Advocates of social or political change often face criticism from self-styled realists; “That’s a nice idea, but it would never work in the real world.” The latter claim that what may work well in theory, won’t succeed in a world with limited resources, human fallibility, and general imperfection. Oregon author Ursula K. LeGuin took on this issue in her science fiction novel The Dispossessed. Far from being a utopian vision of bounty, the novel is set on Anarres – a planet with a harsh climate and limited resources. The inhabitants cooperate, rather than compete, in order to survive.
The Anarres Project, founded by Oregon State University professors Joseph Orosco and Tony Vogt, is a forum to discuss social change from a similar perspective. The project poses challenging questions. What if humanity, rather than despairing of change in a materially-limited world, shared resources and ideas? What does a just society look like? How can we overcome war, inequality, and exploitation?
Vogt and Orosco wanted to develop a community forum where people from many different backgrounds could discuss recent social change trends such as the Occupy movement, student-led initiatives in Quebec and Chile, and broader peace and justice movements. Says Vogt, “If you don’t have a vision of a possible future, as a kind of horizon toward which you want to work, then you just end up [with] whatever you do replicating the present.” He says that the Anarres Project is not a blueprint for change, but rather a compass. “What values and possibilities do we want to work together towards? We see the Anarres Project as an unleashing of the social imagination.”
Founded in 2013, the project has hosted speakers and community discussions; with a lineup of guests for fall 2014 in development. There has been a good turnout from both campus and the Corvallis community, say Vogt and Orosco. Some of their events included a workshop by social justice organizer Chris Crass, a discussion about the poster art of the Occupy movement, a conversation with local Occupy organizers, and a standing-room-only talk from about non-violent social change from others. The Anarres Project co-sponsored a forum about recent Latin American social movements with the new Corvallis chapter of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. The project ended the school year by organizing a discussion about the future of sex work in connection with human rights and feminism.
This controversial topic highlights Vogt’s comment, “Teach the controversies. You’re not teaching one point of view, but you’re getting people to start getting involved in a transformative dialog with each other. And doing it in a way where everybody’s not just interested in defending their own point of view, but opening themselves up to what could be possible if they really listened to each other.”
The foundation of the Anarres Project is a peaceful anarchism. “Anarchism at its best is a philosophy that balances individualism with community,” says Vogt, aware of how the word is too often associated with violence or chaos. Rather, the anarchist views of the project focus on cooperation and justice.
The Anarres Project’s website, http://anarresproject.org, has videos of the speakers they have hosted, as well as guest posts by a variety of social justice workers. “The hope is that the website itself can be a place where people can go to get news, analysis, commentary… hope… about what new forms of social change are going on,” says Orosco.
Upcoming speaker Chris Dixon, scheduled for November 2014, traveled across the U.S. and Canada curating accounts of social change and community organization.
Walidah Emirisha is tentatively scheduled for a winter discussion. Her work centers on the too-often-invisible and troubled history of African Americans in Oregon. Emirisha, who taught at OSU and now works from Portland, teaches workshops on community organizing and the role of speculative fiction in social change.
Corvallis and the Pacific Northwest in general are specially positioned to foster social change. Corvallis seems to have more than its share of people who love the city’s environment and culture – advocates for sustainable agriculture, volunteers with charitable efforts, and the energy efficiency concerns of Corvallisites pop to mind. “For a town this size, there just seems to be a really vibrant activist culture. I’ve lived in bigger places where nothing like this, on this scale, was going on,” says Orosco.
Orosco mentions peace initiatives from Veterans for Peace, the Quakers, and the new chapter of WILPF, along with homeless advocacy groups, the Solidarity Fair, and food security. “What we always had hoped for was that Anarres could be a place in which we could bring together people from all these different kinds of movements and organizations to talk with one another, to think about strategy and tactics and bigger-picture kinds of issues,” he says.
“This is a rich place for folks to think about living in different kinds of ways,” says Orosco, mentioning the State of Jefferson and the Cascadia movement. Festivals – the Oregon Country Fair being the classic example – are also about “creating for a little bit of time, maybe just a weekend, a different world that we hope we could live in.” He continues, “That’s part of the Oregon tradition too. I think that makes this place a really good environment for thinking about creative social imagining.”
Dissatisfaction with the status quo is not limited to the counterculture. Vogt says he’s seen a groundswell of discontent with our current society from many different types of people. The Anarres Project may be just one part of a global push for peace and justice. However, change isn’t easy. “When you see people organizing for social change,” continues Vogt, “It asks you to think about your own place in the world in ways that aren’t always comfortable…to really be curious and learn and talk with those people.”
According to Vogt, the movement demands communication and cooperation. It requires “people developing a vision together of what they want.” That dialog needs to be a place of open-mindedness. “All somebody has to say is ‘Well that’s not realistic’ and everybody gets silent. Saying it’s not realistic writes the script; it ends the conversation,” he says. “We don’t know what’s realistic. What our grandparents or parents thought was unrealistic, in some ways, has come to be. We simply don’t know what the possibilities are. And so the Anarres Project is about challenging those notions of realism that want us to curb our capacities as human beings.”
For more information, visit http://anarresproject.org