of us will have to overcome as we enter our 30s and 40s?
God…a lot! We’ve inherited a world that’s deteriorating. And I think we’re going to see that more and more. Food access will probably be one of the defining issues of our times. It’s already a domestic problem that a lot of people don’t realize exists. Access to healthy and affordable food is rapidly declining. Or maybe we’re just realizing how insufficient that access always was to begin with. I’m also worried about the ongoing consolidation of power. When you look at the ties between legislative, executive, and corporate authorities here in the states, it’s difficult not to be feel frightened.
Do you have much confidence that Millennials will rise to address these issues in due time?
I sure hope so. We have access to information about all these issues, but I think the consciousness has yet to reach a majority of people in our age range.
Final question: there’s been a lot of talk about Millennials in the media recently, and a great deal of it has been derisive. You know…we’re lazy and expect to be rewarded for just being our beautiful selves. How do you identify with the term “Millennial”?
I don’t identify with those generalizations at all. I think Millennials carry this great sense of urgency. And I feel proud of the groundwork that Millennials have laid for the examination of ongoing issues. When you look of feminism, it now encompasses everything from race to gender, class, sexuality, environmental factors, you name it. So when I hear the term “Millennial”, I picture a more nuanced, holistic approach to tackling problems that have persisted through previous generations. There’s still a gap between Millennials following the mainstream and those reconciling how capitalism and materialism have shaped our culture, but I don’t identify with the former. At all.